An Essay's Secret Ingredient

Ever since I read Daniel Pink's Drive, I've stopped assigning essay prompts and have instead let my students choose what they want to write about. They have to write the same type of essay and usually this means they're writing about a specific novel, but they can explore any topic within it, as long as it focuses on analysis and not summary. I love it because it means I'm not reading 20, 40, or 60 essays all on the exact same thing. There's variety, and the students generally do a much better job because they're writing about something they care about (at least a little).

However, each year my school, along with the other small schools in California in our private accreditation organization, join together to host a "Fine Arts Festival." It's a big deal. Students practice their musical pieces for months, hoping to claim a spot. And there's writing and speaking categories. Each year I make all of my students write an essay that I can consider submitting as their writing assignment for our non-fiction unit. But here's the catch: they have to choose from one of four prompts.

And I'll be honest, the whole thing just stresses me out. It's a lot of grading/organizing/planning, with what seems to me as little reward. But I have my students do this essay portion because it's good for them to write about something not related to a novel. And usually the prompts combine popular culture and faith, and those are two things that I think need to be explored together a little more often.

But this year, the prompts didn't hit me right. They seemed shallow and were covered in grammatical errors. So, being the rule-hater that I am, I let my students write their own prompts if the ones suggested were of no interest to them.

I just finished grading two of three classes, and I'm amazed at the results thus far. My more talented writers followed the prompts. And their essays, while they followed the proper structure and answered the prompts, were uninspiring. Although they "make the grade," they don't feel like something I want to submit in a competition.

However, some essays have left me inspired. Many of these inspirational essays were written by those who struggle with writing more than their peers. There's one underlying element in those inspiring essays: personal passion. Not only did they care about their topic, but they had some personal connection to it. That's what makes successful writers. And sometimes, that doesn't fit within a prompt.

And so I'm stuck at a crossroads: Do I submit an amazing essay that doesn't fit within the boundaries of the prompts? Or do I submit something that fits neatly within the box but doesn't want me to change my life in some way?

And then I consider the bigger picture. How do I prepare students for the high school admissions test or the SAT, which have specific prompts for them to write about when all I want to do is give them creative freedom? How do I make students love writing if I'm boxing them in to a specific idea? How do I protect my sanity in reading stacks of essays that students cared little about writing?

Honestly, I don't know the answer. But this is what I do know: my students inspire me too much for me to put them in a box. I can't wait to read what else they write when they can bring in their personal passions.