When I was in middle school my family hitched a pop-up camper to our van and road-tripped to Gettysburg, New York City, and Boston. During that trip, I collected everything from photographs to fallen leaves, from ticket stubs to fragments of seashells. Later that same summer, I compiled a vacation scrapbook. On its pages I fastened the treasures I had found. I took the pieces of our trip and arranged them anew. I wrote my reflections on what we had seen and what I had learned.
Like a scrapbook, a student essay requires the writer to explore and collect. More precisely, both mediums require the creator to notice pieces of that “text”—whether it is a day spent walking on the Long Island Sound or a novel like The Great Gatsby—and to examine them with attention and reverence. Writers are capable of powerful, original thoughts—but it must always start with paying attention.
In Jeannette Zwerneman and Mary Frances Loughran’s two-day workshop, Writing Well, Thinking Clearly, we discussed how the goal of essay is help students think and observe with depth and originality.
Zwerneman and Loughran gave a number of practical tips on how to help students practice the art of attention while writing. Here are a few that stood out to me:
- Many strong prompts arise from parts of the text you have begun to examine in the seminars with your students. This will spark enthusiasm in the students and lead to deeper essays that are based on parts of the text students may already desire to contemplate. Don’t be overly-committed to aligning your prompts with your teacher teammates.
- Pause in the middle of a book and assign students write a shorter, in-class essay focusing on one or two chapters of a novel. For instance, students could compare or contrast the two proposal scenes in chapters nineteen and thirty-four of Pride and Prejudice. This kind of focused exercise pushes writers to pay closer attention to the text at hand.
- With younger students in particular, don’t fret if the essay is “summary-heavy” and “analysis-light.” So long as the plot summaries are specific, deep, and connected to the thesis statement, the student is practicing the art of close reading, which is the first steppingstone on the way to deep analysis.
- Advise students to avoid long and excessive direct quotations. While this may appear to be “close reading,” it is often a lazy way of upping word count without actually practicing writing good sentences about the excerpt.
- When coaching individual students on writing, give them short, direct, practical advice that will direct their eyes back to the book at hand.
- Instead of “peer review time,” practice workshopping an essay as a class. This will better equip them to practice tried-and-true proofreading habits instead of merely taking each other’s advice. Choose an essay that has both strengths and weaknesses, and always ask the permission of the writer first so she does not feel surprised or humiliated. During the workshop, have the text open in front of the students as well as the essay about the text. Then model asking probing questions about how the writing can more thoroughly address the text itself.
- Finally, write your essay feedback in complete sentences. Be specific, concrete, and creative. Don’t be tied to a rubric. Instead, be as personal as possible and figure out what advice will help them to better think and write in the future.
In the words of Andrew Pudewa, “good writers are collectors.” We should first encourage our students to walk slowly through the novels they read, to pause and pick up the shining and small things they find on the ground along the way. Once they fill their pockets with the beauty that is already there, they are more equipped to respond.
Betsy K. Brown teaches and chairs the humanities program at Cicero Preparatory Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona. A graduate of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing program, with a focus on creative nonfiction, Betsy loves to share the goodness of words and stories with young people amid the beauty of the American Southwest.