The CCSS Introduction uses the phrase “for any creative and purposeful expression of language” as the simplified end result of developing literacy skills. Writing Anchor Standard 10 at all levels and for content areas says that writing will become part of the routine of learning as students write often, for various amounts of time, and for a range of learning experiences. Imagine then the numerous possibilities for written products that fall within these descriptions. However, I wonder to what extent the “research essay” has taken over the landscape of student writing in our classrooms, especially since the Anchor Standards for Writing include the annotations, “…build knowledge on a subject through research projects…” and “…gathering information, evaluating sources, and citing material accurately, reporting findings from their research.” Additionally, current district assessments and the coming PARCC exam include a “research simulation task.” If education is a forest, then many of the trees certainly can look like a research essay.
However, there is nothing about research (studious gathering of information and perspective) that mandates an essay as the format for expressing acquired understanding. Surely, early grade level teachers do not support our youngest learners in the sometimes painstaking process of forming letters, holding to the lines and margins, practicing conventional spelling and connecting words and phrases together into units of meaning so their developing voice and worldview can be restricted to essay writing? Considering the limitations on the writer’s voice in the research essay format, it should come as no surprise to teachers when students turn in essays that are largely copied and pasted from internet resources or lack thoughtful commentary, elegant turn of phrase, or inspired prose.
Children’s writer Suzanne Williams has offered a list of over 80 different forms that writing can take, an excellent way for students to creatively and purposefully express the results of their research reading. My students have produced recorded podcasts, blog entries, memoirs, interviews and call-response chants as a means to examine information while reaching for deeper levels of understanding about purpose and audience, voice, tone, perspective, and organization. Short, engaging pieces (like a jump-rope chant or eulogy) may enhance the longer, formal essay process because students can further explore their developing understanding of their research and acquire and practice new vocabulary. Entertaining, challenging, and often surprising, these other forms of writing also allow students to live into the diversity of authentic writing that surrounds us.
Besides, primary source documents in History are not a research essay. Shouldn’t students of History learn to read the artifacts of history while also writing in the form and structure of policy statements, newspaper articles, declarations, letters, and speeches? And shouldn’t students of Science learn to read scientific articles while also writing in the form and structure of inquiry, abstracts, data gathering and organization, charts, graphs, diagrams, and polysyllabic terms for scientific phenomena? How many musicians learned to play their instruments by writing a research essay? I realize that the testing culture places a high value on essay; however, if test preparation drives most of our instructional choices, then we’ve lost the promise and purpose of public education and students lose their connection to the more ambitious goals of economic opportunity and civic engagement.
We cannot allow essay writing to become the invasive species of the CCSS, especially since reading comprehension is positively linked to writing, all types of writing: annotations, notes, responses, opinions, lists of steps in a process… Every forest needs its understory, even the metaphorical forest of education.