Sunday, December 10, 2017

On Writing Essays

I have been doing a lot more writing this week than usual. In particular, I’ve been working on essay writing - a genre of writing I love to read but hate to write. For me, when I am crafting an essay, I struggle in many ways, but in particular, in bringing an essay to a satisfying conclusion, avoiding my writing “birdwalks,” and in communicating my message with sincerity. I know that I don’t have to write like George Saunders or even as if I am submitting a piece for The New Yorker, yet I want to write in a meaningful, yet powerful and unique manner. Writing essays makes me keenly aware of my shortfalls as a writer.

This time I am not writing an essay to use for the purpose of writing with my students as a model for them or even as a way for me to remember the moves of a writer so I can determine better mini lessons in my instruction. I am crafting three essays as a part of an intimidating application process for an educational opportunity that I would be thrilled if I was accepted into. I deeply care about the ideas I’ll be presenting and how well I communicate them through my writing.

I want these pieces of writing to matter.

As I have been mulling over ideas in response to the essay question prompts, I’ve been timing myself and using the method of a writing a Quick Write to generate ideas. I have even read parts of my Quick Write out loud to myself so I can select which ideas and phrases I like. It’s messy and sometimes awkward work, but this process often works for me.


This time, I found myself stuck.
This time, writing a Quick Write just heightened my anxiety about my writing.
This time, ideas from my Quick Write just confused me more.    

Then I remembered Gretchen Bernabei’s brilliant, yet simple strategy of writing Kernel Essays.

Currently, I am involved in a C3WP Cohort from the National Writing Project. Although the focus of C3WP is argument, I have picked up so many ideas that can extend to other genres of writing, including improving my own skills as a writer (and teacher of writers). One of those ideas is Gretchen Bernabei’s Kernel Essays from her helpful writing resource called Reviving the Essay (Discover Writing Press, 2005).  Bernabei explains how students can use a Kernel Essay as a way to help writers develop and structure writing. On page 21 Bernabei shares the steps in writing a Kernel Essay:

  1. Write the prompt at the top of the page.
  2. Underneath the prompt select a text structure. (Reviving the Essay has several great examples, but a writer can also create his or her own structure.) Draw the boxes to follow the writing structure, and write a sentence in each text box.
  3. Instruct the writer to read each box/sentence out loud to a listener.

I’ve found Kernel Essays helpful in my writing but also as a fantastic way to assist students in structure instead of using the dreaded Five Paragraph Essay.

Below is my attempt at a Kernel Essay as a part of my thinking so far for one of my essay prompts:
One of my Kernel Essays

Just like my Quick Writes, it is still messy writing, but I feel like I have a better focus with a structure in mind. Writing a Kernel Essay helped me. It helps me narrow some big, broad questions.

I have a lot of hard work ahead of me in crafting each essay. I know that I will continue to play with my words and phrases for each piece. This will involve rereading, rewriting, and rereading and rewriting some more. Yet, so far, since I have started writing these three essays, I am reminded of (and celebrate) these three powerful lessons:

  • The difference it makes in my writing when it is for something real that I care about,
  • How writing can be challenging, even for writers who love writing (and are already in a habit of daily writing), and
  • As teachers, we can teach writers structures in ways beyond the 5 Paragraph Essay, such as Kernel Essays.  

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