But essays don't have to be boring and students don't have to fail. Essays can be playful; they can be as personal and provocative as poetry and stories; they can shake their fists and shout, "Injustice!" or shake us with laughter. As I tell my students, "As long as you've got an opinion, you can write an essay." And hearing them talk, I know they've got opinions.
Before we start our lesson on "Essays With An Attitude," I tape one of my published articles to the board. The one I'm currently using has 10 drafts. I stick the notes written on Starbucks' napkins and the backs of envelopes; the crossed-out sections, the writing on the back where I redrafted the opening, notes to myself about research needed for my next revision. I include the drafts where Bill Bigelow, my partner, fellow writer and teacher, scribbled notes in the margins. Following the drafts, I tape the letter I sent to an editor, the response and the final publication. I want students to see that writing is messy and sometimes hard. And like anything worth pursuing, it takes time, commitment, and practice.
In her portfolio evaluation, my student Claire wrote that seeing how many times I reworked my piece before getting it "right," gave her courage to let go. She knew she could come back and revise, so she didn't have to worry over every word she wrote. On the other hand, my student Naaman said, "Maybe I better transfer to another class if it took you that many times to get it right."
Writing an essay with an attitude is about taking a position and backing it up. It's a sustained, rehearsed argument with a parent, friend or teacher, newscaster, magazine writer, advertiser, or the broader society. I begin by asking students: "What makes you angry? What gets on your nerves, under your skin? What makes you want to scream when you see a movie, a commercial, or the news? Are there times when you want to shake someone in the middle of a conversation? Are there things about school that you just can't stand?" (This one is always good for one section of the black board and a stick of chalk.)
Students make lists of what raises their hackles. Then we "share the wealth" and write their ideas on the board: Curfews, suspensions, time-out rooms in a high school for tardy students, violence in the neighborhood, boring books in English classes, lack of uniforms for the soccer team, support for women's sports compared to men's, the way African Americans and Latinos are portrayed on the news, how overweight women or dark-skinned women never get to be the sexy lead. The lists go on and on.