I’ve been talking about writing with teens. We’ve looked at the power of exploring ideas, of opening our lives up to multiple viewpoints, to examining the opposition sympathetically so that we really know and understand a point of view that differs from our own.
Then I spoke about the value of essay writing. You may already be convinced of its value, but I hoped to also convey the role essays play in a person’s life. It’s not enough to just think about essays as a way to succeed so that your child will get into college, will succeed in college. Essays have intrinsic value. They train the brain to think in an ordered fashion, then enable the writer to look at holes in her own argument. They give the writer a way to organize and manage research so that she may draw conclusions and make sense of her learning.
Get comfortable reading the ways other people fashion their arguments or talk about the topic you love.
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Without an essay guide, you might feel you can’t even begin to teach your students to write them. Hogwash. Let’s look at some ways that you can start essay training right now.
1. Collect arguments
If your teen has a particular interest: car engines, laptop computers, software, Lord of the Rings paraphernalia, ballet, acting, theology, astronomy, quilt-making… begin to collect information that relates to these topics with a view to the inherent controversies within these fields. This may seem ridiculous on a first read. You might think: what is controversial about ballet, for heaven’s sake? But there are lots of controversies about ballet. One discussion involves at what age girls should be made to go up on pointe. Another is the tendency of ballerinas to have to binge and purge to keep their weight under control. Another is about the teaching methodology for young women, and so on.
If your child is a big LOTR fan, you might discover the huge undercurrent of controversy involving whether or not loving the movies constitutes being a “true” fan.
Every subject area has within it passionate people who are arguing about it, arguing to make it better, to expose its shames, to change its current form, to expand its use, to uncover its power… find the arguments. The easiest way to find arguments is to look inside the area you care the most about. You already know something of the topic. So now you need to find the places people argue about it.
Once you see that there are some controversies in the topics you care about (Shakespeare never wrote his plays… He didn’t? Who did? Why do you say that?), you can keep a list. Or you can simply bookmark the pages on the computer that have people arguing.
2. Join the fight
If your family has Internet access, the easiest way to grow as an expository writer is to join the arguments. Find the forums where people are discussing what you care about. There may be Yahoo groups, there may be forums (my daughter was on a fan site for Elijah Woods where she’s made lots of international friends and learned about vegetarianism, the European perspective on the war in Iraq and what made LOTR so great around the world, and my 13 year old son reads and posts on forums for astronomy and LOTR, my 17 year old son is a part of an online community that works on created languages like Klingon and Esperanto), there may be friends they meet through Live Journals who share their interests.
If the Internet is not your thing (like it is ours), you can look for groups in your community. Jacob has a connection to the observatory, my two older kids are connected to the Shakespeare company in town, I am a part of a theology series of lectures. Get to the places where people are actively promoting and discussing the area of interest you have so that you can enter into that discussion.
We call this the “Great Conversation.” Find out where the chat is happening and get in on it. Get comfortable reading the ways other people fashion their arguments or talk about the topic you love.
And of course, the library will provide you with books on your topic or magazine articles. I like the Internet because of its immediacy. But you can go these other routes if you want to.
3. Identify points of view in other writing.
Before your teen can write an essay, it helps if he’s read one. Seriously. Essays are the one format that schools demand their students write even though these same students have never read an essay in their lives. To write well, we need saturation, both with content for writing and in the format we plan to use. Kids write fiction more easily than non-fiction because they read so much fiction. For the essay, we find it difficult to obtain models. Because most essay writing is bland and for school purposes, you just don’t find books filled with examples of good essays.
There are two sources, however, that most students can read that are easily obtained and work as an introduction to how real writers craft an argument. Send your teens online to find reviews. They can read reviews of movies, video games or music. The New York Times has elaborate movie reviews (probably too long for our purposes, but the writing is so good). Still, Rotten Tomatoes is a great website for finding movie reviews in the dozens. Pick a favorite movie and read, read, read.
Be sure to read both favorable reviews (those with the bright red tomatoes next to them) and the flops (with the green splats next to them). Identify the arguments. How can one reviewer claim that the movie was visually stunning and directed with subtlety while another reviewer says the same movie crawled forward and had campy dialog? On what grounds do they support their viewpoints? If you’ve seen the movie they review, who do you agree with and why? How can you discredit the opposing viewpoint?
Do all this orally. The idea is to get into the art of arguing using support. Your teen can do some reading of reviews, can watch the movie and then can do a Friday Freewrite evaluating the the arguments of two to four reviews. Don’t worry about organization at this point. Help your teen get inside the thoughts/arguments of the reviewer. That’s the goal. The writing will go all over the place. It’s the thoughts you want to see. Did she use part of the story to show her point or did she make vague assertions like, “It was really good because the actor was amazing.” Ask her what about the acting amazed her. Can she show you instead of tell you?
If movies aren’t your teen’s thing, then music is the next best place to read reviews. Use Google, pick a band’s album and search it with the word “reviews.” Find two reviews that disagree and follow a similar process. The same can be done with video games, a favorite novel, plays, auto engines, computer software… anything that is performed or for purchase.
Once you’ve identified the controversy in your favorite topics, have found places where people are talking about them and then are reading writing that is crafted to argue a position, you are on your way to becoming an expository writer. Your teens can do this. If they spend time thinking in these ways, teaching the actual essay format will be a snap.
Need more help? Try out Brave Writer’s online classes:
Also, check out Brave Writer’s:
It’s a self-directed writing program for teens that both teaches rhetorical thinking in writing, as well as the academic essay formats for high school and college. Teens work independently of their parents, however rubrics for feedback are included, as well.
Image of girl reading by Dayna Barron (cc) / Blue background by Meg Stewart (cc cropped and text added)