Writing ‘Essays with an Attitude’
Say the word “essay” and students curl up like an Oregon slug encountering salt. They shrivel before this word, which so often conjures up the memory of boredom and failure.
But essays don’t have to be boring and students don’t have to fail. Essays can be playful; they can be as personal and provocative as poetry and stories; they can shake their fists and shout, “Injustice!” or shake us with laughter. As I tell my students, “As long as you’ve got an opinion, you can write an essay.” And hearing them talk, I know they’ve got opinions.
Before we start our lesson on “Essays With An Attitude,” I tape one of my published articles to the board. The one I’m currently using has 10 drafts. I stick the notes written on Starbucks’ napkins and the backs of envelopes; the crossed-out sections, the writing on the back where I redrafted the opening, notes to myself about research needed for my next revision. I include the drafts where Bill Bigelow, my partner, fellow writer and teacher, scribbled notes in the margins. Following the drafts, I tape the letter I sent to an editor, the response and the final publication. I want students to see that writing is messy and sometimes hard. And like anything worth pursuing, it takes time, commitment, and practice.
In her portfolio evaluation, my student Claire wrote that seeing how many times I reworked my piece before getting it “right,” gave her courage to let go. She knew she could come back and revise, so she didn’t have to worry over every word she wrote. On the other hand, my student Naaman said, “Maybe I better transfer to another class if it took you that many times to get it right.”
LISTS AND MODELS
Writing an essay with an attitude is about taking a position and backing it up. It’s a sustained, rehearsed argument with a parent, friend or teacher, newscaster, magazine writer, advertiser, or the broader society. I begin by asking students: “What makes you angry? What gets on your nerves, under your skin? What makes you want to scream when you see a movie, a commercial, or the news? Are there times when you want to shake someone in the middle of a conversation? Are there things about school that you just can’t stand?” (This one is always good for one section of the black board and a stick of chalk.)
Students make lists of what raises their hackles. Then we “share the wealth” and write their ideas on the board: Curfews, suspensions, time-out rooms in a high school for tardy students, violence in the neighborhood, boring books in English classes, lack of uniforms for the soccer team, support for women’s sports compared to men’s, the way African Americans and Latinos are portrayed on the news, how overweight women or dark-skinned women never get to be the sexy lead. The lists go on and on.
I discovered through many failures that the way I frame the opening lesson and examples determines the responses I get. If I start with pet peeves like dandruff and dirty fingernails, I get more of a Seinfeld whining list. Because I want students to focus on larger social issues, I begin with examples that steer their responses in that direction. I talk about how I hate advertisements that use women to sell products, like Black Velvet ads that feature a beautiful woman in a black velvet dress as if she came with the purchase. Sometimes I talk about cigarette ads, like Virginia Slims, that show a hip woman with a long cigarette dangling from her fingers. Even more disgusting these days are Nike’s “Just Do It” ads that celebrate the achievements of women, children, men and ignore the sweatshop exploitation of Nike workers.
After the list of ideas comes the actual writing lessons. Although I once jumped into “writing introductions” at this point, I don’t anymore. Too often students became enamored with their introduction and then when they tried to write the rest of the paper, they realized that they didn’t have enough evidence to support their dramatic opening. Instead, I next demonstrate the importance of gathering support.
After reading sample essays and identifying the support they used, we take one item from the student-generated list and brainstorm for supporting evidence. One student, for instance, wanted to write about increased violence in the neighborhood. “Give me some examples,” I said. Students talked about recent events — the daytime shooting on a city bus that two students in the class had witnessed, the street corner slaying of a former Jefferson student.
If I stop at this point, “support” becomes little more than a listing and a description, and students don’t move to a more intense scrutiny of the issues; I don’t get them to ask why.
So I will prod them with questions. Yes, there is more violence in the neighborhood and these two events prove that, I will point out. But why is there more violence? How do you account for that? What has happened recently that might contribute to the rise in violence? These are the hard questions, and without pushing them to think more deeply about the “why” questions, their papers end up a recitation rather than an in-depth examination. The easy answers also lead to conclusions that more often than not blame the victim rather than look at the economic or social conditions that have changed the neighborhood in recent years.
After we’ve modeled the process together, I ask them to choose one topic from the board or their paper and list the evidence. As I work with students who ask for help or appear lost, I ask them, “Why? Why are women targets of advertising? Why do more women diet than men? Why do women color or perm their hair more often than men?”
Once individual work is completed, students get in groups of four or five and share their topics and help each other brainstorm evidence. With luck, the group helps them expand their lists and, of course, I hover and push them to probe beneath the surface. For homework, they must find more evidence by talking with other people, looking up newspaper or magazine articles, and calling other sources for more background information. Once this process is completed, we move on to introductions.
Introductions make or break an essay. A poorly written introduction reflects badly on the writer. And an unclear introduction makes it harder to write the essay because the students won’t know what kind of evidence to use to support their position. So we study how good writers begin their essays. I set this up ahead of time by copying introductions from a variety of sources. I show essays beginning with questions, dialogue, quotes, anecdotes, startling research, and I beg them never to begin with a dictionary definition, the quintessential essay cliché.
One of the openings I use comes from an essay my former student, Joe Robertson, wrote during his senior year. In his essay, “Who Framed Rasheed Rabbit,” Joe asks a series of questions to engage his readers:
“Do you remember that cartoon with a mighty black prince who looked like Denzel Washington? Remember? He rescued the lovely black princess who looked like Halle Berry? Remember how the evil white wizard, an Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alike, got chased by an angry mob of bees? Me neither. Perhaps that’s because African Americans aren’t cast as heroes in cartoons.”
From his opening question to his thesis statement, Joe drives home his point that African Americans are rarely portrayed as the main characters in cartoons.
Thao Vy, a graduating senior, opens her essay with conversation, a stage to launch her essay about the clash between Vietnamese immigrant parents and their children raised in the United States:
“How do you expect to find a husband when you don’t know how to cook?” my mom asks me.
“I’ll marry somebody who knows how to cook.”
“Well, if we were back in Vietnam, you would already know how to cook. Over here, you’re so lazy.”
“If you weren’t so busy, maybe you could teach me how to cook. It’s not my fault you don’t have time to show me.”
Conversations comparing what I would be like if our family still lived in Vietnam are common in my house.
Many of my students favor the conversation or anecdotal opening; I do, too. But it’s a tricky lead because sometimes students get so wrapped up in the story that their essay gets lost.
Once I saturate students in essay openings, I ask them to write an introduction to their essay. Volunteers transfer their openings to the board. We go through each one and talk about what the author needs to prove. This multiple exposure to introductions pushes students to use more imaginative openings than: “In this essay I will tell you about … .”
According to a Chinese proverb, “The beginning and the end reach out hands to each other.” Students need to learn how to close their essays as well as open them. We look back at essays we’ve read and talk about the kinds of endings writers use: a summation of the points, a discussion of a potential solution to the issue raised, other questions that need to be answered as well as the original problem. We also look at the full circle conclusion that reaches back to the opening — perhaps Joe Robertson might come back to his original questions and suggest a solution: Why aren’t there cartoon characters who look like Denzel Washington or Halle Berry? Until the media …
I pass out crayons and ask students to color in evidence and transitions in a common essay we’ve read. (See box on page 4.) I want them to see that essay structure varies. Some essays have far more than five paragraphs; some have a thesis statement written out, while others don’t. Writers use all kinds of evidence from personal experience to examples from school, newspapers, movies, and books. Some use research. Later, when they turn in their drafts, students repeat the coloring exercise with their own essay. Again, it helps them spot their holes.
If all of this seems repetitive, it is. I come at essay writing from many different directions — reading, writing, discussing, coloring, working in groups and individually — so that all my students understand. If they were lost when we discussed published essays, maybe they’ll pick up something when they color in evidence and introductions. If they’re not sure how to start, reading other people’s openings might give them a way to enter their essay. If their support is weak, they might learn from coloring support on published essays or from their group work where other students brainstorm evidence. Because students don’t learn the same way or enter my class with the same background knowledge or confidence, I need to teach essay writing rather than assign it.
DEADLINES, REALITY, AND RESPONSE
I set a deadline date for the essays. I do this knowing that not everyone will have theirs completed. And I hear tongues clicking already. “How will they ever survive the ‘real world’ unless they learn to turn their work in on time?” I know. I know. Perhaps in other schools or other teachers’ classrooms everyone comes prepared, typed essay in hand. That’s not been my experience.
I’ve heard teachers, myself included, talk about lazy students who just don’t do their work. And certainly this is true at times. But in recent years I’ve tried to look more deeply at the roots of students’ resistance to essay work. Some have bad experiences writing essays, some have no experience.
I try to “level the playing field.” A few have typed papers ready to read on the due date. Others write drafts that don’t take off, some bring handwritten notes with an introduction and then confusion. Some don’t have a clue. Sometimes, especially early in the year, students get stuck because they are still in the “one draft and then a grade” mode of writing.
I watch students in class. Some draft a line or two, pause, write another line, tear the paper out, crumple it and throw it away. Then they begin the process again and again. They can’t match the essay in their head to the one on paper. These are students I need to work with one-on-one. They need to learn William Stafford’s famous maxim, “Lower your standards and write.”
Others put pen to paper and start. These are the writers who benefit most from my pre-writing work. They are comfortable writing, but use these strategies to move their writing to a higher level.
Some put their head on the desk, defeated before they even start. These are usually students who have experienced too much failure in school. The head on the desk tells other students that they are too bored, too tired, too sick to write the essay; better to not try than to try and fail. (I work with these students during class time, at lunch time, during break, after school or call them at home.) Some students work late, do child care, cook meals for the family, rehearse for the school play, practice or play in a school game, and some don’t do homework. This is life in my school, and I try to know the reality ahead of time.
I start class read-arounds (arranged in a circle, so everyone can see and hear) by getting a few people to volunteer reading their papers. They benefit by getting the entire class’s feedback — verbally and in written form. (See checklist.) The class benefits by hearing how fellow classmates approached the assignment.
Then students who wrote part of their essays but got stuck read their unfinished pieces out loud and get responses. What points are they trying to make? What happened to the essay? How do they get unstuck? Again, this helps other students who can’t see the direction of their essays, as well as students who didn’t “get it.” It is not uncommon for students to push through a blah draft just to “get it done,” then when they hear their classmates’ pieces, they find a new way to enter the essay to make it livelier.
After the read-arounds, we break into small groups or pairs and students read as much as they have completed and get a little help from their friends to push them to their next draft. In this first stage of response/revision, ideally, students discover what’s missing in their piece. That night or after school in the computer lab, some students work on revisions. They add, delete, move, and edit until they feel satisfied with their piece.
Revision is not just editing grammar and spelling. It’s pushing for more evidence, cutting material that erodes or muddles key points, refining the argument. Here’s another chance to engage students in a dialogue. “You write that you are angry about the new anti-immigration laws, but you don’t explain the laws to the reader,” I might say in response to an essay on immigration. “What are the laws? Imagine you are writing to a friend who doesn’t understand the importance of the laws. How will you explain the laws and their effects on immigrants? This is good where you give some examples from people you know, but can you tie it back to the laws? What do people who support the laws say? Can you talk back to their arguments?”
When a student has something actually on paper, I have a better sense of how the student processes information. If the student has completed two drafts, I can see the kinds of changes they knew to make. What did they add or change? What is still missing? Are there holes in their logic? Is there a pattern to their grammar, punctuation errors? I diagnose the problem(s) and consider what the student needs to learn to proceed to the next draft. For some students it might be tightening language or using verbs more effectively. For others, like Rosa who wrote about the anti-immigration laws, it might mean explaining the situation more clearly, countering the opposition’s arguments, reading more on the topic. For others, it might mean starting again because they still don’t have a word on paper. With
Akil, who still didn’t have a draft, I asked, “What makes you mad? You’re never angry? Okay, you don’t like when store clerks follow you. That’s a start. Why does that make you mad? How do you feel when that happens? Why do you think they follow you? Do they follow anyone else?”
This is the most time-consuming part. I not only read each paper, I plan a strategy for each student. I often work individually with students. I don’t mark every error. It would be too overwhelming for the student, but it would also waste my time. How much can a student learn in one draft? What is a reasonable goal? Students need both technical skills of spelling, grammar, and punctuation as well as larger skills of argument and support. But they can’t learn it all at once, so I pick one or two technical skills — periods, capitalization, semicolons, subject/verb agreement — which I teach individually, and I select one or two larger pieces to work on as well. I consider each draft, each new essay, part of a longer and larger learning process.
PUBLICATION: BEYOND SCHOOL WALLS
I find students take their writing more seriously if they have a real audience who may read it. I encourage them to try to publish their work — in small neighborhood or church publications, in the Oregonian, Ms., Teen Voices, Calyx, New Moon, Ebony Men, in our school newspaper or Rites of Passage literary magazine. I also encourage students to think of non-traditional ways to publish. For example one student, Vinai, wrote about how few Asian-American books were in our library and how little teachers and librarians knew about these works. She published a flyer for local libraries which included part of her essay as well as a listing of books by Asian-American writers. Another student, Mary, wrote about girls and body image in a newspaper format. She asked middle school teachers in the area to distribute her “Girls’ Bill of Rights” to young women in their classes.
Like good writing, good teaching is both messy and time consuming. But to sit back at the end of the class period when those final typed drafts are stacked on top of rough drafts, filled with arrows and scribbles and Taco Time napkins, is as much a pleasure as sending out my own polished piece — sometimes more. In my classroom, there are no rejection slips, just tickets to the next draft.