Last year, I concluded my unit on Animal Farm by handing out a list of essay topics. Every one of my students picked one topic from a list of ten and wrote an essay. For the most part, my students presented their ideas in a well-organized fashion and supported them with appropriate evidence from the novel. In short, they produced an effective statement of their grasp of Orwell's work. Recently, a colleague of mine read my topic list and, rather impressed, commented on how comprehensive it was. He asked if he could use some of my topics or photocopy the list. "These topics cover so many aspects of the novel," he said, "I'm sure everyone can find something truly appealing and engaging here. What a great way to conclude the unit."
After our conversation, I threw the list in the garbage and deleted the file from my laptop. I never want to use it again.
I don't want my students to see writing as something one produces as a response to a question or a prompt. I don't want them to see writing as production of answers. I want them to see writing as something one arrives at, something one produces after engaging with ideas, I want them to see it as an attempt to explore their views and opinions. I don't want them to produce texts that present ideas as definitive and self-evident. I'm gradually beginning to realize that trying to fit all their thoughts into a five paragraph essay does injustice to both the ideas they engage with and their own cognitive abilities. I don't want them to see their interpretations as something immutable and definitive. That is what essay-writing seems to do to their perception of intellectual engagement: Here is my thesis. Here is my evidence. I'm done, Mr. G. What are we reading next?
I want them to see their writing as an attempt to capture the current state of their engagement with ideas not the final pronouncement on the assigned topic. Writing and learning itself are not about coming to immutable conclusions. They are about negotiation, about branching off into other avenues, about exploring possibilities.
I want them to learn that texts are representations not of immutable truths but of ideas that wait to be explored or, as Gordon Wells puts it, "worlds waiting to be explored, challenged, and even improved upon." (Wells, G. (1990). Talk about text: Where literacy is learned and taught. Curriculum Inquiry, 20(4), 369-405.)
The five paragraph essay works well in the transition model of education where the point is to convey ideas as immutable, unquestionable entities. When you work within an electronic community of writers where ideas are challenged and always in a state of flux, always expanded upon, commented upon, read, and re-read, a five paragraph essay or any attempt to present your thoughts as immutable and definitve is not going to work.
Writing an academic essay, however, is still an important skill and I do want them to practice this kind of approved "school writing." Last week, when I handed out their essay assignment, they were surprised to see that it did not contain any topics. "I don't want to do the thinking for you," I responded when asked why the handout did not list any topics. "I want you to arrive at your own conclusions about the book."
My handout, instead of listing the topics, consisted of this:
I encourage you to blog about your thoughts, brainstorming ideas, and your views on the novel in general. You will be given plenty of time in class to record your thoughts on your blog. This will help you arrive at topics that you as a reader find especially interesting. It will also give me an opportunity to read your comments and respond to them. Think of blogging about the novel as thinking out loud. If I can hear your ideas, I can join the conversation. In other words, by writing about the novel from your own point of view, you can gradually develop your own map of the novel, find your own way into this text. Once thats done, your essay will practically write itself.