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Career fair reflective essay ideas

Using a Genre Approach to
Teaching the Reflective Essay

As teachers of writing, we will say to our students, “Read more!” “Write more!” Does it matter what they arereading and writing? Not really. However, it does matter that they are aware of what they are reading and writing.

The “what” is the genre of the piece, and in the modern classroom, genre has been proven to be effective in theteaching and learning of reading and writing. Just as a dance instructor may teach different types of dancing, whetherit be ballet, tap, jazz, or modern, English teachers need to approach teaching writing in a similar way. Teaching writing through a genre approach allows students to learn that in writing, there is a rhyme and reason (rhetoric) and rationale for writing. Students need to be aware of this because “genres shape the thoughts we form and the communications by which we interact” (Bazerman, Genre and Writing). The Genre approach gives students this needed structure for the process of writing.

An expert on the genre-based approach to teaching writing, Charles Cooper, deems the general understanding of genre “to mean a type or category of text” (24). This definition of genre is known and accepted by the majority of people.

However, the definition of genre has evolved into much more. Cooper deems the evolved definition of genre to be “types of writing produced everyday in our culture, types of writing that make possible certain kinds of learning and social interaction” (25). A similar “modern” definition of genre has been agreed to be, “a type of spoken or written discourse, recognized as conventional by members of an intellectual community, that draws together certain substantive and stylistic features in response to a recurrent rhetorical situation” (Enos 279). These new definitions mean that there are many more characteristics involved in what makes a genre a genre. The genre, as a form of written language and communication, is now recognized as being social and communal in nature. Cooper names specific characteristics of modern-genre to be “social, communal, situational, functional, structured, and stable” (25).

In Evaluating Writing (1999), Cooper discusses the genre approach’s role in the interpretation of literature. They argue that the reflective essay is effective when used for the interpretation of literature however, that is not the only function. The reflective essay can be used to write about practically anything and has many uses. This portion of the paper will discuss the reflective essay as a genre and outline an approach to teaching the reflective essay for this purpose.

Defining the Reflective Essay

Questions must be considered when defining the reflective essay as a genre. It should first be noted that the reflective essay is also referred to as “the personal essay” and “the belletristic essay.” Questions that the teacher must first present to students are: what makes a reflective essay? What makes this type of essay different from other types? Cooper gives “Genre-Specific

Criteria” for the reflective essay. These criteria are as follows:

* Chooses a subject that will sustain extended reflections
* Presents the occasion(s) for the reflections concretely and interestingly
* States or clearly implies the relevance of the occasion to the reflections
* Develops the reflections through a variety of strategies
* Surprises readers with one or two unexpected insights into the subject
* Moves at least tentatively from personal experience to social implications
* Maintains thematic coherence throughout the essay. (38)

Now to me, this list is more like a general rubric for what students would look at after they wrote a reflective essay. So let’s move backwards a bit and figure out first what makes a reflective essay just that. First, let’s look at the second word of the genre: essay. Essay connotes the form of writing in which it appears. What is the history of the essay? What are its characteristics?

Looking at the history of the essay and the evolution of it will provide knowledge about the characteristics and format of this genre.

The history of the essay as a genre form dates back to the 16th century, specifically during the French Renaissance. To “essay” actually means “to try,” and that is just what the French thinker and writer, Michel de Montaigne did during the French Renaissance.

Montaigne deemed the essay as a means to reflect on one’s ideas, feelings, and experiences. The Essays, a collection of over on hundred essays, is the major literary work that Montaigne left us with. Of course, over time, many types of essays evolved; however, the roots of the essay are indeed a means for writers “to try” to look inward, and reflect upon their thoughts. Since the essay has such a rich history, there is likely to be more than one accepted definition for the term.

Webster tells us that “essay” has five different definitions:
1. short nonfiction prose piece: a short analytical, descriptive, or interpretive piece of literary or journalistic prose dealing with a particular topic, especially from a personal and unsystematic viewpoint.
2. set written piece: a short piece of written work assigned to a student
3. work resembling a written essay: an artistic or journalistic work resembling a written essay but in another medium
4. attempt at something: an attempt to accomplish something
5. test of something: a test or trial of something

We are most interested in definitions (1) and (2). Now, when the word “reflective” is put in front of it, the genre of course becomes more specific. Webster tells us that the word “reflective” has three meanings. We will only be interested in definition

(1) as it relates to our defining this genre:

1. thoughtful: characterized by deep careful thought
2. physics able to reflect: able to reflect light, sound, or other forms of energy
3. by reflection: produced by reflection

Now that we know the basic definitions of the words that make up this genre, let’s examine the characteristics of the reflective essay more specifically. Referring to the Cooper’s criteria, the characteristics, in more detail, of the reflective essay are as follows:

1. Contains a subject that will sustain extended reflections. What interests me in this characteristic is the word “subject.” This is what is great about the reflective essay—the writer chooses the topic. The writer may choose to write about literature, about a life experience, about a person that had an impact in her life, or even an inanimate object—as long as that subject had a significant impact (the writer can reflect about the subject), it is valid.

2. Contains concrete and interesting reflections. This characteristic means that the subject that is chosen had a real and significant impact on the writer’s life.

3. States or clearly implies the relevance of the occasion to the reflections. The subject and the significant reflection should be clear to the reader. There should be no guessing as to the insights that the reader has about the subject being addressed.

4. The reflections are approached through a variety of strategies. The writer should approach the reflection using various literary strategies. Literary techniques such as flashback, for example, may be effective. A variety of literary devices may be used to accomplish this as well.

5. Contains one or two unexpected insights into the subject. The writer, through reflection, will come to realize at least one insight that the subject had on into her life.

6. Tentatively moves from personal experience to social implications. This feature is probably the most difficult for writers and especially, students of this genre to accomplish. Moving from personal experience to social implications means that the writer is taking her personal reflections one step higher, and responding to how that reflection relates to life and society.

7. Contains theme coherence throughout the essay. This final feature is typical of most genres. The theme of a piece should always be clear and coherent from beginning to end.

Now that we are aware of what the characteristics of the reflective essay are, it is as important to understand and be aware of what it is not. Let’s first look at a definition of the reflective essay as provided by Cooper, based on James Moffett (1992): “Reflective Essay: reflections on the personal and social implications of an idea suggested by a particular occasion that is usually a personal observation or incident” (43). This definition was created after the identification of groups and sequences of genres. Moffett placed the reflective essay genre in a larger genre called “autobiographical genres.” In Moffett’s schema, there are also seven other types of autobiographical genres. This is why there is some confusion over which genre is which. In this particular genre study, which is being done for the purpose to instruct eleventh and twelfth graders, the following should be focused on and thoroughly understood as not to stray from the genuine purpose of the reflective essay. The next question a teacher should address to her students is: What is not a reflective essay?

1. The reflective essay is considered to be literary non-fiction. The subject and the significance of the subject is one that actually pertains to the writer’s life.

2. One of the most common misconceptions about the reflective essay is that it is a memoir. Since eleventh and twelfth graders may have already done memoirs in previous English courses, the reflective essay may be particularly confusing.

The great thing about this initial confusion, though, is that after they have mastered both genres, they have a high level of understanding genre theory.

Moffett provides definitions for memoir, actually designating two separate memoir genres: “Memoir (Human Subject): presentation of an incident involving other people in which the writer is only an observer, including visual details, a narrative of what happened, and inferences. Memoir (Nature Subject): presentation of a memorable natural event, restricted in time and relying on visual details and narrative.” (42). Just comparing these two definitions clears up a little confusion about the differences of the two. These differences, in more clear detail are as follows:

3. The memoir, unlike the reflective essay, is written as a narrative, that is, “a story written in prose or perhaps verse, involving events, characters, and what the characters say and do” (Abrams 173).

Pursuing a Genre Study on the Reflective Essay
In order to be most effective in teaching writing through a genre approach, it is most beneficial to follow a logical series of steps in doing so. The following steps are derived from Cooper as an effective method for instruction in the classroom.

1. Introducing the Genre

Proponents of the genre approach in the classroom agree that the first step in introducing the genre is by using touchstone texts. Cooper advocates this primary introduction, and stresses one of the most vital aspects of learning through genre theory: “Students can learn about a written genre only if they read it—and reread it and talk about it” (47). By initially reading touchstone texts from the genre, students come up with responses, questions, and insights.

The touchstone texts that I have chosen contain the detailed characteristics as introduced before, evoke student interest and discussion, and are written by well-know authors. They appear in Appendix A, pp 19-24. Once the teacher has read aloud a few different touchstone texts, and students have responded to teacher prompts, characteristics of the genre may be brainstormed and identified. Constructionist approaches used by the teacher may help in aiding students during this process. Bomer suggests dividing the class into groups and conducting activities in which discussions take place based on, “how these texts do what they do” (123). This approach has an advantage over merely just providing the students with a list. Instead, through discussion, students discover on their own, the features of the genre, and hopefully gain insight into how they will use these in their own writing. Cooper concurs with this advantage and state how this type of method is especially effective when teaching the reflective essay: “If they have been encouraged to reflect on their response to something in a work, they adopt the reflection genre” (37). Another benefit of having students come up their own list of features, Cooper says that it “activates students’ creativity, enabling them to make meaning in new ways” (37).

After the groups have come up with some lists of features for the class to discuss, the teacher will guide them in consolidating them into one list, and then providing each student with her own handout to follow and refer back to. An example of this hand out is shown below:

An Introduction to the Reflective Essay

What is a reflective essay?
The reflective essay, also referred to a “personal essay” or “belletristic essay” is a short nonfiction prose piece, written in the 1st person. The subject is one that actually pertains to the writer’s life and includes deep thought about the personal and social implications of that subject.

What are some characteristics of the reflective essay?
We have read two examples of reflective essays together in class. The first
reflective essay is Once More to the Lake, by E.B. White, the second, The Death of a Moth, by Virginia Wolf.

Step 1: In groups of three, look more closely at Once More to the Lake or The
Death of a Moth
q What makes this piece a reflective essay?
q What are some of the characteristics of this piece that make it interesting and intriguing?
q How would you describe the subject of the essay?
q Name some of the insights that the author came to realize as a result of his experiences at the lake.

Discuss your responses to these questions,

Step 2: Choose one note-taker to record a summary of your answers and findings.

Step 3: Discuss about what sub-genre the reflective essay might belong to and what other genres is it similar to.

Record your findings.

Step 4: Choose a speaker to represent your group. The speaker will present your findings to the class.


How do you tell the difference between a reflective essay and a memoir?

*A reflective essay is not a memoir, although they are in they are very similar.

The memoir, unlike the reflective essay, is written as a narrative, that is, “a story written in prose or perhaps verse, involving events, characters, and what the characters say and do” (Abrams, 173).

*Just remember to focus on the REFLECTION aspect of the piece. The reflective
essay takes the memoir one step further in this aspect.

Step 5: During library day in your same groups, find another example of a reflective essay. I will assist you in locating valid sources to lead you to a good example. Refer to the above definition and characteristics that we discussed in class to help you in this activity. **Remember to search under personal and belletristic essay too** You may begin with a “google” search. First search under the keywords, “reflective essay,” “personal essay,” and “belletristic essay.”
We will be reading the examples that each group found in class to further discuss qualities of the reflective essay as a genre. After the students have completed the inquiry-based handout on identifying the characteristics, I will provide them with a list of the definite characteristics as shown above. This handout is shown below:

Defined characteristics of the reflective essay

The following list gives you a detailed list of characteristics of the reflective essay. Use this list, along with the handout that you completed in class to refer to before, during, and after the writing phase.

1. Contains a subject that will sustain extended reflections. The writer may choose to write about literature, about a life experience, about a person that had an impact in her life, or even an inanimate object—as long as that subject had a significant impact (the writer can reflect about the subject), it is valid.

2. Contains concrete and interesting reflections. This characteristic means that the subject that is chosen had a real and significant impact on the writer’s life.

3. States or clearly implies the relevance of the occasion to the reflections. The subject and the significant reflection should be clear to the reader. There should be no guessing as to the insights that the reader has about the subject being addressed.

4. The reflections are approached through a variety of strategies. The writer should approach the reflection using various literarystrategies. Literary techniques such as flashback, for example, may be effective. A variety of literary devices may be used to accomplish this as well.

5. Contains one or two unexpected insights into the subject. The writer, through reflection, will come to realize at least one insight that the subject had on into her life.

6. Tentatively moves from personal experience to social implications. Moving from personal experience to social implications means that the writer is taking her personal reflections one step higher, and responding to how that reflection relates to life and society.

7. Contains theme coherence throughout the essay. This final feature is typical of most genres. The theme of a piece should always be clear and coherent from beginning to end.

8. The reflective essay is considered to be literary non-fiction. The subject and the significance of the subject is one that actually pertains to the writer’s life.

The last step in the introductory phase, which reinforces for both teacher and student that the genre is understood, is to have the students locate examples of reflective essays on their own. Bomer is a strong advocate for this process enforcing the importance of the students being actively involved. He notes an important distinction between a behaviorist approach and a constructivist approach writing that,
“learning from models does not have to mean that the teacher is the only one bringing the models into the community.

Having the students search for model texts not only ensures that our choice of genre will indeed be authentic, but it also demonstrates that authenticity, in effect saying to the students, this isn’t just a school thing. You can find this in your world” (124). By becoming familiar with touchstone texts of the reflective essay, students are prompted to brainstorm their own essay topic ideas, which prompts them into the next phase of the genre study.

9. Developing Topics for Student Essays

Now that the students understand the components and criteria of a reflective essay, they are prepared to begin writing their own. Of course, the first step is deciding on a topic. There are a number of ways that the teacher may assist students in making this process easier. Ideally, students will already be brainstorming on possible topics because of the time spent on the introductory phase, in particular, reading touchstone texts of reflective essays.

In a classroom of my own, I would lead a topic brainstorming activity where I would participate with the class. A variety of prompts would be used in order to stir their minds and emotions. A great way to run this activity is to have the students bring in the touchstone texts that they have found themselves, and share them with the rest of the class.

Group discussions would involve the validity of the subject that the author has chosen, identifying with the insights made, discussing the transition from personal experience to social implications, and literary techniques used to make the essay effective.

Another great way to encourage students to write is by having students keep their own class literary journals. Bomer refers to these as “writer’s notebooks” and notes their benefit in the genre study process. Soven refers to these as “writer’s journals” and dually notes their benefit writing that “students are encouraged to keep a writer’s journal in which they record their experiences, their feelings, and their reaction, their questions and ideas” (197). Writing about these types of subjects is likely to promote reflections. These journals would not be graded, which displays to students that writing is not just for the purpose of evaluation. Their journals may include guided assignments as well as anything and everything that they wish to write about. The teacher, instead of grading the material, would respond without criticism or critique to the entries. The literary journals would serve as inspiration, encouragement, and a reference for further developing any type of writing piece.

10. The Reflective Essay Assignment

Once students have decided on a topic for the essay and the teacher has approved it, the assignment along with a rubric will be given to each student in order to provide him/her with a structured guide so as to ease into the writing process.

Writing assignments should always be given to the students in writing with clear guidelines as to eliminate any confusion. Along with the assignment, as mentioned above, should appear a clear rubric so that the students may evaluate their own work prior to handing it in for a grade. This is not only fair, but gives the student an additional set of guidelines to refer to. Soven notes the importance of clear written assignments as well as rubrics. Rubrics have a double advantage for the teacher, as Soven notes: “These descriptions (rubrics for A-F papers) acknowledge the difficulty of devising a mechanical formula for assigning grades. Each description tries to account for a range of writing that can receive the same grade” (121).

Shown below is a reflective essay assignment. The rubric appears in Appendix B, p. 25. This rubric would be given to the participating students.

The Reflective essay assignment
Read the following quotes by reflective essay writer, Margaret Laurence:

“When one thinks of the influence of a place on one’s writing, two aspects come to mind. First, the physical presence of the place itself—its geography, its appearance. Second, the people. For me, the second aspect of environment is the most important, although in everything I have written which is set in Canada, whether or not actually set in Manitoba, somewhere some of my memories of the physical appearance of the prairies come in. I had, as a child and as an adolescent, ambiguous feelings about the prairies. I still have them, although they no longer bother me. I wanted then to get out of the small town and go far away, and yet I felt the protectiveness of that atmosphere, too. I felt the loneliness and the isolation of the land itself, and yet I always considered southern Manitoba to be very beautiful, and I still do. I doubt if I will ever live there again, but those poplar bluffs and the blackness of that soil and the way in which the sky is open from one side of the horizon to the other—these are things I will carry inside my skull for as long as I live, with the vividness of recall that only our first home can have for us.”

“Writing, for me, has to be set firmly in some soil, some place, some outer and inner territory which might be described in anthropological terms as ‘cultural background.’. I remember saying once. that I felt I had written myself out of that prairie town. I know better now. I may not always write fiction set inCanada. But somewhere, perhaps in the memories of some characters, Manawaka will probably always be there, simply because whatever I am was shaped and formed in that sort of place, and my way of seeing, however much it may have changed over the years, remains in some enduring way that of a small-town prairie person.” — Margaret Laurence: “A Place to Stand On”

These quotes should give you an idea of how authors think and feel about writing. Laurence talks about the influence of place; for many of you, this may spark an idea of what you might want to choose for a topic. Has any particular place had a significant impact on your life? Maybe it’s where you live now. Maybe it’s a place that you have been to and have been dying to go back. These are some ideas tohelp get you started.

Now that you are familiar with the reflective essay, including the basic definition,
the sub-genre category, and the characteristics and features, it is your turn to write your own. The first step is to choose a topic. You may choose whatever you would like (as long as it is autobiographical).

Use your class journal, your personal diary, your memories—use whatever will help you to inspire a topic.

Remember these following pieces of advice when writing your reflective essay:

Your reflective essay should:
q Be At least 700 words in length, double-spaced
q Contains a subject that has had an impact on your life, for ex. A life experience
Appendix B: The Reflective Essay Writing Assignment Rubric. The following guidelines will be used to grade

your reflective essays.

Writing assignment rubric