Literary essay: obvious but unnoticed

My fourth-graders read with giggles and gasps and oh nos. They stop with urgency and reach for their notebooks to write something they must hold on to and then race back to their book. They ask for books by title and author. And when I hand them a new book, they jump and squeal. This is how they read.

Many students take notebooks and pads of paper to recess to create comics and stories. They ping pong off each other’s characters and ideas. There are often cheers when writing workshop starts and groans when it ends.  This is how they write.

This is why I struggle with the idea of literary essays. To ask nine-year-olds to take their developing love of story and turn it into something to be sliced and diced.  Analyzed. Schoolified. Why just when reading and writing are becoming something they enjoy, must we make it something they don’t?  Every year I wrestle with the why.  Some years I’ve simply refused to do the standard work. Having students write their opinions about issues that matter to them; finding relevant support for their ideas is an authentic way to approach opinion writing. The only justification I can manage for writing literary essays at nine is to teach a structure and discipline of thinking about opinion writing.

This year I decided to start it off writing about stories they have heard since kindergarten: Poppleton by Cynthia Rylant and Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel.

At first, they were beside themselves, mimicking the yoo-hoo’s of Cherry Sue. But once they settled into the idea, they got into spirited discussions as to whether Cherry Sue was annoying or thoughtful.  Students came to their ideas with ease: Poppleton is lazy; Toad is caring.

The tricky part has become the process of writing their explanation of their beliefs.  At nine, students can reason verbally in sophisticated ways, however, putting those ideas on paper is a big step. And, this holds true across subject matter. And it makes sense. That’s why the most accessible texts and that give rise to simplistic ideas work. The writing becomes all about the reasoning.

In the past, I’ve asked students to write about Those Shoes by Maribeth Bolts or Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson or Taco Head by Viola Canales.  These are stories students understood and connected to. But they were too much. Students focused on the evidence, not their reasoning. The evidence was the explanation. Also, students held the same beliefs about characters. There was no difference in interpretation. With Poppleton and Frog and Toad, the text is limited. The same evidence resulted in differing opinions, and that required explanation.

I started out this unit unhappily. Wondering why. Wonderfully, I have relearned something fundamental. I knew simple texts pushed bigger thinking in reading, but I failed to implement this understanding in writing. Obvious, but unnoticed.

I wonder and hope my students learn half as much as I do.