Monday, August 30, 2010

I WILL SHOUT IT FROM THE ROOFTOPS!

THE REACTION ESSAY

The pure, unadulterated joy exhibited by students on discovering that they can not only have opinions, but actually voice them and defend them is something to be seen. The gusto with which they will discuss an issue, when the purpose is the writing of a reaction essay, should not really surprise anyone; after all, they are at least ten years too late starting such an activity! It is like the storming of The Bastille: once the floodgates are open, there is no stopping the torrent and why would you want to anyway? What could possibly give a teacher more pleasure? There are the students enthusiastically debating a point, turning round in their seats to better answer opponents and then buckling down and producing their reaction essays without a murmur. It is not very difficult to achieve such an atmosphere in the classroom because the activity itself, reaction essays, has such potential but this does not mean there are no rules to be followed.

The material

One reacts, by definition, to something that is controversial; that is extreme, or completely novel or even mad. One has to be able to hardly sit still and contain oneself; to be clinging to the chair so that one doesn’t leap to one’s feet, to be biting one’s tongue so that one doesn’t cry out in protest. On has, eventually, got to burst out with some comment or other. This is the kind of material that reaction essays are based on; not some tame article about the advantages of boarding schools for instance. A distinction should be made here between any text- based, or text related, writing task and a reaction essay. If we didn’t make such a distinction, we would end up calling most essays reaction essays as most are related to a text – others may have the purpose of contextualizing grammar, still others may be follow-ups from listening. Writing, after all, does not, contrary to what a lot of people think, exist in a void. It always comes last, when all is said and done. It is the very last brick in the wall but we will deal with essays in general in another paper. There is one additional function the choice of text will serve and that is getting students who, after all, have never taken to the stage to actually forget themselves and get up and speak. Let us turn, once again, to the matter in hand: having established that the material on which a reaction essay can be based needs to be riveting, controversial, confrontational, or off the beaten track, we need to focus on what this material is. The first obvious choice of material is an article, paper or essay, the second is a listening passage of some sort – perhaps a talk, a lecture or something off the internet – the third is films. Locating texts to serve the purpose is easy as most journalists share the teachers’ motives of desiring to shock people; the media is full of stuff. A bill has just been passed in Argentina, for instance, legalizing not only gay marriage but also adoption for gay couples; a brilliant potential topic. The beauty is that there will be extremes of opinions but students will also have to maintain decorum and listen to people they disagree with in a civilized way. Where else are they going to learn that everybody should have their say before the same audience, and people should listen to contrary opinions and discuss them in order to attain the truth? This is one of the fundamental precepts of democracy that universities champion and is a lot more important than the reaction essay.

Texts are not, by any means, the only possible basis for reaction essays; films and the internet can be used as well but the rules are the same: the film must have a controversial message one can’t help reacting to. Take a film like “Capote”, for instance, which explores the issue of capital punishment. This form of punishment is now banned in most developed democracies with the exception of the USA and its abolition is a condition for joining the EU. The film “Capote”, is the story of the writing of Truman Capote’s famous murder mystery and at the end, when the murderer is about to be hanged, you look into his eyes and feel you could not possibly be the one to send him to his death despite the fact that he has, undoubtedly, murdered the victims. The film is a brilliant attack on capital punishment and never fails to lead to plenty of discussion as wherever it has been abolished, capital punishment has been banned despite public support. Another good example is “The Straight Metal Jacket” which portrays the effects of war and military training on soldiers. There are many brilliant films being made every day and when I need an expert opinion I consult the following blog: http://essiespeaks.blogspot.com/ . There is an additional advantage of using films for reaction essays: students get into the habit of watching stuff in English with English subtitles and this is wonderful for their listening and for picking up colloquial English.

Having selected the text, the teacher should work through it as with any reading text as outlined in the papers on the teaching of reading but the emphasis should be on discussion. One reminder here: it would be a good idea to ask the students to put notes in the margin of the text as you work through it as they will need to make a summary later. To go back to what I was saying, the title and subtitle should be discussed; students should be asked for their opinions on what they know so far and be asked to revise them continuously as they learn more. This will encourage plenty of previewing and prediction, and therefore help deal with vocabulary. The teacher can help matters along by playing the devil’s advocate and disagreeing with the general opinion in the class to egg them on. There don’t need to be any written questions or vocabulary exercises as this detracts from the pleasure of reading, which is after all paramount. If it is a film that is being used, there should be pauses for discussion along the same principles but not enough to ruin the film. An activity such as this has one additional advantage: it goes a long way towards helping to develop a long term reading habit which is, or certainly should be, our major aim as teachers.

Putting pen to paper…

The actual writing of the essay presents no problems at all; my experience has always been that the students have been impatient to get started; especially as they are encouraged to voice their opinions and use strong language if they wish to. The introduction should follow the general rules of introduction writing starting with something more general than the specific topic and narrowing it down to the text. If the film “Capote” were the basis for a reaction essay, for instance, one would start with a reference to crime and punishment, then move on to violent crime and capital punishment. Paragraph two is a summary of the text, which they now know how to do thanks to the Cornell method they have learnt. The reasoning is that it makes sense to outline what, exactly, is being reacted to. Paragraph three is the writer’s opinions and justification; the part of the essay they learn to love! Last of all, paragraph four is the conclusion. Often, a restatement is the most appropriate form of conclusion; another bridge the teacher will have to cross with the students. I have found the best way to sort out this little problem is to demonstrate. The internet, fortunately for us, is full of articles with no conclusions. Look closely and you will be amazed! I select articles and ask them to write restatements after doing a few with them on the board or laptop. The penny soon drops.





When all is said and done

I have found that the activity outlined above is by far the most rewarding and also most popular one a teacher can engage in with the students. The fact that the students derive so much pleasure from it means that they learn and remember. It also helps lay the foundations for a reading habit and teaches them not to hesitate to voice their opinions. They learn that others may disagree and that they may disagree with people too and that that is alright. They learn though that despite this they have all got to listen to each other. The reaction essay, which in turn followed on from the summary, can lead to other more complex writing activities which will be the topic of the next paper.

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