What is an Essay? Learning from Writing Mentors

Posted on September 6, 2017 by Krista Morrison
writing essay

“Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard."

David McCullough

As English language arts teachers, we want our students’ writing to be clear and understandable. We want their ideas to be convincing and logical. We want them to use thoughtful and legitimate support, and even be emotionally appealing. We want flair and appropriate sentence structure? We want correct use of grammar.

Considering all of this, are we asking our students to climb, or even move mountains?

Because we know how hard it is to climb the writing mountain, we often resort to scaffolds that we think help students make this daunting climb.

We provide structures and frameworks, and teach students how to write five-paragraph essays. While these structures may help students organize their writing, we soon come to realize how limiting these frameworks can be. As soon as we’ve read 80 - 180 of the same essays, our eyes and brains glaze over. We end up reading the same idea, that includes the same evidence, and employs the same structure over, and over, and over. In fact, the essay has become more about its structure and less about the thinking involved.

So, is that really an essay?

What is an essay? How many variations of the essay are there? Do essays have a set structure? – or is that just a construct we have made for students because it allows them to “plug and play” their ideas. I get why we, as teachers, are always trying to simplify the complex. We try to apprentice to writing by providing structure? —but writing isn’t all about structure. Writing is about thinking. As David McCullough said, “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard." Writing is hard. Thinking is messy. Let’s support students’ writing by helping them to understand that it’s ok to struggle to get thoughts on paper.

So, back to an earlier question. What is an essay?

I guess the only way to figure that out is to read them…and read more of them. We can learn from the experts—the writers. We can discuss them with each other. We can observe authors’ moves, their structures, their ideas. We can emulate these as well.

At the Institute for Learning, Learning as Apprenticeship is one of our key Principles of Learning:

"For many centuries, most people learned by working alongside an expert who modeled skilled practice and guided novices as they created authentic products or performances for interested and critical audiences. This kind of apprenticeship allowed learners to acquire complex interdisciplinary knowledge, practical abilities, and appropriate forms of social behavior. Much of the power of apprenticeship learning can be brought into schooling by organizing learning environments so that complex thinking is modeled and analyzed, and by providing mentoring and coaching as students undertake extended projects and develop presentations of finished work, both in and beyond the classroom"

How do we apprentice students to the form of writing called “the essay”?

First of all, we can look to the original mentors—the writer’s themselves.

Then, in order to become mentors ourselves, we also need to develop our own writing repertoire, and understand the moves that essay writers use so that we can use them flexibly, and in turn, teach our students to use them flexibly.

Join us at the Institute for Learning for our Fall Writing Institute: Building a Writing Repertoire, as we delve into the following questions: