I’m sitting here at my iPad thinking about the upcoming essay tasks in two of my classes and having real trouble coming up with ideas. It’s not that I think the essay is a bad task. Writing an essay involves critical thinking, expression of ideas, good writing skills, and a variety of other skills, but I wonder if we place too much emphasis on the essay as the ‘ultimate’ assessment task in English class.

I also question the importance of having them write an essay on Shakespearian themes or aspects as it is pretty difficult to come up with an original idea. One search of the web gives you multitudes of possible topics and essays for only a small fee… Which leads me to wonder, are we teaching or encouraging our students to plagiarize? I’m not saying we tell them to go out and find essays on the web and pass them off as original work, but a task like this doesn’t really engage many students so they look for an easy way out, unfortunately.

I feel obligated, however, to give it as a task in my classes, especially at the grade ten level, as it’s something they will encounter in future English classes and I want to do my best to prepare them. I’m a project-based teacher at heart, but I know I have to make sure I give my students the preparation they need to succeed in other classes.

I guess it’s just another one of things that causes me to think.


One thought on “Essays…hmmmm

  1. Hi Jamie,

    Over the years I’ve had similar thoughts about some of the traditional and seemingly outdated structures that we keep hanging on to in our classrooms. On the one hand, the essay is still a valued mode of communication–one that, in many people’s minds, separates the serious student from the poser (!). Yesterday, I spent some time with a friend and colleague who has been given the task of helping his university-aged grandson write his university-level essays. It is clear that there is something lacking–even if it’s a lack of confidence in writing ability–in the schooling story of many of those that head off to the next level.

    In this sense, as long as the essay is “the” accepted form of writing in most university programs, secondary schools will continue to bear some responsibility for proper preparation.

    That said, I don’t think that there is a need for the dry, pedantic forms of instruction in essay writing that you and I endured in our secondary school careers. For me, the key to the well crafted essay is similar to the key to the well-crafted argument. And the well-crafted argument is something that can be applied to many aspects of the current curriculum, in many ways.

    I remember showing my grade eight students the film, “The Debaters”. This actually formed the basis for our study of rhetoric, oration and argument. We spent many sessions on creating convincing spoken arguments before we even put pen to paper.

    I’m thinking that one of the answers to the dilemma that you pose has more to do with creating a powerful context or persuasive argument before spending the needed hours on the “content” of essay writing.

    Looking forward to the conversation on this!

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