Why Do We Make Our Students Write Essays?

My blog post is a response to this blog post by the same title, written by Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton, an educational leader, researcher, author, and professional speaker.

The question at hand:  Why do we make students write essays?

Dr. Eaton’s response:  Because writing essays teaches students the skills needed to write and argue effectively.

My response: We shouldn’t!

I’m a little nervous disagreeing with someone who is so accomplished; however, this is a subject that I have been thinking about quite a bit lately and I relish this opportunity to organize my thoughts.

When I saw the Twitter link for Dr. Eaton’s post, I must admit that I thought I’d find confirmation for my newfound disgruntlement with essays. . . Instead I found a defence for why we should make students write essays, a defence I have some concerns about.

If you still haven’t clicked the link above to read Dr. Eaton’s article, I’d encourage you to do so before continuing.

It’s important to me that you know a little bit about where I’m coming from.  I have been teaching junior/senior high school ELA in Alberta for 6 years.  I attended junior and senior high school in Alberta.  I attended university in Alberta.  And I have always loved essays.  Coming to understand that the essay was my opportunity to explore a text and offer my own opinion was exhilarating   It was my only solace in an educational system I had come to abhor from early elementary school.  Through university, I continued to love researching and forming unique, convincing arguments.  As a new teacher, I was excited to read my students’ essays, but when my first class failed to meet my expectations, I stopped to consider how to actually teach essay writing.  I guess I should have done this before assigning an essay, but I honestly can’t remember ever being formally taught how to write an essay and therefore assumed it came naturally.  This setback did not dampen my passion, though.  I promptly set out to create a document I entitled Essay Writing Laws.  This document contains the 6 “Laws” I (still) believe are the basics necessary to produce a well-written essay.  Determining these laws was as simple as reflecting on the process I took through university to write pretty outstanding essays (I’m sorry for bragging, but they were, according to professors who asked me to read my work for the class, and even scrawled “brilliant” across the top of a particularly brilliant paper I wrote on the first Harry Potter novel for my Children’s Lit class.)  After a couple years, I made the effort to video record The Laws instead of reading through them all as a class–students were getting bored with that.  I figured if I created a video, they could chunk the reading over a weekend.

I hope I’ve been able to make it clear that I’m not opposed to essays because I hate them.  Even as I write this post I find myself nostalgically thinking back to the first real essay I remember writing in grade 11 on “The Great Gatsby.”  Man, was I ever proud of that piece.  No, my newfound opposition to making students write essays is not based on anything to do with the essay form itself or their purpose of persuading a target audience or the excellent skills in research and sentence construction they allows students to build.  All of these features and benefits are excellent.  If you took the time to read Dr. Eaton’s article (maybe you should go do that now), you’ll notice that these are also a few of her arguments for why we should have students write essays:

We ask students to write papers so they can learn how to write. The topic and content areas are secondary. Knowing how to write cogently and construct a written report that has elements like an introduction, a body and a conclusion is a useful skill to know. It is also useful to know how to construct sentences, form an argument and persuade a reader.

So, if the above quote seems to be Dr. Eaton’s main point, and I seem to agree with her reasoning, then what could I possibly have an issue with?  My disagreement comes from Dr. Eaton’s statement that “We ask students to write papers so they can learn how to write.”  My initial response to this is to echo another one of her own declarations: “But really, that’s not good enough.”

There are many different forms of writing that students can create in order to learn how to write and argue effectively.  In fact, Dr. Eaton continues her own article by listing several of these forms:  “[W]hen you leave school and get a real job, you may have to write something. A report. A letter. A policy. Whatever.”

The reason I do not believe teachers should be making students write essays is because essays are a highly inauthentic form of writing.  Before teaching my students how to write an essay, I often share with them some of my own experiences.  I tell them how essay writing knowledge has helped me to write a letter to my boss to justify a raise, to craft a cover letter when applying for teaching positions, and to verbally defend an extended curfew request to my parents.  But I also share my disappointment that, since being out of university, I haven’t written a single essay.  Until this year, the true impact of that realization escaped me.  If I, an individual who loves writing essays, and a teacher who teaches kids to write essays, haven’t found a reason to actually write an essay in the last 6 years while living in “the real world,” then why the heck am I teaching students to write an essay?  How important can it really be?  Of course, I already stated why they’re important.  Or did I?  I did state that they have benefits. But really, that’s not good enough!

Our students won’t grow up and write essays.  As Dr. Eaton pointed out, they’ll grow up and write reports, and letters, and policies.  They’ll grow up and write proposals, engage in debates–both formal and informal, deliver speeches, and write newspaper articles, magazine articles, and even blog posts!  But they won’t write essays.  For a more humorous example of this, check out the video I added to this other post.  It’s this video that pushed me over the edge, led me to cancel the essay I recently had planned for my ELA 10 class, and instead forced me to begin an in-depth examination of proposal writing through the study of one by President Obama a mere 3 months ago.

At this point, many readers may already be screaming at me through their computer screen:  WHAT ABOUT THE DIPLOMA EXAMS!?! (or whatever standardized tests their students may be forced to write) HOW DARE YOU RUIN A STUDENT’S CHANCES OF GETTING INTO OR THROUGH UNIVERSITY!

Oh my. . . I think it’s clear by now that I dislike the inauthenticity of essays, but that’s nothing compared to the abhorrence I harbour toward the inauthenticity and unfairness of standardized tests.  For an inkling, you can take a look here. Hopefully you’re still reading as I attempt to explain my position.  First, individuals who are going to scream the statements above are focused primarily on marks.  I’ll address that a bit more in a moment, but suffice it to say that students who do well on whatever you do in-class will still walk away from the course with a decent mark (and much better prepared for life) even if they do “poorly” on the diploma exam.  Second, if we are going to argue that teaching an inauthentic essay format will prepare students for writing more authentic letters, reports, policies, etc. then the reverse should also be true–teaching those forms should result in students who can produce a great essay.  Which would you rather your students be better practiced in:  The type of writing they’ll need long-term or the type of writing that will temporarily benefit them?  I choose the life-long skills.  Third, many of our students aren’t even headed off to university and, consequentially, their need for amazing diploma exam marks is virtually non-existent.  For those students who are headed to university and will need essay writing skills for four to eight more years, that’s where differentiation comes in and we teach the minor formatting differences after they are well-grounded in more authentic writing styles.  This should satisfy those teachers who believe that the government and society as a whole have the right idea about education being about marks more than it is about students actually being involved in relevant learning.  I do fully intend to ensure this happens, but not because I’ll make students do it; it’ll be because they recognize the need to learn essay writing in order to jump through the hoops of an inauthentic and broken education system.  Even with my grade 10’s, I’ve been diligent in pointing out the similarities and differences between proposals and essays to help prepare the ones who will need to know them.

The fourth and final reason I’ll expound upon as to why I’m not doing a diservice to students by not making them write essays* is that even the diploma exam refuses to demand that students write one.  I find this curious.  I’ve been to mark the diploma exams four times, twice for the -1 stream and twice for the -2 stream, and every student writes a formal academic essay for the -1 Critical/Analytical Response To Literature, and the vast majority of -2s for their Literary Exploration.  It seems that every teacher in the province knows what the diploma exam creators expect, even if those creators are not bold enough to demand it themselves.  It even seems obvious that the creators do in fact expect an essay to be written:  The omission of a question in the planning section, the question seeking to know what prose form the student plans on using, speaks loud and clear.  This question is asked for the personal reflection, where students can choose any prose form including narrative, but not for the critical analysis assignment.  I can’t help but wonder why this is the case.  Is an essay the only form possible to critically and analytically explore a text?  If so, wouldn’t that mean that “in the real world,” where essays are rarely written, texts are never explored critically?  Anyone holding to that position better be able to explain why we need to teach kids to think critically about texts at all then.  However, if we agree that this notion is ludicrous, and “the real world” does in fact demand critical exploration of texts, then is it true that essays are the only way to do so, or even a primary way, heck, are essays even used at all in the real world as a means of stating an opinion?  If not, then why expect students to write one?  Why force them to learn a skill they don’t actually need when more authentic forms of text creation can accomplish the same task?

Towards the end of her article, Dr. Eaton makes a statement that I agree with 100% and have begun to implement in my own teaching practice.  She introduces the following quote by stating that we shouldn’t have students write essays just so they can get a grade, which, by the way, supports my comments above about grade-focused teachers.  Instead, Dr. Eaton argues that school is about learning:

What would happen if we said to our students, ‘OK, folks, your grade is based on learning, not just on production, or on completing an inane assignment. Show me what you’ve learned, how you’ve learned and it and why you think it has any relevance at all to the real world.’

I must admit, when I reached this part of the article, I was optimistic that perhaps I had misunderstood Dr. Eaton’s point and that she truly was advocating for the abolishment of the essay.  I read this quote and thought, “this is exactly what school should be.”  I told my ELA 10 class this very thing a couple days ago:  “School is about learning, not about marks.”  As soon as I finished the statement one of the boys in the class scoffed.  I asked him if he disagreed.  He asked me why teachers give marks then if my statement is true.  He forced me to revise my statement to “School SHOULD be about learning, not about marks.” I’ve been on a quest since then to learn more about how to abolish marks from my practice right alongside the abolishment of essays.  It was something that I’d already been wondering about, and we set aside the rest of the lesson that day and, as a class, figured out a fairer assessment strategy for this term, with the promise that I would continue learning more about this topic for next year (I’ll teach the same group again from grade 10-12).

Unfortunately, Dr. Eaton concluded her article with these words:

We have students write papers so they can learn the art and craft of writing and more importantly, to “learn about learning” and to learn about themselves as students and human beings. Hopefully they grow and expand their own minds in the process. If students’ minds aren’t expanding, we are not doing our job.

This conclusion almost had me screaming to her through my computer screen the title of her article:  BUT WHY DO WE HAVE TO MAKE OUR STUDENTS WRITE ESSAYS?  Why do students have to write an essay to “learn about learning”?   Why do students have to write an essay to show what they learned and how they learned it?  Why do students have to write an essay to learn about themselves as students and human beings?  Can they truly prove the relevance between what they’ve learned and the real world through such an inauthentic form of writing?  I don’t think they can.  Or, at least it’s not the only way.  And it doesn’t justify making students write essays.  I strongly believe that every teacher needs to carefully consider what they teach, how they teach it, and how they assess it in order to ensure that school is relevant and meaningful and not a huge waste of time.

*The Alberta High School ELA curriculum, in a very understated manner (through the use of an asterisk, as I’ve utilized here), requires students to create an essay.  Because I love teaching, I will comply with this requirement in the most minimal, yet acceptable manner I can.  As I clearly argue in my post, I do not believe I do my students a diservice by refusing to focus on or inflate the importance of essay writing.  The authentic text creations my students will complete will more than make up for this.  Complying certainly does not mean I agree with the demand.

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8 thoughts on “Why Do We Make Our Students Write Essays?

  1. The “communications skill” is the most important skill that an individual must have in order to function effectively in a complex society. He/she must be able to get ideas out of his/her head and into the heads of others through written or oral communications.

    Thus, the need to teach students how to write clearly is essential. On balance, I agree with the author’s arguments about essay writing.

    I have no argument against assigning students a writing exercise to enable them to practice and demonstrate their level of written communications skills. I do, however, have an argument against an assignment to write an essay about nonsense.

    To me (and I do not have a Ph.D.) writing has one of three purposes:

    1) To entertain;

    2) To argue an issue(s) and explain and persuade;

    3) A combination of entertainment and persuasion.

    I have no skills in the world of writing to entertain – to give colorful descriptions of people, places or events that will capture a reader’s interest and enable her/him to visualize and understand clearly what I am trying to describe.

    I do have skills, however, in writing to argue an issue(s) and base the argument on facts, findings, and conclusions that come from a solid foundation of logical thought.

    These are the skills that I try to teach.

    Writing something that will be clear and persuasive to the reader – so that the reader can conclude with little effort that the argument is sound and based on solid fact – is the goal. Such writing – and this is practiced extensively at such schools as the Harvard Business School – is very difficult.

    In my blog about “Field Studies,” (http://fieldstudiesblog.com/home/) I try to explain and demonstrate how this is done. It includes how to write a proposal or confirmation letter that describes how a project will be conducted as well as what will be delivered as a result, and a final report which articulates the findings, conclusions, and recommendations resulting from the project effort.

    Writing the proposal/conformation letter is consistent with the author’s Essay Writing Laws; the final report for a “Field Study” can be written in narrative form (following the author’s Essay Writing Laws), but in my opinion a presentation style report that focuses on simplicity – present the findings and a simple summary, present the conclusions and a simple summary, and present the recommendations and a simple summary.

    While such a form of writing is generally reserved to be taught at the graduate school level, students in high school are fully capable of accomplishing this task. Such writing forces students to put on paper or in an electronic presentation form their thought process through examination of the data, articulating what it means, presenting their conclusions and arguing for their reasoned recommendations based on their research.

    It seems to me that this is consistent with the argument of the author and with his criticism of Dr. Eaton’s view about why students should write essays.

    ~ CCJ

    • Thank you for your perspective on this topic, CCJ. I appreciate your ability to concisely articulate your thoughts. My own writing style has never been so succinct, despite my fathers best efforts to curtail my papers and narratives. Perhaps my next blog post will attempt this style as a personal challenge.

      I believe I would add at least one more purpose of writing to your list 4) To inform. While it may be argued that informative writing such as newspaper or magazine articles, or text books inherently carry with them a desire to either persuade or entertain, I believe there are instances where writing/text creation can be primarily focused on the purpose of providing content.

      The link to your Field Studies blog was the highlight of my reading this week, and may prove to be a key contribution to fully (as fully as possible and still keep my job) altering my teaching practices for next September. I haven’t made it all the way through the site yet, but I skimmed through the sections. I must say, I’m intrigued. You adequately justify the “(more)” in my (More) Authentic Assessment Tasks post. This is exactly the type of project I want my students working on. My thoughts are to spend grade 10 primarily focused on the (more) authentic tasks and then perhaps implement the Field Study projects as the next step in grade 11. As you mention, grade 12 may still need to focus A BIT more the government testing standards (dumbing down the critical thinking and reinging in the collaboration *I can’t even write it without cringing).

      I teach in a K-12 school with a student population of 210. My high school ELA classes have between 9-18 students. The classes combine the -1 (university bound) students and the -2 (trades/other bound) students. I was a bit unsure if you were recommending that the Field Study project be implemented class-wide or if this is a differentiation project for select students. I truly believe that all my students are capable thinkers and that the “slackers” are such because of a lack of authentic assessment tasks. In fact, as you hint, I’d actually be more concerned with my top end students rushing the job and not putting in full effort more so than my lowest end students (we also have students at a -4 level completing a Life Skills program, but our small school is not yet able to accomodate them in an inclusive environment after the junior high level. I would not recommend this program for them.

      I’m wondering about the time commitment involved for this project, both preparation for the teacher and completion for the students. If I were to “create” projects that meet your recommendations for complexity, should I be putting this together during my time of in the summer and introducing the project right away in September? And, how much of my semester needs to be dedicated to student working though the project if we have daily 84 minute classes for approximately 20 weeks? A final question is about assessment. I’m wanting to move to a portfolio-style assessment that offers vebal/written comments as feedback rather than grades. It sounds like the Field Study would work well with this structure. Do you have any specific advice for this assessment context?

  2. Jon –

    Thanks for the nice words – and I’ll say again that I totally agree with what you are trying to do.

    Adding the purpose “to inform” is excellent – I just didn’t think of it at the time!

    You can do “Field Studies” in your school – and, in fact, they can be done by virtually any student – college bound or not. The key, however, is that they must have a good work ethic to see the project through to completion. It’s hard – and at times the information/data gets a little fuzzy. But that’s life!

    I have another blog that gives a blueprint for a Field Study for a small school – it’s a project where students create a service learning internship program for their school. The blog address is: http://highschoolservicelearning.com.

    The blog gives the details how a team of students created such a program and should be useful for you if that’s the way you want to go. If you can get a school administrator to go along with it, that’s the key. I recommend this for you because there is a blueprint to follow

    Regarding authentic assessment for the project, I created a “position description” for the team members – the tasks and responsibilities that they would have during the course of the project. They were assessed based on their performance against a rubric for each of these tasks.

    Regarding timing . . . the student team as described in the service learning blog did the project in two months. This was an “after school” project and was classified by the school as “independent study.” The students received a grade – but the most important thing was that they had something to write about when they applied to college. What they did was totally unique – and literally ‘blew away’ the college admissions interviewers.

    If you decide you want to do this, I would be more than happy to work with you via e-mail to guide you along – my goal is to make sure that schools can do these sorts of things independently and without my hanging around telling them what to do. It sounds like you can do this very well on your own – but as I mentioned, I am more than happy to provide a little counsel as you proceed.

    A key thing to remember when you field a team: Make SURE you have a team captain who has a strong work ethic and who will shepherd the others through the project. Regarding the other members of the team, I would recommend that you use JUNIORS (i.e., 11th grade) so you have a strong bench for further Field Studies down the road. These kids can serve as your ‘team captains’ for those during their Senior years.

    If you want to communicate via e-mail rather than on your blog, my e-mail is as follows: ccjett@msn.com

    It might be helpful, however, to document what you are doing “live” in your own blog – I can comment and help you there as well. That way others can see what you are doing and might be motivated to join in the fun and do it for their own kids in their own school.

    In any event, these things don’t get done unless one just starts doing them and moves ahead. I’m ready to help.

    Charlie Jett (CCJ)
    Chicago

    • Wow! Thank you so much. I like the last point of just getting it going. I’ll do just that. I’ll likely need to make it course work in some manner rather than after school. I’ll ponder that. And my school admin is highly supportive of my efforts, even though I know we do t always agree. The communication between us is wide open and she values her teachers as professionals with different perspectives. I’m sure I will utilize your willingness to offer support and feedback.

      Other readers, stay tuned for updates on this project!

  3. I love a good debate. Thank you for providing invigorating food for thought on the subject. One might argue that a blog post such as yours is a kind of essay in and of itself. I personally found it well-written and clearly constructed. You yourself demonstrate exemplary writing qualities.

    • Thank you for the kind words; they mean a lot. I too love a good debate (and debate is a fantastic authentic assessment task that is closely related to the essay format). I’d also agree that my blog post is a “kind of essay,” and that’s basically my point: We should be utilizing the authentic forms of writing that resemble essays rather than focusing specifically on the essay form itself.

      Jonathan Groff JonDavidGroff.com

      Sent from miPhone

  4. When I had to write an essay according to some rules, I wrote an essay… badly. And when I wrote an essay for the test, without any rules (because I couldn’t look at them), I wrote the essay… better. Until the present day I am shocked and can’t understand it! I hate essays! I’ll add I have characteristics of Asperger Syndrome. I am very happy and relieved I don’t have to write essays anymore.

  5. Pingback: How to Write Any Essay – How to Write ____

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