A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Tag: teaching

I’m organizing a writing conference for students

I have a little more than a week before poet Aaron Belz visits my school. This is exciting, but it’s also got me frantic, because when I applied for the grant to bring him here, the grant-foundation asked if there was any way to get more students involved. I wanted to do whatever it took to get Belz here, so I invited our city’s other high school to bring their AP English students as well.

That was easy to say, but it meant I had to find something to do with almost 200 students in a building that is already full.

So we created The Writers’ Conference, and we’ve booked ten additional writers to share with our students what they do. I just finished the conference’s program this morning, and this is how I introduced the event to students:

Welcome to The Writers’ Conference. You may not consider yourself a writer—maybe you hope for a career in a STEM field—but we have invited you because your presence in AP English suggests you possess the skill to write, even if you do not recognize its value. To help you grasp the relevance of that skill, and to enforce for you the purpose of your rigorous AP English coursework, we have invited eleven writers to share their experience with you, exposing you to the wide range of writing done outside of school.

They do not all carry the title writer, but for each of them writing is a primary function of what they do. Their work demonstrates that writing serves a crucial function in our culture—as art, as an economic tool, as a support for democracy, or simply as a guide to understanding. Our expectation is that you will listen closely to the wisdom these guests have to offer you, taking notes, asking questions, and discovering what role writing can play in your world.

The guest line-up is fantastic, exposing students to an array of ways and reasons people write:

  • Aaron Belz, poet–author of The Bird Hoverer (2007), Lovely, Raspberry (2010), and Glitter Bomb (2014). A fourth collection, Soft Launch, will release later this year.
  • Lori Armstrong, a USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestselling author. Notable in her work are the Julie Collins mysteries and the Mercy Gunderson mysteries.
  • Glynis Becker, who has co-written several screenplays with Brian Yarbrough for True Exposure Productions. Their first film, Sinking Sand, released in 2018.
  • Dave DeChristopher, actor and writer of novels, plays, book reviews, and crosswords (he’s a cruciverbalist!). He currently serves as the Education and Outreach Director for Black Hills Community Theatre.
  • Helene Duhamel, Public Information Officer for the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, former reporter and anchor for KOTA Territory News
  • Aaron Groote, senior manager of corporate communications for DISH and Sling TV in Denver, Colorado
  • Chris Huber, editor-in-chief for the Rapid City Journal
  • Sam Hurst, writer and documentarian; most recently the author of Rattlesnake Under His Hat: The Life and Times of Earl Brocklesby. His next book is Farming the Boundary: Life and Work on the 100th Meridian.
  • Constance Krueger, teacher for 42 years. After a few years of requiring students to journal, she began journaling herself. She now writes daily. It changed the way she taught writing, and it changed her.
  • Austin Lammers, editor-in-chief for the University of South Dakota’s Volante.
  • Jessie Rencountre, author of the picture book Pet’a Shows Misun the Light, which envisions people as carriers of light and suggests we bring encouragement rather than harm to those who are hurting.

I told a colleague I’m currently a full-time conference planner who occasionally teaches on the side. My students are being wonderfully patient, however, even when they ask me to do something and I forget about it 30 seconds later.

Saving my class from a Midsummer Night’s Free Fall

My unit on A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a total disaster.

I could describe the details, but they don’t matter. What matters is I’m not exaggerating or playing the falsely modest teacher. It’s as the cliche says: an unmitigated disaster.

So to fix it, I retreated to the edition of Shakespeare Set Free with Midsummer in it. In the introduction, Peggy O’Brien reminds us of a couple key ideas, ones I have always agreed with but struggle to remember when my unit is plunging from the sky.

Here’s one: “Shakespeare is for all students: of all ability levels and reading levels, of every ethnic origin, in every kind of school.” I could add, “even for my squirrelly ill-mannered groups.”

Here’s another: “Learning Shakespeare through doing Shakespeare involves the very best kind of close reading, the most exacting sort of literary analysis.”

The Shakespeare Set Free books have enough lesson plans to fill an entire month with a play, which I don’t want to do, so the nice thing about them has always been I can pick and choose what I want to use and leave the rest. But when I’m dumping my strategy half-way through a unit (we’ve just finished Act II), it’s a bit harder to jump in midstream, as the lesson plans do build on each other through the course of a play–early on, lessons guide students to recognize subtext, for example, whereas later lessons require students to pick up on it.

Thus, I spent most of a planning period this morning staring at the book feeling a bit depressed and confused. My students can do this, and help lies not in making them sit and work silently but in doing Shakespeare. But I have to help them do it better.

Eventually (40 minutes later?) I was able to focus on a few ideas, recognizing I’d have to adapt them to make them work. And while my ideas aren’t that great, they’re what I’ve got.

I’m dividing the class into acting troupes, then for a first task, I’m giving them photocopies of a couple pages of the text (from Act II, which we’ve read). Their first task is to edit their assigned section to an abridged form, to something they can act out in only two-minutes. It has to contain all the main action of the scene, but it also has to be shorter. Is the plan perfect? Surely not. But it makes them grapple with the actual words Shakespeare wrote, it allows them to talk with each other (which they’re doing anyway, so I can pretend it’s part of the plan), and it acknowledges that this is a play, not a novel, whose life lies in performance. If they produce disastrous scenes, perhaps we can laugh and have fun while doing so.


I don’t know if it will work at all. But I have to try something, because what pilot just sits there waiting for the plane to hit the ground? Let’s pull some levers and press a bunch of buttons on the way down–it can’t be worse than our current state. Besides, if I crash and burn, investigators can look through my wreckage and report that I was at least trying to save us all.


DFW on college writers’ most common error: self-absorption

As rhetoric, this sort of attitude works only in sermons to the choir, and as pedagogy it’s disastrous, and in terms of teaching writing it’s especially bad because it commits precisely the error that most Freshman Composition classes spend all semester trying to keep kids from making–the error of presuming the very audience-agreement that it is really their rhetorical job to earn. This kind of mistake results more from a habit of mind than from any particular false premise–it is a function not of fallacy or ignorance but of self-absorption. It also happens to be the most persistent and damaging error that most college writers make, and one so deeply rooted that it often takes several essays and conferences and revisions to get them to even see what the problem is. Helping them eliminate the error involves drumming into student writers two big injunctions: (1) Do not presume that the reader can read your mind–anything that you want the reader to visualize or consider or conclude, you must provide; (2) Do not presume that the reader feels the same way that you do about a given experience or issue–your argument cannot just assume as true the very things you’re trying to argue for.

Because (1) and (2) seem so simple and obvious, it may surprise you to know that they are actually incredibly hard to get students to understand in such a way that the principles inform their writing. The reason for the difficulty is that, in the abstract, (1) and (2) are intellectual, whereas in practice they are more things of the spirit. The injunctions require of the student both the imagination to conceive of the reader as a separate human being and the empathy to realize that this separate person has preferences and confusions and beliefs of her own, p/c/b’s that are just as deserving of respectful consideration as the writer’s. More, (1) and (2) require of students the humility to distinguish between a universal truth (“This is the way things are, and only an idiot would disagree”) and something that the writer merely opines (“My reasons for recommending this are as follows:”). These sorts of requirements are, of course, also the elements of a Democratic Spirit. I therefore submit that the hoary cliche “Teaching the student to write is teaching the student to think” sells the enterprise way short. Thinking isn’t even half of it. (106, FN 59)

Wallace, David Foster. “Authority and American Usage.” Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Little, Brown, 2006.

Alan Jacobs on lectures being improvised

I do a good deal of lecturing in my classes, but most of my lectures are to some degree improvised and circumstantial. When I walk into a classroom where students have just read a work of literature that’s new to them, most of my excitement comes not from the opportunity to tell them what I know but from curiosity: What do they want to know?

Maybe the coolest thing about being a teacher is just this: Everything that’s worn and familiar to me is new to my students.

Alan Jacobs at The American Conservative

Have teachers made grammar instruction disappear?

I sat down with a colleague this week to discuss the reality of teaching grammar in our classrooms. Could we do it? If we could do it, how would we do it? We know students will essentially need remediation. Is the remediation so much that our efforts won’t be worthwhile? Would there be a way to do it without killing ourselves?

One thing we are determined not to do is insist upon the unabridged and specialized vocabulary of grammar. There is no way I am going to ask students to know what a nominative adjective is or to call a “helping verb” an auxiliary verb. That would hang us all, every mother’s son. Yet my colleague and I don’t have the desire to write a book on this stuff, and we honestly would not be interested in writing a book on it even if we had enough ideas and time to create one. What we want is a good book on grammar that we can use as a guide, that we can pair up with some decent educational methods to repair our students’ understanding of English grammar.

I thought a place to start might be the library, so I halfway emptied the shelf on grammar. Nine books are stacked up beside me, most of them targeting adults who are sad that their grammar is terrible and are needing help to make it better. Thus a few books are organized around fixing the most common grammatical mistakes in our language. The concept sounds good, but every time I look in one of these books, there is more base-level grammar to each explanation than a person likely is ready to handle, at least a person who is making all those mistakes. The best one I’ve seen so far–and I emphasize I haven’t reached the bottom of the pile–is Better Grammar in 30 Minutes a Day. It starts simple and emphasizes use rather than grammatical conversation, which is what I’d like to do.

This grammar thing has me thinking, however, about how we got into this mess. Last night I saw Race to Nowhere at the invitation of friends. I think they thought it was Waiting for Superman (at least, I did, until today when I looked up a couple reviews and got the titles straight), but it was slightly interesting. I won’t review it here for lack of time and interest, but it did remind me again of the abilities of different media to convey particular messages (and reminded me of Edward Tufte’s work). A documentary is good at opening a conversation, maybe at raising questions, but as far as I have seen answers to big questions are better conveyed in longer form with more nuance–like through a book, study, or lecture series.

I bring it up because one teacher in the film spoke emotionally about her experience in a school in East Oakland. She went into teaching with the idea that she could change students’ lives and grew frustrated when the district told her what she had to teach. She said that it was far less important for those kids to know when to put in a semicolon than it was for them to think critically and work in groups.

This passionate woman in East Oakland wants the best for her students, and I am assuming that her comment about semicolons was not really about semicolons. It was about dry black and white content like grammar that she had decided was irrelevant for her students. Also in the film she spoke about her dislike of tests that were culturally biased against her students (a potentially legitimate complaint if narrowed to precisely which parts are biased) and her desire to measure students through something more encompassing, like portfolios. I wonder about portfolios, as my own small examination of them has found them to be disappointingly underwhelming in effect.

This one teacher’s unfiltered, honest, and good-willed opinions helped clarify a question that has been building in the back of my mind as I have considered grammar. The question is simple, but loaded:  Have we stopped teaching grammar intensively because teachers do not want to teach it?

I don’t know how it is in other places, but in my experience, curriculum standards are built by teachers. Administrators can bring a certain emphasis to schools, but the thing I have seen more frequently is teachers and teacher-led committees pushing district initiatives for particular approaches. I have also seen peer pressure for particular methodology and see that if one teacher does something and gets noticed for it, then another teacher is more likely to adopt that thing, whatever it is.

Perhaps that method the teacher adopts gets so much attention she goes to a conference to share it. The woman in the film reminded me of a pair of women who led a session at a technology conference I attended a couple years ago. They were sharing about an English/art class they had created for seniors, where students were engaging in discussion in class and creating movies. The teachers had gained extra time for students to work on these projects by combining the art and English classes, and they were obviously pleased with the resulting products.

At the time I protested vehemently (intenernally only, of course) that if one were to take your obligated curriculum and reading selections and throw them out, then of course you can do these amazing projects. And while these projects are great, are they really always contributing to the development of critical thinking like we hope they are? I have had students do some amazing multimedia projects–they were amazing not because of me, but because they were amazing kids–but when I stepped out of the glamor and glitter of their media, I realized that the thinking that went into the project was far less diligent and admirable than the thinking that went into a simple and unique two page essay I assigned after reading a set of short stories.

Teaching grammar has no glamor and no glitz. It’s dirty and you deal with complaints all the time. But if you were to teach grammar “in context” and instead teach a writing workshop and let students write piles of poetry and stories that come from their hearts and try to help them edit and correct their grammar mistakes in those works . . . well, that has more glamor and reward. A teacher is going to want to do that.

My colleague and I could take a week and build a grammar curriculum guide and create a session telling teachers how to teach grammar. But when teachers discovered that it involved the dirty work of grammar instruction and that it wasn’t a wonderful elixir that made all the grammar mistakes go away without the difficult work of instruction, I think the most likely reaction would be dismissal. We’d be ignored. Whatever we say about NCLB dictating all our curriculum, I’m not sure I agree. From my seat it looks like teachers have a great deal of say about what happens in the classroom, and at times I wonder if this is not exactly why grammar is not taught so much anymore.

I may be completely wrong, and I will openly admit it if or when it turns out to be the case, but it seems to me that when I read narratives of the grammar shift that say explicit grammar teaching faded with the whole language movement, I suspect there is more to the story. I suspect that one reason the whole language movement was so powerful and popular was because it was easier and more fun, especially for teachers.

Just a thought and a question.

Thanks for reading.


An unexpected mission: Newspaper adviser

I didn’t mean to become who I am. Not that anyone else means it particularly, but sometimes you come across a person who seems to have figured out their future at the end of kindergarten. Take Dr. Jack Bacon, a NASA engineer who spoke at the TIE Conference this year: in elementary school he carried a lunch box with a picture of a rocket blasting to a space station. Now, he carries his headset in that same lunch box when he heads to work–for the team that created the international space station.

Not meaning to become who I am does not mean I am disappointed with the results, however. Early dreams of playing baseball, talking on the radio, and coaching died away as I grew up and learned more about those jobs and my own life.  They were good dreams, but they are not as important as I thought they would be.

As I grew new dreams emerged–like noble fatherhood, for example. It’s not something a young man dreams about, but it is something a young dad can envision. Yet there are also things that pop up in life that one never expects, things you pick up along the way not because you dream it, but because it just happens.

I happened to pick up the label technology expert, a label achieved by knowing a few things about blogs and wikis that my colleagues did not know. I don’t particularly like computers, but communicating is awfully cool and these were tools of communication, so I’d thrown myself at them–immersing myself in their workings, over-committing my time and energy to their development, eventually growing tired of it all and settling into a normalized use of them as tools. The formula was strangely familiar to the ones I applied to my childhood dreams: baseball was fun so I obsessed over it until baseball was life; eventually I realized it wasn’t.

Earlier this year another little surprise emerged. The colleague who puts together the school newspaper took a job elsewhere and I was asked if I was interested. I was presumably asked because I like to write and because it was thought I might enjoy the software side of things (they use InDesign, which I’ve never touched). At no point had I pictured myself as the newspaper guy. The thought never occurred to me. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I liked it, and now I am the newspaper guy.

Within days I’d wasted entire planning periods cooking up ideas with a colleague, threatening to destroy myself by repeating the same ol’ plot of total immersion, enthusiastic overcommitment, exhaustion, and pull back. Realizing that I want to break that formulaic story, that I want to focus my energy, and that I want to prevent extraneous ideas from drawing me into good but non-essential activities, I spent a bit of time considering what my mission, or objective, will be for the newspaper. Not only is my hope that a mission statement will keep me focused, but that it will help me to communicate to others what we are trying to do and why.

So far, this is what that mission looks like.

As an adviser, I am convinced that the newspaper’s main goal is to provide students an audience for their work. When I say work I mean it in a broad sense, wanting it to include many forms of communication, be it reporting-style writing to short stories to poetry, to photography and art work. Perhaps it can include work I have not fathomed or considered. For me, the genre or type of work is far less important than the audience. I want to seize upon the opportunity to create audience, because there are forms of work at which students are engaged where audience is a fundamental necessity. One writes that others may read and snaps a photograph that others may see. A classroom, unfortunately yet understandably, struggles to capture audience, even as within its walls these audience-dependent forms are taught. The newspaper thus compliments the school’s endeavors by providing opportunity for some students to be heard.

With that goal in mind, one of my first and biggest priorities is to work out a way for the print edition of the newspaper to be distributed to the student-body free of charge. Currently it is sold for 50 cents a copy, and as beautiful and well assembled as it is, it is read by a shockingly small audience, consisting, to my unofficial observation, mostly of staff members, who each receive a free copy of it. Even if this would require us to resume printing on newspaper print, I think it would be worthwhile (currently the paper is printed on fairly nice paper stock, in color). In college our student-newspaper came out every Friday about mid-morning, free of charge, and everybody I knew grabbed a copy of it and had it mostly read by Friday night. If we can nurture an effect like that here, we will have created a relevant compliment to education.

For students on my staff, when it exists (and I’ll need to recruit one), this will be their mission as well–to gain an audience. Yet for them, the goals they will be setting to pursue the mission will be different. They will not be worried about the printing costs or the budget as much as about their content and presentation (at least at first–if the staff grew large I could disperse business responsibilities as well). In that way, the second mission of the newspaper enters.

The staff of the newspaper will seek to provide for the school’s community relevant and interesting content. Like the work mentioned previously, the content is broadly defined to mean anything that can be conveyed in a printed format for an audience to consume. Relevant ends up being the crucial term here.

Relevant means timely, for example. Printing an article about how the football season ended up is not relevant if printed weeks after the season ended.

Similarly, relevant also meets a need. If the audience for the most part is fully aware of something, like what the plays will be this coming year, there is no need to re-publish it in the newspaper. The readers of the paper do not need to read such an article, because they already know what it says. It’s a newspaper, but such items are not new; if the paper wants to print such things, it should fight for the chance to break those stories, so the audience has a need to read the paper.

Relevant also encompasses perspective. This is a school newspaper, which means the readers are concerned with students’ perspectives and concerns. Students have a unique angle to provide on events and can cover things from state elections to school events to American Idol competitions with viewpoints that their audience wants to hear.

Personally I am bubbling with ideas for the paper. To compliment both missions, I would like to create an online version of the paper. The purpose of the online edition would not be to republish online that which is already printed, but to publish exclusive content that we otherwise could not bring to the audience in a relevant manner. Activities and breaking news are primarily what I have in mind: 250-word summaries of sporting events published within 24 hours of their completion; previews of upcoming matches including interviews with coaches and players; activities’ announcements and current events (like, “Hey, in three days the construction company is going to close off the parking for the next year and a half”). Such content, because relevant, will bring readers, and for me, the adviser and teacher, providing that audience is the point.

Fittingly, I say to you as always, thanks for reading.


Newspaper on Flickr by: jamesjyu

Teaching A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at times badly

My sophomores are wrapping up their reading of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and one of their final tasks was to form an acting troupe and perform Act V. I do not teach a pure Folger’s style Shakespeare unit with acting troupes constantly performing various scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, though I have consulted the Shakespeare Set Free text on many occasions for ideas.

Yet with the final act of Midsummer, I do ask them to perform it (with a script in hand) because I want them to realize that Shakespeare did not write his plays to be read, but to be watched. I have a few main goals for students with the assignment:

  • To recognize and appreciate that the plays involve actions and movement crucial to the interpretation and expression of the words.
  • To interpret sub-text to lines written in the play, realizing that the reader needs to infer meaning to catch what is going on.
  • To narrow their attention to crucial lines that they do understand (cutting away the great amount of material they do not comprehend).

In the end, as often happens, the resulting products were mixed and often disappointing. Among the low-lights, one lion never moved, failing to chase Thisby from the stage or “mouse” Thisby’s garment; a wall failed to separate Pyramus and Thisby, leaving them to speak face to face to one another; and another wall began the scene off stage in a desk, and when summoned by his fellow troupe-members, meandered up towards the stage. This was awful enough to watch itself, but it grew far worse when he turned sharply to his backpack and began to rifle through it looking for his script while his group members writhed.

I laughed, I admit, but I laughed not in the vein of Theseus, who sees “what poor duty cannot do,” and then in “noble respect / Takes it in might, not merit.” In these incidents, unfortunately, I was much closer to Puck, who sings mirthfully, that “those things do best please me / That befal preposterously.”

Yet that is the danger in such assignments. One student told me that their group just didn’t have enough time to do better, and this individual honestly believed it, apparently having not realized that the group spent the majority of their time making fun of one another instead of practicing or discussing how to cut the script down to size.

For future renditions of this assignment, I am considering putting a time limit on the performance, which would force a group to examine the script more closely for things to cut. Too many groups cut too little material, which meant they had not interacted with the text enough. More than one group left it to particular characters to cut his or her lines and then passed around the scripts so everyone else could see what they’d cut–which means they had not seen the cutting as an act of artistic judgment but simply as a way to make lines a bit shorter.

I also need an example of some kind to raise the standard to an acceptable level. I do not ask them to be actors, but I do ask them to be sincerely dedicated students, and if I were to record a group that did well, I could convey what this looks like in practice.

A group I should have recorded performed this morning and gave me one of the highlights of the assignment. The wall stood sideways, holding up her hand with her fingers as the chink, and on opposite sides hunched Pyramus and Thisby. The Thisby, I should note, was a girl with a mustache taped to her lip, clearly marking her as a girl playing a boy playing a girl–something Shakespeare would have been proud of. The part that made it great was that the two lovers stayed hunched through the entire exchange of courting lines, each squinting through the hole in hope of glimpsing the other, making their postures contrast greatly with the attempted romance of the lines. I couldn’t help think of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, particularly the ballet version we watch often at my house, where Romeo extends his arm in longing and frustration, while Juliet reaches down to him with the same sense of desire. Pyramus and Thisby, as performed by Bottom and Flute, continually undercut their attempts to achieve such emotion, and this little snapshot from this group captured that contrast.

Ah, well. In my own way I suppose I am Nick Bottom the Weaver, envisioning greatness and actually believing it to be possible, but in reality providing very tragical mirth for anyone who would find sport in my intents. So be it! I will enjoy the Bard wherever possible, in whatever way possible–even if one needs a bit of imagination to see how the characters and performances match.

I see a voice: now will I to the chink,
To spy an I can hear my Thisby’s face.

Thanks for reading.