By Teachers, For Teachers
Are essays really the only way?
It hits me about once a year that writing literary analysis essays about whether or not Piggy in The Lord of the Flies is a round or flat character, may not be an essential skill to get a young person through life.
What am I doing? Why must I torture Marquis who fell out of his desk last week when I announced the latest writing assignment?
The simple answer: it’s on the test.
To pass the New York State Regents Exam in English Language Arts, students must write four essays over two days, two based on non-fiction and two on literature. If they don’t feel comfortable writing a thesis statement and then proving it in body paragraphs, they are going to struggle.
Why does the state require a standards-based exam built around essay writing?
Another simple answer: you need to write essays in college.
There is little getting around this if you plan to get a bachelor’s degrees at most Arts and Sciences institutions of higher learning. Even if you go into math or the hard sciences, you must know how to write coherent compositions before you get to college.
Then a final question: why do we give such an emphasis on essay writing in universities?
I don’t have a simple answer to this.
I understand that it’s important to be able to present information in a logical and organized way, but why are we so stuck on the essay format?
I know it may sound odd coming from an English teacher, but on that day when it hit me that I was torturing some of my students, I had this thought that it would be pretty wonderful if a school provided students like Marquis opportunities to do the type of work he enjoyed and was good at, a school where he could be great.
He’s an excellent speaker, quite witty, and also an anime artist. However, these don’t hold the same weight as strong writing in my class nor most others. They certainly don’t hold up in the Regents exam.
Regardless, I think if we were engaging students in a way that made more sense to them about material they were interested in, and then allowed them to present their learning through a capacity they are strong (even gifted) in, perhaps they would become more excited about their own learning and therefore more successful.
It is not the simple answer or even the right one – I realize we can’t pander to students who want to prove knowledge acquisition by texting the latest gossip on Bella and Edward (characters from Stephanie Myers’s Twilight series. OMG! I’ve heard ALL about them from my first period girls). On the other hand, perhaps that student is a budding forerunner in the entertainment business on which a decent portion of our economy runs.
For now, it’s on to the next essay until they change the state exam, university practices, and education as we know it.
How do you tap into students talents while still covering required curriculum? Share in the comments section!