Why the Essay?

Boolean Squared by Kevin Hodgson

So I’ve decided to declare war upon the 5 paragraph essay–which is perhaps bad timing, given the fact that I’m about to head out to a school where some 7/8 teachers are doing teacher moderation of 5 paragraph essays. Nonetheless, war has been declared and alliances have been formed and well, it’s just hard to stop that ball once it gets rolling. Just ask that poor Serbian nationalist who assassinated the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand.

Why have I decided this call to arms is necessary? Please read the following manifesto:

Like a virus, the five-paragraph essay infects almost every student, starting as young as grade 4 with some students and continuing each subsequent year until grade 12, and then if the student has survived the virus, sometimes college and university. 

Why do we hold this writing form aloft as the pinnacle of academic achievement?

It’s formulaic, repetitive, restrictive, and forces students to purport themselves as experts on a topic they can hardly be experts on.

It doesn’t allow for creativity, questioning, divergent thinking, or personal voice (“Never use ‘I’ in an essay!!”). Is that really the kind of thinking we want to encourage among our students who will be one day venturing out into a future we can’t even begin to imagine?

I am all for encouraging students to explore ideas and support those ideas with evidence, but why oh why does that have to be done in an essay? Or at least this kind of essay.

Because it’s in the curriculum expectations you say?

Where? Show me. I dare you.

The essay does not appear as an example in the Ontario language curriculum document until grade 9 Academic English. And even then, it doesn’t say “By the end of this course all students will write an essay.” It says “By the end of this course students will identify the topic, purpose, and audience for several different types of writing tasks (e.g., … an expository essay explaining a character’s development in a short story or novel for the teacher)” That doesn’t actually say that the student needs to write the essay, just identify the topic, purpose, and audience for the essay.

Some may argue that the essay should still be taught because it is an important skill that they will need in later grades or in college or university. I’d argue that essay writing itself is not a skill. Critical thinking? Paragraph construction? Supporting ideas with proof? Elaborating? Brainstorming? Making connections? Yes. All skills. And they are all necessary to write a cohesive essay. I argue that these are the things we should focus on. Not the essay. These skills are all necessary for a variety of types of writing.

So, comrades, please take up the banner and join me in my fight to find more engaging and creative writing tasks for our students. Do not submit to the facist authority of the almighty essay.

And while you’re at it, here’s some supplemental reading:

Three reasons why the five-paragraph theme is a bad thing

Alternatives to the Five-Paragraph Essay


Assessment and Evaluation Blues

Feeling angsty about this topic. Decided to blog it out.

For a recap of the situation that has given birth to my angst, read my previous post.

I understand current theory about assessment and evaluation. I’ve read Wiggins and Stiggins and McTighe and Cooper. I’ve written and spoken–with great certainty–about designing backwards, “not rehearsing it if it’s not in the play”, and assessment for learning vs. evaluation of learning. So why is it that when I sit down to put together a sample summative assessment task for grade 10 applied English (a course that I’ve taught a number of times) I get stuck? It’s driving me crazy.

In an attempt to figure out why I’m stuck, I’m going to be metacognitive (and slightly schizophrenic) here and outline my process and then try to figure out where I’m going wrong.

I pulled out the curriculum expectations and studied them to try to get a sense of what the big ideas are in the course. Ah, well here’s the problem with that: There are too many expectations! I know that, which is why you have to use your professional judgement to decide what those big ideas are. Right. And how did that work for you?

Not very well. They’re all very vague (which should be a good thing because it allows for more professional judgement) but it makes it pretty hard to pull out a big idea. For example, here are the overall expectations for the Oral Communication strand:

1. Listening to Understand: listen in order to understand and respond appropriately in a variety of
situations for a variety of purposes;
2. Speaking to Communicate: use speaking skills and strategies appropriately to communicate
with different audiences for a variety of purposes;
3. Reflecting on Skills and Strategies: reflect on and identify their strengths as listeners and speakers,
areas for improvement, and the strategies they found most helpful in oral communication situations.

What do I do with that?

Well here’s what I did with that: I tried to figure out what how you could create an essential question for each of the strands, but before I could do that, I started to think, “Hey, if it’s an essential question, shouldn’t it cross strands?”

So I looked at the other strands too and came up with something like: What rights and responsibilities do we have as both consumers and creators of information?

I was quite pleased with that question. Then I started to think, how is this an essential question for 2P English? Isn’t it an essential question for all English courses? That was a little paralyzing, so I tried to move forward and thought, what does it look like to use that question to guide the curriculum planning?

Well, quite frankly, it’s not a very engaging question. It puts a very preachy spin on everything, and when you go back to look at the criteria for an essential understanding, I’m not sure I could say that it IS essential for a 2P student to understand that they have rights and responsibilities as consumers and creators of information.

When I went back and looked at what the 2P English teachers thought were essential for their students the list included: being able to support opinions with facts, write a proper paragraph, cite their sources properly, etc.. First of all, those are all writing expectations and writing is only one of the strands in English. Second, they’re all skills. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what we want from our students?

English isn’t just about skills! That came as a bit of a revelation to me after spending that last 9 months looking at literacy skills. I have a slight case of tunnel vision. If we reduce English to a skills course, we suck the soul out of our discipline. Why do people read? Why do they write? Why do they speak? Why do they create? It isn’t just to develop skills. It’s about power and personal expression and a desire to make and see connections.

But how do I justify that as an essential understanding? By the end of this course, it is essential for students to understand that communication is what makes us human. That’s a pretty heavy cross to bear. Yikes!

What I’m stuck with now though, is the summative task for 2P English. What do I want the students to understand and be able to do and what will the evidence be? I have mindmaps and half-completed charts with coded expectations and big questions covering my desk and I’m no further ahead. Why is this so hard?

Sigh. If you’ve got this figured out, please tell me.


Working on creating a culminating task for grade 10 applied English with some other teachers. This is my contribution.

The thought is that the final exam will assess the reading expectations, and the culminating task will assess the oral, writing, and media expectations. I’m trying to work on a designing down model of looking at what we want the students to be able to know, understand and be able to do by the end of the course. Right now, I’m kind of getting hung up on the rubric. I know what the expectations are that I want to address, just not sure how to align that with the achievement chart.

I would LOVE it if you would have a peek at what I’ve done so far and invite you to offer feedback or make changes. I really want this task to be engaging (which I don’t think it is at the moment), attainable for students, and aligned with the curriculum expectations. Thanks in advance to anyone willing to help.

You can click here to view it and comment on voice thread.

Getting Off the Comfy Couch

I’ve been thinking about the “comfort zone.” I regularly hear teachers say (and I admit I’ve probably said all these things), “I love teaching that unit” or “I couldn’t give up teaching that novel. I love it!” or “I don’t want to teach that because I’m not comfortable with it.” I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with loving the content you are teaching or the strategy by which you teach it, but at what point should we step outside our comfort zones and ask ourselves, “But what are the kids getting out of it?”

Just because we love something, doesn’t mean our students will or that it’s necessary for them to love it in order to be successful.

That being said, many of my interests were shaped by the interests and passions of my teachers. Would I have fallen in love with the writing of Margaret Atwood were it not for Mrs. Harvey? Would I have found Jungian psychology remotely interesting were it not for Mr. Williams? Would I have developed such a viceral dislike for Ken Danby were it not for Mr. Hammel? Maybe. Maybe not. I was quite the people pleaser as a student. I dove into subjects and topics that my teachers showed an interest in because I wanted them to take interest in me The by-product was that I studied hard and asked a lot of questions. Maybe not the best example of intrinsic motivation, but it worked for me.

The thing is, most of the students we teach are not like us. One of the reasons we are teachers is because we were pretty successful at the game of school. I think sometimes we forget that. We get frustrated when our students aren’t like us. But why should they be like us?

Okay, okay, so my point: Every day we expect students to do things that they don’t love or find comfortable or even relevant, because we think these things are important. We accept the idea that it takes time for a student to master a new skill, and that a student might not find something interesting, but it’s still important for them to understand that thing (I should mention I’m not talking about the curriculum expectations here, but they way we approach those expectations. Nowhere in the Ontario secondary English curriculum document is the study of Hamlet mandated. Even though I love it.).

How often do we ask the same of ourselves?

Why should we only teach things that we find comfortable and familiar? Why should my love of A Streetcar Named Desire earn the play a place on my syllabus? I think you can make a case for saying that if a teacher is truly passionate about a certain piece of text or a certain topic, he or she might do a better job teaching with it. I just don’t think that personal taste should be the only deciding factor when it comes to choices about teaching.

More importantly, I think we should step outside our comfort zones every once in a while and ask ourselves, “Do the kids find this as engaging as I do?” and if the answer is no, “Is there another way that I could meet this curriculum expectation that the kids would find engaging?”

And why not think about letting our students teach us something for a change? After all, we’re in this for them aren’t we?

Photo credit: emdot