Teaching Meaningful Writing: Ditch Lit-Crit and the Five-Paragraph Essay (Part Two)

Part Two: Reflective Writing

As I stated in the previous entry, I encourage teachers to provide writing instruction for meaningful assignments. By meaningful assignment, I mean anything that motivates students to view writing as relevant beyond the four walls of a classroom, as an activity that transcends grades, as a process through which they reach an audience aside from the teacher. In the previous entry, I explored the process analysis as a strong starting point for a writing curriculum. In this genre, writers directly serve audiences by explaining how to do accomplish a multi-step project or activity while analyzing how each part of their instructions contributes to the whole. Students, therefore, begin by writing for broader audiences while practicing writing traits (clarity, organization, and analysis) that will serve them throughout the course and their writing careers.

At the end of the course, I assign a reflective essay (though, with seniors, many of whom have college and scholarship applications due earlier, I may assign the essay mid-way through). The same tenets of assigning writing apply: I share professional and personal samples; students have time to do freewriting and other invention exercises; drafting, revising, and editing are essential.

Students tend to struggle with one particular aspect of reflective writing, and that is, the topic is almost completely wide open, so long as it is written as a reflection (i.e., not expository, persuasive, academic analysis, etc.). The thought “I can write about anything” challenges students. I suggest drawing a T-chart as part of invention. Place specific events on the left and broader implications on the right. Take ten minutes or so to write about each horizontal coupling to see if the topic is interesting and viable for exploration.

Show students an example of specific incidents and topics they might suggest on a T-chart.


I ask them to simply start by reviewing the past week of their lives and trying to identify a moment that caused them to think more deeply about that moment’s implications in their lives. For example, maybe they saw someone leave a cafeteria table without throwing away their trash, leaving it for a custodian or a kind stranger. This might spark thoughts about personal responsibility or, by extension, environmental concerns. I recommend recent, small events so that they will have more vivid memories of them—they will need to appeal to sensory details to place readers in that moment. If they choose what they consider to be monumental events that occurred six months, a year, or even six years earlier, I encourage them to weigh how they thought about the event then versus its meaning now. For example, maybe they will choose to write about their parents’ divorce (a common topic). What do they see now that they did not see then? How can they add vivid details that differentiate their experience from that of millions of other kids? With that kind of lure towards banality in mind, I warn them to be careful about writing about their best summer vacation ever or that life-altering volunteer experience when they saw first-hand poverty and now purportedly appreciate every gift they have. Such dramatic pronouncements by sixteen-year-olds ring woefully dubious.

2008-05-17 04.38.16
Remember; your students probably have not had many truly “life-altering” moments, yet. Young Logan (R) is still on her way to becoming an acclaimed recording artist.

Unfortunately, though, too many college essays ask questions (e.g., “Recall a moment that shaped your personal philosophy…”) that are more pertinent to 40-year-olds with life experience and perspective. I encourage focusing on the small stuff, the little moments that did not change everything. These moments can be thought-provoking, too, and can give the students ample opportunity to showcase their writing skills, their ability to think critically, and their unique personalities.


Sometimes, as Amy Devitt proposes, genre can be a creative force. That is, once the students understand the genre—in this case, a personal reflection—they can identify their unique messages that fit within it. Of course, they must understand this genre of reflective essay. As Devitt writes, “Knowing the genre…means knowing such things as appropriate subject matter, level of detail, tone, and approach as well as the usual layout and organization” (577). To this end, I offer the following observations that students should recognize within the samples they read:

  • Personal reflections often begin in medias res. Hence, once they’ve identified a moment that sparks a reflection, frequently, they can begin by providing a brief, but vivid description of it. If they are moved to write by the car wreck they had last week, I want to hear the collision.
  • Alternate between levels of specificity. This does not mean that the writer needs to return to the same instigating incident, but that other comparable moments can be referenced. Or perhaps, they can write about specific fall-out from the incident. The point is, no one benefits much from five hundred words describing that time when you saved a man from drowning followed by a single paragraph on the sanctity of life or the virtues of heroism (both of which, it should be noted, lead to trite observations—see next point). Likewise, few people want to read five sentences about when you receive gossip about a best friend followed by five hundred words in which you dwell in the abstract of defining friendship and its duties sans further examples.
  • Reflective essays can, nay, should be bold, should challenge conventions in some respect. If the student is writing about getting dumped two years ago, then waxes wise about “time healing all wounds,” who cares? I’d rather read from an author who challenges age-old “truisms.” Explore how little solace comes from hearing someone say “time heals all wounds” in the wake of your relationship’s collapse. This speaks to the next aspect…
  • Essays are about “trying out” new ideas. The word “essay” is derived from the French word meaning “to try out.” Here is where students, now veterans of a writing class, need to become astutely aware of the competition their thoughts and words have outside the classroom. A teacher has to read the students’ work; it’s part of the job. A peer revision partner, too, must suffer through drafts of rubbish (or at least feign the attempt). The same is ostensibly true for the college admissions officer and scholarship committee member. But if those readers feel like they’ve read the same essay from a thousand other students—only written with more panache—then the thick envelope with the acceptance letter or the scholarship offer will find its way into someone else’s mailbox. Sorry to disappoint with this digression into dollars and cents, but if students are jaded by attempts to teach writing that they see as irrelevant, maybe this will jar their attention.

    You don’t need to be a Hall 0f Famer with over 3,000 career hits to have experiences worth exploring. Like Craig Biggio, though, you must prepare and practice.
  • In the reflective essay, the writer’s voice is less academic. Yes, in the literary analysis of Flannery O’Connor’s use of setting, you want an academic tone and want a thesis at the end of your introduction. You write that piece backed by research with confidence and authority. With the reflective essay, ignore those instincts. Avoid pedantry. Don’t tell me about your mission trip and assert that everyone should take a similar trip and learn your values. Be conversational. Contractions are ok. So are fragments. One sentence paragraphs? Absolutely. In fact, most paragraphs should be fairly short. Include dialogue. This is not a hall-pass to be sloppy and ignore every convention of standard written English, but it is an opportunity to be yourself, not the dressed-up version of yourself who analyzed Fitzgerald’s use of ghost imagery in The Great Gatsby.

    Voice matters. A reflective essay is performance, not singing the scales.
  • Questions are okay. In fact, unanswered questions are okay. Since you are not portraying yourself as an authority, it is fine to convey your uncertainty. Perhaps your reflection takes you to a larger societal point of debate. In the argumentative essay, you state a side and defend it. In an expository essay, you outline the points of discussion. Here, it’s okay to ask, “What should I do?” Maybe you witnessed another student cheating and know that the student faces a lot of parental pressure to perform at the highest academic standards. There are a lot of factors at play in deciding how to respond. Was this a one-time occurrence? Is this your business in the first place? What will you accomplish by confronting your friend? What will be the results of telling the teacher? The parents? Does your friend need help handling overwhelming academic pressure? How can you provide help? Could this friend’s dishonesty make it easier for you to cheat? Now, of course, if you believe there is one course of action that you must take, then perhaps the reflection will be on the consequences. But if you land on a point of absolute moral certitude, the essay might lack the tone you want.
  • Concluding paragraphs matter. Since you have not written to prove a point, so to speak, you did not have a thesis for the reader to dwell upon from the first paragraph onward. The conclusion matters more since this is where you and readers part ways. What do you want readers considering as they continue their journeys? Avoid wasting their time with summaries. Avoid ensuring the readers never return by moralizing. As with any paper, avoid ending with a vague quote. If you want to end with a question for readers to consider, that’s fine. If you want to come back to the introduction, place the readers back in that situation with another bit of dialogue or detail (“I stood transfixed by how loud fire engines really are”), then that can bring back emphasis to this significant event. Leave the reader enlightened, but not chastised; informed, but not wary that there will be a test; thinking and feeling and maybe even judging; but not indifferent.
  • Get feedback from someone you trust. This is true with all papers, to some extent. But if you are sharing something personal, then this is especially true. Make sure that your incident does connect to the generalizations you suggest. If it is for a college application or scholarship, make sure your ideas are on topic. There’s nothing worse than falling in love with a concept and trying to fit it into someone else’s expectations only to realize that you’ve strayed from what was asked. Oh, wait; there is something worse: not realizing the disconnect. If you think the time you jumped from a burning plane changed how you approach life, you better be sure and have evidence that it did. If going to Disney with your grandparents made you consider their mortality, then the essay better express this and there needs to be some connection between “the happiest place on earth” and your realization that death is undefeated. A trusted revision partner can help ensure that you have made logical assumptions and presented reasonable concerns.

The reflection is an overt departure from the process analysis that begins the course. Uncertainty versus certainty. Rigidity versus freedom. Focus on the external versus focus on the internal. I would never ask students to read their personal essays out loud. I also am reluctant to put numbers (grades) on them, though I do. By this point in the term, their writing should be at its best, and the number one thing to consider is, “Did the piece work?” Ultimately, that’s the only grade that creators of real writing receive.

Work Cited

Devitt, Amy. “Generalizing about Genre: New Conceptions of an Old Concept.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 44, no. 4, 1993.



2 thoughts on “Teaching Meaningful Writing: Ditch Lit-Crit and the Five-Paragraph Essay (Part Two)

  1. Hi Hunter,
    As I’ve told you in the past, I often read your posts before anyone else’s. I LOVE your voice and it certainly shines through on your blog. I am considering copying your bullet points (with your permission, of course) to use next year in my teaching. They are brilliant in their simplicity, and a common sense approach to writing. I LOVE this post! Don’t change a thing!


    1. Thank you, Andrea. I hope to write a book on teaching writing—one that’s less academic than my research—or a textbook that I could teach writing from. Your input and encouragement give me hope. Stay tuned for my next entry. It’s delayed by my lack of planning and a crippling lack of internet. Everything is being done from my phone on LTE, but I am not posting my blog that way.


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