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We think the essay form is still the best way for students to think hard on the page -- but we are not fans of formulae.Instead, we’re in favor of inquiry-based learning, evidence-rich analysis and process work.
The piece generated a lot of reaction, much of it focused on the question of what an essay should be.
Some writers argued for the five-paragraph essay or other formulaic models, on the grounds that clear expectations at least give underprepared students something to work with.
In other words, we believe in asking students to write the kinds of essays we write ourselves -- and in giving students the tools to do that. In fact, to do it on a large scale may require wholesale rethinking of academic structures.
But since virtually everyone agrees that there is a crisis in how we teach writing, it’s clear such rethinking is desperately needed.
That process is inquiry based and student directed -- it requires a student to look for a tension in the text, something strange or interesting that she doesn’t yet comprehend, and to ask questions about it.
That means she must begin by admitting, “I don’t understand” -- a daunting and difficult prospect.The student may move from the text to questions to freewriting or brainstorming to drafting, then go back to the text and so on, deepening her analysis by asking questions.She may use a range of visually rich, active-learning methods to generate ideas, get her thoughts in order and fill gaps.She may even go a step farther, thinking about ways in which the new idea tells her something about the world into and out of which the text is created.In any case, the essay ends somewhere different from where it began.Others advocated replacing the essay with more “real-world” forms that would force students to think in fresh ways.Although all of those arguments have merit, our own thinking on the subject is both more old-fashioned and more radical.And essays don’t emerge, fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s head.No student (no writer, really) can create such an essay in one draft.We’re asking students to give up certainties and formulae, to dive into the unknown.We’re taking away the safety of falling back on generalizations, personal experience and conventional wisdom.