Writing with Teens: Learning How to Write an Essay is More than College-Prep
The most common format for academic writing in high school and college is the expository essay. There are lots of styles of essays (argumentative, exploratory, persuasive, compare and contrast, personal, etc.), but the overarching term is the “expository essay.”
The word essay means “to try.” It comes from the Latin root. (In French, the word “essayer” is the verb “to try, to attempt.”) I think it helps to remember that an essay is an attempt, it’s your “best shot” at looking at the materials and giving a reaction (sometimes a strong opinion, sometimes an exploration of the issues, sometimes how that material relates to your life and background, your experiences and beliefs).
When we think about academic writing, we do it a disservice if we think about it as a gateway to college. When writing is seen as a portal or a turnkey to another experience rather than as an act that serves the writer, it becomes more difficult to write. Let me reassure you. If you don’t successfully teach the essay while your children are in high school, they will be taught how to write the essay again in their freshman English class.
So now that you know that your kids (who freewrite and read, who chat and debate ideas, who keep online journals and go to plays) will eventually learn the academic writing form called the essay in college, you can relax a bit. Anything they learn now will be helpful (and they will be glad to have learned the essay before college). But you don’t have to fret about it, if you don’t feel confident that you know how to teach it. (The SAT/ACT essay test is a slightly different animal and does need some preparation.)
3 reasons why it’s good to know how to write an essay:
1. Essays teach how to structure an argument
When my oldest was 15, he wanted very much to play video games called “First Person Shooters.” I found the idea of “playing” as a villain who shoots people pretty disturbing. I wanted to be sure that if this was an activity he engaged in, it wasn’t going to be damaging to him. Noah’s dad agreed with me. So we asked Noah to write an essay. I told him I needed to see support for his viewpoint and that we’d use his argument to make a decision.
This was a real decision for us to make. And his work really would help us decide.
So I helped him do research, showed him the format, taught him how to take his freewriting and put it into the structure of an essay and so on. His final product was certainly not the well-honed argument and highly crafted piece that I would expect of a college student. However, for a first effort, he did a good job. Through the research he and I did together, we were able to look at the issues.
Instead of the typical teen-parent impassioned fight over what is allowed or not in the home, Noah entered into a process where he had to think about what arguments supported his viewpoint and what ones contradicted his viewpoint. Could those be overcome? Were they too big?
In the end, the essay form allowed us to look at the question he posed and then find out whether or not there was any support for his contention. He had to create his argument within a structure, not just from emotion.
Essays train you to think clearly and to see through poor thinking and weak arguments.
2. Essays offer a format for rhetorical thinking.
The essay form is flexible and fun to use because it gives you a way to contain all that rhetorical thinking that you are doing as a teen or academic. Now maybe you don’t remember having fun using the essay format when you were in high school or college. That is most likely because a) you were never taught to write one but were expected to know how to use the form anyway, or b) you were taught to use the form but never cared about what you wrote.
If you were taught how to use the essay format and were allowed to write about something that created passion in you, then most likely, you enjoyed writing essays. They enable you to put your research into a manageable length and shape so that you can see what you have learned, so you can determine where the holes are in your thinking, so that you are able to quantify and codify your learning.
3. Essays give professors a way to evaluate large numbers of students
Because we homeschool, we have a better idea of what our kids are retaining and what they aren’t when they read a book or study a subject. But in most classrooms, there is one teacher and a minimum of twenty students. At UCLA (where I went), I was in lecture halls with 300 other kids! Essays help teachers to see the thinking of their students close-up. For many of us, that is the only contact we ever have with a professor.
Learning to express oneself with confidence and competence is the key to a good education.
My favorite two books for essay writing are:
The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing (6th Edition): I love the book so much that I use it when I teach the essay. It is far too long for most homeschooling mothers and too detailed for high school students. I have pared it down considerably and use many of their wonderful exercises in my essay classes. If you are the kind of mom who loves writing or majored in English or feels motivated to tackle writing with a college text, this is the book for you. Brave Writer’s manual Help for High School is built in part from this text (I’ve retooled some of the exercises to fit Brave Writer philosophy and to speak to high school students).
Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process by Peter Elbow: This book isn’t written to show you the form of the essay, but it does go a long way in helping students learn how to write academically without losing or compromising their voices. There’s a marvelous section in the book about “writing for teachers” and lots of help in how to dig deeply into a topic and explore it for all it’s worth. Peter Elbow is my writing mentor.
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