Book Review: The Journey is Everything by Katherine Bomer

Mention the word “essay” to any student in my middle school, and they will have this response: their eyes will glaze over, they will sigh, and their shoulders will slump. Mention the word “essay” to any English teacher in my middle school, and (most likely) they will have the same response, too.  For students and teachers alike, learning the essay and teaching the essay are greeted with equal doses of dread and dreariness: the essay, it seems, however critical and necessary to our curriculum, is something we must grit our teeth and get through.  

In her brilliant new book, The Journey Is Everything: Teaching Essays That Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them, Katherine Bomer makes a powerful and passionate case for the joyful embrace of a new vision for teaching our students how to write (and read) the essay.  She asks us to rethink the formulaic five paragraph, thesis statement driven format which both teachers and students have come to regard with bored dismay; she asks us to believe in envisioning the essay as a means by which to teach our students how to think critically about the world and their place in it, of the essay as central to our students’ journey of self discovery:

We have to learn how to be mature thinkers, how to deal with uncertainty, how to contain competing desires and agendas in our decisions.  That is life. We can’t come down too quickly on one side- we have to circle around an idea, see it from another perspective.

I believe that reading and writing essays can teach young people how to explore multiple possibilities, to test out competing propositions, and how to live with uncertainty in their lives. This essay business is decidedly not a wishy-washy curriculum! On the contrary-essay is a rigorous intellectual undertaking.  It takes strength not to rush to form an impenetrable thesis statement.  It takes courage not to reach cognitive closure on everything.

As I work with young people on this more open-ended, ambiguous, and exploratory type of writing, I find that kids who sometimes have difficulty filling out worksheets or coming up with answers to every question can experience excellence with essay.  Essays can give young people a belief in their own voice, show them they can have a center that speaks, a “me” inside them that has something to say and a way to say it.  Essays ask writers to set sail on uncharted waters, with their hearts and minds as compasses.  For these reasons, I will continue to fight for essay’s meaning – to try. (p. 167).

Katherine Bomer builds her case for a new teaching of essay methodology thoughtfully and beautifully, beginning with an immersion into the art and craft of the essay:

Part I: Informing Our Vision of Essay

Ch. 1: How to Read an Essay Closely

Ch. 2: Reclaiming Essay

Ch. 3: Naming Craft in Essay

I loved this section because it shifted my essay point of view away from “the formula” and to a deeper analysis and understanding of what essay is – its history, its variations and structures, its aim of exploring ideas and taking thoughtful stances.  Bomer shows us how to inform our vision of the essay, and to expand our notion of what essay is really meant to do: “The essay pays attention, and its words, “like holy water,” awaken readers to worlds both ordinary and extraordinary, where we can find ourselves and also learn about lives far different from our own.”

This is rich reading and thinking work,which beautifully prepares our students for the writing work that comes in the next section.

Part II:  Translating the Vision to Classroom Practice: How to Write an Essay

Ch. 4: Living Like an Essayist

Ch. 5: Growing Topics into Ideas

Ch. 6: Drafting the Essay

Ch. 7: Shaping and Fine-Tuning the Essay

This was a rich section, beginning with a new vision for generating essay ideas which inspire our students “to want to respond-to send their own voices into the world.”  Bomer gives us a road map of sorts, so that we can teach our students how to talk through, sketch out, and mull over their ideas in their writer’s notebooks.  That, “living like an essayist means being ready for subjects and ideas to appear, expecting the world to keep giving as long as a writer keeps looking and listening.”

We teachers are so quick to assign topics and then move our students along in the writing stages that they often don’t have the time (or learn the habit) of growing their thinking, and to discover where their new thinking leads.  Bomer shows us what thoughtful notebook work looks like, and offers a menu of specific tools and activities for students to “collect information and layer their thinking.”  

Bomer follows thoughtful notebook work with practical suggestions for drafting and revising essays.  What I loved most about this section is that it invites us as teachers to allow our students to understand how the messiness of this stage of writing can lead to inspired and meaningful work – to magic.  I loved this part, which I underlined three times over and bookmarked for reference:

‘In schools, it seems that we rush to fill those moments of confusion students sometimes experience, or we insist that kids, especially the ones who “struggle” with writing, need more structure and scaffolds to prop them up….I think we must help young people learn how to sit with difficulty, offering guidance occasionally, providing time, space, an empathetic ear, and colored markers, but letting them work to the other side and then helping them to name and celebrate precisely what they did to work it out.”

Learning to write essays in this way, empowers our students.  They learn that their voice, crafted into beautiful essays about topics they care deeply about, counts.

In the final section of The Journey is Everything, Bomer makes a compelling argument: essay writing is academic writing, which can be meaningfully assessed:

Part III: Transferring the Vision of Essay to Academic Writing

Ch. 8: Studying Essay Can Improve Academic Writing

Ch. 9: Assessing Essay

She gives us a list of essential features to assess, a “handy menu of items”.  Best of all, she asks us to embrace a braver vision of assessment itself:

“After all even the most inclusive rubric fails to describe the fresh, beautiful writing that many students do, surpassing our own vision for what is possible.  If we read a student’s work first with a beginner’s mind, open to what is there, we can read to be surprised, to come away with a list of ten things a student has done well!”

Essays with “fresh, beautiful writing”.  Yes! This is the writing we want our kids to be engaged in and excited about.  I finished reading The Journey is Everything and could not wait to close our year “essaying”…read this brilliant book, and you will want to as well!