Teaching analytical writing: Getting students to care

In my teaching career, I’ve learned so much about teaching writing—but little of that knowledge came from an educational book. Most of what I’ve learned has been through hard-won experience, through assignments and techniques that bombed and then through tweaking and tweaking until I finally created something successful.

And so much of what I’ve learned about writing has boiled down to this:  students must care deeply about what they’re writing.

Caring deeply is relatively easy with a creative piece or poetry or memoir.  But with analytical writing, it’s harder.  When I started teaching analytical writing, I chose assignments that allowed students to use a highly-structured five-paragraph essay format with prompts like, “Write about three significant symbols in Lord of the Flies” or “Analyze the three most important film elements that the director uses in Of Mice and Men.”  Yes, these essays were well-organized, but students rarely cared deeply about them.

A few years ago, I learned that two of my students were writing a novel on a shared Google Doc and that they had been for months.  These students should have been my star writers—after all, they truly loved writing.  But the analytical essays they wrote felt obligatory and dull.

So I made a change I’ve stuck with every since. For analytical essays, students always choose their own topics.  And I encourage them to press the envelope.  I tell them they can argue anything they want—as long as it applies somewhat to what we read.  In fact, I remind them of The First Great Writing Truth:  The best writing comes when the writer is genuinely interested in her topic.  Argue whatever you want, I say, take a chance, I say, as long as you’re interested—and as long as you can base your ideas on textual evidence.

Recent topics for analytical essays in 8th grade English:  

  • That Batman and Marji from the graphic novel Persepolis experience the same growth in understanding moral complexity.
  • That the country’s experience with Donald Trump mirrors how the Ibo people in Things Fall Apart underestimate the European missionaries.
  • Monsieur Meursault from The Stranger shares many similarities with the dementors from the Harry Potter series.
  • Meursault of The Stranger was abducted by aliens in Chapter 2, and that abduction explains Meursault’s actions in the rest of the novel.
  • Existentialism does not provide a helpful guide to living fully.

So, yes, these are not classic topics for literary analysis.  In fact, many of them are more wacky than sophisticated.  But students were genuinely interested in these topics, and each of these topics produced a successful essay.

The essays students now submit are fundamentally different than the traditional ones I assigned earlier—they crackle with original thinking, wit and beautifully-crafted sentences.  Students are invested and care enough to make their writing good. In fact, these essays do what great essays should:  they examine textual evidence closely, make an original argument, consider broader ideas in a literary work and have moments where the writing sings.  

Students do struggle more with organization—I no longer hand them a template—but it’s because complex ideas are often hard to organize.  

Another reason why I like this “write-whatever-you-want” approach? Students are always at such different places developmentally.  Some are analytical superstars, and some are still developing these skills.  By choosing their own topic, students can think at a level where they are.  

Tight structure, while helpful, is not the ultimate goal of writing.  Why was I teaching it as if it were?

So, what have been your experiences with essay prompts? Keep the conversation going!

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