Tag Archives: Essay

Why Kids Write Boring Essays (it’s not the reason you think)

14 Mar

English: A bored person

Have you ever sat down and said to yourself, “You know what I’d like to do right now? Sit down with a nice, thick stack of five-paragraph essays written by local sixth graders. What a fabulous way to spend an afternoon that would be!”

If you’re like most people, then the answer to that question is an emphatic no. Five-paragraph essays, particularly ones by kids, are notoriously dull and poorly written, right? Don’t kids hate writing? Shouldn’t we be proud to squeeze five reasonably organized paragraphs out of them?

Not at all! I love reading my kids’ essays and, in fact, have been known to spend a cozy afternoon or two re-reading them.

The real reason that kids write boring essays is so simple it hurts: kids write boring essays because they think that essays are supposed to be boring. They are shown boring examples and given boring topics. Kids are asked to choose theses, but never to pick a topic that makes them angry, or to write about an opinion that all their friends disagree with. No one tells them that it is okay to make jokes in an essay, or to use interesting extended metaphors.

If my kids are writing something boring, I make them stop and start over again until they have a thesis that gets them excited. I’ve had a lot of success teaching essay-writing via satire; I’ve had kids write essays with titles like “Why Boys Should Wear as Much Makeup as Girls” and “Why You Should Wear a Helmet in the Hood”–and they are a fabulous read. For the lesson plan and example essays, you can order a copy of the Deep curriculum here.

How do you get your kids to write interesting essays? I’d love to hear your ideas!

The Biggest Secret Your Students Keep From You

2 Mar
Grafitti

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Here at Deep, we recently surveyed several dozen high school English teachers to see what their biggest teaching challenges were and how Deep could help them out. We expected to hear complaints about large class sizes, poor writing skills, and not enough planning time, but the response was surprising and specific:

The biggest problem, teachers said, is that the kids just hate writing.

To which my response is, No! They love writing. They just keep you in the dark about it.

Think about it: they love writing text messages, they love scribbling raps on the backs of worksheets, they love Facebook comments and tweets. They love passing notes furtively under the table. They love scrawling their names in Sharpie on bathroom walls. They love carving stories into their arms and chests as tattoos.

Students love writing. They just love a different kind of writing.

Here are some of the differences between the writing that they love and the writing that they are asked to do in class, with some suggestions for how to bridge the gap and get your students excited about completing your assignments:

1. Ownership.

If you were going to buy a new car, would you rather buy the car that you picked for yourself, or the car that your weird third cousin picked out for you?

Similarly, students prefer writing when they can pick their own topics, rather than topics that a textbook or a principal chooses for them.

Try assigning free writes or journal time. If students know that the writing is theirs, not yours, they’ll be more likely to open up and get comfortable with putting words on paper.

While it is important to eventually teach students to write on specific assigned topics, see if you can give them a little leeway in how they write about those topics—can they write a poem about their interpretation of a story, rather than an essay? Can they write a monologue from the point of view of a character? Can they write an essay that connects their own life experiences to the topic at hand?

2. Technology.

Cell phones today are like an extension of your students’ brains. Working without technology can feel crippling to some students. (Besides, every project feels “cooler” when you have some expensive equipment attached to it.)

What if you let your students tweet discussion questions, or write poems on an iPad? Can they make an audio recording of their poem? What about a video essay?

3. Audience.

It’s a lot more fun, and a lot less intimidating, to write for your peers than for a teacher. Click here for some more ideas on this topic.

Who Are Your Students Writing For? (And Why It Matters)

24 Feb

I took a graduate class this last summer with a professor who annoyed the heck out of

Testtakingstudent

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me. He was a nice enough guy, and he was extremely knowledgeable, but he had a habit of assigning what struck me as exceedingly dull, restrictive essay topics—short, bland “compare-and-contrast” assignments, mostly.

I voiced my desire to write longer, more complex papers on broader topics, on the grounds that no one in their right mind would actually want to read a five-page paper detailing the different uses of the word “furious” in two Faulkner short stories, but he shot me down. He made it clear that it didn’t matter if my essays appealed to a wider audience; he was the only person who was going to read them anyway.

This didn’t exactly inspire me.

I started to wonder: why is it that we expect our students to be excited about slaving over an essay for an audience of exactly one curmudgeonly old teacher?

The fact is, who your students are writing for is just as important as what they are writing about. The Journal of Writing Research recently published an article about peer editing that showed that students who knew they would share their work with a peer editor wrote higher quality first drafts and also revised more thoroughly than students who were writing for a TA or a professor. If you’re having a hard time getting your students to write for you, then why not try getting them to write for each other? Or—better yet—publish their work for the whole school? Reading aloud or publishing an anthology of student writing can work wonders for motivation.

A 1-Hour Assignment that Stops Kids From Failing?

12 Feb

Yep, you read right: there is a 1-hour writing assignment that will make your students significantly less likely to fail out of school. In fact, there’s a writing assignment that can do just about anything. We’ll get to more of them in the next few months.

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The Assignment

Take one class period and ask your students to write about a value they hold, such as honesty or loyalty, or even just good friendships. This incredibly simple exercise can change the course of their lives. Researcher Gregory Walton has done some fascinating work in this area. Check out what the LA Times has to say about it:

“Simply writing an essay about a personally important value, like relationships with good friends, seems to have changed attitudes toward school and, consequently, how well the essay writers did in a particular course. Only 3% failed the course for which they wrote the essay, compared with 11% of the control group. That’s critical because data show that students who fail classes in middle school are prime candidates to drop out before graduating.”

But why does it work?

Who knows? My guess is that by asking students to think about and affirm their values, we send them the implicit message that their values are, indeed, valuable, and that they should spend time thinking about and acting in accordance with those values. Writing down an idea is a hugely powerful affirmation of that idea, and when students affirm their personal values, it boosts their confidence and gives them agency. When students feel as though they are the masters of their own fate, they are probably a lot more likely to make good decisions.