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.

Teaching Non-Fiction Genres

I'm a firm believer that the best lessons come at the last possible moment. This is an example of such a thing.

In eighth grade, we're studying non-fiction. Today we were going to take some notes, but I also wanted my students to actually understand the ways these different genres work. However, we've also been doing

a lot

 of serious writing lately, and it's Friday and we needed a break.

We started by taking some notes on the different genres.


Then, students drew a topic out of a hat. Here are the topics I used today: Goldfish, Barbie and/or Ken, flower, computer, airplane, book, superman, paint, iPad, rubber ducky, light switch, Mr. Potato Head, desk, picture frame, television, spoon, pen or pencil, beanbag, car radio, ball, and garbage can.

Students flipped over their notes and wrote their topic in the middle of the rectangle. Then we began the process of three minute quick writes in each of the genre based on their topic. Afterwards, they shared in the table groups, and a few shared to the whole class. They made me laugh out loud. Here are a few of the things they had to write:

Biography Examples: 

"The ball spends its days in the sandbox at school, waiting for kids to pick him up and bounce him around. But one day, while he was sitting out in the sun, a group of kids came running towards him, and one little girl picked him up and ran to the field to play a nice game of kickball with her friends. Then the ball was happy."

"Rubber ducky spends its days sitting in your closet because you forgot about it when you were five."

Autobiography Examples:

My example on a car radio.

"Hello, I'm Ken, a.k.a. Barbie's ex-boyfriend. Yes, I know that we were together for fifty years, but I got tired of of her hunger for stylish people and I left her and now she has a new boyfriend named Nobody and he is a nobody. (Here's a hint, she's single!)"

"Dear Diary, Today some kids swallowed me (paint). I said nope and made him puke out his guts. I hate kids."

Personal Essay Example: 

"People ask me all the time, 'What's it like being a computer?' Really, it's not that interesting. I think, eat, sleep, breathe, and live numbers. So you can imagine that my life must be pretty ordinary. And it is--very routine, I mean. The only fun I have is glitching. Some people like to play pranks like ringing a doorbell and walking away.


 glitch. The silly humans don't even realize it.

Informative Article Example: 

"Breaking news: A hostage situation at the mall in SJ. Bill the pencil is holding Bob the desk and seven pens hostage. He is demanding that pens be not allowed to live in the U.S. and one million dollars. He is armed with an eraser and will start erasing hostages if the police do not meet his demands."

I had fun and so did many of the students. It was a good way to end the week!