Essays vs. Stories

Tim reminded me in a comment on my last entry that I should really be doing more writing about being a teacher, and I’ve had it in mind to do an entry about this assignment I gave my students in American history after the start of the new semester at the end of January.  The assignment was simple enough:

Write a story about a President, written in such a way that it would be understandable by a third grader, and appeal to them.

How deceptively simple this assignment appeared at first glance, and how much of a shibboleth it appears to be now!  I’ve spent a good deal of time reading these essays over the last week of vacation; I’ve been trying to read one or two of them a day, sometimes more.  I still have a good many to go through, and that’s dismaying.

What’s really dismaying, though, is how many of them are simply not stories.  It’s not that these writings are bad stories, or that they’re stories in need of a little (or a lot of) editing.  It’s that these writings are essays — short pieces of writing often based on the author’s personal point of view.  They’re full of the analytical detail and factual evidence that makes a good essay, of course.  But they’re short on the liveliness and personal detail that makes a good story.

Wikipedia explains to me that the definition of an essay is a little vague, probably for good reason.  It comes from the French verb essayer, meaning ‘to try’, and these bits of student writing are certainly trying to be stories.   The fact that they’re not stories is all the more frustrating.

Students certainly need to write essays. They’re going to be writing essays for most of their school careers.  But outside of journalism (magazines such as The Atlantic and Harper’s publish essays, and the Op-Ed pages of newspapers are full of essays), and academia, who else writes them?

I discussed this with a friend and colleague of mine who teaches at the college level, and she agreed. “The best historians write stories that happen to be factually true,” she said.  “They don’t write a lot of essays… really more like non-fiction novels.” That suggests that as a history teacher, I should do a better job of teaching history students to write non-fiction short stories.

It’s clear that such instruction would be counter-intuitive, and go against the grain of the vast majority of American practice.  Would it put my students at an advantage or a disadvantage in their academic careers to learn how to write a different way?  How would I have to vary my instruction? Should I go 50-50% on essay vs. story instruction?  How would I change my reading assignments so they were better prepared to write stories rather than essays?

I’m not sure.  I am conscious that I have way more of these essays-for-third-graders to read, assess and grade before going out to dinner tonight, so it’s time to stop blogging for now, and do my duty as a teacher.

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3 comments

  1. “Students certainly need to write essays. They’re going to be writing essays for most of their school careers. But outside of journalism (magazines such as The Atlantic and Harper’s publish essays, and the Op-Ed pages of newspapers are full of essays), and academia, who else writes them?”

    Bloggers, such as yourself, and likely many of your students. Writing from the first person is encouraged via blogs, FB, Twitter, and all the rest to the point that it is probably natural for your students in a way that “storytelling” is not. The majority of what is perceived of as the “best” contemporary nonfiction is story-driven; see also Creative Nonfiction’s byline (True Stories. Well Told). What were you looking for from your students, exactly? The word “story” may not carry the same meaning now as it did when we were their age–i.e., they may think that “story” = fiction, and they don’t have the authority to make something up about a real person’s life, so the only authority they do have is over their own thoughts, so they wrote a story about their thoughts about a President.

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