Archives For Writing

The NY Times Sports Sunday Preview  by Joe Ward on 2/7/16 for Super Bowl 50 was part rebus, part infographic and wholly adaptable for a model lesson on annotating text for students in middle or high school. The article charted the growth of the Super Bowl from different elements: tickets, football players, and attendance. Cultural icons from the entertainment industry associated with this sports cultural icon are included. Here is the model for a lesson to increase a student’s background knowledge on a topic (preferably chosen and not assigned).

NYTimes Sports Sunday

Illustration by Sam Manchester; Photographs by: Bill Ray/The LIFE Premium Collection, via Getty Images (Dawson and ladle); Pro Football Hall of Fame, via Associated Press (footballs); Ed Andrieski/Associated Press (water bottle)

 

There is the cryptic title, Size I to Size L, that requires that students understand Roman Numerals.

There is the quarterback Len Dawson of the Kansas City Chiefs smoking a cigarette during half-time in the locker room, a picture that requires understanding what was acceptable before the  the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, banned the advertising of cigarettes January 2, 1971.

There are the references that can drive student research into the Bell Rocket Air Men, the dog Lassie star of film and TV, and the changes in size of the American football (inflated or deflated arguments, notwithstanding).

The page dedicated to Super Bowl 50 is a model for students to take any informational text and “annotate” by adding pictures, just as the editors added the picture of the 1st Super Bowl ticket ($12.00).

There can be cross-disciplinary links by having students use calculations as charts, just as the editors calculated the price increases in ticket sales and in advertisements, and the increase in player weight.

Students could also embed links within the text (as I have done) to their research as part of the Common Core Writing Standards:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.6
Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

Finally, teachers can teach a lesson or two on how to correctly cite evidence used in their research, or how to use a citation generator:

Ward, Joe. “Size I to Size L.” New York Times. 7 Feb. 2016. Web. 8 Feb. 2016.

Teachers can use the page as a model for other topics of inquiry.

Need suggestions? Here are some “starters” to try with students:

Students could use different forms of software to create their informational text graphic; the Google suite of software (Docs, Drawing, etc.) is easy to use to create a PDF document. Students can experiment with different fonts to mimic the NYTimes fonts on the model front page. (FYI: NYTimes fonts changed changed to Georgia, as many people find easier to read wide print. They  use Arial as the sans serif font.)

Finally, engaging students in authentic writing prompts like this one from the NYTimes is inquiry based learning that is student-directed and can be linked to John Dewey’s philosophy that education begins with the curiosity of the learner with many of these characteristics:

  • Student voice and choice
  • Strategic thinking
  • Authentic investigations
  • Student responsibility
  • Student as knowledge creator
  • Cross-disciplinary studies
  • Multiple resources
  • Multimodal learning
  • Engaging in a discipline
  • Real purpose and audience
  • Authentic model

A model lesson, ripped (quite literally) from the front page!

Wednesday night, January 13. 82nd Street branch of Barnes and Noble Booksellers, NYC:

After a full morning of delivering professional development to the K-12 grade literacy team combined with an afternoon working with 6th grade teachers, I was getting my literary reward. I was sitting in the second row at an author event, listening to the writer Colum McCann (Thirteen Ways of Looking, Let the Great World Spin) interview the writer Elizabeth Strout (Abide with Me, Amy and Isabelle).

"There are writers that leave porous holes [in their works] with air pockets for the reader," said Colum McCann, introducing Elizabeth Strout, whose novel I am Lucy Barton was recently released. "She whispers, 'trust me I m going to take you somewhere' and when we get there..she has told me secrets."

“There are writers that leave porous holes [in their works] with air pockets for the reader,” said Colum McCann, introducing Elizabeth Strout, whose novel I am Lucy Barton was recently released. “She whispers, ‘trust me I m going to take you somewhere’ and when we get there..she has told me secrets.”

McCann was interviewing Strout about her latest novel I am Lucy Barton and it was obvious that they both were happy to be having this intimate conversation in a room packed with their fan base.

I slid into a seat saved by my loyal friend Catherine-traveling  2 hours and 40 minutes after the aforementioned teacher PD- to hear McCann begin the interview with the question:

“Elizabeth, are you happy?”

“Yes,” replied Strout, and for a brief and worrisome moment it seemed as if the interview would end with that response, but McCann pushed a little more on the relationship writers have with their readers….and proved to be charmingly deft at teasing out ideas:

  • On writing a narrative: (McCann)“There is a agreement that the writer will tell you some thing you sort of knew… you knew that you sort of knew, but now you know it.”

  • On telling secrets:( McCann) “Any good story teller is saying to the reader come with me, and I’ll tell you something….an intimacy.”

  • On writing about a writer: (Strout) “I don’t know how I do what I do, that’s why writers are boring…”

  • On the process of writing: (Strout) “We just don’t know what we are doing…but I know who is charge.”

  • On how we know we are writers: (McCann) “I don’t think what we know what we are going to do…until we do it it’s only when people tell us what we’ve done that we know what we have done.”

As I listened, I thought of how all the effort I had expended that afternoon (from train, to shuttle, to subway, and run) had been worth it. So many of these statements by contemporary authors might seem oddly disconcerting for middle and high school students, and I began to wonder what was the best way to share what they were saying.

Teachers know that many students are convinced that novels spring, “Athena-like”, fully-formed from the mind of the author.
There is little regard for craft. The idea that authors say that they “don’t know,”and are waiting to hear from readers to know what their writing means strains credulity.

Paradoxically, many of these same students also believe that some readers -or at least all English teachers-make too much of what the author meant: too much of the symbols and motifs and themes in literature. They are quick to contend that maybe the author “did not know” and just wrote without a plan. They reject the notion of craft.

The conversation I was hearing suggested that that the relationship between a writer and the student does not need the English Teacher filter…and that teachers need to get out of the way. Whether or not students will find it…author’s craft is there.

But, I digress…and so did they.

Strout spoke of the experience of having her book Olive Kitteridge turned into a film:

McCann: “Directors come and actors come….and they put a language on what you have done…is that odd…? Do you think, Like T.S. Eliot That’s not what I meant at all?”

Strout: “No…they did a wonderful job. When I saw the character Henry, I thought,’I know that Henry…I made that Henry…'”

McCann: “And are there Lucy Barton’s walking about?”

Strout: “Sweetie…She’s fictional.”

Fiction aside, Strout commented on how she intentionally writes about people struggling with an real obstacle…and one real obstacle she includes is class.

“How do people fit into the world?” she asked. “I like to write about class…The poverty that does not let people belong to a community. They exist more now; They are hungry. So much of our literature does not want to talk about poverty.”

Her sentiment, I suspect, is what initially frustrates students when they complain about the steady diet of what they consider “depressing literature.”

Both Strout and Mcann saw the issue of class differently, and spoke about the power of literature in developing empathy.
“We know what it like in a world without it,” Strout responded to an audience member’s question, “Literature can make us understand briefly for a moment what it is like to be another…. than that would be a wonderful wonderful thing.”

The audience murmured their agreement, and Mccann echoed his opening question:

“So, Elizabeth, are you happy?”

“I am,” she responded.

We all were.

The Best Persuasive Argument of 2015 was not presented in the form of the standard five paragraph essay.

Instead, the best persuasive argument made this year featured 1000 musicians playing the song “Learn to Fly” in a field in order to persuade the rock band Foo Fighters to play a concert in a small town in Italy.

The entire project was the brainchild of Fabio Zaffagnini and his creative team. They named themselves the Rockin’1000 with the tag line: Romanga Calling the Foo Fighters and they extended an invitation to the band perform in Cesena, Italy.

The diary on their website chronicles how they raised $45,000 in order to film their appeal.Screenshot 2015-12-31 22.13.39

Their effort began in May 2014 (“The idea pops out”), and the diary records their emotional responses as the team met each challenge:

  • September 2014-“a miracle is needed!”

  • March 2015-“we launched a cartoon spoken in our regional dialect that explains how to donate and be part of Rockin’1000  (no translations for that, sorry, but we assure you: it’s very funny!)”

  • July 30 2015-KABOOOOOM! “The Rockin’1000 video is out and in a few hours it becomes a worldwide success with more than 10 million views. We’re literally overwhelmed by email, interviews, social media just go crazy!”

  • August 2015-“The Rockin’1000 people just made it, with little money and a lot of passion.”

Consider that a standard argumentative essay has five critical parts, and then consider how the argument made by the Rockin’1000 in creating their video meets each requirement:

PART #1  Introduce the topic of the paper and the thesis statement.

“We needed a crazy idea. We had to organize something that kicks ass worldwide and can be seen by Dave Grohl [of the Foo Fighters]: we will ask one thousand rockers to play one of their songs, all together and at the same time.”

PART #2  Presents the facts of the case:

“The Foo Fighters have not been in Romagna since 1997, ‘it’s time to get them back.'”

PART #3 Prove the thesis with your arguments.

“We got the money, so now we cannot back out, there are no more excuses.”

“Italy is a country where dreams cannot easily come true, but it’s a land of passion and creativity…”

PART #4  Disprove your opponent’s arguments.

“…the budget is extremely tight and we cannot afford many expenses, we borrow anything that is available, we implore technicians to work for free or to be under paid. We need experienced professionals, but the challenge is so cool that we are able to recruit real bigwigs.”

PART #5  End the essay. 

The video: (Fabio speaking) “To be true…this (gestures to musicians) is just to 5 people They just did for one song…your song. Our call is to ask you, the Foo Fighters, to come and play for us…Please… (begging motion)….Make noise!….

(CROWD) Foo Fighters! Foo Fighters!

The video can be seen here:

Meeting the requirements of an argumentative essay is not the reason for writing an argumentative essay, although there are students who are convinced that requirements = reasons.

Moreover, the reason this is the BEST argumentative essay for 2015 is that David Grohl of the Foo Fighters did see the video, and he posted his own video response:

“Hello, Cesena. It’s David,” Grohl said, “Hi. I am sorry I don’t speak Italian, just a bit, a bit. This video was good! Super nice. Thank you so much. We’re coming, I swear. We’ll see each other soon. Thank you so much. I love you. Ciao.” (BBC News)

On November 4, 2015, the Foo Fighters performed in Cesena, Italy, for an audience of 3,000 donors and musicians from Rockin’1000. They opened with  “Learn to Fly,” and invited one of the drummers from the video onto the stage to perform. According to the New York Times review of the 11/4/15 show, Grohl told the audience, “The whole world saw what you did…Millions and millions of people saw what you did. It’s a beautiful thing.”

The 26 million views of this video on YouTube confirms the truth in Grohl’s statement. There will be more views as this video appeal was included in many of the end of the year “best” moments for 2015 (Google). The standard 5 paragraph essay never reaches that kind of audience.

Consider, then, if this was the best argument for 2015, what can students do to persuade someone to take action in 2016…and what format would make the best persuasive argument?

I like “one word” explorations to sum up an experience.

This time the experience was the National Council of Teachers of English Conference (NCTE) held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, November 19-22, 2015. This time my exploration uses the noun “context” which is defined at Dictionary.com as:

1. the parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect;

2.  the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event,situation, etc.

An important concept to know is that in the context of any English teacher conference, authors are rock-star-like celebrities that drive well-manner educators at every grade level to act like paparazzi at gala openings; it’s literary fandom gone wild.

Frankly, it’s embarrassing.

Staid teachers will suddenly go stalker-mode, staging selfies and pressing writers for autographs. When they do catch (trap?) an author, these articulate adults -who are capable of controlling legions of adolescents- will suddenly go tongue-tied, lining up to blurt out Hallmark-like sentiments: “love you” “you’re the best” or “you changed my life”…drowning the poor author in a litany heartfelt sentimentalities. At these conferences, authors should know to be careful not to incite such emotional responses.

Which makes me wonder how the author Dave Eggers made it out of the Minnesota Conference Center Auditorium in one piece!

Dave Eggers, writer and 2015 NCTE Keynote speaker

Dave Eggers, writer and 2015 NCTE Keynote speaker

Eggers was the Saturday night speaker (11/21)  where he delivered a heartbreaking speech of humor and pathos dedicated to teachers…and to one teacher in particular. He is the author of ten books including Zeitoun, The Circle and A Hologram for the King, a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. He is also the founder of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing company that also publishes Voice of Witness, a nonprofit book series that uses oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world.

He began by asking the all-educator-audience to picture a 14 year-old boy “covered in zits” with “foot odor”, a friendless outsider, “angry” and unhappy at home. Many teachers did not have to imagine such a 14-year-old; this brand of boy is often seated in their classrooms.

Eggers proceeded to explain how this boy’s anger led to a subversive approach in responding to English writing assignments: the argumentative paper he wrote promoted a bike trip to the inner mantle of the Earth; the  informational essay he wrote warned of the coming sheep apocalypse. When the anticipated confrontation to change topics did not come from his English teacher, the boy channeled energy into the papers….and he became less angry. Both assignments received an A-.

At the end of the year, there was an encouraging handwritten note penned across a paper:

“I sure hope you become a writer one day.”

Eggers detailed how such encouragement from his teacher brought the boy to the school’s newspaper, then to the school’s literary magazine, and then to the attention of the “elders in the tribe” of the English Department.

Heads nodded in approval.

“And because you are English teachers,” he conceded, “and you understand plot…you have figured out that the 14 year-old in this story is me….”

All heads nodded in agreement; they understood the “he is me” context.

“But, what you don’t know,” Eggers stated, “is that my English teacher is here tonight.”

Gasps….and hundreds of misty-eyed teachers stood in applause as the teacher, Mr. Peter Ferry,  rose from the front row to take a bow.

Eggers rushed down to him and handed over a box festooned with a bright red ribbon.

The applause was deafening.

“And what you don’t know,” Eggers continued, breathless from his leap off and back onto the stage, “is that the gift in the box is my latest manuscript…because Peter Ferry is also the person who reads my first drafts…”

More gasps and more applause.

“And what you also don’t know….” paused Eggers again, “is that I have been the first reader of the manuscripts to his two novels.”

Gasping air depleted, teachers could only clap harder in appreciation for such inspiration, and as cliché it sounds, there were teachers shouting their (intellectual) love for Eggers. But for the height of the stage, he could have been mobbed.

He  held off the crowd by answering questions, and this gracious opportunity provided another familiar educational context…the  Q & A interview. As Eggers is also involved in his own educational enterprise in supporting writing centers, he shared pictures of 826 Valencia  the first of eight tutoring centers for schoolchildren, 6-18.

His efforts began in San Francisco in 2002 with the plan “to close the academic achievement gap for under-served youth in the Bay Area by connecting caring adults to young people in need of individualized support.” In describing the activities at this writing center, he explained that the original space was zoned for retail, and that they needed to open a store. The ship-like surfaces of the former gym gave them the idea to open a pirate store, where the pirate supplies profits helped offset the rent to the writing center.

Eggers has spoken often about  826 National including his TED talk titled Once Upon a Schoola video (in one of its various iterations) is here below:

In sharing the stories of Mr. Ferry, 826 Valencia, and 826 National with English teachers, Dave Eggers served as an illustration of the the word context.

The etymology of the word context comes from the 15th C. Latin contextus meaning “a joining together”. The word context was originally the past participle of contexere, which means to “to weave together,” from com- “together” + texere “to weave, to make”.

Eggers’ speech recounted the initial context that joined together a teacher and a student – Eggers and Ferry- in order to “to weave, to make” good writing. His message to teachers in the context of this NCTE convention was powerful as he thanked the audience saying, “I had incredible uninterrupted string of great English teachers!”

That message helps teachers to encourage the students in their classrooms, the new authors and the next celebrities – and to encourage them “to weave together” stories to share…and to create those contexts where one may write to a student, “I sure hope you become a writer one day.”

What, How, and Why do you write?

The National Council of Teachers of English, The National Writing Project, The New York Times Learning Network, and the Teaching Channel want to know.

Today, Tuesday, October 20th, 2015, people everywhere are encouraged to respond to the prompt asking What, How, and Why do you write as part of the Seventh Annual National Day on Writing.

Reponses to will be shared in in a “tweet up” during the day using the hashtag #whyIwrite.

I have, of course, my own reasons why I write, but first I would like to share two statements made by the senior media correspondent for CNN, Brian Stelter at a Q & A session at the Inspire Expert Event at the NY offices at About.com (10/17,15). This event brought together the experts that write for the About.com website.

stelterBrian Stetler has been a media reporter for The New York Times and the editor of TVNewser He currently hosts the CNN Sunday morning show Reliable Sources.

In this Q & A session Stelter’s two statements on writing stood out, not because they were surprising, but because they were not surprising, especially for any of the other writers in the audience.

His first statement addresses the Why and How of the National Day of Writing prompt:

“The only way for me to sound smart on TV is [for me] to write all week long.”

This first statement speaks the importance of writing as a process for learning. Because I am an educator, I am expected to promote writing everyday at every grade level and in every subject. Because I write,  however, I can attest to how much more I learn about a topic when I write about that topic. Practicing writing is no different than practicing math facts or practicing for an athletic competition. Writing more improves writing.

Stelter’s second statement addresses the What of the National Day of Writing prompt:

“When I am writing and producing the stories, I discover another great story that has not been written yet, and I can’t wait to get it started.”

This statement by Stelter supports writing as a process of discovery, of finding out what one thinks, of enthusiastically embracing new ideas, of living with the creative disruption of ideas.

When I taught the Advanced Placement English Literature class, the timed in class essays that students drafted would often begin with one idea (thesis) in the opening paragraphs that would mature and change midway through the essay. Somewhere in the middle of this rough drafted essay would be this creative disruption-a new idea- like the discovery that Stelter claimed he found in writing. In these drafts, each student wrote his or her way into the new idea and (usually) developed a more confident position as he or she wrote.

Such an essay would conclude making a point different from the original thesis, a surprise to students who discovered a common experience- “I didn’t know what to write until I wrote it.” While this in class writing exercise from my students produced a series of poor to average drafts that needed revision, there was evidence of great thinking on these papers.

That is what writing is. Writing is thinking on paper.  Brian Stelter explained that thinking. Writers understand that thinking.

So What do I write? I write about education.

How do I write? Daily (mornings are best!)

Why do I write? I write to know what I think.

Happy National Day of Writing!

This is POST #400!
This is POST #400!

I just figured out that this is my 400th post. I began writing on 7/3/2011, a little over four years ago. I have discovered that writing for this blog has given me the opportunity to research many topics and to explore what I think about those topics as I write.

In other words, I have increased my own background knowledge through reading and writing on this blog.

So, what could be the best way to celebrate this 400th post?

I can demonstrate how a post can increase a reader’s background knowledge on a topic as simple as the number 400!

There are multiple topics in various disciplines related to the number 400.  Here are several examples of what I learned by basing this post on the  significance of the number 400:

 

HISTORY
If this post were in Athens in 413 BCE, it could represent the The Four Hundred , a group that organized a revolution during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Their coup was organized after a financial crisis caused by a series of unsuccessful military campaigns, made them seek to establish an oligarchy of the elite. These Four Hundred were the wealthy members of the ruling class, and they believed that the oligarchy would manage foreign, fiscal, and war policies better than the more democratic government in place. (source: Wikipedia)

If this post was part of a  Gregorian calendar year calculator, it would show the changes according to one cycle of exactly 400 years, of which 97 are leap years and 303 are common. (source: Wikipedia)

COMPUTER CODING
If this post was a message from the Internet, it would be part of an HTTP status code for a bad client request. Receiving the message 400 means that the request was malformed. In other words, the data stream sent by the client to the server did not follow the rules. (source: Wikipedia)

The Atari 400 Personal Computer was Atari's entry level computer. www.atari.com

The Atari 400 Personal Computer was Atari’s entry level computer. www.atari.com

ECONOMICS
If this post was in Forbes Magazine, it would be a listing of the 400 wealthiest people in the world. The methodology for gathering this information is from interviews with employees, handlers, rivals, peers and attorneys. Debt is also consider a factor. Other methods explained by Kerry A. Dolan from the Forbes Magazine staff in her article Inside The 2014 Forbes 400: Facts And Figures About America’s Wealthiest:

“We pored over thousands of SEC documents, court records, probate records, federal financial disclosures, and Web and print stories. We took into account all types of assets: stakes in public and private companies, real estate, art, yachts, planes, ranches, vineyards, jewelry, car collections and more.”

SOCIOLOGY
If this post was a socialite calculator for the mid-19th century, it would hold the number 400 as an elite standard based on a remark by from Manhattan’s most famous social arbiter, Ward McAllister. His remark “There are only 400 people in New York that one really knows,” was the basis for social reports chronicled in the New York Sun. According to Collins Dictionary Online,  The notion ‘elite’ is said to be from the selection of high society guests by the socialite Mrs. William B. Astor Jr., whose ballroom could hold 400. (source: Encyclopedia Britannica)

TRANSPORTATION:
If this post was a passenger train, it would have the nickname “The 400″ because of the distance it traveled (400 miles) between Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago, Illinois in 400 minutes. (source: Wikipedia)

If this post was a highway, it would be part of the interstate system in Ontario, Canada, or part of the 400-Series Highways. These highways have high design standards,are regulated at 100 kilometres per hour (60 mph) speed limits, with various collision avoidance and traffic management systems. (source: Wikipedia)

 If this post was a boat yard, it would be the historic boat yard #400 in Belfast, Ireland, where the RMS Olympic was constructed, the first of the three Olympic-class ocean liners. The RMS Olympic was the RMS Titanic‘s sister ship. (source: Wikipedia)

SCIENCE
If this post was an explanation of the appearance of celestial objects, it would explain that while the Sun is approximately 400 times the size of the Moon, it is also approximately 400 times further away. Their astronomical size difference is not comparable because of a temporary illusion causing the Sun and Moon to appear as similar size in the Earth’s sky.

If this post was a tree, it would be one of 400 in the ratio of the number of trees per human on Earth today.  A new study  explained in Science Tech Today (Los Angeles Times / NewsEdge) estimates the number of trees at somewhere around 3.04 trillion, or 400 trees for every person. The new study notes that this is a reduction in about half the number of trees that have been on Earth:

“‘The number of trees cut down is almost 3 trillion since the start of human civilization’ said Thomas Crowther, a postdoctoral fellow at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies who led the study. ‘That is an astronomical figure.'”

SPORTS:
If this post was a batting average, it would represent (2 hits out of 5 at-bats) which is a numerically significant annual batting average statistic in Major League Baseball. Batting .400 was last accomplished by Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox in 1941. (source: Wikipedia)

LITERATURE :

"The 400 Blows" is seminal work of the French New Wave (1959) and directorial debut of 27-year old Francois Truffaut

“The 400 Blows” is seminal work of the French New Wave (1959) and directorial debut of 27-year old Francois Truffaut

If this post was a measurement of time between the writings of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament texts, this post would represent the Intertestamental period, or roughly four hundred years.

If this post was part of a Bible as Literature study analysis, then this post would be discussing the verses from Acts in the Revised Standard Version:

“God spoke to this effect, that his posterity would be aliens in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and ill-treat them four hundred years.‘But I will judge the nation which they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’”(Acts 7:6-8 )

If you were looking for this post in the Dewey Decimal system, you would be looking in the 400s-language section. (source: Wikipedia)

MUSIC
If this post was the central idea for a song, it would be for the song 400 Years by Peter Tosh (on the album Catch a Fire, produced by Bob Marley). Tosh was one of the core members of the band The Wailers (1963–1974), after which he established himself as a successful solo artist and a promoter of Rastafari.  Tosh explained that, “My songs are a revolution, not smiling songs.” He was murdered in 1987 during a brutal home invasion.  (source: Wikipedia)

The opening lyrics to this song:

400 years (400 years, 400 years. Wo-o-o-o)
And it’s the same –
The same (wo-o-o-o) philosophy
I’ve said it’s four hundred years;
(400 years, 400 years. Wo-o-o-o, wo-o-o-o)
Look, how long (wo-o-o-o)
And the people they (wo-o-o-o) still can’t see.
Why do they fight against the poor youth of today?
And without these youths, they would be gone –
All gone astray….
So, in celebration of the 400th post, you could listen to the song:

 

All of the above evidence on the significance of the number 400 is proof that every time I sit and write a post, the research that I do for that post has increased my background knowledge.

I hope you learned something new to add to your background knowledge from this 400th post!

There is a gap between writing for school and authentic writing.

Just how big is that gap? If you consider an NPR interview with E.L. Doctorow that was recently replayed on the airwaves, the gap is a chasm….nay, an unmeasurable abyss.

What Doctorow said about his approach to the writing process, leads to only one conclusion about the teaching of writing:

We’re doing it wrong.

Doctorow’s original interview was replayed after his death on July 21st, 2015. His initials E.L. stood for Edgar Lawrence, and he was noted for his work with historical fiction including  Ragtime (1975), Billy Bathgate (1989), and The March (2005).

E.L. Doctorow: American historical fiction writer, 1931-2015

E.L. Doctorow: American historical fiction writer, 1931-2015

The NPR broadcast (7/22/15) was created from a collection of interviews from their archives. In one exchange with Scott Simon, Doctorow had responded to a question about his writing process by saying,

DOCTOROW: The ideal way to get involved in this sort of work is to write in order to find out what you’re writing. You don’t start with an outline and a plan.

Maybe you can feel the shudder of writing teachers everywhere, especially those insist that students first draft an outline or use a five paragraph template for any piece of writing. Of course, Doctorow was writing in the narrative format, where his plan started with the use of particularly “vocative images” to begin his stories:

And in this case, it’s the first line in the book where Andrew’s saying I can tell you what I’m about to tell you, but it’s not pretty. And suddenly you find yourself with your character.

The narrative genre may lend itself to Doctorow’s approach of “finding yourself with your character,” but writing in schools, especially at the secondary level, is in the expository/informational or persuasive genres. The Common Core State Standards have reinforced very deliberate borders between these genres. But Doctorow confounds these boundaries, incorporating factual information into his historical imaginings that play with the “myth of history” as an end product.

In a 2008 interview with George Plimpton published in the Paris Review (“The Art of Fiction, No.94″), Doctorow boasted about his use of history:

So to be irreverent to myth, to play with it, let in some light and air, to try to combust it back into history, is to risk being seen as someone who distorts truth.

History teachers may get sidetracked with Doctorow’s argument that history is a battlefield, “constantly being fought over because the past controls the present.” Yet, in taking the risks in “letting in light and air” to history,  Doctorow’s created another truth, a truth that did not require writing from his own experiences:

Writing teachers invariably tell students, Write about what you know. That’s, of course, what you have to do, but on the other hand, how do you know what you know until you’ve written it? Writing is knowing.

Again, there may be a palpable shudder from writing teachers who have used “writing from your experience” as a mantra.

Analysis of literature was another area that Doctorow explained to NPR’s Steve Inskeep (in archived interviews) that almost kept him from being a writer:

That kind of analytical action of the mind is not the way you work when you write. You bring things together, you synthesize, you connect things that have had no previous connection when you write. So, all in all, as valuable as my [analysis] training was, it took me through language in the wrong direction.

Apparently, all those literary essays assigned by English teachers could be stifling this next generation of writers.

In making the connection between reading and writing, however, Doctorow described his own experience and this would win approval from teachers:

 I was reading constantly everything I could get my hands on. And, you know, at that age, something else happens if you’re going to be a writer. You’re reading for the excitement of it and to find out what happens next, just racing along. And then another little line of inquiry comes into your head. You say, well, how is this done?

So, what can writing teachers learn from one of America’s most celebrated novelists? What advice might they consider in writing instruction?

  1. Students should not limit themselves to write from experience;
  2. In narratives, students should not use an outline as they find the story through a character instead;
  3. Students should know that history is flexible enough for play, and for letting in  “air and light”;
  4. Analysis essays can take writers in the wrong direction;
  5. To be writers, students must read;
  6. Writing is knowing.

Whether teachers heed the advice of Doctorow from these interviews may not matter, as it is acknowledged that each writer differs in approach and style. Without question, however, the writing process for Doctorow flies in the face of any prescribed writing instruction. As he explained to Inskeep:

I seem to appreciate quiet. And when I’m writing I like to seal everything off and face the wall and not to look outside the window so that the only way out is through the sentences.

In the bell-to-bell day of today’s classroom, with a constant stream of interruptions during timed essay writing or writing on demand, we are doing it wrong.
It is unlikely that a student writer will find the quiet that Doctorow appreciated.
There is no blank wall.

Students will have to find their own way out of the narrative through sentences, but teachers should try to give them the time and space to let that happen.

This summer, I plan to spend time organizing question stems to spark critical thinking and post them on a number of slides to share with teachers.
OR
I could shorten the process and use just one slide. I could ask one question that is guaranteed to drive critical thinking. I could ask:

So what?”

To be honest, the first time I was asked this question in an academic setting, I was appalled. I felt I was being taunted. I was sure the professor was just being rude.

I was uncomfortable…I could not give an effective response.

“So what?”

I hated the question. I hated that the professor was goading me. I hated Dr. Steven D. Neuwirth. 

I was taking a graduate course (560) Literature of the American South, what I thought would be a “fun” course as I completed my Master’s Degree in English.

I remember distinctly the moment that was not fun…the evening of the second class.

“So what?” Dr. Neuwirth wrote on the chalkboard; he snapped a piece of chalk as he underlined the question for emphasis.

So what? he repeated in class after I offered what I thought was a brilliant observation on the evidence of dignity as a character trait in a discussion on William Falkner’s As I Lay Dying.

I was irritated. I had worked very hard on my responses.

So what? he scrawled in big letters on the paper I handed in three weeks later.

I was angry. I had worked even harder on that response.

My frustrations continued. Nothing in my training had prepared me for his persistence with the So what? question.

I had done what had worked in every other class. I had developed a thesis. I had used evidence. I had proved my thesis.

Regardless, my answers did not satisfy his challenge. So what? He found my reasoning lacking, and because he was not satisfied, neither was I.

I needed to think how to explain better.
I had to think differently.
I had to think critically.

It was then I realized that Dr. Neuwirth’s So what?” question was making me think critically.

Dr. Neuwirth’s irritating challenge brought me to recognize that it was not enough for me to develop and prove a thesis in a paper. I had to prove why my argument mattered.

For example, it was not enough to prove that Faulkner’s characters displayed dignity despite their social status, I had to question so what is the reader to take from his writing?

I had to ask the question So what?” not with attitude but with curiosity. Curiosity led to inquiry:

  • So what was my point? 
  • So what was missing from my response?
  • So what should I want the reader to know or do?
  • So what happens next?
  • So what do I do to cause or prevent something from happening ? 
  • So what makes this work or not work?
  • So what will this information lead me to study next?

Such inquiries led to me to make conclusions. I had always found conclusions difficult to write. I had always followed the predictable formula of restating the thesis, but I found that when I used the critical question So what? I could offer a broader conclusion.

For example, when I developed a thesis on the dignity of Faulkner’s characters and provided evidence from the text, I was really posing the question “Why should anyone read novels by Faulkner?” When I asked myself so what? I could conclude that Faulkner’s characters spark empathy in the reader.

It turned out that I did not hate theSo what? question.

I did not hate Dr. Neuwirth …although, admittedly, liking him took a little longer. While I did understand the importance of being challenged, I still found him a brilliant but abrasive teacher.

Four years after that class, I  became a teacher, and I taught literature. My students wrote predictable and boring conclusions that restated the thesis. They were not thinking critically. I had to do something.

Dr. Steven Neuwirth, Western Connecticut State University-created the University's Honors Program and served as its first director; he passed away February, 2004.

Dr. Steven Neuwirth, Western Connecticut State University-created the University’s Honors Program and served as its first director; he passed away February, 2004.

I asked my students So what?

And I scrawled So what? on their papers.

And I wrote So what? on the Smartboard -without chalk.

My students also hated theSo what? question.

They complained to me, but their conclusions improved.

So here is one question, one irritating question, for critical thinking for sharing on one slide:

So what?

 

 

All hail.extol.…laud the mighty Roget’s Thesaurus!

Any one struggling with trying to find the right word can attest to the support that he or she may have found in the pages of Roget’s Thesaurus, a reference book that celebrates its birthday every April 29th. Writers pour through its pages in the hunt to find an alternate to “said” (articulated, phonated, viva voce) or establish the kind of “sleep” (catnap, doze, trance) or select the state of being “happy” (elated, joyous, upbeat).

Paul Mark Roget, Creator of the thesaurus

Paul Mark Roget, Creator of the thesaurus

Like its cousin the dictionary, the synonyms and antonyms of Roget’s Thesaurus are arranged alphabetically. That decision was made by its originator, Peter Mark Roget who published the first thesaurus in 1852, some 100 years after Samuel Johnson published the successful Dictionary of the English Language.

Roget’s objective with the thesaurus was to help the writer or speaker “to find the word, or words, by which [an] idea may be most fitly and aptly expressed.”

In the forward to the first edition, Roget wrote:

“It is now nearly fifty years since I first projected a system of verbal classification similar to that on which the present work is founded. Conceiving that such a compilation might help to supply my own deficiencies, I had, in the year 1805, completed a classed catalogue of words on a small scale, but on the same principle, and nearly in the same form, as the Thesaurus now published.”

The word “thesaurus” is derived from the Greek θησαυρός (thēsauros), “treasure, treasury, storehouse”, and the thesaurus is indeed a treasure of language. A word of caution, however, to those who use this treasure trove improperly; fancy words do not guarantee academic writing.

For example, there is a danger of overuse, as demonstrated in this dialogue from a episode of Friends when the character Joey wanted to appear “smart”. He had replaced every ordinary word in an application letter with its synonym from the thesaurus:

Joey: I wrote, “They’re warm nice people with big hearts.”

Chandler: “And that became, ‘They’re humid pre-processing Homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps’?”

Students often make these same kinds of novice errors. In their attempts to sound “smart”, they include words they do not understand, adding “verdant” to  “green” grasses. They create contradictory combinations such as “nimbly lethargic” or “exigent tolerance.” Then, there is the tale of the student whose creative writing assignment featured a woman eating a delicious chignon, a bun one puts in one’s hair.

Click on any word to create new word blossoms or "daisies"

Click on any word to create new word blossoms or “daisies”

Now, with software available on multiple platforms, students can choose to hunt through pages of a text or try one of several online thesaurus tools that help them find the perfect word.

There is the subscription based VisualThesaurus which is an “interactive dictionary and thesaurus which creates word maps that blossom with meanings and branch to related words.” Clicking on any word allows students to see an abundance of alternatives. A free version of this form of interactive thesaurus is found at Visuwords.

Merriam-Webster also offers a student friendly thesaurus at WordCentral which offers many other interactive features such as word-of-the-day or student-created disctionaries.

Interactive activities for students

Interactive activities for students

Simpler versions can be found at  BigHugeLabs or at Thesaurusland offer stripped down versions  that require only that a student enters a word in the search box to get synonyms or antonyms.

Screenshot 2015-04-27 21.40.53

Simple version of an online thesaurus

 

 Students can jubilate or rejoice or revel or solemnize in marking the 163rd anniversary of the thesaurus.  They can acknowledge or appreciate or enjoy or welcome how the thesaurus has helped their writing.
However, as intently or as meticulously or as scrupulously as they search in texts or search online, students will not be able to answer the question, what’s another word for thesaurus?

When Erik Larson was interviewed by the NY Times for his latest book Dead Wake about the sinking of the R.M.S. Lusitania, he Screenshot 2015-03-11 23.14.19expressed his purpose for choosing to write in the narrative non-fiction genre:

“It is not necessarily my goal to inform. It is my goal to create a historical experience with my books. My dream, my ideal, is that someone picks up a book of mine, starts reading it, and just lets themselves sink into the past and then read the thing straight through, and emerge at the end feeling as though they’ve lived in another world entirely.”

There is nothing of analysis in his stated purpose for writing, but there is a desire to have a reader engulfed by a narrative that ends in the reader “feeling.”

In contrast, in the first three anchor standards for reading (grades k-12), the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts spell out the expanse between their objectives and Larson’s expression to use narrative non-fiction to connect viscerally with the readers:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1
Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2
Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.3
Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

The anchor and grade level standards were written purposely to be devoid of any reference to reader’s feeling or connection. These standards were carefully articulated not to be confused with the popular  Reader Response Theory supported by Louise Rosenblatt that focused “on the reader rather than the author or the content and form of the work.”

“Reading closely” in the CCSS has been spun as “close reading”, defined by the The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) as:

Close, analytic reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, encouraging students to read and reread deliberately. Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details. It also enables students to reflect on the meanings of individual words and sentences; the order in which sentences unfold; and the development of ideas over the course of the text, which ultimately leads students to arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole. (2011, p. 7)

Analyzing the definition of close reading (above) through analysis in a WORD SIFT highlights the CCSS emphasis on ideas and meaning for the student:Screenshot 2015-03-11 22.02.36

Missing from this definition? The word “author.”

This word sift analysis illustrates how the “close reading” advocated by the CCSS requires students to read for meaning, with no consideration to the intent of an author.

The NYTimes interview with Larson provided him the opportunity to state that he does not write to a standard; he says nothing about “meaning” and “ideas”. Instead, Larson poetically defined his goal for writing. He writes for the reader to have an experience, and that experience is ” his “dream” or “ideal.”

While the language of the Common Core contrives to eliminate the author’s role in creating texts, those same texts students will be expected to “close read”, Erik Larson reminds us that authors do not write to meet a standard.

Authors write to create feelings in their readers, whether those readers are reading closely or not.