Tuesday, September 1, 2020

do. or do not. there is no essay

Last year I asked 150 high school juniors in four separate classes to think of a word they associate with writing essays.  After giving them a couple minutes to think, I stood at the board and wrote down the words they called out.  Here are the lists:

As you can see, the students' feelings about writing essays were overwhelmingly negative.  I was struck by the patterns. "Stress" is on every list.  "Anger," "crying," and "dropout" showed up multiple times.  I tried to imagine what writing must be like for the student who contributed "shaking."  Shaking?  When I showed one of the lists to another teacher, he said, "What's wrong with those students?"

It was a loaded question.  Apart from the usual arguments about how adults stereotype those lazy, complaining teenagers, or how teachers often rush to defend a system that rewarded them with degrees and jobs but doesn't work the same for today's students, the question is really a symptom of our culture.  There is definitely something wrong here-- but why assume it's the students?  Especially when four different classes of 36+ students answered in the exact same ways?

In our culture, whoever names a problem risks being identified as the problem.  Too often we blame the victim.  An employee who points out a legitimate issue at work may be targeted for having a "bad attitude."

Even victims of rape and violence are forced to endure ridiculous questions and sometimes even direct accusations, as if they had anything at all to do with the horrible thing that was done to them.  No wonder people are so often reluctant to come forward.

This is why my first response to the students was gratitude.  I thanked them.  I wanted to acknowledge the trust and courage it took for them to speak up.  No one likes to admit that something is this awful, especially when they've been told repeatedly to get over themselves because it shouldn't be a big deal and everyone else can do it and they should too.

My second response was to ask the students if, when they thought of the word "essay," they were describing an experience that involved:
  • hard-to-understand instructions 
  • to write a long thing
  • about a harder-to-understand text or idea
  • in a too-short time frame
  • to be returned with scrawled comments 
  • like 'need clearer thesis' and 'fix your conclusion' 
  • and a letter grade
  • which made them feel badly
  • so they crumpled up the paper 
  • and eventually lost it 
  • wherever things go 
  • after they escape 
  • the bottom of the backpack.
The students became animated at this point in the conversation.  In every class.  They nodded and said, "Mmhmm. Yeah. That's exactly it."

The expressions on their faces in those moments were so open.  Their eyes were wide.  There was energy in the room.  Suddenly you couldn't help but realize that is so much more to these young people than they usually show in class.  You could tell they were surprised to hear their lived experience described so plainly and accurately by a teacher.  One student even said, "Thank you for offering us some understanding."

As I watched them begin to take notes, I started thinking about the Hawthorne Effect. The Hawthorne Works was a big factory in Illinois where thousands of workers made telephone equipment and consumer products.   In the 1920s, the company commissioned a study to learn about productivity.

During the study at The Hawthorne Works, every single change, like making the lights brighter or making the lights dimmer, seemed to increase employee productivity.  What kind of sense does that make?  If you make the lights brighter, and productivity goes up, how can dimming the lights also make productivity go up?

The real insight wasn't that productivity increased because of the actual changes that management made; it was that when management was sympathetic, willing to listen, and keep their promises, the employees put in more effort.  

This is an excellent place to start in the classroom.

(Plus, I get to make improvements as I go.)

Getting any kind of honest feedback depends on trust, and trust is earned.  At this point in our culture, trust also has to be modeled, because many young people simply haven't seen a working example in practice.  I demonstrated trust on the first day of school.  I told students that they should decide how the course would run, and then I walked out of the classroom and closed the door behind me so they could talk freely. 

Ever since that day students have seen me repeatedly honor my word.  They have watched me make mistakes -- and openly admit to each one.  Students now know that I make good on my offers to help them, which I mention approximately every 3 minutes 41 seconds in class.

These are some of the reasons why students trusted me when I asked an open-ended question about a touchy subject.  After I recorded the first few contributions without judgement, they began contributing more openly and enthusiastically.

This is no small thing.  Especially for teachers, because the students we ask to trust us are often experiencing multiple levels of trauma of their own.

According to studies published by the American Psychological Association, anxiety in our culture has increased so much in recent decades that "typical schoolchildren during the 1980's reported more anxiety than child psychiatric patients did during the 1950's."  One of the studies' authors said the trend is likely to continue, and she linked anxiety to depression: "The results of the study suggest that cases of depression will continue to increase in the coming decades, as anxiety tends to predispose people to depression."

Fast forward to 2019.  Students' lives, experiences, and feelings are complicated and intense.  Our bizarro culture has created an environment that includes mass shootings and active shooter drills at school.  Students navigate a challenging maze of opportunity (which they have to find) and danger (which sometimes finds them).  This is a game even winners don't like playing.  And the prize?  Graduation, followed by toxic student loans.

Still the students show up.  There they were, courageously expressing their feelings about writing essays.

So I told them about Montaigne.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne lived in France from 1533 to 1592.  He worked as a government official and he was also a winegrower.  Most importantly for us, Montaigne invented a brand new style of writing.

Instead of writing about his personal achievements or historical events, Montaigne wanted to express exactly what he thought and felt.  Readers over the years have commented that reading Montaigne's writing is like seeing their own thoughts and feelings in a mirror-- they feel amazed that someone else seems to share inner experiences that they thought were unique to them and unknown to anyone else.  In this way, Montaigne created a connection between writer and reader that never existed before.   

Montaigne wanted to create value based on a shared understanding, a bond between the writer's inner world and the reader's inner world.  This isn't easy.  Montaigne himself called it a "thorny undertaking, and more so than it seems, to follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind."

This makes it even more important to try.  Once I made a sign and hung it front and center in a classroom: There is glory in the attempt.  I liked the idea because it emphasized the process over the result.  I put it right next to Teddy Roosevelt's "Man in the Arena" quote, which is still one of my all-time favorites.  These ideas motivate me, partly because some of the figures I respect most emphasize the importance of trying.  I've learned a great deal about courage and motivation from people in many walks of life, and I often run across an idea or a quote that seems to confirm the rest of what I've come to know; just last week I learned that Mahatma Gandhi once said, "Glory lies in the attempt to reach one's goal and not in reaching it."

Long before Gandhi or Roosevelt or me, when Shakespeare was only 8 years old and hadn't yet imagined Hamlet or "To be or not to be,"  Montaigne understood that you can't win if you don't play.  No one will understand your mind or your heart if you don't consider and express them carefully in words that you write to the best of your ability.  Trying is the important thing.  Without it, nothing would get written in the first place.  Montaigne really wanted to try and make sense out of his thinking in a way that readers could understand.  That's why he called his book by the French word that means attempt or try.  

The French word for attempt is...  Essay.  (Also spelled "essaye" or "essai" in Middle French.)

"Think about this," I said to the students.  "Whenever you're trying to get your parents or your boyfriend or your manager to understand you-- every one of those moments is an Essay.  So really, when we write an essay, all we're trying to do is make sure the reader understands us."

Which is really a gift.  We're so well-trained to write for a grade, or to get people off our backs, or to be louder or clearer or [whatever] because we're used to feeling frustrated when people don't understand us, that it's easy to forget that people WANT to know what we're thinking.

Writing an essay the way Montaigne intended it, as an attempt to create understanding between writer and reader, is a win-win.  The reader feels good when an idea or a feeling contributes to her experience, and the writer feels good when she knows something she wrote got through and made a positive difference.

Students began to respond as I described these ideas.  One of them said out loud, "OK.  I'll try."  (I loved that.  Without knowing it in the moment, what he said was, "OK. I'll essay.")

However satisfying that moment was, it wasn't enough.  I flashed on what Yoda said in The Empire Strikes Back

Montaigne didn't try to write.  He wrote.  All in, he wrote 107 essays, on subjects ranging from death to women to politics to whatever else ran through his mind.  Although psychologists and authors wouldn't know what to call it for another 300 years, Montaigne developed a style that has become known as "stream of consciousness."

The task before us is clear.  Our job is to connect.  Our job is to understand others and in turn, to make ourselves understood.

In order to be our best, we must heal and transcend whatever trauma we used to associate with the idea of writing an essay-- because now we understand that's not at all what Montaigne had in mind.

One of Montaigne's essays was entitled, "Of the Education of Children" and he ended it by writing:

To return to my subject, there is nothing like alluring the appetite and affections; otherwise you make nothing but so many asses laden with books; by dint of the lash, you give them their pocketful of learning to keep; whereas, to do well you should not only lodge it with them, but make them espouse it. 

Montaigne believed that we learn best when we love what we do.  When we can choose how to direct our curiosity, our passion, and our effort.

We may not be perfect.  We may not even succeed in making ourselves understood.  But in honor of our deep needs for connection and mutual understanding, and in the tradition of Montaigne and the millions of writers (from famous pros to Instagram weirdos) who have attempted to share their thoughts and feelings with us, we must practice in order to become better.  We must write.

It's time to heal and forgive the past.  We have reclaimed the essay and our power to define what it isn't, and what it is.  The essay is not a five-paragraph insult to our intelligence or a cynical exercise in getting a grade.  The essay is our attempt to participate in the grand human conversation, one paragraph at a time.  It will be messy, and it will be beautiful, and ultimately it will be ours.   

There is glory in the essay.  I look forward to reading yours.  In the meantime, thank you, dear reader, for spending some time thinking about this one.


  1. I idea of writing an essay in your own way sounds less stressful because teachers want students to follow their rules on how to do their essay.

  2. Writing an essay in your own words without having to use a specific format is so much better because we get to open up our minds and ideas instead of being forced to follow a format

  3. Writing an essay your own words is less stressful because when the teacher give us a topic to write about and how many paragraphs to write we stress way to much.

  4. The idea of writing an essay in your own way instead of being told exactly how to do it is honestly less stressful and a better way.

  5. Writing a easy in your own way is much better because it lets you express your full potential and creativity. When your given a prompt you feel forced to write it a certain way which stresses you because its all for a grade.

  6. Writing a essay in your own way is much better and less stressful because you get to express yourself in your own way and when you are given a prompt you can feel confused, frustrated or even depressed so its much easier to write essays in your own way.

  7. Writing an essay in your own words is way easier for some than having a topic picked for you. But it's different for everyone for some it's harder because you have to come up with everything to talk about. But for some when you have a topic it's easier because everything is picked out for you.

  8. Writing an essay in your own is much better, because it's less stressful, it's much easier to get done, and also you're more likely to do a better job than if you were given a topic by your teacher

  9. Writing our own essay without no question with it, is much better.

  10. Writing your essay with your own idea is much better because you don't have to worry if you fit in with the same ideals as your teacher.

  11. Writing your essay with your own idea is much better because you don't have to worry about fitting in with the same ideals as your teacher.

  12. Writing your essay with your idea is much better because you don't have to worry if you fit in with the same ideals as your teacher.


for the win(ter break)

" Why should I do this? He's not even gonna be our teacher next year! " Yeah. And I'm not getting paid to post this on Chr...