I remember when my daughter was in second grade.  She got mad once and kicked a classmate.  As punishment, her karate teacher assigned her to write an essay on the incident.  When I saw the title, I had to laugh.  She had written "SA" at the top.

          What do you think when you hear the word "essay"?  You might, like my daughter, think the letters "SA."  More likely, you think, with that twist in your gut, "Oh, no, I've gotta write X number of paragraphs about something."  Many students get no farther than that "write ABOUT something."  And this idea leads them to wander around, not sure exactly where they're going with their writing.  Sometimes, they use other people's information and throw in a few quotes, and I get a report, rather than an essay.

          The word essay comes from the French, where the word means "to try, to test, to prove."  Now, don't take those definitions as three different things -- it's all the same thing in French.  Think of it.  When you want to buy a car, first you have to drive it.  What are you doing?  A test drive.  You are trying it out.  You are proving certain things to yourself:  that this car is the right car for you, or that it's the wrong car.

          In English, we got the word "assay" as a derivative of essay.  Do you know what "assay" means?  Ever see a movie about the '49ers, those prospectors in the California gold rush?  Old guy's yelling "Gold!  Gold!  I found gold!" and waving this chunk of rock around.  Then he looks at the chunk and says, "At least I think it's gold."  His next move is to go to the assayer's office.  The assayer assays the chunk of rock.  He puts the chunk into a kiln, and melts it under extreme temperatures, which separates the minerals and metals.  Then he is able to isolate the gold, weigh it and tell the old man the value of the gold.  By putting the chunk into a kiln, he's testing it out, proving the value.

          That's what you should be doing with an essay.  You have an idea.  It may be gold.  How do you know it's gold?  You melt it down.  Try it out.  Test it.  Prove it.  Prove to the world it's gold.

          Another slight problem students have with essays is ownership.  The idea needs to be yours.  You aren't taking someone else's chunk of gold to the assayer's office; it's yours.

          I find I sometimes have to persuade my students of their authority.  They are so used to taking other people's ideas and information, chewing on them, then spitting them out, slightly malformed.  That's a report.  Or some kind of gum.

          Start with your opinion.  If you've arrived at that opinion through good, logical thinking, your proof should be clear.  You should have some good gold there.  Own it.

          My daughter wrote in her essay some good points about what she should have done and why she did what she did.  For a second grader, it was a fine SA.

This page last updated Tuesday, May 18, 2010, by Connie Gulick.

  web counter
web hit counters