In November 1972, the New England juniors hesitantly ask if I’ll help them learn how to answer essay questions. They’re the reason they often do poorly on tests. Rejoicing that they’re claiming their own destiny, I say, “Let’s start next Monday.”
Within days, I obtain fifteen copies of old essay-question exams from their subject-matter teachers. Using these, I divide the questions into five basic types: analyze, compare/contrast, discuss, define, and describe. To devise answers to these and to others questions that might begin differently, the students will have to think critically. That will be my task—to help them develop this skill by using the experiences they already have.
Monday rolls around and our new adventure begins. We spend two weeks on each type. We begin to learn the difference between “discuss such and such” and “describe so and so” and “compare this and that” and “contrast these and those.”
For the next eleven weeks we have a set schedule: For the first part of each daily fifty-minute period we study American Literature—the subject area of our class. During the second part of the period, we study one type of essay question.
On the Friday of week one, the students write answers to a question representing the type we’ve studied that week. I assess these and hand them back on Monday. For the rest of the second week, we study what’s been done well and how to improve what needs more work. We proceed to devote two weeks to each of the five types of essay questions.
Ten weeks of study progress in leaps and bounds of understanding and growing confidence. Monday of the eleventh week, I distribute a list of fifteen sample essay questions about American Literature for the exam they will take on Friday. They have three days to consider their responses. On Friday I give them an exam made up of ten questions from Monday’s list. I ask them to choose five—one from each of the five types—to answer.
During the weeklong break, I evaluate their work. They’ve done brilliantly, and I find myself both smiling and crying as I look at their words. I have supper with my roommates and babble on and on about these wonderful juniors who set a goal and met it with grace and fortitude.
When I hand the exams back to them, with their grades on the final page, they begin to grin. Giggle. Slap their desks. Shake hands across the aisles. Cheer themselves. Finally they break into song. Their smiles could have lit our room for the rest of the year.
Soon, their other teachers take me aside to tell me how interested the “C learners” have suddenly become in learning. How well they’re doing. How enjoyable they are.
In June, they ace their final exams, surprising everyone, even themselves. Their faces glow. They have come so far. I encourage them to take delight in their accomplishments. To be proud of themselves.
Later, a friend asks me to describe my philosophy of education. I really don’t know that I have one. Well, maybe one—Respect students. In the Holy Oneness of All Creation we are each gifted. With those students in that classroom I was Moses before the burning bush and I took off my sandals because I stood on holy ground.
That’s how I think we need to go through life. Within our heart, minds, spirits. Within our eyes, words, souls, we need to stand barefoot and awed before the holiness of each person we meet.