Imitate This: Modeling Essays for Students

by Neil R. Wells

Do you remember the last time you wrote a 500-word essay on the causes of crime or a 750-word comparison of Henry David Thoreau’s and Malcolm X’s views of civil disobedience? Chances are that for most, it has been a long time. So how about it? Give one of your own assignments that old college try and share your resulting essay with your class. I do my own assignments as often as I can and distribute the copies of my essays to my students as a way of explaining their assignments and teaching various aspects of writing. I believe, in conjunction with other methods, the benefits of using this approach to teaching writing are many.

One reason I do my own assignments is to show my students’ essays in the same format as the ones they will submit. Seeing a completed assignment laser printed on 8 1/2" by 11" copy paper with one-inch margins makes the assignment seem less daunting, for every student in the room knows with certainty that she can make her essay look right, even if only at arm’s length from the eye. This is no joke. Think about how often students fixate on insignificant questions when you are explaining a paper assignment. They keep asking you about the title, cover, fastener and word count because these are the aspects of the essay that they can control. Showing students, especially Developmental students, that they can make their essays look right, helps them feel confident that they can do the required work.

Another reason I write essays for my class is to show them writing that conforms to the rules of grammar I have taught them. Few professional writers are so scrupulous, and their inconsistencies are often a source of frustration for struggling students. I promise my classes that if they are able to follow our rules, then they won’t have trouble with their grammar. Showing them that I follow my own instruction bolsters my case.

In addition, having a real piece of writing to demonstrate the rules at work is a great way to reinforce their grammar instruction. For example, I can say, “Notice in this sentence the clause beginning with the word ‘that’. It’s essential to the meaning of the sentence; therefore, I didn’t trap the clause in commas.” My sentence shows to the students a relative clause that is restrictive and meaningful as opposed to those dopey single sentences in grammar books that so obviously exist only to teach the student about restrictive relative clauses.

In addition to explaining grammar, I use my own essays to explain aspects of composition. For instance, I believe it is important for students to be able to recognize and write subtopics within an essay that do not parrot the words of the general thesis. With my own essay, carefully constructed to demonstrate this purpose, I can show them how my topic sentences support the thesis without regurgitating the words of the thesis. With a thesis such as, “Sometimes intelligent, otherwise sound people will exhibit self-destructive behaviors,” I can show students how a topic sentence such as, “Often the need for attention will cause people to sabotage their own best interests,” belongs within the thesis without repeating the words of the thesis.

As I read my essay to the class, I explain how I wrote it. I tell my students what I was thinking while composing individual passages. I tell them what is not in the essay, those ideas that did not make the cut because I realized they were redundant, irrelevant, indulgent or just plain stupid. I explain how jumbled the ideas originally were when my unpredictable mind generated them; then I show the students how I moved the sentences around so that related ideas live together in harmony linked by the proper transitions. Then, I ask the students if they can see the essay’s unity and summarize what I have attempted to communicate so that we can discuss how successfully the essay has accomplished its goals.

Obviously, in order to have this intimate knowledge of how something was written, you have to write the essay yourself. The benefits far outweigh the efforts. Taking that knowledge of the process of a specific writing into the classroom is a very useful tool. You can talk to your students as a writer, and they can then relate to you as writers themselves, thinking like writers, meaning that they are thinking about the process of writing. Remember, what we are really teaching is not composition but composing, the ability to write. A well-written student essay is not the goal of the class; rather, a finished essay is only the evidence that proves the student has attained, and hopefully will maintain, the ability to compose. By giving students access to your process of composition, you help them to develop an awareness of their own, which hopefully will make them more mindful and deliberate when they are writing.

To further cultivate this awareness of the writing process, I encourage my students to critique my work. I say to them that just because it is my name under the title does not mean everything about the essay has to work. I ask them how I can make the essay better to encourage them to develop the facility for thinking constructively about improving their own work. Always they offer thoughtful comments, even useful criticisms; I take it all in stride because I now have the responsibility of modeling receptive behavior when having my own work evaluated. Later, when I am giving them feedback on their essays, my sense is that the students are more accepting of my criticism of their work, for they understand the nature of this professional exchange and know it is not a personal reproach.

Possibly the most obvious reason to give students sample essays is to clarify specific assignments. Examples convey instruction that even the clearest and most precise explanations cannot. They give students the “feel” for the intent of the assignment. So often students will say, upon seeing one of my essays, “Now I get it,” or the more pointed, “Now I understand what you want.” Indeed. Writing the example yourself is a great way to show students exactly what you, their eventual grader, are expecting from them. By giving them this portrait of your criteria, you are building their confidence that they can meet your specific expectations.

Come to think of it, many students come to college, especially to Developmental English, without ever having read the kinds of essays that they are being asked to write. Often students enter Developmental courses never having read a categorization essay or book review; they then go on to college level composition never having seen a research paper or an explication of a text. From these students’ perspectives, an assignment does not ask them to produce a work in an understood form, it asks them to invent the form. Understood this way, it seems unrealistic and unfair to ask them to produce what they cannot even imagine.

Beyond exposing students to a specific form of writing, I do my own assignments to show a possibility, thus opening them up to the possibilities, of what can be done with an assignment. In the introduction to Slow Learner, Thomas Pynchon, while describing what authors who emerged in the 1950s did for his own work, writes, “Allowed! It was actually OK to write like this! Who knew? The effect was exciting, liberating, strongly positive.” For some students, seeing how I have interpreted an assignment and performed within its form is the permission they need to internalize an assignment and see their work as something truly their own. When this happens, the results are as exciting as they are unexpected, and it becomes a triumph for these students when I ask them to share their inspired essays with the class to help me demonstrate quality writing.

Not only will your students have a better understanding of the assignment, but so will you. By doing my own assignments, I can spot their occasional flaws or lack of clarity and then make the necessary modifications in class before students are too far along in their work. I can better appreciate the problems they will have and their difficulties with writing in general. Doing my own assignments makes me more sympathetic to their struggles, for I do not let myself forget just how hard it is to make an essay coherent and whole.

Another important reason I do my own assignments is to show my students that I can. Proving that I have the skills they are paying me to teach them, I believe, is an important step in earning their trust. I find students are more receptive to instruction once they believe in the credibility of its source. I would not take flight lessons from a pilot who refused to get in the plane with me nor guitar lessons from a guitarist who refused to play me a song. An instructor’s own writing is, or should be, her best credentials.

Finally, I do my own assignments because I care about my students, and I want them to know that they and their success are valued by me personally. Doing your own assignments powerfully asserts your dedication to them. On the first day that I distribute an essay to a class, the appreciation I feel from the students is palpable; everyone in the room knows that at some time I shut off the TV and turned on the computer just for them. I chose teaching as a profession because at some point I decided that words are worth more than money and that people, students specifically, are worth my time. Possibly the best reason for doing my own assignments is precisely because I do not have to do them, and this information is something every student knows without ever having to be told.

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