Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Long Live the Essay/The Essay Must Die

Teacher/novelist Michele Dunaway has some provocative thoughts on how essay-writing is traditionally taught to students.

For a site that thrives on vocabulary and words, the idea that the essay must die may be akin to blasphemy. We writers often cite the essay as our first foray into discovering our individual voice; it's our first official step towards being able to express ourselves through prose.

Students read wonderful essays, exploring nonfiction narratives in textbooks. They review speeches such as Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream." Even the Declaration of Independence is an essay—a wonderfully persuasive piece full of parallel structure.

Yet for all of those who love the essay, the truth is that in schools essays have become guillotines that stifle creativity. Today's children express themselves in tweets of 140 characters or less. They abbreviate everything during texting: lol (laugh out loud), idk (I don't know), b4 (before), etc. They view the essay, with its rigid five paragraphs and thesis statement/topic sentences as torture. My ninth graders (who are in plain old non-honors English) groan when I mention we will write essays. I taught summer school this past June and the juniors all moaned and groaned—but I got them through three.

The key to writing essays in the modern classroom is connection. Advanced students for whom English mastery comes easy already have connection. They understand the essay's purpose. For example, my daughter, who is in AP English Language and Composition, will be doing a timed essay-writing every other week. A sophomore who skipped eighth grade English, she's set her sights on going to Dartmouth, Columbia or Washington University. She knows she's going to have to write an essay for her college application. She knows that writing an essay is a skill she must accomplish—she's also going to have a major AP test that requires an essay. She knows she'll be using her essay-writing skills as the foundation for all of her other nonfiction writing. So do her peers. They get why they must write.

So let me qualify that "the essay must die" portion of the headline. In this modern digital society, it's the way of teaching the traditional five-paragraph essay that must die. We can't be teaching essay-writing just so we can cite essays as proof the student is a good writer. In reality, very few people sit down to write essays once they leave college. What they do sit down to write are proposals, business plans, blogs, articles like this one, and various letters containing queries, complaints and praise. What they write has a practical purpose. This purpose is often missing in the classroom, and here's why.

In Missouri, where I teach, writing a five-paragraph essay on a provided topic is part of the high school End of Course Assessment for English II. This assessment is designed to measure student proficiency in English, and measure those skills outlined by the No Child Left Behind Act. Prompts go something like this (and I paraphrase): "Some schools say that giving summer homework will help students keep learning throughout the summer. Write a persuasive paper to your principal on whether you think this is a good idea or not."

Now, understanding and using persuasion is a good idea, since students face media blitzes filled with advertising on a daily basis. They must sift through many ideas. However, this is where the real-life application ends. Some scorer somewhere reads the essay and the kid finds out whether his skill level was advanced, proficient, basic or below basic. Not only does the kid not see any feedback (just an overall score), but the essay never reaches its target audience. No one really cares whether there is summer homework or not, so the student's opinion is really just one more educational hoop he must go through. Once the data is churned, the state can say, "X number of our students is advanced in English." Somehow being able to write an essay on summer homework (or some other generic topic) translates into real-life English usage.

The reality is that it really doesn't. The writing process is brainstorm, draft, write, revise, edit and publish. Publish does not mean have the teacher read the essay. Publish means send to the intended audience. This is where the disconnect and dislike of writing essays begins. Students see essays as busy work, something done so they can take a test. For the struggling writers, they are tedious and redundant. The topics are often boring. Essays are disconnected from real-world communication.

Let me provide an example. This summer, after attending a leadership workshop, my daughter had to write a thank you letter to the business that paid her tuition. The leadership organization provided my daughter an outline on what content the letter should contain. She wrote her letter, and asked me to read it before she sent it. Being her mom and an English teacher, I gutted the thing and sent it back for a rewrite. While her grammar, punctuation and word choice were correct, not one of her English classes had ever had her write a formal letter and thus her letter was disjointed and choppy. I had to work with her on how to take what she knew (the essay) and show her how to apply those skills to the letter she needed to compose. It is this application that is lacking. The essay is the springboard for all other writing, not where writing should end.

As schools get more and more squeezed and as more and more pressure is put on schools to demonstrate performance through standardized testing, it is important to realize that there must be balance. Writing must have purpose. To be effective, writing must reach its audience. Teaching writing as a lifelong, practical skill that can be utilized is much more important to the overall student growth than having him do endless essays on boring, irrelevant topics. A teacher must connect the essay to the real world. Don't be so focused on five paragraphs for a test that the real-life application gets lost. So love the essay, but don't be afraid to kill it. After all, the English language is constantly evolving. So too must be the way we teach it.


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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Look for an upcoming Christmas-themed book from St. Martin’s Press later in 2014. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday August 19th 2010, 2:46 AM
Comment by: Ruth W. (Reservoir Australia)
I found this article very interesting and relevant. Please ignore the rating above as I meant to rate it as four stars but accidentally hit the wrong 'star' and couldn't change it. I teach Year 11 English via correspondence. Many of my students have chosen the stream I teach because it does not require them to write formal essays. They are very particular about what they are expected to write being relevant. I have always had a love/hate relationship with essays; your article captures much of what it is about them that is so 'difficult'. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Thursday August 19th 2010, 7:19 AM
Comment by: Dougl W.
Ms. Dunaway, Isn't the following, taken from your essay, a fragment? "A sophomore who skipped eighth grade English, she's set her sights on going to Dartmouth, Columbia or Washington University." I'm not trying to be hyper critical, but the above jumped out at me as an incomplete thought.
Thursday August 19th 2010, 7:37 AM
Comment by: Robert K. (Southern Pines, NC)
You know, I don't care whether of not students "like" anything. That's not the point of an edumacation. Writing anything and having it criticized is the point. You learn how to write by writing and writing about anything is good practice.
Thursday August 19th 2010, 7:57 AM
Comment by: Penny N. (Weston, MA)
Dougl W: No, that's a complete sentence. The subject is "she", and the predicate is "has set her sights."

We need some examples of kinds of persuasive or analytical writing that are relevant to kids. As Ms. Dunaway mentioned, the advanced classes will comply with writing essays because they see the point (and they're obedient students anyway), but the more reluctant students will not. Too often the fallback position is to ask them to write personal narrative, which may be fascinating to them but does not prepare them for college or the work world.

Kids can be asked to submit op-ed articles to a local newspaper on topics that matter to them. They can write letters of appreciation to people important in their lives. They can write a non-fiction picture book to explain a topic or concept to a younger child, and then present that book to, say, a class of third-graders. They can write book reviews for one another. They can write job applications to their dream job. They can write an instruction manual to teach their grandparents how to use social media. Once in a while, they can even practice five-paragraph essays.
Thursday August 19th 2010, 9:32 AM
Comment by: John G. (Platte City, MO)
I'm a 54 year old construction project manager who understands the message of this article completely. Microsoft Word is a great program but it does not help those who can not write. Dr. Milstead would be pleased to see me at Barnes and Noble looking through the grammar and punctuation books. She wrote more on my essays than I ever did.

Why do teachers have to use red ink?
Thursday August 19th 2010, 11:52 AM
Comment by: Ruth W. (Reservoir Australia)
@Robert K - I agree with your point 'you learn how to write by writing and writing about anything is good practice.' I find that if I can get my students to at least submit something, I then have the chance to provide them with some feedback with the intention of creating a 'safe place' where they feel they can express themselves without being shamed. I would say the majority of students in my course have had bad experiences with expressing themselves on the page. My job and my passion is to give them the opportunity to rediscover that feeling of confidence that it's okay to share themselves with another human being.
@Penny N - the first written piece our students are asked to present is that good old staple, a letter to your teacher. It still surprises me how open and honest many of them are willing to be. We ask them to include their relationship to reading, writing, speaking and listening; it gives me a sense of where they see themselves before we get started.
The second piece is - writing a personal narrative! This task generally IS fascinating to them and in my book, that's a good enough reason to write it. Okay, so pretty much all of the teenage mothers write about their birth experience but the fact that they are putting pen to paper is what counts here. I find that these very common tasks seem to create a good basis for moving onto more 'meaningful' writing that does relate to getting work or moving onto higher education.
@John G - I certainly enjoyed reading your comment regarding your penchant for hanging out in the grammar section in Barnes and Noble! The biggest reward a teacher can receive is to discover that even one of your students has developed a love of learning. Re using red ink, you'll find that many teachers these days use green or purple or any other colour for that matter. The teacher who sits to my right uses a selection of sparkly gel pens, the one to my left scans the students' work and writes the comments in talk bubbles using acrobat pro.
Thursday August 19th 2010, 12:02 PM
Comment by: nannywoo is back (Wilmington, NC)
Last spring semester I followed the lead of an article in the journal _College Composition and Communication_ and had my English 201 students (college sophomores in a class on academic reading, writing, and research) explore the kinds of writing people actually DO in discourses outside the English Department. They interviewed professors and professionals in various fields and read scholarly journal articles in those fields to see how language and writing are actually used. Their work, because it was reality-based, focusing on prospective majors and careers in most cases, was far and above the best writing I've seen in many years of teaching this course. They wrote good essays about the project, and I learned a great deal from reading them. I will be doing this project again with my fall class, which began yesterday. The formulaic five-paragraph essay is the bane of most college writing instructors' lives, because students trained in this way want to begin with structure, and therefore their meaning gets lost. I compare it to the Bed of Procrustes in which the host made his guests fit his bed by cutting off their feet or stretching them on the rack. The essay for students has become a test with right and wrong answers rather than part of an academic dialogue with a real audience who may be interested in exploring a complex question that doesn't fit into programmed slots. This semester, we'll be using Visual Thesaurus in this class. I've given students the option of getting their own accounts or kicking in the $10 to be added to mine. This article offers us a great start, and we'll be reading it in class tomorrow. Thanks to VT for essays that really say something about the subject matter of my course and demonstrate writing with an audience in mind. Joyce
Thursday August 19th 2010, 12:13 PM
Comment by: nannywoo is back (Wilmington, NC)
By the way, I use a nice, sharp mechanical pencil to write comments. Over the course of a semester, I have 2 conferences with each student, with their essays in front of our noses; we read them together over a cup of coffee in the library coffee shop and talk about THEIR writing, discovering how using the "rules" and conventions help their ideas to pop. Ruth, I'm right there with you. It's not being soft to focus on writing as communication and to remember that those words on the page are tied up with a person's identity and self-esteem. Grammar and punctuation are best learned in context. I'm lucky to have classes small enough to teach this way.
Thursday August 19th 2010, 1:49 PM
Comment by: Barbara M. (Roseburg, OR)
Our school decided that red ink intimidates students, so we were told w to use green ink to correct student work. Guess what! Students may be ignorant about some things, but they are not stupid. They quickly learned to grimace and roll their eyes when they received a paper with green marks and comments. Maybe the color of the ink is irrelevant. Perhaps we should try making at least some of the comments on the paper positive. "This is a big improvement." "Next time I would like to see ...."
Thursday August 19th 2010, 2:07 PM
Comment by: Rachel J. (D.N. haEla Israel)
I remember learning how to write both the five-paragraph essay AND a business / formal TY letter, both lessons care of the California public school system. Truth is, the knowledge served me well, despite the structural and stylistic adaptations demanded of me later in life.

Learning to write well is, in essence, learning to think well. Both require structuring one's thoughts and then expressing them clearly and (we hope) beautifully. Mastery of the humble, 4th-grade essay is a wonderful starting point, as long as it doesn't come at the expense of other writing forms, both formal and informal.

Thanks for giving me something to think about.
Thursday August 19th 2010, 2:13 PM
Comment by: Ruth W. (Reservoir Australia)
@colligate - love the idea of getting your students to explore the writing that people actually do.
@Barbara - you're spot on regarding the colour of the ink being irrelevant. :-) If the comments are 'red' they will cancel out any attempt at hiding such remarks with the change in the colour of the pen. I increase the level of constructive 'critical' feedback based on my intuitive sense as to whether the student has developed their confidence enough to receive or 'hear' it. I find humor a very important tool in providing feedback. I think I've gone off topic!
Thursday August 19th 2010, 3:44 PM
Comment by: Matthew J. (Virginia Beach, VA)
I don't read many articles on this site. Good eyecatching headline! I hated writing - especially my own evaluations in the Navy for 20 years. After about 15 years I began to see the value and now that I've studied Classical learning through my children's private school eyes have gotten a new appreciation for it.

Thanks and have a great day!
Friday August 20th 2010, 9:02 PM
Comment by: tmack. (Nashville, TN)
This is good advice for teachers who have the independence to plan their basic writing classes. Unfortunately, too many English departments fear tweaking and modifying the syllabus for this course, which is often outsourced to adjuncts at the college level. And because this course, freshman comp 1 and 2 is required of all students, teachers don't have to compete for students, most of whom hate this course and scheme how to pass it by downloading essays from the internet and submitting them as their own.

One summer I scored standardized tests for a company who'd won a contract for the job. These companies typically hire teachers who are on summer break. Being an English instructor, I scored tests given to k-12 students. What an experience! To score the tests, one must be trained to analyze them in a specific way, the aim being to score them as generously as possible. For example, a student is asked to read a short article about an historical figure and analyze the visuals accompanying the article. Then the student responds to several questions about the material or writes a few paragraphs in response to a question about the article, testing comprehension, analytical skills, writing skills. If I had not been "trained" to score the essays, I would have flunked about 95% of these essays. This is no exaggeration. Students had poor reading skills, couldn't interpret visual data and relate it to text, couldn't write a basic sentence. But "training" forced us to paint a rosier picture: if the student used the name of the historical figure or provided any evidence at all of having read the material, that student passed. If you dared fail the student, that paper would be instantly flagged by a supervisor who would usually override your score by finding evidence that the student at least read the material.

Not only did I find this depressing, but the other 60 teachers felt similarly. We realized what was happening all over the country--public school students were not prepared for academic work. Inner city schools were abysmal; affluent schools produced much better students who showed mastery of reading and writing skills. Despite their lack of skills, students are passed, not only through k-12 but through college. This explains how I discovered an illiterate student who had just graduated from high school in my freshman comp class.

I asked if parents actually looked at their children's tests after they were scored and was told no, the tests were archived; no one would ever see them. I don't understand the reason for withholding this information and wonder if this policy can be changed. We have to stop deceiving ourselves and shortchanging these children. No child left behind will only turn into a lot of adults left behind if we don't teach honestly.
Saturday August 28th 2010, 9:52 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
tmack, that is one depressing exposition that you've written! Was there not time to initiate a revolt and score the essays the way they should have been?

What a pity, and what a waste of tax money spent on educating (or not) those students!

We taught essays as part of expository writing, where one could try through many means to teach making a point.

We also did the nuts and bolts sort of things. I still work with people writing, and still coach on transitions, managing voice, making segues from one paragraph to the next and so on.

I guess old English teachers never retire -- nor do they fade away.
Wednesday September 1st 2010, 7:28 AM
Comment by: John M.
I believe "thank you" notes are covered in 8th grade English.
Of course languages evolve; - should they be allowed to erode like, you know, in the name of creativity? Ultimately, the ability to write well
is not a function of one's ability to think well one's self but
rather to think judiciously of what one is trying to communicate
most economically to whom and for what purpose. English has been
called the "silent killer." Kill the five paragraph essay and the
attendant concepts usually taught along with it and you may discover
you have killed not only the essay but the student along with it.
Wednesday September 1st 2010, 12:21 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
John M., thank you for that! I was sensing as I read some comments, here and at other columns on this site, that a tendency exists to 'just do it'. Never mind the quality of 'the done'.

I think there is much to be said for learning a procedure, for revising what is written, and for actually studying the various ways to express one's self.

It takes practice. Doing anything well, beginning with the first steps one takes, even with crawling, takes time and practice. Practice denied leads to problems in development.

I have seen this 'walking' problem in real life, with a toddler who was denied the opportunity to do so, kept in a crib because he'd bother his uncle who was studying if he was allowed out.

At the Y daycare where I was volunteering, we did let him walk, which he did hesitantly at first, holding onto a hand eagerly. Soon he was on his own, and verbalizing more of his needs instead of pointing.

His mom complained, yes. But the daycare was free, and release from the responsibility too enticing. She kept him with us.

The whole point is that teachers shouldn't take the easy way out either. I know that probably very few do. But the comment above about the maring is scarey. Let's not keep this generation in a crib.

Insist on what is clear, concise and, when appropriate, entertaining.

We might lose literature as well as cogent thinking!
Wednesday September 1st 2010, 2:13 PM
Comment by: John M.
Thank you, Jane, up in Canada! Do you know how you can tell
when you cross the border into Canada? The graffiti is in
complete sentences! (Garrison Keelor joke)

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