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.

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!

Slice of Life Tuesday:Planting the way for essaying

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

Katherine Bomer’s book, The Journey is Everything was one of those transformative professional books that stopped me in my teaching tracks and made me want to do better right away.  All Spring and Summer long, I read and re-read this book, joining in on book groups, Voxer discussions, and Google hangouts in an effort to figure out how I could lead my students towards the beautiful writing that  Katherine envisioned: essays to 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 spent our first three weeks of school planting seeds of the stories of our lives in our notebooks, and writing narratives based on these seed ideas.  Now, it was time to look beyond writing about small moments, and think about what Katherine Bomer calls writing to think.  In her fabulous keynote for The EdCollab Gathering last Saturday, Bomer shared a bit of the “how to” of this kind of writing with this slide:


and some generative questions in this slide:


which formed the basis of our writing workshop discussion and charting on Monday:

And then, both my students and I opened our writer’s notebooks and created lists of our own.

Today, we threw ourselves into a “try it” – reaching into our lists, finding an idea, and then writing to discover where our thinking would go.  It took all of us a little time to get going, but when we did, we discovered that the writing came quickly and led us into unexpected places.  Here’s where I went today (first for my morning block and then for my afternoon one):


I sketched some thoughts, then wrote…and in each case, my ideas began small (rude drivers, cut down trees) and journeyed towards something larger (kindness, civic responsibility).  I shared my writing with my kids, showing them that it was messy and rambling in parts, but seemed to get somewhere by the last few sentences.

My kiddos shared that this had been (for the most part) their writing experience,too.  We talked a bit about this journey, and then we tagged our entries with sticky notes with writing plans/thoughts/audiences should we ever want to return and extend our pieces.  It was, we agreed, interesting work – work we will return to this week, and from time to time in the weeks and months to follow.

This evening, as I think about our writing day, I return to this passage in Bomer’s book:

In our classrooms, we can create experiences that enable kids to literally see and touch the process of idea generating as it unfolds before them.  The writer’s notebook works supremely well for this – a tangible version of a mind that contemplates, sparks connections, remembers, and changes course.  (Pg. 65)

It’s exciting to think ahead as we make our own journey towards meaningful essaying with these first steps…