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.


How Can We Make Learning Relevant?

I don’t know about you, but I get somewhat upset when I feel my time is being wasted.  Sometimes that’s waiting in traffic, listening to someone retell the same story they’ve told numerous times before, sitting in the doctor’s office because they are running behind even though I’ve made an appointment, or zoning out at a staff meeting or PD session that doesn’t seem relevant to me at all.  Can you imagine how students must feel showing up to school 6 hours a day, 5 days a week if they feel what you’re teaching them is a waste of time?

The Problem

I gave my ELA 10 class a questionnaire to fill out at the beginning of the term this year and one of the questions I asked related to how important they believe English Language Arts is to their lives.  I wasn’t surprised to find that most students do not find ELA overly relevant.  They were surprised to learn that a full year English course is the only mandatory course for nearly all University students regardless of their program.  I am an English major and a PE minor; I didn’t take a single math, science, or history class.  But those majors had to take a 6-credit English course.  English is important to everyday life.  I’m sure every teacher of every subject area would argue their subject is important to life.  And I get it.  I do.  But as a teenager, I didn’t.  And this is the problem.  As adults we undertand that the subjects we teach are important, yet most students don’t get it.  Sure, there’s some who understand they need certain courses to graduate, or particular classes to get into the post secondary programs they want, but that’s different, isn’t it?

I’m going to take a moment and argue the other side of this issue.  Readers of my blog have been hearing about how much I hate math.  My students know it, too.  It’s not that I don’t think math is important; I just find it hard.  More to the point, I don’t find it important to my everyday life.  That’s not to say that if math never existed that my life wouldn’t suck.  Because my life would suck.  Math impacts my life in huge ways; however, it will positively impact my life whether I can do math or not.  Others can.  So others can use math to make my life easier.  I don’t actually use math beyond a basic elementary level on a day-to-day basis (I’m a bit ashamed to say that I actually counted on 4 fingers today to confirm that 18 + 4 = 22.).  I get by, yet I had to take math all through high school.  Even though I didn’t see the relevance.  Even though I still don’t see the relevance.  I can make similar arguments for science and social studies.  I’m guessing many of you could make the argument for English Language Arts. I feel like going off on a tangent here and exploring just how important it could actually be to learn all the content knowledge of these high school subjects when I don’t use it and don’t remember it . . . but I won’t.

The Point

The point I want to make with this post is that many students don’t, rightfully so or not, find school relevant to their lives.  I’ve come to terms with the fact that many of my students don’t like ELA in the same way I don’t like other subjects.  I’m fine with that.  What I’m not fine with, are students who walk out of my class not seeing the relevance of what we did.  Whether we are studying poetry, Shakespeare, novel, visual, non-fiction, etc. I want my students to take something relevant away from that text.  Briefly, I have a few reasons for this.

  1. If students see the relevance in a text, they will be more willing to study that text.
  2. If students see the relevance, they will be more open to texts in their everyday lives.
  3. If students see the relevance, they will be more engaged.
  4. If students believe school is relevant, they will be more open to learning.

Teaching kids to appreciate Shakespeare is hard.  I didn’t care for Shakespeare when I was in high school.  I thought the plots were full of illogical holes. (If only Juliet had run off with Romeo–He got away, why couldn’t they both?)  It wasn’t until the years off between high school and university that I came to appreciate the art of Shakespeare’s stories.  I hope some of my experience rubs off on students as I try to explain this at the start of Shakespeare; however, I’m not naive enough to believe all students walk away appreciating Shakespeare.  What I will proudly say is that the vast majority of my students walked away from Shakespeare this year realizing that his plays can speak to them on a very personal level.

The Possibility

Instead of approaching Shakespeare with the purpose of appreciating Shakespeare, this year my students were looking to him to provide possible answers to meaningful questions that were relevant to their lives.  My 20’s, for example were seeking an answer to the question, “Can I know if I, or someone I know, is in love?”  This was the question on the board when my students walked in from summer vacation.  Right from day one, my 20’s were talking about a topic that related to their lives.  And boy oh boy did they talk.  We began with “thought journals” where they recorded their initial thoughts about the question.  Throughout the unit, we came back to the thought journals and revised opinions based on the texts we studied.  Questions were asked, perspectives were explored, in some cases opinions were changed.  We didn’t jump right into Shakespeare.  Shakespeare was NOT the unit focus.  This transcendent question was the focus.  It provided the possibility of engaging in textual analysis, conversation, and learning.  We discussed the differences and similarities between LUST, LOVE, and CRUSH, defining the terms, comparing how individuals act, look, speak, their motives, their goals, etc.  We explored self-love, friendship, patriotism, and romance.  We looked at visuals, read a short story, watched Troy, read Troilus and Cressida (Shakespeare), and watched The Simpson’s.  In the end, some students walked away saying that they believed they did in fact have enough information to determine if they, or someone they knew were in love.  Some said they would know if they were in love, but could never be certain of someone else.  Some said there is no sure way to know at all.  One walked away with a beautifully heartbreaking paper explaining why she believed love doesn’t exist in our world.  It wasn’t about agreeing.  It wasn’t about “the correct answer.”  It wasn’t about Shakespeare or visuals or any particular text.  It was about them.  It was about their lives.  It was about making English class relevant to their lives.

I believe the possibility exists in every subject area, at every grade level, for every “unit,” for every teacher to engage their students every day in learning through the use of Transcendent Questions.  By getting to know your students on a more personal level, it’s possible to tailor-make questions that will suit the needs of the class or majority of the students.  One of my questions later on in the term for my ELA 30 class was purposefully created to have students think about how they were treating one another.  Without prompting, after some study and reflection, their discussion did make it’s way around to the class dynamic.  It was definitely a feel-good moment for me.

The PLN Opportunity

A Twitter conversation I had today with @alicekeeler @jankenb2 @ACEedu and @CraigRusbult led to the notion that more teachers need to start making learning relevant to the lives of students.  Transcendent Questions were mentioned.  We wondered how to create a repository of questions for teachers to take from and add to.  We thought a Google Spreadsheet would be the way to go.  I’ve created one HERE.

***This is the first Google Spreadsheet I’ve ever created.  I tried to set it up as best I could; however, I doubt it’s “properly done.”  Please, if you have any experience with this, fix it up and get it working properly.  I tried to keep it so the filtering would work well to sort both grade level and subject area.  Make suggestions to fix it, or just fix it–I think I left it wide open for editing.  The suggestions I’ve included are ones that I’ve designed to work with grade 10-12 (div 4) ELA.

The Google Spreadsheet of Transcendent Questions to Make Learning Relevant