Essaying forward, inspired by Katherine Bomer

Every once in a very great while, a book comes along which just blows the doors of my teaching life wide open to let in energy, inspiration, and excitement – all essential to my teaching life, especially now, when I have been at it for a very long time and feel the need for jolts of energy, inspiration, and excitement.  That book is Katherine Bomer’s The Journey is Everything: Teaching Essays That Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them.  Ever since I first read it last Spring, I knew that I needed to bring essay (or, rather, Katherine Bomer’s vision of essay) into my sixth grade classroom:

…essays that help them think in reflective,open-minded ways, to stir their emotions, teach them about life, and move them to want to change the world.


We’ve been sowing seeds for future essays ever since school began through our weekly “writing to think” work.  My students have been jotting down ideas about all sorts of issues, from the nature of true friendship to the way racism manifests itself in society.  We’ve shared these quick writes, often journeyed through the difficult discussions they inevitably inspire, and then written some more.   We’ve been preparing for essay, even though my students were not aware that that was the direction in which we were headed, because even the word essay is enough to send them into fits of moaning and groaning.  If there is one thing they hate to write, they informed me on day one of writing workshop, it is essay.

So, imagine their utter dismay when I announced on Monday that we would be beginning essay.  They felt so betrayed, so disappointed, so depressed!

Until I shared Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s lovely “Drop-Off Cats” (part of a fabulous collection of guest essays in The Journey is Everything).  This is essay? they asked.  This kind of essay we would love to write!  This kind of essay might actually be fun!

Let’s just put our past ideas about essay aside for a bit, I suggested, and try our hand at this:


We’re spending a few days reading a variety of essays, appreciating their craft and trying to decipher their meaning: what was this writer’s journey of thought? what issue were they examining? what questions might have served as invitations to their thinking? what ideas did they want to express?



Our discussions lead to deeper thinking in our writer’s notebooks:


Next week, we’ll read through these jottings to explore big ideas we can write about in essays of our own.  We will consider possible structures and craft moves we can experiment with to make our writing rich and clear, and then we will essay forward.  I am so excited about this new writing adventure…and so, it seems, are my students!


13 thoughts on “Essaying forward, inspired by Katherine Bomer

  1. I LOVE THIS! Thank you so much for sharing this. I’ve been wanting to read that book for awhile — I will have to get it now. We are doing literary essays right now — and I wish I had been doing these thought journey writings all year…

  2. I came by as I love Katherine’s book and work. She is so wise….so thoughtful, and I adore this book. It was a surprise and honor to find my essay on your chart. That Mini is quite a kitty… All my best to your essayists. I hope you will share some of their work. xo

  3. Dear Tara, your very first words: “Every once in a very great while…” are music and poetry and could be the beginning of an essay! It was brilliant of you to use Amy’s “Drop-off Cats” to utterly blow them away with what an essay can look and sound like! I am stunned by the thoughtful, rich, exciting work you are doing to prepare your students for essay writing. Please tell them I am an eager audience awaiting their work!

  4. Once again, I find myself sitting in your classroom to overhear the wonderful discussions going on. Thanks for sharing this experience. My students love the freedom to express themselves. I’m so afraid this over-testing atmosphere is going to squelch their voices.

  5. This is a dangerous post for me to read. Since I’m not teaching, I don’t need any more professional books . . . or maybe I need this one. Just to encourage my own love of writing essays. I so miss the essay that used to appear each week on the back inside page of the NYT magazine. These students are so fortunate to have you guiding the way for this new writing adventure.

  6. Once in a very great while I come across something that makes me want to teach older kids. : ) Since I have finally realized that I could write a Strongly Worded Letter a Day possibly more easily than a poem a day, maybe I should look at this book! Thanks for the delicious glimpses into your classroom. May I tweet a link to Mrs. Pence? I’m developing a relationship with the one person in the WH who might pay attention to our #opendoorclassrooms.

  7. Pingback: #Celebratelu: Heart mapping our way to revising essay | A Teaching Life

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