The “Hybrid” Essay in the Middle School

I love writing formal essays.  I love the consistency of the format; the sharp focus of the thesis statement; the safari through the text.  Unfortunately, the majority of my sixth-grade students do not share my love of formal essay writing.  In fact, they find the traditional five-paragraph essay to be a chore to write.  They feel no connection with the material about which they are writing; as a result, while their essays generally adhere to the guidelines, they lack the excitement and sense of adventure of much of their creative writing.  As much as I might try to convince them otherwise, they see essay writing as boring and tedious.

This was the problem that confronted me and my colleagues several years ago as we began to revisit the ways in which we taught writing in our middle school.  We knew that, in order to prepare students for high school, our eighth graders had to master the art of crafting a solid, thesis-based essay.  We also knew that, in order to achieve mastery by eighth grade, they must be introduced to the basic concepts of formal essay writing—the thesis statement, the introductory paragraph, the transition, and so on—in sixth grade.  The problem was that we all felt as if adhering to such a traditional structure for their entire middle school experience would leave our students wrung out and worn out.  We could already see the fire in their eyes begin to burn a bit less brightly every time we said the word “thesis.”  How could we teach them the basic fundamentals of essay writing while at the same time allowing them to retain some of passion for—or at least enjoyment of—writing as an art, not as an odious task?

As we discussed these issues, we realized that our students still responded positively to the personal narrative writing assignments that they completed across the middle grades.  Whether they were writing a piece in seventh grade about a family heirloom or a “This I Believe” essay in eighth grade, their personal writing danced with energy.  It soon became clear that our students enjoyed personal writing because they were able to use their own background knowledge—their personal experiences, stories, and observations—to inform their writing.  The moment that we asked them to turn their attention to a formal essay, however, that energy dissipated, and their writing became forced and dry once again.

We began to think that we might be able to harness this energy by trying—in sixth grade, at least—to combine elements of the personal narrative and the formal essay.  Initially, as the only sixth-grade teacher on my team, this idea struck me as both exciting and intimidating.  I had grown up writing formal essays; I had taught formal essay writing for almost ten years.  If it would be difficult for me to break the mold, it might be even harder for my students to do so.

But as we continued our conversations, and as I began to map out some different strategies, a new idea dawned on me: instead of trying to make an analytical essay personal, or a personal essay analytical, why not simply combine the two into a “hybrid” essay?  I look forward to sharing the format of this “hybrid” essay, as well as some examples, during my presentation on the 31st!

Ben Gott
English Teacher & Grade Dean, Greens Farms Academy
http://www.bengott.com

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This entry was posted in 21st Century Learning, Collaboration Among CAIS Colleagues, Middle School, Teachers Sharing with Teachers 2012. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The “Hybrid” Essay in the Middle School

  1. kateknopp says:

    Your “hybrid” sounds like a wonderful way to help students discover and cultivate a variety of voices for their writing. I’ve found that, often, students resist the more analytic essay that you love, because it requires the voice of a confident thinker — and middle school students are a little shy about presenting themselves as “thinkers” on the page. Using a personal narrative to find a way into an idea or belief might really infuse your writers with the conviction they need to write about ideas with pluck and confidence. Every piece of writing has a purpose and audience — and it takes a bit of time to cultivate a sense of audience as a writer. Very cool idea – the hybrid.

  2. Reblogged this on learninginthetechworld and commented:
    So is this maybe the idea of looking for ways to engage students and move beyond our current methods. Nothing earth shattering but good teaching always does look for ways to engage learners on their terms.

  3. Hi Ben- Can you share your presentation or any other information about your session? I am intrigued by this concept as it seems to be such an amazing way for students to learn how to write!

  4. Ben says:

    Lorri et al:

    The presentation, an example of the essay and the questions, and the rubric I used to grade the essays are available at my website:

    http://cais.bengott.com

  5. Pingback: Teaching the five-paragraph essay « Write on the World

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