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The Key to Getting Good at Writing a Literary Essay

Last year, I read Beginners: The Power and Pleasure of Lifelong Learning by Tom Vanderbilt. He chronicled a year of adult learning he embarked on as an adult. Vanderbilt shared the power of becoming an adult beginner. After reading the book, I decided I wanted to get good at cookie and cake decorating. I consider myself an excellent baker, but my presentation skills aren’t the best.

I began by creating a two-tier cake for my daughter, Isabelle, in honor of finishing fourth grade (aka: the end of elementary school). It took me five hours — from start to finish — to bake and decorate the cake. This was the end result:

The cake tasted good, but if I’m being truthful with myself, it was lopsided. The frosting looked different all around the cake since I didn’t have a rotating turntable. The fondant flowers were a good attempt, but the cake wasn’t beautiful. While my family and I ate the cake, I was hung up on the fact that my first attempt was less than perfect. However, when thinking about it a day later, I reflected on what I learned about the process of making a cake. I learned how crumb coat a cake. I worked with fondant for the first time. These were accomplishments! Upon reflection, I remembered something Vanderbilt asserted in Beginners:

This speaks to a classic problem faced by beginners: setting unrealistic expectations. It makes little sense to lay down strict goals ahead of time for advancing in some discipline when the novice barely understands what the discipline is, what will be required, or how they’ll actually progress. Unmet goals can destroy motivation as much as they drive it. The objective should be learning itself. “Focus on process, not product,” suggests the learning authority Barbara Oakley. Much of our pain in learning, she argues, comes from getting hung up on results.

I thought about Beginners last week when Isabelle finished a month-long literary essay unit. I reviewed her published essay and felt uneasy about it. I permitted her to prove a claim that wasn’t that strong. While her essay explored an idea, it didn’t have the kind of craft (e.g., deliberate word choices, inviting tone) or elaboration (i.e., a variety of supports) that the mentor texts had. As a result, her essay felt mediocre to me. And, if I’m honest, I chastised myself, as her teacher, for not doing more to help her strengthen it. However, the history and etymology of mediocre means “halfway to the top.” Maybe a mediocre essay wasn’t something for me to feel badly about since it showed that Isabelle was approaching understanding in many aspects of essay writing. For her first-ever literary essay, it was pretty darn good.

Literary essays are tricky to teach upper elementary school students. While many students can write about their reading, crafting an entire literary essay is HARD. (And, if I’m being honest, it’s hard to teach.) Through the years, many teachers I’ve consulted with have asked, “Do I really need to teach the literary essay unit? I don’t think my students are ready for it.” Every time, I said yes. I believe the literary essay is crucial to teach early on since it prepares upper elementary students for the kinds of essays they’ll write in secondary school. Better to endeavor at it repeatedly while young so that writing a literary essay becomes easier the more they do it.

At the end of the literary essay unit, I gave Isabelle an on-demand literary essay so I could get a better sense of what she truly mastered and where she still needs to progress. I provided extended time for her to complete it. (Her IEP provides her with extended time on assessments and assignments so I follow that in a homeschooling setting.) She was nervous. She was unsure of what she’d be capable of doing by herself. She couldn’t imagine pulling off a literary essay in a couple of hours. She had questions, but I wouldn’t answer them — just as I wouldn’t entertain specific questions during an on-demand assessment in a classroom — since I didn’t want to help her. I needed to see what she could do on her own.

Once I read her on-demand literary essay, I discovered it was less of a journey of thought and more of a quickly published piece. But it showed me that she knew how to summarize a text, create a thesis statement, find evidence to support it, and make a personal connection towards the end of the essay. While it wasn’t as sophisticated as I would have liked, her independent attempt demonstrated some understandings of the genre.

Vanderbilt states:

In learning along with our children, by tackling things together as beginners, sharing the pratfalls and little triumphs, we can actually teach them one of the most valuable lessons of all: Just because you’re not immediately good at something does not mean you won’t eventually get it.

Half of a cake for a half birthday.

After I looked over Isabelle’s on-demand literary essay, I reminded her that no one gets good at anything quickly. There are no tricks, no shortcuts. I talked about the cake I made, alongside her little brother, for his half-birthday. We talked about how I’m still learning how to make a well-decorated cake. (True, her little brother went overboard with the ganache, but I was the person who stacked the cakes incorrectly and did a less than ideal job of frosting it.) I reminded Isabelle that just as it will take me more time to become a talented cake and cookie decorator, it will take her writing many more literary essays to get good at it… which is as it should be.

Stacey Shubitz View All

I am a literacy consultant who has spent the past dozen years working with teachers to improve the teaching of writing in their classrooms. While I work with teachers and students in grades K-6, I'm a former fourth and fifth-grade teacher so I have a passion for working with upper elementary students.

I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).

13 thoughts on “The Key to Getting Good at Writing a Literary Essay Leave a comment

  1. Thanks for your post! I think the iterative and developing nature of writing (any genre) is important to remember. Essays, and our skills in writing them, are polished over time and with practice. In reality, mastering one element of the genre also opens the door to being a beginner at another part.
    Question: I’m just finishing up my coursework at university, and I’ll be teaching my first year of high school this fall. Do you have any suggestions/tips for building student engagement and desire to write literary essays? I feel like I’ll be hard pressed to make it something that they want to do.

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  2. This is the day that the word mediocre changed for me thanks to your sharing of the history/etymology. The idea of ‘halfway to the top’ reminds me to focus on the process over product. Thank you. Additionally I appreciate that even when something feels like it is too soon for students to be successful with something, beginning to be familiar with it might be an advantage in the process.

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  3. This idea of first attempts reminds me of Brene Brown’s FFTs. May we all struggle with our first attempts and make them anyway. May we all have the support of someone who can show us how far up half-way to the top really is!

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  4. So many thoughts as I read this, but the biggest ones are: IMAGINE HAVING TO DO ALL OF THIS WITH A CHILD AT HOME! Like, WOW! Your efforts are inspirational, really!
    The literary essay, you’ve assessed it perfectly yourself. I’d love to be able to use this as a mentor literary essay for my writers, including the drafts.

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  5. I love this post and the quotes! I need to post those as a constant reminder…especially in this world where learning is accessible through the internet, and you can pull up the steps or a video that make something look so easy and perfect.

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  6. This speaks so much truth. I know there is a prestige of the crafting of literary essay, but in reality I find that so many of my students have not had enough sustained writing practice to write it well. It quickly becomes the haves and the have nots and those who struggle, never make it over to completion. I give more time, but that is. It enough. They do not have the efficacy they need and simply won’t finish without one in one. It is a challenge every year, but every year I step into the arena….

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    • I’m one of those people who really tries not to let a unit of study go longer than four weeks. But for literary essay, in fourth or fifth grade, I think it needs to be five weeks if we want children to walk away with some increases skills in this area. Time matters!

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  7. It may not be perfect, but it’s beautiful. It is beautiful in the effort it took to make it. Just like writing. Many times it is not perfect but if it reflects true ideas and emotions, then it is beautiful and meaningful. I love the idea of a 1/2 cake for a 1/2 birthday and I know many a child who would love this too. Who does not like cake?

    My SOL for today is all about clouds on a beach day. Wish I were there now instead braving 30 degree temperatures and starting off to school. https://wordancerblog.com/2022/03/28/the-silly-and-the-sublime/

    Thank you, Stacey for this platform. I’ve learned about writing by writing every day for 28 days and I thought I knew a lot. The consistency is key.

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