A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Joan Didion – Thinking for one’s self involves mastery of the language

They feed back exactly what is given them. Because they do not believe in words–words are for “typeheads,” Chester Anderson tells them, and a thought which needs words is just one more of those ego trips–their only proficient vocabulary is in the society’s platitudes. As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language, and I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their mother and father do not live together, that they come from “a broken home.” They are sixteen, fifteen, fourteen years old, younger all the time, an army of children waiting to be given the words.

That from Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” My quoting them by themselves deprives them of the power they earn from 39 pages of descriptive set up, but the words are still profound. They continue a conversation that includes Orwell and they help justify my teaching.

Helping Students Write More Without Fillers and Clutter

Years ago I took a group of sophomores to the computer lab to write an essay of some kind. The essay, whatever it was, was supposed to be a page long, and with much of the period still remaining a particular boy–we’ll call him Brad, since that was his name–handed me his printed essay, an effort that covered only half of the single piece of paper in his hand.

“No,” I told him firmly. “I said it needs to be at least a page. There is no way that paragraph meets the requirements.”

“Take it,” he replied, placing the paper on my pile when I wouldn’t accept it from his outstretched hand. “I don’t care what the grade is.”

“No,” I insisted, handing the paper back to him. “You have 40 minutes. Write more.”

Brad and I were not new to one another–I’d had him in freshmen English and knew he hated writing–so he openly glared at me before stalking back to his chair.

Forty minutes later the bell was about to ring and as students rushed to the door they piled their printed papers on my desk. Brad tried to meld with the crowd, but I stepped in to glance at his paper; the text reached the bottom of the page, so I let him go.

Later that day, as I read through the essays, I encountered Brad’s, which did reach the bottom of the page, but it did so because, I now saw, he had copied the first paragraph and pasted it below itself.

Touche, Brad. You won the battle. Though the battle appeared to be over last place.

* * *

I think of that moment often, especially as so many of my students struggle to write more. Anyone who has attempted to write surely understands the writer’s frustration of having nothing else to say. And unfortunately many of my academically successful students have learned strategies that are second-cousins to Brad’s trick. They don’t double the paper’s length by copying and pasting it, but they do repeat themselves ad nauseam and fill in empty spaces with cluttered nonsense until they hit the word count. Their papers contain exactly as many ideas as Brad’s did–half as many as their length suggested they do.

How, then, can a student add more words–and, by extension, ideas–to their papers without adding this filler?

I built a unit for my AP English language students where we explored this conundrum, and while I could have added any number of strategies, we settled on three:

  • Use scenes
  • Address naysayers
  • Add outside evidence

The concepts weren’t complex, so I didn’t lecture extensively on the ideas to help them understand them. (The naysayer idea we’d addressed earlier in the year, with They Say, I Say.) Instead, we dove into essays where writers used the strategies and we discussed how the strategies could benefit our writing. After assigning essays I’d ask students to discuss them with these three questions:

  • Where are the scenes? (Take an inventory of them)
  • How do the scenes contribute to the argument the writer is making?
  • What do the scenes add to the essay generally? (apart from the argument)

Any number of essays could work to explore, but I thought I’d list which ones I used. Many of these are available online, so I’ve provided some links, but some I’ve copied from books and used as fair-use documents, so in those cases I will simply list the books where I found them (many libraries have these books–they’re not obscure).

Using Scenes

  • “The Braindead Megaphone” by George Saunders (The Braindead Megaphone: Essays)
  • “At a Shelter After Katrina” by John Jeremiah Sullivan (Pulphead: Essays)
  • “Against the Grain” by Marina Keegan (The Opposite of Loneliness)
  • A Wounded Boy’s Silence” by Peggy Noonan
  • “Junk Food Heaven” by Bill Bryson (I’m a Stranger Here Myself)

Addressing Naysayers

Adding Outside Evidence

We wanted to put these strategies into practice, so after we read the essays with scenes students wrote an assignment I called “Practicing for a Eulogy,” which sounds morose but is pretty fun since it’s basically writing tributes to friends or family. I didn’t give them long to do that assignment–two days of homework–and I graded it kindly, but the point was to treat it like we would treat a drill at basketball practice, trying out the skill we were learning.

After the “address a naysayer” readings students wrote another short piece, which we called “Best/Worst: A Naysayer Argument,” where students argued that something was the best or worst and framed their case around a minimum of three naysayers.

To practice using outside evidence struck me as a bit overwhelming–I couldn’t think of ways to keep that as a quick drill, so we refrained from assigning anything.

In case they’d be useful, I’ll post the instructions I gave out this year for those drills.

Practicing for a Eulogy

For this writing assignment, I’d like you to write a tribute about a friend–a eulogy, really, but without the funeral and death. Another word we could use is ‘encomium.’ 

What do you have to write? 

  • 300-600 words (1-2 pages, MLA format) about someone you know
  • Use scenes–this is a practice drill at filling a paper with material by thinking in terms of scenes.
  • Include in your paper a statement that summarizes your point–a thesis, really. You may place this thesis where you think it will bring the most delight and clarity to the reader. 
  • Remember: if your reader can’t watch it happen like they’re a witness or watching a movie play out, it’s not a scene. If you couldn’t insert dialogue, it’s not a scene

Best/Worst: A Naysayer Argument

Defend whether something is the best or worst by writing 250 words articulating your position. State your position right away and then construct your response by addressing naysayers. See how many naysayers you can work in, but make sure to include at least three. 

Choose any topic you want (I’ve listed some here to give you ideas). The point is to practice thinking of naysayers and practice using the templates from They Say, I Say. I want you to see how coming up with naysayers can help you expand your thinking on a topic and how by simply addressing naysayers you create a worthwhile argument for a topic. 

Topic ideas: 

  • The best/worst restaurant or fast food place
  • The best/worst summer activity
  • The best/worst place to live
  • The best/worst season
  • The best/worst music
  • The best/worst movie
  • The best/worst subject in school
  • The best/worst job
  • The best/worst pet
  • The best/worst hobby

Fix-It, An Essay

My favorite essay prompts push students to use skills we’ve been learning but allow them flexibility of response. I like flexible responses not only because they allow students to write about things they care about, but because they prevent me from reading essays that are overly similar. (Few things discourage the grading process more than 40 essays about how Huck Finn’s being the narrator colors The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.)

This year we had been studying how to write more without adding clutter, so I created the “Fix It” essay.

My goal was for students to expand their thinking, drawing their ideas out over many paragraphs, pulling their reader through a full experience. Too often students write a page and declare themselves finished; here, I wanted them to need to talk more, to face the predicament where less is actually less, not more.

Here is my handout on the essay:

In that handout I reference our study of They Say, I Say as well as the “three-legged stool,” which is the solution I presented to the question “How do we write more without adding clutter?”

In my future versions of the Fix It essay, I will likely encourage students to stick to real solutions–a few students took their essays into comedic, fictional directions, which could potentially be fun but ultimately hindered their ability to judge what their arguments needed. Also, a few days after assigning this essay I read some comments from Alan Jacobs that I might incorporate somehow, but I have yet to discern how without miring my own assignment in complexity.

Eliminating Zeroes Affects More Than At-Risk Students

A few large school districts in California, I have seen, are eliminating the use of D’s and F’s and no longer marking zeroes for missing assignments. Instead, educators at these schools are marking students’ work as incomplete and encouraging students to make up missing work or try again on assignments that resulted in low grades.

This is no surprise to anyone teaching in the year 2022. I live in a place where we drive six hours for our children to see pediatric specialists, so I figure our school district isn’t sharpening the cutting edge of trends in education; yet even I have seen plenty of this movement toward eliminating F’s and zeroes. The thought behind the push makes sense: if we’re concerned with learning over behavior, why would we fail a student who has poor behavior but high learning? Why should we not grant a diploma to a student with a 12th grader’s intellect and academic skill just because he has not done his math worksheets and reading journals?

Arguments in favor of invisible skills like work ethic arise to defend the old system, but it is clear to me that, no matter how sympathetic one might be to them, these arguments are fighting a losing battle. As long as schools are judged critically for low graduation rates, they will do anything they can to graduate more students. This is basic problem solving. When I taught remedial reading, my reading students needed to pass a standardized test to get out of the class. I quickly discovered that the easiest way to get them to pass was not to teach them reading, but to teach them how the test worked. So my priorities were: (1) teach my students how the test works and how to take it, and (2) teach my students how to read better. This was a good strategy for both my students and me, because they had to pass the test. If the test weren’t there, I would have shifted priorities; but it was there, blocking their path. So how do I help them climb over it? With schools pressured to raise graduation rates, then, it is clear that one of the quickest ways of raising graduation rates is granting credits and diplomas to students who know the material and possess the skills we’re teaching, but who don’t want to play school. Is this a cynical maneuver? I would say no; in fact, I would argue it’s the charitable and sensible move. Some people simply hate school–why would we penalize them for this?

So I’m in favor of this trick where we pass more of these students who have the skills but won’t do what we teachers ask of them. (And make no mistake, it is a trick–it is not an instructional strategy.) But I’m also highly concerned about the costs of making this trick an integral part of the system rather than a feature of an alternative path.

Telling students they can retake tests they’ve failed and not turn in work assigned to them works well in a self-paced learning environment (e.g., credit recovery programs), but it spells the end of collective education as we know it. If I as a teacher want my class to discuss George Saunders’s short story “The Tenth of December” in class on Tuesday (a collective experience), I will need them to read that story before Tuesday. When only half show up having read the story, the discussion flops. And like it or not, one of the only reasons students will read that story before Tuesday is they know I’ll give them a zero in the gradebook if they don’t. Would they read it for the sake of discussion, if I were to make the reason for the assignment clear? Some will, but most won’t: I have been teaching AP language for too many years to see any substance to that hope–the concern about a zero or a quiz keeps students accountable.

Discussions are not the only collective experience in a typical classroom. I’d guess that a majority of my colleagues’ lessons are designed to capitalize upon the collective presence of a class. And why shouldn’t they? There is a ton of theory supporting the idea (social learning theory) and we’re all here together, so why not enjoy and encourage one another? But when students are not in the same place on the academic journey, it becomes almost impossible to enjoy group projects (including labs), small group discussions, study games, or even lectures or mini-lessons. What is the point in having a journalist come and help students edit their news stories if half of them haven’t chosen a topic and written a first draft before she visits?

So if we withdraw zeroes from our system, it affects more than the students plagued by them, it affects everyone in the system.

As I mentioned, I’m not opposed to eliminating zeroes and encouraging re-do’s for D’s and F’s, but I do wonder if enough consideration has been given to how that new policy tweaks the everyday collective experiences classroom learning is built upon. I suspect the unintended consequences will be significant.

A pool of preserved bison meat

I’ve been reading Pekka Hamalainen’s Lakota America and enjoying it, feeling like it’s a book I’ve been waiting for for quite some time. I particularly love this paragraph:

In the winter of 1703, Sicanu Lakotas walked above the bison, a thousand beasts under their feet. Beneath them they could see the broad faces and glimpse the massive bodies halted in mid-motion. There were rows and piles of them, a vast, jumbled pool of preserved meat. A lake’s ice coat had collapsed under a buffalo herd and then hardened again to seal the drowned animals in, leaving Sicangus a huge natural refrigerator of meat. Whenever they needed food, they could simply cut through the ice and bring up a carcass. The meat lasted an entire year. A Sicangu winter count remembered it as “Camped cutting the ice through winter.”

Debate can be a danger for the apologist’s faith

In the wake of the Ravi Zacharias news last week, I kept returning to this passage from Alan Jacobs’s biography of C.S. Lewis, The Narnian, where Jacobs assembles some of Lewis’s thoughts on the danger of apologetics for the Christian believer. I often quip, “You can’t debate anyone into the Kingdom”; in a significant sense, according to Lewis, it appears we can debate ourselves out of it.

“Worse still, we expose ourselves  to recoil from our own shots; for if I may trust my personal experience no doctrine is, for the moment, dimmer to the eye of faith than that which a man has just successfully defended.”

Two years later Lewis concluded a talk on ‘Christian Apologetics” for a group of priests and youth leaders in Wales with a word of confession and warning:

“One last word. I have found that nothing is more dangerous to one’s own faith than the work of an apologist. No doctrine of the Faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate. For a moment, you see, it has seemed to rest on oneself: as a result, when you go away from that debate, it seems no stronger than that weak pillar. That is why we apologists take our lives in our hands and can be saved only by falling back continually from the web of our own arguments . . . into the Reality—from Christian apologetics into Christ himself.”

Stevie Wonder: Letters are the most personal and intense form of communication

A few highlight lines from this gem of a note from Stevie Wonder:

I feel that next to being actually physically touched by someone, reading a letter is the most personal and intense form of communication that there is.

Reading a letter puts me on a total one-to-one relationship with the person who the letter is from. There is no interruption for me, like when you talk to someone in a room with other people—it inhibits the person communicating.

The ideas in letters that move me most are the ones that are the most honest.