Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

The Nitty-Gritty Essay, Part I

Okay, let's be honest. I'll go on record and say it. Some students are naturally more gifted at writing essays than others. Oftentimes these are the students to whom writing simply springs forth. It doesn't matter if it's narrative, persuasive, expository or descriptive, these students' paragraphs simply flow and their choice of words seems innate. These students naturally gravitate to the honors level classes, expanding their essays in ways that make teachers' eyes tear up with joy.

And there's everybody else. These are the students who immediately groan and moan at the very mention of the word "essay." These students don't even need to hear the topic or prompt to already have their motivation sucked away — it flickers out like a candle deprived of oxygen. Unfortunately for teachers, teaching writing isn't easy and the majority of writers are in the "everybody else" category. Worse, the scoring guide isn't much help. If a student doesn't know what "cohesion" means, no matter how many times he reads something that's an example of cohesion, he's not going to be able to duplicate it.

Of course, therein lies the problem. Ask a group of English teachers about paragraphing and transitions and you're going to get different answers. It's one of those "you know it when you see it" things. Yet for those students for whom writing is a struggle, they can read it and see it all they want, but that doesn't mean they can do it.

So, as English teachers, we create all sorts of things to help them. The current rage is something called Six Traits of Writing, which I haven't found to be too helpful.

Thus, here's what I like to call the nitty-gritty essay. I'll admit, it's very basic and formulaic, but I don't care. It allows kids to build a strong foundation from which to grow. It's a blueprint — a guideline for how to form words into paragraphs. As I argued in my article, "Voice: The Least of Your Worries," voice should be the last thing you're supposed to be worrying about. It'll arrive on its own. Therefore, I always start with the writing basics. I believe that you need to teach the fundamentals of sentence structure, grammar, vocabulary and punctuation, and teach paragraphing and transitions.

I also always start with the literary analysis essay. Most kids can write narratives (albeit often poorly) — their elementary teachers have had them writing about their summer vacations for years. I also immediately start with writing a full essay. I've found kids whine about writing one paragraph as much as four or five, so I just give them the maximum right off the bat. We do the first essay together — working through as a class to create a sample essay that students write along with me. I don't photocopy it — I want their hand to feel pen to paper. And, when all have laptops, then I will have them type it and feel the keys beneath their fingertips.

First we start by analyzing the prompt. Here's one I use in my classroom when I teach To Kill a Mockingbird:

In the book To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus and Mr. Ewell take different approaches to parenting. Write an essay in which you explore what values each parent is teaching and give examples of how they are different.

Our next step is to break down the prompt. What is it asking them to do? Clearly this is a compare/contrast essay, and use of a Venn diagram will help them see the difference between the two characters. I also tell them they need to make a judgment. Who is the better parent?

I then tell my kids that it's okay to put part of the prompt in their introductory paragraph, and that literary essays must have 5 things: 1) the title of the literature; 2) the genre of the literature; 3) the author's name; 4) a little bit about the literature; and 5) the thesis. So given the above prompt, I get a lot of similar introductory first lines, which might look like this:

In Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus and Mr. Ewell take different approaches to parenting. They each value different things and this is reflected in how they raise their children.

Again, I don't care if everyone has the same first line. Have you ever seen a row of houses in a subdivision? All start with pouring the foundation. That's what I am doing here. For those students to whom writing is a struggle, getting the introduction down to where it makes sense and is easy to build is paramount. I've discovered that far too many times most students simply write willy-nilly and include far too much — so by the end of their long-winded introduction they have nothing else to say and their body paragraphs are simply repetitive and horrid.

Later, once students have mastered the required elements, you can add the "hook" to the introduction. A hook is a first sentence designed to snag the reader's attention, hence the term hook. Hooks can be (give examples) and hooks are a step in developing author voice. Yet I reiterate — be sure to add hooks later. Too many students get all excited about hooks, and have a dynamite opening sentence, only to bomb the rest of the introductory paragraph. Here is the opening above with a hook:

Lies versus love. Abuse versus caring. In Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus and Mr. Ewell take different approaches to parenting. They each value different things and this is reflected in how they raise their children.

Now it's time for the last step of the opening paragraph — the dreaded thesis statement. Again, here it all depends on teacher preference. I've seen teachers who want all body paragraphs introduced in the thesis:

In Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus and Mr. Ewell take different approaches to parenting. They each value different things and this is reflected in how they raise their children. Atticus is a better parent because he values education, treats his children with respect and encourages honesty.

Or those who want it short and sweet, like so:

In Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus and Mr. Ewell take different approaches to parenting. They each value different things and this is reflected in how they raise their children. Atticus is clearly the better parent.

Personally, I teach both and leave it up to the student because different essays lead naturally to one or the other type of thesis. The key is that the thesis contains both a subject and an opinionated statement about that subject the writer is going to prove or support. For those who've heard of the Jane Schaffer method, Jane calls this subject and commentary. Whatever you call it, the thesis must prove something. I tell students that even if you are simply comparing and contrasting, you are proving that the things can be compared and contrasted. Here the writer, no matter what thesis, will be proving Atticus is the better parent.

The bottom line is that by giving students a basic model, even struggling writers can put the puzzle pieces together and get a basic, workable introduction that isn't an embarrassment or torturous. Then later, once they are more proficient, they can dress that introduction up.

I'll tackle body paragraphs and conclusions next time.


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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:

Tuesday October 12th 2010, 3:24 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Interesting article. I will also go on record and say that PC can go way too far. People are individuals; they all have their own special talents in different areas, so it is absolutely not surprising that some people are better at some things and not so good at others. The only thing that is "equal" about people is that we are all human beings and all deserve to be viewed "as a whole" and not "in parts." Having said that, I will also go on record and say that good essay writing is the sign of an organized approach to communication. This has nothing to do with whether a person is organized in other areas of life. I frequently work with engineers who know all about logical thinking, analysis, structure, forces and balance, but are mostly unaware that all of these factors must also be taken account when writing about what they do. Another point is consideration for your readers. If people have to work too hard to understand your message, they will get tired and not want to read on. To gain respect, you have to show respect, in writing as elsewhere. End of homily :-)
Tuesday October 12th 2010, 7:20 AM
Comment by: John S.
I agree with Alice. We have many more engineers who need to know how to write than we have novelists and essayists. I excelled in writing from as early as I can remember. I was never hesitant to put words to paper. I wrote great essays for tests, theme papers, research papers, and the like. But when I got to my first real job, I had all that beaten out of me by my boss, a Japanese fund manager. His lesson was that he had fifty reports stacked on his desk every morning and all he needed to do was read the first sentence to see if he should read further. His next lesson was, write, read, scrap, and rewrite. The first writings were just material: pieces of thought that I might use in the final. But the final had to be constructed or crafted--not some flash of brilliance with a few polished words from a vocabulary exercise to make it sound good. In the exampleIn Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, The example used in the essay starts with, "In Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird." But what the essay is really about is parenting. Starting with a line like, "most parents have no idea what they are doing" might be a better way to start. At least that is what I believe my fund manager manager would tell me. Do you teach your students how to rebuild what they write?
Wednesday October 13th 2010, 7:04 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
John, it seems to me that your opening is better suited to a narrative essay. It doesn't give any indication that you are heading into character analysis or behaviour in a novel. You could be setting out thoughts for the con side of a debate -- or the pro side if the debate were: Resolved: Parents should take courses before having children.

It could also be a story of your own life, either as a parent or a child.

Your fund manager wanted a report, something a bit different from what is expected here.

Just saying...

Loved the lesson, though!

My dad was in the first group of engineers educated at such at what has become a major school in Michingan. He had to complete the BA requirements and fulfill engineering on the side. Eventually, the school got an engineering college, but my dad was never happy with grads who arose from it, or any other. He believed that you needed to be able to read and write from a great many sources, not just scientific, and you haad to be able to write logically, coherently, and correctly. When he was teaching engineering, he failed a student (at least one) for not being able to do that.

He was promoted beyond the level where such judgements were made. An unhappy prof in a world that was becoming 'not his'.

He was always demanding of himself in that respect, and those who worked for and with him.

The engineers of his day were fascinating people, as able to discuss Jung and Dickens or Shakespeare as ways to make steel.

I have two years of journals my dad kept, one being from the end of WWII. In it, on the days following (just following) the dropping of the A-Bomb, he debates it with himself, explains what happened within the bomb, and closes one segment saying that he hoped mankind had the wisdom to deal with this invention.
Wednesday October 13th 2010, 8:16 PM
Comment by: Saria B. (Otorohanga New Zealand)
Loved that example of essay writing. Uncomplicated and not long-winded. Thank you so much!
Wednesday October 20th 2010, 11:38 AM
Comment by: Christine B. (Kirkwood, MO)
Great article...lots of kids approach an essay as if you just asked them to climb Mt. Everest backward! But you definitely take the mystery out of the organizational part of an essay. I think most kids have a problem with this piece, organizing. What they love is to be able to have a forum to express their opinion so this is the "hook" I use when trying to get kids to write.

If they think they must parrot back to me what I want to hear, then what's the point of learning to write and express yourself? So giving them the organizational tools and then giving them the gift of self-expression is an extraordinary treasure.

Thanks for posting this...
Wednesday October 20th 2010, 11:38 AM
Comment by: Christine B. (Kirkwood, MO)
Great article...lots of kids approach an essay as if you just asked them to climb Mt. Everest backward! But you definitely take the mystery out of the organizational part of an essay. I think most kids have a problem with this piece, organizing. What they love is to be able to have a forum to express their opinion so this is the "hook" I use when trying to get kids to write.

If they think they must parrot back to me what I want to hear, then what's the point of learning to write and express yourself? So giving them the organizational tools and then giving them the gift of self-expression is an extraordinary treasure.

Thanks for posting this...
Thursday November 11th 2010, 4:26 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris)
A very great article, I thank you. The difficulty is to be able to have a driver when you lack to write a novel and
staying on.That is no very easy to do.No very easy to respect the trends of public opinion, specialy of your
professor. I think you must pay attention when you write , but now with i'phone children meet problem.in that share.
Thursday November 11th 2010, 4:26 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris)
A very great article, I thank you. The difficulty is to be able to have a driver when you lack to write a novel and
staying on.That is no very easy to do.No very easy to respect the trends of public opinion, specialy of your
professor. I think you must pay attention when you write , but now with i'phone children meet problem.in that share.
Thursday November 11th 2010, 4:26 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris)
A very great article, I thank you. The difficulty is to be able to have a driver when you lack to write a novel and
staying on.That is no very easy to do.No very easy to respect the trends of public opinion, specialy of your
professor. I think you must pay attention when you write , but now with i'phone children meet problem.in that share.

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Michele Dunaway overturns traditional approaches to essay-writing.
To get students excited about books, choosing the right literature to read is key.
Michele advises writing teachers to "teach the basics first and worry about voice later."