Sunday, September 22, 2019

do. or do not. there is no essay.

Recently 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.

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 remember when we wrote the effects of an essay on people. I enjoyed listening to this

  2. This made me understand a bit more about writing an essay thank you!

  3. Now I look at essays as an attempt not as something boring and hard to do.

  4. This made me get a better perspective on essays, thank you.

  5. this "essay" gave me a different and better understanding of what an essay really is

  6. This helped me look at essays different

  7. i feel like any normal conversation can be an essay now and i feel like if people can relate to the story it gets more focused on it and wanting to know more of it.

  8. This made me get a better point of view on essay.

  9. This gave me a better perspective on essays and I’ll do something not boring

  10. This taught me to look at essays differently. A good way.

  11. I like this new way of writing essays it seems easier

  12. This gave me push to take things my way

  13. i feel like i would try more on an essay because its more on trying rather then a formatted essay

  14. This made me understand that writing an essay is not just for a grade, it's to make the readers understand what you are trying to say.

  15. Your essay made me reflect on all the essays I written in the past. I realized that when I essays I don't try because I myself don't really understand the topic.

  16. This taught me a much better and helpful meaning of the word essay. I use to see this word and think of it as a long writing assignment but now I see it as way of trying to express my thoughts about a topic.

  17. This gave me a new vision on what a essay really should be and not some paragraph that gets thrown away.

  18. I completely agree with giving an attempt on something than saying "no it's way to hard for now maybe later, i don't know.

  19. This just in from Noemi:

    After reading this essay it made me realize that life is all about essays. Essays are all around us , it’s a conversation with an individual and trying to make a point or whatsoever. This essay really made me change my perspective on writing essays , it made me understand about writing one in a easier way.

  20. This just in from Adolfo:

    This was the best way of understanding the way we students sometimes feel and it was really just like a pleasure.

  21. Now I know that when doing an essay I probably shouldn't stress my self out to much because its about just actually attempting to do one.

  22. i kind of agree with everything you had to say, i think the main thing anyone really wants is to be understood.

  23. This is an easier way to write an essay.

  24. This essay can really make you want to actually try to write

  25. This essay really talks to me and really shows that there is not try,only do or do not. And after reading it I will never just try to do something, i will either do or not.

  26. This helps me understand that essays don't necessarily have to be all organized and formatted a special way if you just need to get someone to understand where your coming from.

  27. Something I got from this essay was that it doesn’t have to be something we dread, to write but a way to express how we can feel. Or just try and that we don’t have to follow the “hamburger” procedure that we been taught because it’s stupid.

  28. I agree with what you had to say, everyone wants to be understood and you understood our opinions and how we feel about these things.

  29. This made me see essays in a different to be understood by teachers and also not think of it as something negative, but as something to enjoy.

  30. This essay made me see a essay in a different way other than a format but a way to make yourself be understood.

  31. I liked how your essay wasn't like a regular 5 paragraph essay and how at the end you don't care if you followed the steps of the hamburger idea

  32. reading this reminded me about how in class you(the teacher)said that "if i showed this to any English teacher that teacher would say that you are missing a thesis,a concrete details etc. But you did not use that kind of template but will the class still understood it what you were trying to tell us.

  33. The moment you said you showed these picture to a teacher I knew he/she would of said oh those lazy kids always want to go the easy way. I just want to say thank you for giving us the chance to express ourselves of how we feel about topic that teacher will never let us do or just tell us we are just lazy kids.

  34. This made me change my perspective view on writing essays

  35. It was really interesting because we didn't have to worry about getting the thesis and other writing parts right. When all this time, the essay was just about trying.

  36. So, when you say "But in honor of our deep needs for connection and mutual understanding", is it supposed to say need, or is it right? And also, in this sentence "All in, he wrote 107 essays, on subjects ranging from death to women to politics to whatever else ran through his mind.", do you mean to say 'all in all'? Other than being confused about those two things, I can almost understand how writing an essay doesn't have to be a pain in the ass. I would really like to write an essay the way you have written here.

    1. Great observations/questions, thanks Andrea! I made "needs" plural so as to be parallel with the two needs (connection and mutual understanding) I mentioned in the sentence.

      Regarding "all in" ... you're right. Changing it now :)

      We will start writing in class today -- I look forward to reading your work!

  37. This made me feel a bit better about writing an essay and knowing that writing it will be me for me and my understanding and not a letter grade.

  38. this makes me feel better about having to write the essay because I have something to relate too

  39. i was very confused at firstbut there more i read the more i got into it overall i thought it was very good

  40. This just in from Marcos:

    This helped me get a different view on writing an essay.

  41. This made it more different to write a essay and fun in a way.

  42. This helped me realize essays aren't so bad if you have an understanding of what you are doing.

  43. Did you try WritePaper.Info?. They know how to do an amazing essay.


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