categories: Cocktail Hour / Don't Talk About Politics / Reading Under the Influence
Sonya Huber and Ioanna Opidee have been meeting for over a year to plot and draft b\ook chapters and essays about teaching the essay—to little kids! to teenagers! to everyone!–and we sat down to try to sum up what we’re doing and how you can help. Our conversations themselves often feel like meandering, experimental essays, so we decided to record ourselves talking, to try to capture the chaos and share it with you today . . .
Sonya: Okay, ummm… why do you care about the essay? Or what are we doing?
Ioanna: What are we doing? (laughter)
Sonya: Why did we start talking initially? We started talking because we both love teaching and we both write essays, and we were both interested in how essaying could fit into all different kinds of writing teaching. And how essayists teach writing. Is that sort of part of it?
Ioanna: Definitely. And I’m always trying to think of ways to bring experimentation into the classroom, and experimentation is central to what the essay is, so essays are a natural way to think about teaching and writing–and about thinking in general.
Sonya: Totally.* Essays are a natural fit for teaching composition.
Ioanna: And I like to have a word for things, and the nice thing about the essay is that it gives us a word for an abstract concept. It becomes a shorthand, in some sense, but there’s this whole history and tradition behind it and supporting it. Before I ran into it, the essay was this thing that was missing from a lot of what I was doing as a writer, teacher, thinker and everything. It gives me a way to speak and to “show my work” as we’ve said.
Sonya: It’s like a container for chaos. And within that, we can do whatever we want. Kind of. But not really. But in a way. I think if you’re a creative writer teaching composition, there’s a question that comes up about why teaching the academic essay isn’t engaging all the parts of students’ brain that could be engaged. The essay is a teaching tool. And then we started talking about the Common Core.
(Digression into important wonkitude. This is the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which is a federal set of new recommendations adopted by the majority of states that will have a huge impact on how children in kindergarten through high school in this country learn in the future. One of the big areas is in writing, and nonfiction is mentioned quite often. The reading is … uh…. dense. My initial concern as I read overviews and reactions to the Common Core was that there doesn’t seem to be room—shocker—for the literary essay. Nonfiction is “informational” and literature is “poetry and fiction.” We’re researching more and trying to see where essaying actually can fit in the Common Core, which is part of our ongoing project, as is tuning in to a raft of books about the Common Core that are trying to make sense of it.)
Sonya: How did we start talking about that? Oh! I started reading something on the Common Core and the new standards for nonfiction, and I started to get all doom-y and scared. (One of Sonya’s hobbies). And then I posted something on Facebook about it. And my friend Kim Whitaker, who is a high school teacher and writer, posted basically that the Common Core is a lot more complicated than you think, there’s essayism possibility in there. And then we got all excited about that. So Facebook brought us all together.
Ioanna: And finding out about the Common Core was really interesting for me too, because I realized there are all these parallel conversations going on and yet we were using very different terms. The essay perhaps gives us the way to bring these conversations about nonfiction together.
Sonya: Part of what led us to the Common Core were our own stories of how we found creative nonfiction and the essay. We were both like, when we found the form, “Oh my god, Form, where have you been all my life?” And we want to figure out how to bring the joy to other people without all the travails and wandering that we encountered. Se we’re essaying missionaries!
Ioanna: Absolutely. I was the type of student who would gravitate toward “this thing,” but I didn’t really have the word for it. The sense of openness, the ability to engage with ideas without feeling like you have to hammer home a thesis sentence, and also picking up different subjects through digression and trying to integrate them into what you’re thinking about… without a word for it, it felt like, “Is this real work? What are we doing?”
Sonya: And we both got that message on some level that the kind of writing we really wanted to do meant there was something wrong with our brains. We just think differently, and it turns out there is a whole crew of people who think this way, and it’s actually very intellectually productive.
Ioanna: And so recognizing it, paying attention to it, and naming it gives us a way to value it more. When we are clear about the form, we can offer also ways to assess it and understand the work the essay does, and to explain it to students and teachers.
Sonya: So that’s exactly why we’re doing a survey: we want to make visible what people are already doing in their classrooms when they teach the literary essay or the moves of “essaying.”
Ioanna: And we want to frame it not as something you can tack on or add on after you’ve done all the other serious writing, but seeing it as an essential part of teaching writing.
Sonya: It’s a method and a path to get to a lot of good stuff.
(*Twelve additional “Totally!”s were uttered by Sonya in the space of five minutes of audio and have been removed in order to translate this into standard English.)
We’re doing a survey that will be live until the end of August. Should you fill it out? Well, Bill Roorbach did, and he’s cool, so if you want to be cool like Bill, you might consider it. If you want more info on the survey itself, there’s a bit more here on Sonya’s blog.
Sonya Huber and Ioanna Opidee are writers teaching at Fairfield University in Connecticut.
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