A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Category: On Writing

Experiencing the Revision for Publication Process

Recently The Curator published an essay of mine (have you read it yet?) and I continue to find the process a of writing for others challenging and thrilling. Derek Rishmawy nailed part of this process in this tweet recently:

editors at Gospel Coalition

Meaghan Ritchey, Adam Joyce, and, Laura Tokie helped me rework my essay from a mess to a presentable coherence, and it took me only five months to do so . . . In the process I’ve learned much more about writing than any teachers’ class could have taught me, and I look forward to revealing to students what I went through.

My first draft was long but lost. I had conceived of an idea that Meaghan liked, but when I wrote it I found it difficult to achieve what I’d pitched. She suggested I rework it, gave me some ideas about directions to take, and waited to hear from me again. This is a view of that draft with a few highlights of what I ultimately kept. The yellow highlights are ideas that, in their essence, made it into the final draft of the article. The blue highlight indicates material I kept for the next draft but eventually cut. Everything not highlighted is material I dumped for the next draft.

version 1 articleI did nothing with that draft for months, completely befuddled about how to fix it. Then I heard an old interview with David Foster Wallace that brought me an ah-ha moment. His comments led me out of the cave and lent me an angle from which to view the idea I’d originally pitched to Meaghan. I rewrote the article and sent it to her, and since her duties at The Curator have changed, she also involved Adam. Adam sent the draft to Laura. This next image is that draft, where the green represents lines that made it into the final draft in basically the same form in which they appear here.The yellow are areas where the ideas made it to the final in a different form.

version 2 articleWith this draft, Laura asked me two questions:

1) What do you believe this essay is about?
2) What do you see as the payoff of this essay for the reader?

The first question I was able to answer fairly succinctly and I found it helpful to be forced to answer it. The second question scared me, because it is why I have not written much in the last 15 years. I’ll go to write something and think, “People don’t care about what I have to say. Their existence will be wonderful and maybe even more wonderful if I just keep quiet and read a good book instead of writing something.” But this time I had committed to the process, so I answered the question. Based on my answers, Laura suggested an overall famework for organizing the article. She then, on Friday, asked me to send her a new draft by Monday.

I worked on the article for six hours over the weekend and sent her a new draft, significantly expanding the sections that appear in yellow in that previous image, cutting out an entire section, and admittedly leaving the overall piece too long. What I sent her reached 1,700 words, and though I knew The Curator aims to keep articles under 1,500 words, I hoped that Laura could help me judge what to cut. This next shot is what I sent her, with the green indicating the parts that stayed in for the final copy and the blue showing what I’d added that stayed in for the final.

version 3 articleJust like the other images, everything not highlighted did not appear in the final version. Laura cut most of that and I cut a few additional sentences, but the final version reached 1034 words. Each cut, I am convinced, helped focus the piece on the heart of what I wanted to communicate, and the final version is something I am happy to call my own.

But now I realize why writers thank their editors so profusely. I get the byline on this essay, but without Laura, Adam, and Meaghan, how could I have changed this article like I did?

Like I said, I learned a ton from this, and I look forward to doing it again. Hopefully the next piece will not need quite so much reworking, but if it does, at least I now know it’s possible to work it into something…

Asking Student Writers to Keep a Commonplace Book

First, an admittance: I’ve never liked Nancy Atwell’s “writing territories” method for coming up with ideas for writing. I see how it works but having been employed outside of education a little and written a bit myself, I have never recognized its similarity to what writers do. Maybe some writers have the liberty to pull from such lists for topics, but I can’t envision people who write for a living–say a marketing or PR employee or even David Brooks or Marueen Dowd–checking their writing territories for ideas about what to say.

More often I see writers entering into or attempting to begin a broader conversation. (This is one reason I so value Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say I Say, a book that frames academic writing as participation in an ongoing conversation.) In this regard, writers are not exploring personal territories so much as responding to ideas they have discovered. That is why for years I have given my high school students more direct prompts to which they need to respond. Each prompt has flexibility and usually I offer multiple prompts, but I am convinced the act of responding to a concrete idea is more “authentic” to what writing in life is like than diving into writing territories. It also, I find, offers students more opportunities to stretch beyond the personal narrative.

Happily, a personal experience of my own has pushed me into a new way of exploring writing ideas, one I hope will combine the positive aspects of Atwell’s writing territories with the relevant conversation-framework of Graff and Birkenstein. For Christmas a student of mine gave me a notebook that reads on the front, “Shakespeare never tweeted a sonnet,” which is of course a cute knock on my penchant for playing with Twitter. I wanted to use the notebook for something I’d treasure and decided I’d take my informal commonplace book and move it offline (I used to use a tumblr but later merged it with this blog).

Allow me to pause to explain the commonplace book. A commonplace book is more scrapbook than journal. Most sources, like Wikipedia, observe that it is “filled with items of every kind.” In this sense a writer of a commonplace book gets to choose entirely what goes into it. Most commonly people place quotes, ideas, reactions to passages (with portions quoted), poems, or more. Alan Jacobs observes that “a book full of such passages would be a treasure-house,” which means that it is filled with materials “that you expect will repay repeated consideration.” That is, it contains passages, quotes, and ideas you’d want to look back on and reconsider.

Using my new notebook for this commonplace book purpose struck me as a good idea because when I come across great passages in my reading I usually do not transfer them to the computer and thus rarely write them down (hence the relative infrequency of posts here). Plus, I never return to browse my old entries online, though I have searched for passages in my blog when I know they’re there. This behavior misses the purpose of the commonplace book and falls under the warning of Jacobs’s nicely aphoristic point: “wisdom that is not frequently revisited is wisdom wasted.”

Shortly after rejuvenating my own (and loving the process), it hit me: why not have my students keep a commonplace book, if only for a time? Through the process they can not only see how writing is engaging in a conversation but they can learn how to enter one. Plus, the process will encourage good reading habits, like reacting to particular passages and noting key ideas.

So my juniors are keeping one for a month to enable them to discover what the process is like. At the end of the month, I’ll ask them to write an article using some of the material they’ve collected in their commonplace books. I’d like to see if we can roll the task over and convert that article into their research paper (and why not, since the commonplace book is in part a way of tracking research?), but exactly how to do that will take some additional time and thought.

To begin, I’ve created a handout explaining what commonplace books are and am encouraging students to read whatever they want (I do have a nonfiction reading list to give folks some ideas in case they need one). They seem amendable to the idea, perhaps since it gives them so much freedom and because “just” jotting quotes and passages is less straining than composing journal entries.

It’s a “we’ll see” project this year, but I am excited, because it mirrors the process “real” writers are using. Consider how much it echoes Kevin DeYoung’s process, as he describes it in Crazy Busy:

I suppose every writer has different routines for writing. When I know what my next book is going to be, I start reading for it about a year in advance. I collect articles and blog posts. I jot down stray thoughts. I usually read twenty to twenty-five books before beginning to write.

DeYoung and others like him may have writing territories that invisibly guide them to their choice of topics, so I acknowledge such territories may have a place in our teaching of writing, but since his process so clearly mirrors the keeping of a commonplace book, I get the sense that in assigning one, I as a writing instructor am exposing my students to a proven process for writing intelligently and substantively.

And that’s worth noting.

Thanks for reading.

Rethinking the way I use outlining as a prewriting tool

Make an outline. Or a bubble map. Or something.

That’s what learning writers have to do, right? An outline demonstrates that the writer has planned what they’re writing and haven’t just jotted down the first ten random things that popped into their heads, or, worse yet, jotted down five things but repeated the second and third in between each of the others. The procedure echoes what many of us have been taught–I certainly had to create an outline for most of my papers in high school–as well as the great guides that have managed to hold sway in an era of little authority. Stunk and White, for example, point this out under the heading, “Choose a suitable design and hold to it”:

In most cases, planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing. The first principle of composition, therefore, is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape. . . . all [forms of composition] have skeletons to which the writer will bring the flesh and blood. The more clearly the writer perceives the shape, the better are the chances of success. (15)

In that vein this year I have re-asserted the importance of the five paragraph essay. The five paragraph essay has always been something I have taught, so it’s not like I’m returning to doing my job; I’m just assigning more of them and giving them higher prominence, so as to force students to engage in the process that Strunk and White articulate. I enjoy having students create reflective writing and assign quite a bit of it, but I’ve increased my use of the five paragraph essay under the adage of, you can’t break the rule till you know the rule. If students can organize a rigid essay, perhaps they can better organize a reflective one.

Paired with this reassertion comes a call for outlines, which I’ve instructed students to create before they write each five paragraph essay. In my utopian moments I plan to approve their outlines before they begin the actual writing, but in reality I simply have them hand in the outline along with their final draft, because I never seem to have time in class to check with everyone before they’re ready to write.

A copy of J.K. Rowling's plot map for Order of the Phoenix.

A copy of J.K. Rowling’s plot map for Order of the Phoenix.

The struggle I have had with this method is that many students create their outline after they write the actual paper, even though those weren’t my instructions. For a long time this drove me crazy, as the point was for students to plan their writing before they began jotting sentences. No matter how much I repeated the purpose of the outline, they’d skip it, saying it’s not how they do things. “It’s how I do things!” is the response I was tempted to shout at them.

As I’ve thought about that imaginary response a bit longer I’ve realized the reality: it’s not how I do things. It’s how I assign writing, but it’s not how I write. When I write, I have a general idea in my head, a basic direction, and once I can dimly see that picture I begin, game to see where the words will take me. As usual, that’s what I’m doing with this article. I know where I want to go, but I don’t have some outline nearby giving me direction. I carry a mental image of my purpose, which, if I were to draw it, would have soft edges and fuzzy, indistinct words.

How relevant, how genuine, is my insistence that my students draw this outline when I do nothing of the kind myself? In the past I’ve justified that discrepancy by pointing out that I learned to outline so efficiently when I was younger that I do that in my head; in that sense, my claim was that for me the outlining and organizing step is at the point of being automatic or unconscious. But I think that is a bit disingenuous, because usually I don’t go that far in my thinking. Usually once I get a clear idea of my goal I begin trying things out.

A couple weeks ago a student handed me his paper, and when he realized he’d forgotten his outline, he took the paper back, sketched a quick picture of his organization, and resubmitted it. The moment he did that I realized, why not?

Why not let my students write their outlines after they write? If they can draw a picture of their organization, then it’s there; the chronology is a moot point. If they can’t even draw a picture of it, however, then that should clue both of us into their lack of organizational structure and give me a good area to instruct my student in writing better.

To this point I have sighed at my inability to dictate procedure. Now, I think, I’ll not so much sigh at it as embrace it. Looking at it this way, I can say openly to students that I don’t care when they map out their paper, just that they do, because if they can’t draw or outline their structure, it isn’t there.

Perhaps, in that way, the outlining can be one more way to demonstrate to students what great writing does.

As always, we’ll see.

Thanks for reading.

Brian Phillips, master of the personal essay, captures the intangible draw of Wimbledon

I like watching tennis; though I wonder how much of the pleasant feeling that overcomes me when discussing the sport has to do with the sport and how much has to do with fond childhood memories of being at my friend Rickey’s house and Wimbledon playing on the TV in his little sun-room. Until I met my college roommate, Rickey and his family were the only people I knew who were serious about tennis. They taught me how to understand it (Rickey was too advanced to enjoy playing with me), and forever more the grass-surface tournament became a yearly fascination. I’ve never watched any other tournament–what other grand slam event took place while I was on summer vacation and dominated network TV coverage?–so for me Wimbledon is more than just the pinnacle of tennis, it is the whole of tennis.

Image

I know now that I am not alone in my strange attachment to the great lawn tennis tournament. Apparently, if Brian Phillips’s recent essays are an indication, many of us have grown attached to Wimbledon and England for myriad and personal reasons. Phillips is a far greater writer and more intelligent sports fan than I ever considered being, and in a series of five “dispatches” has attempted to articulate something about his own romantic but powerful attachment to Wimbledon. The essays, taken as a whole, are about as perfect an example of the personal essay as I might find. In sending links to friends I have had trouble determining which paragraphs are the best ones. Some are great for their insight into sport. Take, for example, Phillips’s explanation of the unified experience of the spectators at a tennis match:

Tennis, while still being pretty complex from the standpoint of physics, gives you virtually all the information you need to understand the action at first glance. Tennis draws you in. You can see, when Julien Benneteau is charging down a Roger Federer drop shot, how fast he’s moving versus how fast the ball is moving, whether or not he’s going to get there, what his options will be if he does, whether he’ll have to play another sliced drop shot or will get the angle to smack the ball cross-court. You can perceive, with a few omissions like degree of spin and sun-and-wind conditions, almost exactly what Julien Benneteau can perceive; you can play the shot with him in your imagination. And then you can play the next shot with Federer. And I think that’s just huge in terms of how tennis crowds act, why they seem so happy and friendly, etc. Some people want Federer to win and some people want Benneteau to win, but both sets of fans are jumping back and forth, imaginarily, from one guy to the other throughout each game. The fans are drawn together, with each other and with the players, because they’re all sympathetically sharing the players’ mental space. And if that sounds like nonsense, then I encourage you to come to Wimbledon, get seats anywhere on Centre Court, and wait for the first drop-shot gasp, that astonishing collective oooohhhhh of 14,000 people reacting as one to a shot they just barely saw coming. I submit that the drop-shot gasp is one of the most purely magical sounds in sports. It’s my favorite part, easy, of sitting on Centre Court.

Other paragraphs are wonderful for their complimentary and amusing insights into people. These kinds of paragraphs accomplish something few comedic writers accomplish today: they make the reader laugh at their subject even while they endear that subject to the reader. In this way, I think of Phillips’s description of Pam, “a funny, plump, Scottish ‘assistant sound person'”:

And the other thing I wanted to tell you about was Pam. Pam and I were in different booths (why not, when we had so much room?), so I could hear her but not see her, and let me tell you: Pam was not kidding about cheering as much as we liked. Her characteristic cheer, whenever Murray won a point, was this sort of raucous, piratical “yrrrrrrahhh!,” as though she’d just clean-and-jerked, say, 400 pounds successfully. I was rooting for Federer, who’s my favorite tennis player ever, but rooting for Federer tends to be an exercise in, like, 19th-century sensibility; it’s a quiet, abstract, inwardly transported sort of state. Pam was pounding the table and roaring “Andy!!” and urging “C’mon, Muzzah!!” and, when he started losing, saying stuff like, “He’s done sew well. I’m prewd of him. Just, what can you do when Federer’s playing like that?”

I liked Pam so extremely much, and her responses were so emphatic, that it was hard not to get carried away. When Murray gave his tearful speech after accepting the silver runner’s-up plate … well, again, I couldn’t see Pam. But there were some pretty wrenched-sounding squeaks from her booth, and I’m pretty sure those were Pam sobbing.

By the time I’ve finished these paragraphs, I wish I had been there to meet Pam. The paragraphs honor her and laugh at her, all at once, and the way Phillips does it doesn’t make the situation feel like a paradox.

The articles are built on these kinds of soft and kind observations: life is an interesting compilation of romantic assumptions that run up against real difficulties but also tangibly beautiful moments. It’s like he’s saying, “Yeah, I’m a sports reporter and that is supposed to be why I’m here, to write about this sporting event, but really I admit I’ve been drawn here by my own romantic notions about England and tennis and Wimbledon and now that I’m actually here, it’s just so wonderfully poignant and surreal that I want to share it with you.” This sentiment is often captured best in simple transition sentences. In one, he follows a quick recap of the mens’ singles final with a move to something totally different: “So — since I’m hardly out to bore you by recounting stuff you already know — what I want to tell you about is the sound of the tennis balls.”

Yet it’s not all poignancy. Humor is a constant companion to much of Phillips’s insight. I love the opening of Part 2, describing an overheard conversation involving two security guards, and the joke is played even better when he returns to it to as part of an observation about the ball boys. Also amusing throughout the essays are the situations and images involving the double decker buses and his own redundant assertion that “Everyone was very nice.” Yet if I had to pick a favorite moment, it might be the opening of Part 3, describing the toilets:

The toilets at Wimbledon are spectacular. Like all American sports fans, I grew up knowing sports-stadium bathrooms as sites of almost unimaginable psychic trauma, humid chambers crammed with alingual, porcine men pissing savagely into troughs. Places whose stained and broken floor tiles exerted a viscous, ropy stickiness. Places where civilization, properly construed, did not exist. Well, I’m happy to report that you can leave those preconceptions at the door when you book your ticket to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Yes, sir. The public men’s room outside my little, disused commentary booth at Centre Court would not be embarrassed to show its face at the United Nations, or in a restaurant that sold wine by the carafe.

I’m talking wood stall doors that go all the way down to the floor. Burnished steel. Big, high-fauceted, mathematically hemispherical sinks.

Like I said, the essays are wonderful. This link will take you to the fifth article, which has links to all five. Read them in order, read them all, and read them at a leisurely pace. They’re worth it. I’m going to piece them all together and assign them as reading for my advanced English 11 students. One hope I have for the year is that at the end of it students will be ready to take the AP composition and grammar exam, if they choose. What better way to begin a conversation about essay writing than with these five articles? Simply by asking the basic question that has consumed me: “Which paragraphs are your favorites?” I suspect we’ll have ignited a discussion about what makes writing interesting, insightful, and memorable.

Thanks for reading.

Hooked: The Importance of a Good Introduction

I have never had a good job interview. That’s not true, actually; I did have two great interviews. For one, I didn’t get the job, and for the other, I turned the job down. So since I had terrible interviews for the jobs where I got hired, I feel like I can say what I said. I have walked away from every other interview feeling like it had not accomplished what I would have hoped it would accomplish. The cliched knowledge that you never get a second chance to make a first impression did nothing but discourage me. It did nothing but make me nervous when I reached out to shake the interviewers’ hands and it only made me frustrated when I walked out feeling like I had not successfully portrayed who I was.

That didn’t change the truth of the statement, however. That the first impression carries too much weight is well described in William Poundstone’s article for the Wall Street Journal, “How to Ace a Google Interview“:

The deep, dark secret of human resources is that traditional job interviews don’t work very well. In fact, there’s been quite a bit of research on the topic. One example is a famous experiment that Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal of Harvard did in 1992, with videotapes of traditional interviews. People who saw 10-second clips of an interview had roughly the same opinion of the interview subject as did the actual interviewer—making a strong case that job interviewers go by first appearances and are fooling themselves into believing they’ve gleaned additional information from everything that comes after.

That first impression matters, even when it misleads us, as it obviously does in job interviews.

Yet I cannot convince my students how crucial this truth is, especially as it relates to their writing. They’ll write an article and they find the introduction so difficult that they just skip it. Or open with just their thesis statement. Or ask a question.

I hate it when they ask a question. I tell them the risk of a question is that it invites an answer.

“Have you ever wondered why Nike makes shoes?”

No, I haven’t. Next, please.

“Should marketers target kids?”

I don’t know. Next.

“Have you ever wanted to go white water rafting?”

No. NO. No!

As jaded as I have become to the opening question–a crutch I have forbidden in students’ writing, by the way–I am really quite open to strange first lines. I am such a sucker for a good opening, in fact, that the residual enjoyment of one has  carried me through half a book. It has also caused me to abandon books. I’ve been happily reading something when I have casually, innocently, picked up a different book and glanced at its first page. That’s what happened with David McCullough’s John Adams, a book I had not intended to start the day I got it as a Christmas present, since I had just begun Bleak House. But McCullough opens like this, and I knew Dickens would be there when I was finished, and I couldn’t help myself:

In the cold, nearly colorless light of a New England winter, two men on horseback traveled the coast road below Boston, heading north.

The same thing almost happens every time I re-read The Odyssey with my students. I read a shortened version of it with them (alas, it is the truth) but after the open I always want to return to the entire thing:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns,
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.

Similarly, no matter how unenthusiastic I may be about guiding a new group of 15 year olds through Romeo and Juliet, I get excited at the first familiar words of the prologue:

Two households, both alike in dignity
In fair Verona where we lay our scene.

I’m a sucker for intros. Last week I went to the library intending to look at Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice. It’s a history of the Brown v. the Board of Education decision and the struggle for equality that lead up to it, and it was recommended to me years ago by one of my college buddies, one who has now become a history professor specializing in the history of civil rights and the evangelical church’s role in them. I found the spot on the shelf and cursed my friend’s recommendation, for this book was almost two inches thick. I didn’t have time for 800 pages; I had other things on my list that I wanted to read. But I checked it out anyway and if I really hadn’t wanted to read it, I shouldn’t have opened to the first page:

Before it was over, they fired him from the little schoolhouse at which he had taught devotedly for ten years. And they fired his wife and two of his sisters and a niece. And they threatened him with bodily harm. And they sued him on trumped-up charges and . . .

And it goes on, but I have to stop typing. As soon as I finished the first page, I knew I’d be reading the book. The same thing happened with Susana Clarke’s tome of a novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel:

Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.

I was hooked by the end of the second sentence and by the end of the first paragraph, won over (you’ll have to read the rest of the paragraph on your own).

There’s really no end to great openings, though. Yesterday I was drawn to the bookcase by our beautiful copies of The Lord of the Rings. I was curious how old our kids need to be before I can begin reading Tolkien aloud with them–yes, I know how long the books are, and I admit it’s something I’ll want to do for myself if they’re willing to come along for the ride–and I was reminded how wonderful the opening to The Fellowship of the Ring is:

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

When a writer says eleventy-first in the first sentence, you know you’re into something different, something strange and, well, something itself of special magnificence.

My conviction is clear: anybody who can write an introduction like these knows how to write a book I want to read. This is a message I need my students to hear. If you can write an intro; if you can hook the reader in one paragraph, they’ll trust you enough to listen to you, to like what you have to say possibly even more than they should.

We certainly work on introductions. I give my students handouts, we survey writers’ techniques, and I give them essays with the introductions removed and have them rewrite a list of potential openings for them. But that is just the drill. What they ultimately need to do is give it a shot. They’ll never suddenly figure it out if they never try something new, if they never take a risk and try out a wild attention grabber. I’d much rather a student reach for awkward attention grabbers and introductions than be too scared to attempt one.

The beautiful thing about writing in school is that it isn’t the real world. We teachers may knock ourselves out trying to create for our writing assignments genuine real-world purpose, but sometimes, when you’re learning how to do something, it’s nice to know it isn’t the real deal. Perhaps if a student is willing to practice creating striking openings in the “lab”, they’ll have discovered how to make that important first impression by the time it really counts.

But if they never figure it out, at least they can look at my example and realize they’re not totally hosed even if that first impression thing bombs. After all, I got hired.

Thanks for reading.

Installing a Writing Workshop

For a couple years now I have slowly inputted a kind of writing workshop in my classroom. It wasn’t a full-fledged workshop, mostly because I had other non-workshop things I had to accomplish, but I liked to give students the ability to choose what writing assignment they were going to work on during a given time period, even if it was only a choice of which one when, rather than a completely autonomous choice about what to write.

My best attempt was a journalism workshop that my freshmen did last spring. They wrote a series of pieces and we did it within a two week stretch. At the end, they handed in what they had completed, though I’d encouraged them to hand them in as we went, so I could review their work for them. I liked it, sort of. The final result involved their messing around too much and too many students handed me piles of articles on the last day (or after it, as the cases proved).

This summer I attended a class on writing workshops taught by a colleague in my district and I peppered her with every question I had stored up over the previous years. I felt slightly bad for the other teachers in my class, since I commandeered the class as my own personal learning experience and essentially adopted the instructor as my personal tutor and sounding board, but I was so determined to get this right that I did not care what other people thought.

The end result is what I am testing out this year. I took every writing assignment I was planning to assign through the quarter, plus a couple new ones, and put them on one sheet of paper (and one webpage, of course). I counted the number of Fridays in the quarter (for this first one there are six, not counting the first week and a three-day week in October) and made each one a due date. Then I assigned students one fewer writing assignment than the number of weeks in the quarter. Thus my sophomores will hand in five writing assignments this quarter and will get one week off. Each week they must hand in one assignment (minus, of course, the week off, which they can use when they want).

We have a block schedule where I see them every other day for 95 minutes, so every class we will spend 30-40 minutes in writing workshop. If they do not want to write, they can read, but they must be doing one or the other. Homework for other classes is forbidden.

Essentially this is what my colleague in the district does, and I really like it, so I’m hoping it succeeds. If I keep up with it my students will write significantly more than I have had them write in the past, which is important to me. I will read more of their writing, giving more frequent (albeit less detailed) feedback, and they will be able to choose what they work on, when, even as they have to take responsibility for getting things completed on time and staying on task.

Consequently I have been enjoying the task of creating interesting writing assignments. For this year I’ll reuse lots of them (juniors will write the same things as sophomores for example), but I anticipate developing enough in the coming year that I’ll have mostly unique assignments for each grade level.

Here are a few of the ones I have created so far. Feel free to steal them if they’re helpful in your classroom.

Thanks for reading.

Targeting Kids’ Desires

In an interview about affluence in America, writer John De Graff described his observations after attending some marketing conferences, explaining how businesses view children as “cash crops” :

If you go to some of the marketing conferences where marketers talk about how to reach kids, it’s pretty chilling. They use terms like owning, capturing, and branding our kids. They say, “If we don’t own, capture, and brand these kids by the time they’re 18 we may never own, capture, and brand them.”They talk of parents as being gatekeepers that they have to get around with ads that promote what they call the “nag factor” in kids. They are now spending 20 times as much (not 20% more-20 times as much) to target kids with advertising as they were as recently as 1980.

We heard one marketer say, “Anti social behavior in pursuit of a product is a good thing.” He meant by that that ads that promote rude and anti-social behavior among kids would make parents look like fools and fuddy-duddies were useful ways of getting to the kids to sell products and get around the parents.

Please respond to De Graff’s comments with your own perspective. Use your own experiences and observations to share to what extent you agree or disagree with his observations. This should be 350-600 words.

Passing Along an Activity

In his book Summer of ’98, Mike Lupica writes about how he learned to love baseball from his father and how he then shared that love with his own children:

Baseball is something that is passed on. . . . I go to all the sports events with my children, all the time, and I would always rather take them to the ballpark, and they would rather be there than anywhere else. I hope that one of the reasons is because they are there with me.

I cannot tell you for sure why baseball is passed on the way it is. . . . It was something I shared with my father, and still share today. It was a special language we had . . . A love that fits inside of a bigger love, like a ball in a mitt.

Consider your own favorite hobby or activity. Think about what makes that activity interesting, and how you and others have come to participate in it. Write at least 400 words about how you have come to love your favorite leisure activity.

Reflection on war and stories

Shelby Foote, who is famous for writing a three volume history of the Civil War, once said the following:

All good literature about war is anti-war. If you are celebrating the glory of war, you’re writing trash . . . because the truth is it’s more bloody than it is glorious, and the pain and the suffering are a far bigger part of it than the patriotism and the glory.

Consider books you’ve read or movies you’ve seen about war in light of Foote’s comments. What is your position regarding the telling of stories about battles or war?

Make this 450-700 words.

Reaction to Youth Sports

Please read this article called “Where elite kids shouldn’t meet” and react in a paper of your own. Use information from your own life and observations to react to the situations that Tim Keown is crying out against. What is the problem as he observes it, where have you seen the problem, and do you think it is a problem? Make this 300 words, minimum.

Descriptive story of your summer

A number of my students have declared that the essence of summer is freedom. If this is the case, please consider your summer and a time where you either felt particularly free or a time when you failed to experience that freedom. Describe that time for us. Make the readers feel like they’re there with you. 450-500 words.

Short story for kids

My children often come in to visit me. Suppose that they were here today (this year they’re seven, five, and three years old) and asked you to tell them a story. They love suspense, they love humor, and they have wonderful imaginations. Whether you use those things or not, the key is that they love a good story. Please write a story that you might tell to them. Keep it between 300 and a 1000 words.

Reflection on money and evil

Many of you have heard the saying that money is the root of all evil. In a book I read about the history of America before emancipation, for example, Daniel Walker Howe makes an observation that highlights how money is what was behind much of slavery in America: “Slave children represented capital gains. So a respected Virginia planter could advise his son-in-law in 1820, ‘A woman who brings a child every two years [is] more valuable than the best man of the farm.’”

Please explain or show to what degree you agree with the statement that money is the root of all evil. Use examples from life, history, or even literature to explain your opinion. Make it 450-700 words.

(In case you’re wondering where the quote comes from, it is actually a common misquotation of a verse from the Bible–1Timothy 6.10, which says “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils,” but the misquote has become better known in our culture than the original.)

Most Beautiful Place in America

Please describe what you claim is the most beautiful place in America. Make sure your piece appeals to three of the five senses, and make us as readers feel like we are there experiencing that place. Make this piece 300 words, minimum.

Character Narrative

Please invent a character and then tell a story in that character’s voice (that is, in first person). To introduce us to who is speaking, please include two lines at the top of your page explaining (in third person) who your character is. Then skip a line and begin your story. Make this piece 300 to 750 words.

Dialogue

Write a one page “story” that consists of dialogue between two characters. If you’d like, use The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a model for how to capture an exchange between two characters. This should be a concrete example of indirect characterization. 300-750 words.

Technology and Manners

Is our technology ushering in a new era of rudeness? The web journal Slate sets the stage:

With smartphones appearing in millions of pockets and computer screens mediating more and more of our interactions, the question of what’s rude has rarely been in greater flux. Technology and social media have connected us in astounding ways, but they’ve also given rise to etiquette dilemmas [last century’s etiquette experts] never could have imagined.

Please chime in with your own opinion about what is polite in the use of technology 300-750 words.

Pine Needle Article

Write an article for the school newspaper, The Pine Needle, reporting on a school related event or activity. See details for writing this narrative report online. Realize you’ll need at least one quote from a person who was at the event you are reporting on.This should be between 250-600 words.

Pine Needle Personal Essay

Write a personal essay for publication in The Pine Needle. See ideas at the Pine Needle’s staff wiki for more ideas about what would work. This would need to be 300-1000 words.

The Purpose of Sports

Is there a broader purpose or reason for participating in organized sports? Explain in a minimum of 400 words.

To get you thinking, consider reading Rick Reilly’s column, “Let’s Keep Rolling,” where he sings the praises of four former athletes who spearheaded the retaking of United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001. They resisted terrorists’ attempts to crash the plane in a populated area and forced it instead to crash in a field in Pennsylvania:

There certainly were more passengers among the 33 on board who planned the insurrection and stormed the cockpit, but we know about these four. All of them jocks. All of them with the physical and mental training to rise up when all seems lost.

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Images:

I believe in the power of the word

I’ve built my life on the power of the word.

I originally won my wife’s attention by writing her letters – long ones about any odd detail of any day. They were more like essays really, and I’d write two a week. They formed one side of an extended conversation where I attempted to present myself in all reality, so that even through a letter she’d experience the real me; of course to accomplish that I needed the perfect words in the perfect form. It must have worked, because we began dating a year later, and a half year after that we found ourselves in the same spot—connected only by our words, me in Alaska, her “down south,” me writing her a letter every day. This time the exchange of letters sowed our desire to be married.

Now, as our three children grow, I am attempting to express love to them in the best way I know how, through words. As often as I can I write of their antics, their quips, and their achievements (and my thoughts about them), in journals and essays. I hope to compile them in a type of family book, a kind of memoir and family history they can read long after I have forgotten the incidents in it. Like those letters to my wife, I want this book to convey me in all my reality, even as it will convey to my children their own reality, what they are like. If I write accurately and compellingly, my words can serve as a reference in their understanding of themselves.

My need for words thrust me into two careers – the first one announcing on the radio, the second teaching English. In this second endeavor, one lesson I reiterate frequently is that words matter. I cite George Orwell’s contention in 1984 that thought lives on words. For Big Brother to control people’s thoughts, he had to limit their words. Even now, more than 60 years after Orwell, in a multi-media, image-laden age that I embrace enthusiastically, words matter and have lost none of their power.

That power is profound. As John says in his gospel, the Word was there in the beginning. And it is ultimately on the power of that Word, the Logos who fittingly enabled the act of creation, that I lay my trust; and I celebrate him through my own creative act – building new strings of words, conveying thoughts in ways worth sharing.

Annie Dillard tells of a student who asked an author whether she might herself become a writer. “’Well,’ the writer said, ‘I don’t know. . . . Do you like sentences?’”

This writer had not asked this question of me, but if she had, I would eagerly have told her that I do like sentences, for sentences are made up of words, and the power of the word is something I believe in. I have built my life upon it.

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