I stared at the screen, at the first sentence I had written for my first body paragraph: “The current school year got off to a quick start, as Stephanie Hughes of Bybanks, Kentucky was sent home for a dress code violation just two days into the school year.” A bit journalistic in tone, perhaps, and more restrained than I usually try for. Decent. Not Great. Acceptable, I guess.
And most definitely not a traditional topic sentence as I’ve been teaching them throughout my career.
The thought of adding something like, “More than any other demographic group, girls are oppressed by school dress codes.” before my existing sentence depressed me horribly. It was certainly a “good” topic sentence, but it made the whole thing feel even worse, certainly not nearly as good as the opening to the blog post I wrote on the topic earlier this year: “So it only took one Kentucky school district two days to send the first student home for a dress code violation. Surprise of surprises, it was a girl.” I loved that piece. My new essay, not so much.
I had no clue that agreeing to write my own Focus Question essay for our second student-designed unit was going to lead to this kind of introspection. I thought about what to do next, and wrote an email to Jake Steward, our English Department Chair, about what I was going through. But I left it unsent. I knew he would be supportive and helpful, but I also knew I had more to work out before I started that conversation.
I went back to an article shared out on Twitter earlier today, still open in one of my tabs, and read: “Awareness comes from investigating the form you wish to produce (not imposing a template onto a form or genre). Investigate poetry in order to write poetry; investigate essays in order to write essays. But set artificial and simplistic templates and scripts aside so that you and your students can see the form you wish to write.” (P.L. Thomas)
I pride myself on maximizing student choice. Once the kids set a unit theme (in this case, “Effects of environment and appearance in society”), they each choose their own Focus Question to investigate (in my case, “Is a feminist dress code possible and, if so, what would it look like?”). They produce the first draft of an essay, I give them feedback, they revise it into a second draft, I note mechanical errors, and they correct those errors and turn in the finished product. Then, they figure out how best to share what they learned with the class in a presentation. And finally, they turn in a Works Cited page. Meanwhile, they choose the book I read aloud to them, and they have completely free choice in what they write for the weekly independent writing requirement and in what they read for the weekly independent reading requirement. It seems to work - each student is definitely developing a personal and unique writing style within the guidelines I’ve set, yet also learning skills of gathering and organizing information, keeping paragraphs on topic, making the entire essay a unified whole, maintaining a logical flow of ideas, reflecting, and writing clearly and persuasively. They’re generally well prepared for Humanities 8 when they leave my class, and that class provides a superb transition from my class to high school.
But nonetheless, this year, I’m starting to more actively question how I work with students on developing their non-fiction writing skills.
The first challenge to my existing process came from a student who, when I sat down to discuss why the first draft of her essay was so late, said the concept of a “first draft” made no sense for her own process of writing as she continually revises as she goes. I tend to be sympathetic to any concern a student brings me, and in this case it was especially easy as I also write that way. I told her I completely respected that way of writing, but that I was concerned there be some way for me to give her feedback and help her improve. Would she be willing to submit whatever she had completed of her essay on the due date for the first draft so I could at least give her some feedback along the way that might also help her with the remainder of the piece? She smiled and agreed.
This article carried that challenge at least one step further. No templates? No scripts? What would be the implications to my students if I were to go down that path?
Or, I suppose… what would be the implications to my students if I didn’t go down that path?
Do I trust myself?
Deep down, I know what is right. I also know that the kids won’t be starting their next essay until late December and that I have Jake and my other colleagues in the English Department with whom I can talk all this through. I’ve got time to figure all this out. It'll all be okay.
Meanwhile, back to that other essay. The one that will take exponentially longer to write than this one.
Maybe I really do have this figured out. Maybe I do indeed just have to trust myself.
And maybe, just maybe, I can.