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.

Click here to read more articles from Teachers at Work.

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. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.