Saturday, September 5, 2015

On Essays: Model, Reflect, Transfer

With credit to for the only royalty-free image of Mr. T I could find on the internet, and gratitude to Chris Toy, who several years ago in an instructional workshop used a mnemonic for good teaching that I have referred to again and again, learning every time: Model, Reflect, Transfer--MR. T!

This class is undoing everything I’d thought essay writing was!” exclaimed a student Friday in AP English Language and Composition. I hope that’s a good thing.

It’s good they are realizing that…
  1. “Essay” does not necessarily mean a 5-paragraph academic exercise assigned to students.
  2. “Essay” can be anything from Ayn Rand’s response to the Apollo 11 launch to Virginia Woolf’s musings on the death of a moth. 
  3. An essay can have a variety of structures, whether it develops by logic, by story, by example, by appeal to authority, or by a combination. 
  4. An essay can be in (horrors!) first person.
  5. A good writer intentionally “bends” rules for an effect.
It’s not so good that these are new ideas—for my classroom, and for these kids. 

But back to the positive—here are some more snippets of the discussion: 

One student observed, “‘On the Death of a Moth’ didn’t even seem like an essay the first time through—it was just what was happening in front of her eyes. But then I thought, ‘It must have a deeper meaning.’”

I pointed out a sentence that piled up a series of nouns, all connected with “and’s.” The students wondered why they have gotten the same move marked in red. For the very reason, I suggested, that professional basketball players can do things that might be called carrying over or traveling on a middle school player. Why? Because all the rest of the context shows that a master is in control and doing things for a purpose. What’s the author’s purpose with all the “and’s”? They make the list seem bigger and more overwhelming. There was a moment of epiphany.

Meanwhile, I’m having my own (many-times revisited) epiphany. Before I taught AP English Language, I thought laying more groundwork for it in earlier grades would involve teaching rhetorical appeals and fallacies earlier. Now I see that it is so much more basic: Students need models. 

Why do we English teachers tend to have students read fiction and write nonfiction? If we want students to write better nonfiction, they need to read nonfiction—and analyze it not only for its ideas, but also for its organization, argument, and style. 

To nurture writers, give students models of the kind of writing they will do, then guide them in reflecting on the models and in transferring what they see there to their own writing. Model, reflect, transfer—a good instructional progression for any skill.

What models (of nonfiction writing, or of any other skill) do your students study? How do they reflect on them? How do they transfer their reflections to their own skill practice?

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