• Brian Kelley

Reclaiming Essay

Student essays hanging on walls and bulletin boards rarely get read in my classroom. Sure, some students stop to read their friend's essay. Occasionally, a colleague will stop to read a few if the essays hang in the hallway. However, for the most part, student essays hang on cork board strips like laundry.



Yesterday, we took a day (save for just under ten minutes at the end) to read our classmates freshly minted essays. I used 24 hours to sort the essays into categories as best as I could. Placards noted the topics of each pile; one pile had to be "Variety" because the topics students wrote about ranged from wondering about animals knowingly wandering off to die...


Something that I've always wondered about--ever since I heard about it--is why some animals return, at the end of their lives, to where they were born. I wonder how they find their way back home?


...to making sure we live our lives without regret...


Don't look back on life, look to the next note in your song, make it have meaning.


...to celebrating being different:


I've always been different. I've always remembered the names of all of my classmates without even trying. I've always notices the slightest difference in something even when no one else does. I've always known if someone was in a bad mood, even if no one else could tell because they were trying to hide it. I've always been what you call an old soul.



This is not literary analysis or writing about content. Writing is not an assessment tool in this case. I am not arguing against analysis. We can make room for many types of writing in our classrooms; I will argue that until the light goes out in my eye. Consider that I am sharing example of writing as discovery or self-expression as opposed to writing as way of understanding literature.


Why? Because it makes adolescents better writers. It allows students to experience the intent and the art of the essay. It perhaps sets students up to look for, and maybe even love, essay in the real world. It opens up the possibilities.


At the end of one class, I was moved to share that what they said about the experience of reading each others' essays is why I fell in love with writing as an adolescent--the voice that emerges when you allow yourself to think on the page, to be conversational. You find yourself as you find your voice. Essayists are explorers (thank you for that metaphor, Katherine Bomer) and when we make room for our students to explore their thinking and then make time for students to read the thinking of their classmates we move our community towards a community of writers.


I wish I recorded our post-reading conversations. Class after class, students said they got to know their classmates, and they appreciated the depth of thinking, and that some essays are indeed "sticky" (my habitual term) in that they are going to stick to us, stay with us...we are going to leave the room impacted by something written by someone who sits near me (and who I never really talk to).



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