The First Essay

English essays. Some of us love them, some of us hate them. But regardless, we all write them. Fear not, however, because I’m not writing to provide advice, or make you feel bad about the quality of your writing. Instead, I’d like to reflect upon the aspects of English classes that have room for improvement, specifically the absence of guidelines surrounding the first essay of the term.

It always takes a certain amount of time to adapt to a new teacher. This is understandable, as no teacher teaches or grades the same way as another. Math teachers have different opinions on how much work students should be required to show, chemistry teachers have varying views on units, and so on. However, this disparity is larger among English teachers, who often look for different things in students’ writing. Students often struggle the first few weeks to understand what is expected of them. English teachers tend to forget that students come from different teachers with unique standards of writing. This confusion about expectations often manifests itself in the First Essay.

The First Essay is always a frustrating moment of uncertainty. Students will stare at their essay topic, aimlessly searching for the best approach to meet the teacher’s expectations. They read and reread instructions, wondering what writing style and structure their teacher will like best. After a period of dramatics, perhaps including a sigh or two, the student will let words flood their page, hoping the writing expectations they abided by will lead the teacher to make the coveted comment: “this is exactly what I was looking for.”

The First Essay of the term is a source of unnecessary stress for students, and with clarification of expectations, it is easily preventable. The dearth of clear guidelines on what type of writing the teacher is looking for forces students to waste time trying to read their teacher’s minds. Some teachers encourage structure, some encourage creativity, and some prefer a combination of both, but without clear communication, students have no way of knowing what approach they should take. Before the First Essay, it’s almost impossible to understand what the teacher seeks out, and it’s therefore difficult to even begin learning from the teacher until after receiving feedback on the first paper. This might only happen weeks into the term. Inevitably, when this first paper is returned, students discover that their teachers had a slew of additional expectations that did not appear on the rubric. Only after understanding these additional expectations can students work towards improving their writing.

There are so many ways to avoid the initial stress of determining the expectations for a new English class. As someone who has read a lot of syllabi in the past few weeks, I think it would be easy to explicitly integrate writing expectations into the curriculum. Simple techniques, like providing examples of essay structures the teacher expects, or including a brief paragraph about the specific teacher’s ideas regarding essay writing, could be employed. For instance, if I were writing a syllabus for my previous class, I would write the following: “In my class, I encourage students to explore new ideas in their essays. I think it’s important to play around with structure, and add some creativity into your essay. Your thesis doesn’t necessarily have to appear in the first paragraph, nor do I require you to write a specific number of paragraphs. Keep the basic idea of an essay, but you do not need to abide by a set of strict rules.” This shows both what the teacher is looking for, and what to avoid. This goes beyond a typical rubric, which often overlooks these more subjective elements of an essay, and creates clear guidelines that more adequately support students in their writing. As students, our job is to learn and improve, and we can learn so much more if teachers were to effectively communicate their expectations early on. Having teachers employ these techniques would encourage open communication between students and teachers, allow for a smoother start to the term, and bring students one essay closer to success.