The Vessay

Yes, the Vessay.  It’s new.  Or at least it is to my students.

When you’ve done something as momentous and challenging as creating a Holocaust museum, what do you do next?  It’s not about topping it, it’s about challenging and building differents skills in a new way.  Enter the Vessay.

After the Holocaust unit, we transitioned to current day genocide. I used to teach the Holocaust, without any follow-up, naively asking my students if they thought it could ever happen again.  The answer was always no.  Then I learned about Rwanda.  And now my students learn about Rwanda.  Why?

The implication here is that we can’t call our English teaching successful if our students, however fluent, are ignorant of the world’s problems, have no social conscience, or use their communication skills for international crime,
exploitation, oppression, or environmental destruction.
                                                                     Kip A.Cates

The genocide we specifically look at is the one that occurred in Rwanda, in 1994.  The year many of my students were born.  None of them had heard of it.  Not one of my students had any knowledge, before now, that the year they were born, during 100 days, spanning from April to July, 1,000,000 people were brutally and unmercifully slaughtered. It often feels to me like my students have important gaps in their learning. Or maybe I’m just surprised and these are the gaps that I lead them towards filling in.

We began with watching Shake Hands with the Devil — the story of Romeo Dallaire’s experience of the Rwandan Genocide.  And we followed it up with another video called Ghosts of Rwanda.  Why did I choose to use videos for this unit?  Because in this instance there were no better experts to teach my students. Daillaire’s first hand account is incredibly powerful, and I’m proud to show it because he’s Canadian.  He was one of the few who remained to try to help; he’s also one of my heroes.

What did my students learn?  That even after the Holocaust, when we promised never again, it has happened again, countless times, and continues to happen today.  The world abandoned Rwanda.  As we currently abandon countries that are not strategic.  The lethal bystander mentality.  I want my students to be part of a generation for whom this is not acceptable.

As with the Holocaust unit, my students have a number of books to choose from.  A Long Way Gone, War Brothers, Bite of the Mango, and Left to Tell. However, they are free to use any other novel of their choice, dealing with this same theme and of the same calibre.

I made it clear to my high achievers that they should be reading more than one of these novels.  Consequently, some of them have read three or four.  My objective is to instill in them that their education is about pushing themselves to grow and stretch in every way possible over the next three years.  But there’s always the dreaded question, “Is this for marks?” Because like many high achievers, it’s about the mark.  And to be honest, I still haven’t answered the question to myself or them. I’ve stated they’ll need to show their learning, but in reality I don’t want it to be about the mark. 

The truth is I don’t read books for marks.  Instead, I read to learn.  I wish this is the value instilled in our students more often.

One of the ways they will show their learning is the vessay.  It’s an essay, but more.  In grade 10 we work to develop a solid five paragraph essay.  To them, this can be a daunting task.  Now I’ve upped the stakes.

When I first explained the concept to my students I told them it will be an essay, but with audio and visual included.  One of my students said, “kinda like a vlog.”  Yes, but no.  Two girls from the back table almost immediately blurted out, “it’s a vessay!”  And the name was born. One of my students has googled it and says she couldn’t find any use of it on the net. This is a class that likes to be original.

So what is the vessay?  It’s a voicethread essay.  My students are required to write their persuasive essay.  It will require a thesis that can be argued, transition words to make their writing fluid, and evidence from the text to support their point.  Then they will need to find pictures to represent their argument and, finally, record it as a voice thread.

I have no doubt in my mind that for many of my students this will be difficult. Why? They’ll need to speak. How often do we have our students breathe life into their arguments through articulation, rather than solely writing it on paper for an audience of one?  It will require skill to figure out how to emphasize their points, and which visuals complement their argument.

I wish I could describe the looks on their faces today when I was trying my best to explain it. Forging into new territory can be difficult. It’s often difficult to explain something they’ve never done before, or that I’ve never assigned before. They have no reference for it.  They’ve never used a voicethread before.

But I have complete confidence in this class to create amazing Vessays. I’ve seen that look from them before. It was the exact look they gave me the day I told them we were going to build a museum that had walls.  And that seemed to have turned out okay.

photo courtesy of cc flickr: maxgiani

About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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3 Responses to The Vessay

  1. tcomfort says:


    so good to hear about your exciting work in your class. Will look forward to updates. Great list of books, wondering what you were thinking about Mike Wesch’s ideas for collaborative writing.

  2. I thought some of his ideas were amazing! And I think, at the highschool level, if I begin to train them now, it’s something we can do by the time they get to grade 12. I think as teachers, when it comes to collaboration, we need to be as ambitious as we can.

  3. Karen says:


    I’m behind in my blog reading, so this may be too late to be of use this year (if it is at all), but there’s a professor featured in the Reed College magazine who’s an expert in police and state torture and why they use it even though they/we know it doesn’t work. Here’s a link:
    Reed being the teaching/learning/passion-centered place that it is, I bet he’d be a candidate for skyping into your class.

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