Advanced essay training

Last night, three of our veteran "essay specialists" came back for some advanced training in the art of helping students find and tell their best stories, and how to do it ethically so we don't take over the process.  If you work with students to help them with college essays, here are a few of the tips we taught.

1. Before you jump in and brainstorm, spend five minutes getting the kid to relax a little bit. 

Dentists do this before they start drilling.  They ask you questions about where you’re vacationing.  We do the same thing with kids.  Before you start asking a student which activity meant the most to him, just chat for five minutes.  It will help the kid relax and be more open about his stories.   

2. Always ask the kid if he’s got any ideas about what he wants to write. 

It's the student's essay, not ours.  Just because we have a great process to help kids find their stories doesn't mean we should ignore whatever ideas a student already has. So ask. 

3. Don’t just sit in silence while you read the student’s responses. 

Our students type long responses to our 20 brainstorming questions.  It takes a while for us to read through them before we discuss them.  But while we read, we don't want the student to feel like a teacher is grading her test right in front of her.  So ask questions, or even just say, “Oh, that’s good.”  Give some feedback as you go to let the student know he's doing fine.

4.  Don’t hold back when you like one of their responses.
 
Enthusiasm is contagious.  A student will feel encouraged when you get excited and say, “What a minute.  You're on the football team AND you play the tuba?!?  I've never heard of that before.  You've got to tell me more about that." 

5.    “Forget the essay.  It’s just you and me talkin’ now…”

If a student seems reserved, or if you can sense that he's more enthusiastic about a topic than he's letting on, take the essay reins off and say,

"Forget the essay.  It's just you and me talkin' now…” 

Physically set your notes down when you say it.  Watch how much more enthusiastic and relaxed the student gets.

6.  When you see an example of great writing in their brainstorming responses, highlight it, show it to them, and explain why it’s good. 

We want students to understand what good writing looks like.  When you're reading their brainstorming responses and you see examples of good detail, or funny lines, or just a great turn of phrase, circle it, point it out and explain why it's good.  Then tell him, “That’s what I want you to do in your essays!”

7. Ask the student to explain the stories back to you. 

We don't want to tell the story for a student.  So rather than say, "In the second paragraph, you can describe how your coach got angry when the starting fullback quit, and how he asked you to take his place."  Instead, ask the student, "So, tell me again what happened when that player quit…" Make them tell the story and recall their own details.

8. Warn kids that “Track changes” makes things look a lot worse than they are.

We love the "Track changes" feature in Microsoft Word.  But most students are used to associating markings on an essay with errors.  The first time a kid opens a draft with changes marked, it looks a lot worse than it is, especially given that even your positive feedback looks like red-penned editing.  So warn a student.  Tell him, "Don't be alarmed when you see the draft.  The track changes looks like a blood bath but a lot of what I've written is to comment on what you did well!"

9. Don’t be afraid to use the “Show, don’t tell” concept in your comments.

We tell kids that good writing is descriptive.  So are good comments from editors!  Sometimes the best way to explain something to a student is to show him what you mean, but use examples that the student couldn’t just lift and use himself.

    For example, a student writes:

"Now as a senior, I am taking AP psychology and I find myself engrossed in the course.  The “theory of the fundamental attribution error” and the “foot-in-the-door phenomenon” are now phrases that have been incorporated into my daily vocabulary." 

    And the editor comments:

"Great example!  Can you give one or two more specific examples of how you use or think about these concepts?  It’s more believable if you say something specific like (and I’m totally making this up because I don’t know what these concepts mean AT ALL!), 'I used to think that the reason my brother lied to other kids I and told them I wet the bed until I was 12 was just because he was mean.  Now I know that he’s not only mean, but he’s also possibly suffering from fundamental attribution error.'" 

If you're trying to get a soccer player to give you more detail, write a sample for him…using a golfer or a poker player as an example.  Just don't use a soccer playing example because the kid will want to use what you've written. 

10.    Don’t forget to insert praise in your comments, too.

We're not just editors here; we're also teachers.  If all you do is point out what needs to be changed, improved or revised in an essay, it's discouraging for the student.  So always include some sincere praise.  Show the kid what he did right.  Insert the occasional “I love that line” or “Good example!” into your comments. It will keep the student engaged and leave him more inclined to accept your constructive criticism.