Is there a more dreaded word in world of education? As teachers, we all want our classrooms to be places full of energy, excitement, and flow. So when I was working with a group of teachers earlier this year and heard their audible groans when looking at the upcoming unit, we took a time out to ponder the problems they saw coming.
“Literary essay is just so dry,” said one of the teachers. “I can’t get my kids excited about it.”
We begin asking ourselves… Why couldn’t we get our kids pumped up to share their thoughts with the others? Where did this draining feeling come from? Why were our kids bored? When thinking deeply about these questions, we came to a moment of clarity. We couldn’t get our students excited about sharing their ideas because they didn’t see the purpose behind this work. Their writing wasn’t talking TO anyone, so they were simply filling in the parts and pieces for US.
Then, out of our discussion a new idea was born. If the work felt purposeless, we needed to find a way to bring purpose back to the kids. And what brings more purpose and fire into our work than an argument, right? So we lit a fire under our kids with the work of debate.
It may seem like a risky move to begin a unit of study on essay without even mentioning the word essay, but we knew we needed to take a leap of faith. Our first days revolved around immersing our students in rich short stories, videos, and picture books. Then, we taught into taking stances and pushing ourselves to argue stances that were given to us. We helped students to understand the protocols behind debate work, how to lean on those fighting with you, AND how to listen to the arguments of others to build up your writing muscles. And while sometimes it was loud, and sometimes it felt messy, the fire was back in our classrooms. Students were filling their notebooks and pouring over the texts they were using to find the perfect bits of evidence to prove their points. The entries grew longer and longer until it seemed that students were writing naturally flowing essays to prepare for their debates.
While our essay work didn’t end there, this unconventional start led us to work that was full of purpose, energy, and life. There are times in our teaching lives that we must take that leap of faith to bring the fire back.
A special thanks to Jen Dunn, Paul Levitan, and Norma Chorlian, who planned and developed this work, and were willing to jump with me. I’d also like to thank all of the teachers who have been open to trying out this work in their classrooms. I am grateful to teach and learn alongside you each and every day.