TOCC: Has your student ever said, “I want to be an essayist”?

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.   

19 Responses to “TOCC: Has your student ever said, “I want to be an essayist”?”

  1. Susan S. says:

    To be fair, I have several books of essays by C.S. Lewis, John Steinbeck, and Umberto Eco as well as shelves of non-fiction, research-based books in my personal library. At some point these authors would have had to refine their voice as essayists and writers of informational text. However, I also believe that absent some innate writing talent, young students need the experience of exploration with language that comes from playing with different voices, formats, and content-based vocabulary. We don’t need to rush students into research essay writing, especially since many already struggle to make sense of their research information and they have little brain space left over for developing their own commentary and perspective, their own voice in the matter.

  2. Black Sheep says:

    This is a beautifully written piece that shows just how powerful good writing is–you set a great example to all of us. Keep spreading the word!
    It would be nice to see a new sense of freedom in educational instruction, but I wonder if it is possible given our present evaluation system. If we are going to save public schools, teachers need to be allowed to try new things without fear that it doesn’t look like what we’re used to. I fault the evaluation system for placing pressure on teachers to conform to a one-size-fits-all idea of teaching. Knowing that our butt is on the line it’s easy to fall back on the lowest common denominator instead of trying something that might not work the first time, or would stretch the boundaries of expectations.
    Also, thanks for the link to a gold mine of ideas for writing.

    • Susan S. says:

      “…try new things without fear…” I want to highlight this concept because it echoes my sentiment that teachers are our students’ first, best examples of “college and career readiness.” Teachers who bring inquiry, exploration, and risk-taking into their instruction also model important, 21st century career and problem-solving skills for their students.

  3. Loyola says:

    I agree that teacher’s should expose their students to all types of writing as part of the CCSS. As a first grade teacher, I have learned through my experience that it helps children to find their ‘voice’ as writers by reading aloud to them may types of books- fiction and informational- which the CCSS also emphasizes. In my classroom, there are many times that we examine books as writers. By looking closely at authors’ style & purpose, students are able to implement the strategies they read into their own writing. I have also found that it is important to plan lessons where students can work in small groups or with partners to become stronger writers. It is critical that children are expected to write EVERY day for a variety of purposed in order to become fluent.

    • Susan S. says:

      I agree, Loyola, that students need to write every day as a habit of learning from reading. Lists, notes, definitions, diagrams, summaries… Writing to sources helps a person grow in their knowledge and control over a subject, and knowledge is king when it comes to performance tasks.

  4. Sondra L says:

    I love the list of all the different forms that writing can take. As a middle school teacher, I have the hard sell of making class work relevant to my students. Very few adults search out an essay to read every day. But we read news articles, watch short videos, and even make our own literary contributions in the form of texts and emails. Now more than ever we communicate in media that is not “edited” in any traditional way and we become narrators of our own stories.
    So why not embrace that with our students? If the formal essay is the classical form, then blogs, videos, journalism, tweets, memes, texts, and Facebook incorporate all the different instruments and rhythms in the world of expression. They are all different genres that have their own history and their own strengths. Shouldn’t we make it our job to teach students about all these different forms of expression?
    Our students are already consumers of this media and we do them a disservice to leave it out of the classroom. Don’t they deserve a chance to tell their stories in a way most relevant to themselves? We can pretend that the essay form is the only way of writing. Or we can help our students see that the form and structure of a 140 character tweet can be just powerful in its own way.

    • tocc team says:

      I’m interested in creating videos as a demonstration of knowledge. So far, I’ve used my document camera to capture “slides” of information and commentary about irony, but the final products needed editing. I would be interested in some PD specifically related to use of Windows Moviemaker to produce student video. Hello….ATF? Anyone want to bite on that as a future PD session?

  5. Miriam says:

    As an Early Childhood teacher I use Journaling the most. I use interactive journals with my students. Journaling has a way of “smoothing out” the edges of your life.
    At least that is how I have used it all my life and what I try to promote with the children.
    A short, well written article can be found on the Colorin Colorado website.
    It delineates some of the current thinking or “must do”s with regard to writing with ELLs.

  6. Brian Alexander says:

    The strategies that are mentioned by Williams are a great avenue to expand on writing in the classroom, there were several that I will be incorporating in my classroom.

    • tocc team says:

      Rubistar is a good resource for developing the scoring rubrics for other demonstrations of knowledge.

      Another way to develop a scoring rubric is to study a set of models with students and then ask them to decide on a list of traits describing “a good one.”

  7. Sara w says:

    When I was in middle school I would ride the bus in the morning and write essays in my imagination. I always just wanted to just be given a topic and write an essay every day. My wish never came true. For a kid like me with tolerable literacy skills and a good imagination essay writing is a snap. More challenging is to have to back up my ideas with “text” and facts. It is a fine thing to be able to express your ideas and play with them; however we need also to work on more rigorous types of writing too. Using original sources, organizing your reasoning and showing your logic, these are more challenging than just telling a story or an opinion. Most of my students can tell me WHAT they thank but not why they think that. In working with the CCSS I have found many more opportunities to challenge my student to support and demonstrate the steps of their logic. It is a slower process tracing the steps of our thinking but it helps us to understand ourselves as well as others, not to mention making better writers. I still enjoy a good essay, but I would rather my students learn to show how their thinking works and demonstrate a facile use of many literacy skills.

    • tocc team says:

      “…we need also to work on more rigorous types of writing, too.” I agree, especially as we also expect our students to read more complex text. What balance of essay to other demonstrations would you recommend?

  8. Leila says:

    I do not think most educators realize they are brain surgeons in addition to the many other roles we fulfill. Yes, brain surgeons. Attempting to change a mindset, as we are trying to do with written language, entails the implementation of deliberate and precise procedures. This, to me, constitutes brain surgery.

    I have always wanted my special education students to not only write more, but to use their writing as a way to make it through each day. My challenge is to choose strategies my extremely reluctant writers will see as beneficial to his or her specific circumstances. I experiment with combinations of low and high tech strategies. I now have an even longer list of ideas thanks to the link Susan shared. (Thanks, Susan!)

    Unfortunately, one school of thought is the essay as the only way and any other form of written language is unorthodox. As mentioned in previous entries, educators have social media options to promote writing, but the publishers of high-stakes tests do not agree with this second school of thought. At this point, educators have to be the surgeons who merge these schools of thought and influence our schools to be more writer-friendly.

    And when non-educators say our jobs are not brain surgery, we will have to insist otherwise.

  9. Tanya says:

    Firstly, I would like to say that this is a great and significant topic concerning the CCSS. I am constantly having discussions with content area teachers at the secondary level about how to implement writing into their classes. They seem to all think that essays are the only type of writing. Typically, it takes discussions with them about their content, but typically we find ways to integrate relevant writing into their classes. One of the first things I ask them is, “How do you know your students are learning if you haven’t asked each of them?” Of course we cannot ask every student to verbally tell us during class time everything they have learned. However, we can ask every student to write something every day so we can check for understanding and mastery. The bottom line: kids have to write every day. Many people have mentioned journaling and that is one way I make my ninth and twelfth grade English students write every day. I obviously also do more traditional essay and research writing. My seniors have to be able to integrate sources in their own words when they go to college, so I still hit the traditional rigorous writing forms. I have also been trying to include more real-life writing tasks over the past few years. We have been looking at writing documents and texts that they will have to compose in real life, but I keep them connected to our units. For example, while reading Romeo abd Juliet, we practice writing death and marriage certificates, as well as obituaries.
    Writing is a safe way to give students time to think before we call them out and force them to speak their minds in front of us and their peers. I always ask my students to write before is ask them to speak. I think this is a good, safe way to engage all students and also minke them feel more confident.
    My last piece of writing advice is to write like a reader and read like a writer. Students do not simply know how to write. They need to reade exemplars and study a genre by reading it, analyzing it and then they can attempt to write in that genre. This goes for any subject.
    In an age of technology and texting phrases, writing is becoming a lost art. Hopefully the emphasis placed on writing in the CCSS can help teachers resurrect the art of the written word in our students.

  10. CW says:

    I’ve never been much of a rule follower. Wait! I can’t even finish that thought without entering into a deep philosophical reflection about myself over the huge paradoxical statement I just made. I digress. I am very much a formalist. This would probably explain why I embrace the opportunity to teach formal writing and shared research and writing projects in kindergarten! Heck, I shiver with excitement at the very thought! Now before everyone starts gasping and clutching at their chests, or at the very least picking up their pitchforks and lighting torches, let me reiterate that, although I am a formalist, I think for myself and choose what rules to follow.

    Formalist or not, I am still a teacher. So when it comes to teaching writing, I teach writing! Is there just one right way to teach writing? (Do I need to mention that was rhetorical?) We know what we need to do and what we need to do is EVERYTHING for EVERYONE! So what does that mean for our developing writers? If we refer to what we were taught (through research), we would see very clearly defined developmental stages of writing. (Check out this site to learn how play dough can help children be better writers: But what do we do when one of our students is stuck in the pre-literate directional scribbling stage? Do we move into research writing because it’s in our standards? Nope. Not for that student. That student is learning how to write at his/her own pace and we need to be there to scaffold their learning. And that’s what we do because we are teachers.

    I, too, wonder to what extent the “research essay” has taken over the landscape of student writing in our classrooms? Are we really restricted to essay writing, or is this an “emphasis” for our teaching? And if education is a forest, then many of the trees from our fertile landscaped soil have been used to make the very paper that will/should be used to record “creative and purposeful expression of writing” and, you got it, essays. Realistically, if education is a forest, and my forest at that, I will not be planting only one type of seed. I will be planting a multitude of diverse seeds that would make for a well-balanced assemblage of forest organisms. Embracing Sondra’s thought, my ecosystem would include herbs (tweets), shrubs (blogs), bacteria (Facebook), fungi (tweets), animals (videos), and trees (narration, persuasive, description, definition, cause/effect, etc…essays); a whole lot of trees!!! And when the forest gets too thick and we can’t see the forest for the trees, then it’s time to cut some down and reseed.

    Reseed, I say! Reseed!


  11. John B. Simms says:

    The “search” in research must begin with us questioning ourselves as professionals. Are we teachers even relevant today? Many kids feel we’re not. Oftentimes, I think they’re right.

    Let’s face it: We have to be more compelling than drugs, sex, and the Internet. And can we truly say this is the case? Many of us talk endlessly in circles and wonder why we’re dizzy at the end of the day. Our professional conversations revolve around the latest program or textbook or curriculum map or Secretary Designate. We keep discussing how to best implement programs when we should be talking about how to best implement citizens. So I ask, with all seriousness:

    Do we teach programs or young women and men?

    Who do we teach for? Who do we teach against?
    What are we teaching for? What are we teaching against?

    Until we answer these questions, until those answers lead to action, I fear we will continue to be seen as ineffective to the public we serve.

  12. AM says:

    Just like with every other thing, variety is the spice of life. I do think there is a place for the rigorous research essay but as a primary teacher I believe we have to first teach our children to love writing and that is usually best done with imagination involved!

  13. LOVEJD says:

    As a second grade teacher, I have done research projects with my students and they have enjoyed the process. It is a time consuming project and the students need a lot of guidance on how to do research. The topic of the research has to be of interest to the students for them to get anything out of this type of project. However I also feel that all students need opportunities to write creatively and use their imaginations!

  14. teach4 says:

    Research is so important but so very difficult for students to accomplish well. One of the most important aspect of a research project is finding topics of interests.

    Research needs to be done at the level of the student. Most writing on the internet is too complex for the students to comprehend so finding books at the student’s reading level is key for a more successful turnout.

    It is also important for the teacher to monitor the process closely because often times the students don’t get the right information and/or not enough information to write a decent research paper.

    The students also need to think about the audience when they are writing their research so that they can see that its more than just an assignment. The research should be interesting to the reader. Students need to keep in mind the purpose of the research – are they trying to entertain, persuade, or just inform?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>