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The Journey Is Everything

Teaching Essays That Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them

Redefining the essay as a more authentic writing practice.

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"In the electric, pulsating world around us, the essay lives a life of abandon, posing questions, speaking truths, fulfilling a need humans have to know what other humans think and wonder so we can feel less alone."
—Katherine Bomer

Sadly, many students only know “essay” as a 5-paragraph, tightly structured writing assignment that must check all the boxes of a standardized formula. How did essays in school get so far away from essays in the world?   Katherine makes a powerful case for teaching the essay as a way to restore writing to think—that it is in fact necessary for students’ success in college and career. “Essay helps students write flexibly, fluently, and with emboldened voices,” she writes in The Journey Is Everything, “qualities they can translate into any assigned writing task in school or in life.” She argues that the close reading of essays fulfills the recommendations of state and national standards, while practice in essay writing leads to better academic and test writing. More importantly, “Essay gives its author the space, time, and freedom to think about and make sense of things, take a journey of discovery, and speak her mind, without boundaries.”

Don’t students deserve the chance to develop their own topics, discover their own writing voices, and learn to structure prose organically, according to the content?  Katherine gives you tools, strategies, and activities to bring a unit on more authentic writing into your practice.  Rediscover the power of the essay to bring out students’ true thinking—their true selves.  Because after all, the journey is everything.

Additional Resource Information

(click any section below to continue reading)


Part I: Informing Our Vision of Essay

Ch. 1: How to Read an Essay Closely

Ch. 2: Reclaiming Essay

Ch. 3: Naming Craft in Essay

Part II:  Translating the Vision to Classroom Practice: How to Write an Essay

Ch. 4: Living Like an Essayist

Ch. 5: Growing Topics into Ideas

Ch. 6: Drafting the Essay

Ch. 7: Shaping and Fine-Tuning the Essay

Part III: Transferring the Vision of Essay to Academic Writing

Ch. 8: Studying Essay Can Improve Academic Writing

Ch. 9: Assessing Essay

Afterword: Let Them Be Heroes

Guest Essays:

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater: Drop-Off Cats

Katie Wood Ray: You Are What You Eat

Randy Bomer: What I Want to Be...

Randy Bomer: There Is a Hercules of Everything

Vicki Vinton: The Thing About Cats

Georgia Heard: Querencia

Isoke Titilayo Nia: The List

Gianna Cassetta: Ice Girls

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich: They Don't Tell You About That

Deb Kelt: Tattoos: Marked for Life

Lester Laminack: You Didn't Know Me Then

In Depth

My dream in this book is to occupy essay! I want to reboot the original name of it—essais: little attempts, experiments, trials—and bring essay writing back to its exploratory roots. I want to take the noun, essay, and convert it to the verb, essaying, as Paul Heilker suggests (1996, 180), to describe the trying out we do when we write. When I sit beside students in writing workshops and ask, “What are you working on in your writing?” I hope to hear something like one of my former fifth graders once said: “Well, I’m essaying how it’s weird that all us kids are friends and work together in this class, but at lunch, we sit in little groups with our own . . . um . . . colors . . . races? . . . and stuff. And does that mean those are our real friends and not the ones in the class? And why do we do that?”

In this book, I’ll ask you to occupy beautiful and brilliant essays, what Robert Atwan calls “the sparkling stuff ” featured in his annual Best American Essays series, to create possible models for how to teach essay in ways that will let students discover what they think and want to say. Beginning in Chapter 1, you’ll read closely two spectacular examples by Brian Doyle and Dagoberto Gilb just to see and hear and be moved, and to say, “Ah, this. This is it!” Chapter 2 defines explicitly what essay is and is not; then in Chapter 3, I use excerpts from published essays to name specific craft features you can show students. I also suggest how to help students read mentor texts to develop their own definitions of essay.

The chapters in Part 2 of the book will show you how to teach students to develop ideas into essays. We’ll explore the writer’s notebook as a place to generate, store, and experiment with material (Chapter 4) and then as a place to collect thinking and thickly texture the material to elaborate an essay idea (Chapter 5). Chapter 6 offers strategies for the move from notebooks to first drafts, and then Chapter 7 shows how to help students revise drafts and find a shape and structure without formulas.

As you consider how to teach your students to write essays, I invite you to write along with them because being a writer of your own essay will anchor your understandings and your knowledge of the content and process of writing. You can then teach from “what writers really do,” a phrase I borrow from Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton, authors of What Readers Really Do (2012), who argue so eloquently for teachers to look to our own reading experiences to know how to teach reading. Our authentic experiences “need to serve as our rudder as we navigate through curricula and standards, data and assessments” (46).

In Part 3 of the book, I show how practicing essay writing can indeed lead to powerful and well-written academic writing (Chapter 8), and I explore assessment that honors the essay’s open-ended and organic essence (Chapter 9). Finally, in the Afterword, I cap off my argument and sound a clarion call for making time to write essays in schools.


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