A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Category: On Classes and Curriculum

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.

Insincerity: The enemy of clear language

In “Politics and the English Language” George Orwell writes, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” This year I have been emphasizing this line with students and using it to jump into an article Jonathan Rogers wrote for his newsletter, The Habit. There, Rogers defines the subtext and, too often, the real text of academic essays:

The text of an academic paper can be about almost anything—mitosis and meiosis, the Weimar Republic, existentialism, federalism, Paradise Lost, What I Did Last Summer. But whatever the text is about, all academic papers share more or less the same subtext: GIVE ME AN A. THINK I’M SMART. APPROVE OF ME. Really, I don’t see how that could NOT be the subtext of any essay you’re submitting for a grade. 

But too often, I suspect, students think of GIVE ME AN A as the real  text of an academic essay, papered over with just enough information about the purported subject (Romeo and Juliet, the Whiskey Rebellion, etc) to make the A possible.

That kind of thinking is behind students’ diligent efforts to figure out “what the teacher wants.”

So when a student writing about the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan faces a complex idea in her essay–an inevitability if she’s engaging it truthfully–her priority, her driving concern, could accidentally become not finding the words that articulate that complex idea, but finding the words that sound like a teacher would assign an A to them. The result in that moment is a disregard for Orwell’s key advice: “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.” When the real text is “give me an A,” the student will choose the word that sounds like it merits an A–and the word will choose the meaning.

And since the topic of their paper is the atomic bombs, her pursuit is insincere. Ideas about the atomic bomb are not what she means to say.

Of course, if a teacher has assigned the topic, it might be difficult for a student to engage sincerely in it. But it is possible for a student to tweak a topic so as to make themselves invested in it, to make their interest sincere. In Writing About Your Life, William Zinsser challenges writers to adapt such constraints editors put upon them, and his advice applies easily to teachers:

Don’t assume that editors know exactly what they want. Often they don’t. Don’t shape yourself to a dumb assignment; that’s no favor to you or to the magazine or to the reader. Shape the assignment to your own strengths and curiosities. (134)

A student can find a question worth pursuing within a restricted topic, but she has to be willing to search for it.

Zinsser goes further than this, suggesting that a writer might “come up with a better idea. You make your own luck.” That might seem like it could never apply to a classroom, but I’ll say for myself that if a student reaches out to me with an alternate assignment that meets or exceeds my expectations with the original, I’d be thrilled rather than annoyed.

Such efforts might be harder, but striving for sincerity is worth a student’s while–the results will be obvious in the clarity and energy of the final piece of writing.

Little Red Riding Hood, told with the inverted pyramid

To introduce students to news writing, I contrast the inverted pyramid with the traditional plot line. Then we rewrite stories we’re familiar with, opening with the climax and possibly making up quotes. It works best with Disney movies or fairy tales, and I usually have to encourage them away from writing a click-bait headline as their lead. Here is the version of “Little Red Riding Hood” I wrote as an example:

A hunter saved a young girl and her grandmother, Tuesday, cutting them free from the belly of the wolf who had eaten them. The girl and her grandmother were dirty but alive, and they quickly filled the wolf’s belly with rocks, sewing him back up and causing him to stumble to his death when he awoke.

The wolf, whose brother died last month in a gruesome chimney accident at the Third Little Pig’s house, had disguised himself as the young girl’s grandmother, whom he’d eaten in one gulp. The girl had been bringing her grandmother treats, having heard she was ill, and had been delayed by the wolf previously, picking flowers off the path to the cottage. When she arrived, the wolf let her in.

“I asked why his ears were so big and why his eyes were so big,” Little Red Riding Hood explained. “He said, ‘The better to hear you with and the better to see you with.’”

After asking about his teeth, however, the wolf ate her as well, swallowing her without chewing, a habit common to many breeds of domestic dog as well.

“It was dark in there, but at least I was with my gramma,” Little Red remarked about her time in the wolf’s innards.

Having eaten so much, the wolf passed out, which is how the hunter found him an hour later.

“I thought about shooting him,” Hunter explained, “but I wondered where Gramma was and decided to cut him up. I’m glad I did.”

After a shower, the three ate a meal of chocolate and Coca-Cola. Hunter has skinned the wolf and gave it to Gramma for a bathmat.

I’m collecting challenging articles for students–got any suggestions?

I’m organizing a small assignment (or series of assignments) for next year’s AP writing students where I give them a fairly challenging article and ask them to respond to its ideas. There’s a bit of word play on challenging, as the articles are (1) more difficult to read than they’re used to and (2) may challenge assumptions or understandings they have.

I’m trying to collect good ones, and while I’m not necessarily looking for anything too earth shattering, I’m also looking for more than simply interesting. Thus, while I’d love for all of us to spend a day reading through the best stories told at Outside Magazine, for this assignment I want something that will require more concentration and focus–articles where a student might have to slow down because the writer is including, for example, elements of physics or philosophy or economics. To that end, I’m trying to collect articles from a variety of disciplines, to engage those with various interests. 

Here are a few on my current list for consideration (I pulled a few from David Brooks’s annual “Sidney awards” columns):

Anyway, if any articles pop into your mind as interesting or challenging for smart high school students beginning to read and write at the college level, let me know.

Rapid City’s A Plus Students

Third quarter report cards just came out, which meant teachers like me were entering grades and confirming that students’ marks reflected what they had done and learned.

My trouble with the quarter was that I couldn’t find a way to report on all I had seen, a trouble typified by what happened on March 8, when the junior and senior AP English students from Stevens and Central gathered for a writers’ conference. They spent the day learning from guest speakers how writing is done in professional contexts and how they might improve their own work.

And they were wonderful. They attended to guests’ remarks, engaged with the material, and took notes where they could. The day was long — six sessions for each student, no study hall or independent time — but they endured as best as they could, asking questions up to the end.

I hear many versions of the idea that our children are in crisis. They are not curious. They are enslaved to their phones. Their jeans have more holes per square foot than  fabric. The concern is genuine, maybe arising from a sighting of teens texting each other from opposite sides of a booth at Perkins, but the fatalism indicates little experience with teenagers.

From my op-ed for the Rapid City Journal. Read the rest there.

Using Toyota’s Five Whys in Literary Analysis

In his newsletter, Robin Sloan mentioned Toyota’s five whys, which the company used to push their problem solving to focus on deeper-level problems. Taiichi Ohno (how wonderful that a pioneering problem solver is named Ohno) encouraged his employees to “Ask ‘why’ five times about every matter.”

He used the example of a welding robot stopping in the middle of its operation to demonstrate the usefulness of his method, finally arriving at the root cause of the problem through persistent enquiry:

  1. “Why did the robot stop?”The circuit has overloaded, causing a fuse to blow.

  2. “Why is the circuit overloaded?”There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.

  3. “Why was there insufficient lubrication on the bearings?”The oil pump on the robot is not circulating sufficient oil.

  4. “Why is the pump not circulating sufficient oil?”The pump intake is clogged with metal shavings.

  5. “Why is the intake clogged with metal shavings?”Because there is no filter on the pump.

Intrigued by the idea, my students and I are experimenting with applying it to our analysis of written texts. Say a student has made a typical but insipid observation about Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian:

Sherman Alexie does a wonderful job portraying the characters.

This comment is completely useless, yet my very intelligent students settle for analysis like it regularly. What if they were to apply the five whys to this statement, drilling down to find a deeper observation? (I found that “why” sometimes created an awkward construction, so I’ve used a couple “hows” in my pursuit):

(1) How does Alexie portray the characters wonderfully?

“He makes them feel like real-life people.”

(2) How does he make them feel life-like?

“He uses details that are familiar, so people do things just like we’ve seen real people doing, like hating each other when one person gets new friends.”

(3) Why do Rowdy and Arnold (and people like them) do things like hate each other when one gets a new friend?

“They do these things because they’re suffering and feel rejected .”

(4) Why do they (and Rowdy in particular) feel rejected?

“They feel rejected because a friend getting new friends feels like a slight, like it implies that their friendship was not sufficient. Rowdy has been left behind, like he’s nothing to Arnold anymore.”

(5) Why does Arnold’s leaving and going to a new school imply that their friendship was not sufficient?

“It implies Rowdy is not sufficient because it is viewing Arnold’s needs through the lens of his own needs and desires. No one person can provide all another person needs, but people want to be that person, so when Arnold widens his world, it shatters the idea that Rowdy is the most important and crucial thing in Arnold’s world.”

The ending comment might spark debate and disagreement, but that’s a compliment the initial comment will never claim.

In applying the method to a book they’d just finished, students found the whys took them far deeper, leading them to analyze the symbolic nature of the story rather than simply comment upon events. They did find they had to be careful about their questions, to avoid circling back to the first why, but the exercise definitely drove them beyond that first remark.

We’re going to continue experimenting, but the pursuit has been worthwhile so far.