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. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

Michele Dunaway overturns traditional approaches to essay-writing.
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Michele advises writing teachers to "teach the basics first and worry about voice later."