The meat in the bun

I always thought I knew what an essay was. Long, tightly structured, formalised discussions, unwrapping layers of textual criticism in tightly constructed phrases, a pinch of rhetoric, a spoonful of debate, a pipkin of pep.

But what is an essay for? What is the ‘deep learning’ that we would like our students to grasp regarding this genre of writing? Under the pressures of the assessment-driven senior programme, a Year 11 student might be forgiven for saying that an essay is “a test”, “to tell the story” or “to say what my ideas are about a book”.

Essay: “An analytic or interpretive literary composition

And yet, how often does an essay become a formula, a grid, three SEXY paragraphs and a quick conclusion?

In our current Curriculum workshops, we have been trialling our English version of Rosemary Hipkins’ aforementioned ‘water cycle activity’ (see previous post): five different resources used to teach essay writing, from the hamburger to the grid to the mix & match.

By comparing different versions, we begin to ask ourselves:

  1. what do we intend to teach in our choice of resources?
  2. what are the unintended messages?
  3. what contexts are relevant/important? (what if your culture does not eat hamburger? what if you’re vegetarian?)

And so, what do we think is important? What are the over-arching messages we are wanting to convey about this (often dominant) genre of writing? And do our materials reflect this?

We bring so many assumptions to teaching the topics that we do – that once in a while, it’s good to sit back and try to unpack what they might be.

Even if, in the end, we conclude that what we’re doing is what we want to be doing.

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