By Tricia Ebarvia
My AP Lang students are currently working on their “On” essays—writing on anything they choose.
There’s a long tradition of “On” essays in the world… and by an “On” essay, I mean any essay whose title starts with the word “On…” (although, really, isn’t anything an “On” essay if it’s on a topic? The distinction for my purposes in teaching is really just technical). We read essays like “On Keeping a Notebook” by Joan Didion and “On Dumpster Diving” by Lars Eighner, which explore process. We read a contemporary essay like “On Compassion” by Barbara Ascher and a 19th century essay like “On Running After One’s Hat” by G. K. Chesterton, which delve into the philosophical as well as social commentary. We read “On Being a Cripple” by Nancy Mairs and “On Being Black and Middle Class” by Shelby Steele,” which focus on identity. We read essays by Lewis Thomas, whose essays,“On Warts” and “On Probability and Possibility,” are some of the best examples of elegant science writing—and writing in general—I’ve encountered. And still we read other essays whose titles don’t begin with the word “On” but embody the ethos of writing on what it means, ultimately, to be in the world—essays like “The Jacket” by Gary Soto and “Me Talk Pretty” by David Sedaris and “Salvation” by Langston Hughes.
We study and celebrate these writers and their craft. We ask ourselves questions that help us read like writers: What can I take away from this? What can I learn? What can I steal? Because my AP Lang students read Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist for summer reading, we remind ourselves to embrace being artistic thieves. We look at the ways in which these essays explain, define, and describe; how they use anecdotes and allusions; how they feature both insight and curiosity; how they zoom in and zoom out. Read more