Teaching Kids How to Write Essays: 5 Easy Steps
We read Julius Caesar that year (still one of my favorite plays of all time, by the way!), and even back than I found it to be a wonderful, character-driven drama; I mostly loved the character of Cassius, and I re-read his dialogue carefully, trying to understand his rhetorical strategies as he convinced Brutus to kill his friend--Caesar--for the good of the government. As we got deeper into the play, I wanted to write about Cassius and Brutus during those 10-20 minutes we were given for our journals, but I couldn't; instead, I was forced to write to our teacher's prompts, which sounded something like --"Do you believe in prophecy? Why or why not? If so, what convinced you? If not, what would change your mind?" See, my tenth grade teacher wanted us to focus in on the famous quotes from the play, like "Beware the Ides of March," which explains the type of journal prompts he was giving us. My teacher wanted us to write quietly, then he wanted to share all of his own personal stories about why he kind of believed in prophecy. I had no problem discussing his area of interest from the play--prophecy--, but years later I can't help but think that we could have had some much richer whole-class, socratic seminars--or heck, even just informal discussions--if we had a choice to a) respond to the teacher's prompt, or to b) explore a different literature-based idea that we could bring to the table based on what we were finding interesting in the literature. How hard would giving us a choice have been for him? What always struck me as the most interesting thing about that teacher's Julius Caesar unit was that everyone in my class was assigned the exact same essay topic as our summative assessment to the unit; it was something like, "How do the dreams of men and the idea of prophecy shape our thinking about the future?" I wrote a lackluster essay, I'm sure, because I didn't care about that topic; now, had he allowed me to write about Cassius and his persuasive skills, I would have given him a killer essay. I truly would have.