Essaying forward, part two: wrestling with topic choice

So, here we are in our journey through essay writing, confronting the biggest roadblock in the path ahead: topic choice.  Thus far, we have:

*read through a number of beautiful examples of what essay as a journey of thought can look like and feel like.  With each text, we asked ourselves about the craft moves each writer made, and the “big idea” of the piece: what was the writer thinking through as they wrote this essay?

*talked, and talked, and talked about the topics addressed in each essay – what were our reactions? questions? what moved and surprised us? what can we connect to? does the “big idea” reverberate through our own lives? where did the author begin this journey of thought and where did she/he wind up?

*drafted some quickwrites based on these mentor essays: what kind of writing journey does this essay invite us to plunge into?  can we experiment with our own “writing to think in this way”?

Yesterday, we turned to focus on our own topics – what issues/concerns/wonderings weighed on our minds and begged to be thought and written about?

Here’s where the wrestling comes in…here’s where our journey through essay gets very, very tricky.  And, it really is a problem of our own making; that is, it is we as writing teachers who have made this very natural way of writing so filled with confusion and frustration.  We generally teach in a genre specific way, with minilessons full of strategies and directives: we tell our kids what to write, how to write, and let them know exactly how they will be measured (those check lists and rubrics!).

But, this kind of essaying breaks free of all that.  This kind of essaying is as much a journey for us as teachers, as it is for our kids.  This kind of essay required my re-reading this passage from Katherine Bomer’s book, The Journey is Everything, again and again as an anchor to steady us in uncharted waters:

Surprisingly, against prevailing logic, this freedom to write without forcing ideas into templates can actually produce better writing from students.  It helps young people write flexibly, fluently, and with emboldened voices, qualities they can translate into any assigned writing task in school or in life…I am also arguing for the inherent gifts of this exploratory type of writing to help students find their writing voices for life. Instead of struggling to conform their thoughts into strict, rule-bound structures before they have a chance to write to find out what they think or want to say, young people can put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and follow trails of thinking to surprising places, to stretch an idea out across pages of unbroken prose, to discover hidden irritations unexpected ironies and spots of humor, or bottomless joys and sorrows.  (pg. 25)

If we want our kids to “write to find out what to think”, we must give them the space to struggle through the ideas they are thinking about alread, whether these ideas are clear to them already, or not (yet).  We are, in our sixth grade classroom, mostly in the not (yet) phase.  And so we engaging in the task of reading through old writer’s notebook entries, exploring options presented by Bomer:

img_6927pausing to turn and talk, and writing to follow the trails of our thinking.  This is messy work, with many stops and starts.  Our mentor texts have shown us that there we have a sort of  wonderful freedom in topic choice and structure, and that we are probably not even certain about the direction that our writing will take.  But, with freedom comes taking on the responsibility of sifting through ideas, and making choices about what is important to us.  This is hard work.

Today, we began to discover pathways through our road blocks.  One by one, we began to flex our thinking muscles and look within our hearts? What to essay about?  My kiddos began to write about everything from art, to fear, the point of science, and racism.  Here are a few of their entries (I had to share, I am SO proud of them!):


Where each of the above will wander in their essay journey is anyone’s guess. But each kid is on their way!

Today, after we’d struggled and figured out what we wanted to say and then had a chance to share what we’d written, we seemed to have crossed into new and happier territory.  My kids are beginning to discover Bomer’s promise of “the inherent gifts of this exploratory type of writing” – the gifts of being able to plumb the depths of their own hearts for what they want to say, in the way they want to say it.


7 thoughts on “Essaying forward, part two: wrestling with topic choice

  1. As always, Tara, your blog post is deeply thoughtful and beautifully composed. It is a mini essay.
    The posts of your kids’ notebook writing show me that they are absolutely on the right path to essay. I would hold those three entries up to any adult essay. These are significant topics, written about in beautiful, personal ways.

    • Thank you, Katherine! It has been a revelation to me, and so moving as well, to see the emergence of this new writing voice in my kids. They are writing about important topics, but in a personal rather than abstract way. Exciting stuff!

  2. Oops! I wasn’t finished. I need your technology expert student to help me!
    I wanted to ask these three students if they might know of things they could layer onto the thinking they’re doing so far? Like quotes from poems, scenes from novels, stories from their own or someone’s life?
    I am terribly excited to hear more about this essay journey and to see more examples!

    • Funny you should ask, because that was our conversation in class today, having just read and unpacked “The New Colossus” – some of my kids are writing about immigration, and wanted to include lines. My weekend work was coming up with mini lessons in response to their smart conversations today. Will keep you posted!

  3. I love watching your class (however, virtually) struggle through this journey and find it so worth the struggle. So often, even we teachers want to throw in the towel. I’m glad to see your students are staying with the struggle and coming out with amazing writing they can be proud of.

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

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