In my Saturday enrichment class, I wrote the opening paragraph to Caitlin Flanagan’s The Dark Power of Fraternities on the board:
(1) One warm spring night in 2011, a young man named Travis Hughes stood on the back deck of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at Marshall University, in West Virginia, and was struck by what seemed to him—under the influence of powerful inebriants, not least among them the clear ether of youth itself—to be an excellent idea: (2) he would shove a bottle rocket up his a** and blast it into the sweet night air. (3) And perhaps it was an excellent idea. (4) What was not an excellent idea, however, was to misjudge the relative tightness of a 20-year-old sphincter and the propulsive reliability of a 20-cent bottle rocket.(5) What followed ignition was not the bright report of a successful blastoff, but the muffled thud of fire in the hole.
The class, the same students I’ve been teaching weekly since September, were finishing up a brief assignment as I wrote. You are wondering, perhaps, why I didn’t just print out the passage, but that question gives me more credit for planning than I am due.
These four boys: smart, engaged (even Francis, who still hugs the wall when I let him), fluid writers, ready readers. A joy. When I refuse to let them have “word banks”, they thrive on the challenge. When I turn over discussion to them, I get three boys eagerly arguing for their interpretation of events, individuals, authorial intent. (I have to noodge Francis). Dino is still the leader, the punky Korean kid with cowlick and attitude to spare, but Arthur and Bruce are more than willing to stand up for their own ideas. I would be happier if they remembered paper and pencil more often (here, Francis shines, always prepared, always lending out supplies, whereas I snark at the others routinely for their failure to live up to the stereotype), but in all other ways, a dream class.
Example: Our previous book was Hound of the Baskervilles. After we’d finished the book, I gave them a prompt in which I asserted my opinion, that the women of the book were opportunistic whiners, morally inferior in every way to the men, that they were weak ninnies who cared only for their own interests. They were to agree or disagree, using specific characters and their actions to support. Dino generally agreed with my position, citing Laura Lyons’ betrayal of Sir Charles, and Beryl Stapleton’s rage upon realizing her abusive husband had been cheating on her. Bruce and Arthur sympathized with the women, pointing out that they had very little control over their lives. Francis agreed with the “no choice” position, but used Mrs. Barrymore, who I honestly hadn’t even considered in writing the prompt, pointing out that she was entirely dependent on her husband to help her brother—all she did was cry about it.
So how to step it up? Last week, I dug up some of the vocabulary and grammar workbooks we keep around, and gave them each one.
“But these words are easy,” sniffed Dino.
“I haven’t seen any of them in your essays,” I noted.
“Oh,” said Arthur, always the one to see pedagogical intent. “We are working on writing?”
“Yes, I’ve been mulling the best way to challenge you, to keep this class a step beyond just an acceptably interesting way to spend Saturday afternoon. You are all effective readers who understand the importance of content knowledge. I trust you’re going to continue to build on that. So I decided you’re going to focus on writing quality. We’re going to study grammar and vocabulary in part to incorporate the deeper knowledge of vocabulary and sentence structure, and in part to give you a means to focus in on the act of writing—not the ideas and content, but the expression itself.”
So it’s a week later, and I’d told them to write three sentences using any three vocabulary words, using the structure of Subordinate Clause, Independent Clause. I had originally planned to put them on the board, go through the “work/glue” routine (more on that in a minute), and then have them rewrite.
But just then, I thought of the Flanagan piece. Like I said, not much of a planner.
The kids had finished up while I was writing, and I could hear the rustle of shock as they figured out the gist.
“This paragraph opens an article by Caitlin Flanagan on fraternities, and for now, it’s not important if you don’t know what they are. In journalism, the opening paragraph is known as the lede; when your English teachers talk about the hook, they’re describing the same thing in an annoying way.”
“Why would she write about an idiot?” asked Dino, ever the challenger.
“How did someone so stupid get to college?” Bruce wanted to know.
“Both worthy questions, but not what I want you to focus on. Anything else you notice?”
“She doesn’t seem very sympathetic,” offered Arthur. Francis, the Clarence Thomas of my class, still silent.
“You are all focusing on the content. I knew you would. That’s a big part of my point. Not one of you ever considered the quality of the writing. How many sentences do you see, if you count the colon break as a sentence?”
I marked them out (as you see now).
“What do you notice?”
Pause again, but this time they examined the sentences, not the content.
Arthur: “So, okay, I don’t know if this is what you mean, but the first sentence is really, really long.”
Dino: “Yeah, and then the next one, what he’s going to do” (they giggle) “is short. And….specific. Like, you have to kind of figure out what the first sentence is about, but the second one is, like…..” he searches for a word. “blunt.”
Me: “Brutal, even.”
“The shortest sentence is the third one,” Bruce: “Which is weird, because it’s not an excellent idea.”
“Nice,” I said. “It’s almost like a bridge, a pause, to the second half of the paragraph. Go back to the first sentence, again. Dino has a good point—it’s a meandering sentence, in a way. What is it saying?”
“He’s young,” Francis stepped up.
“What does inebriant mean?” I asked.
“So you ever heard of someone being inebriated?”
“Oh, is he drunk?” asked Arthur.
“Hey, ether is an alcohol, too!” from Bruce.
“So being young is like being drunk.”
“But he was drunk, too.”
“She never used the word drunk,” observed Dino. “My English teacher always tells us to be clear, not use big words just to use them.”
“Good point. Flanagan, the author, wrote this for the Atlantic, so was directing it to a highly educated audience. But you bring up an interesting point: when are writers using appropriate synonyms, bringing in the full richness of the English language, and when are they just ‘using big words’? ”
“It’s weird, too, because she’s real direct after the colon,” Arthur observed.
“Hey, excellent point. After all that lyrical description of youth and alcohol, suddenly we get the brutality.”
Dino smacked the desk. “Contrast!”
“There you go.”
“Oh, I see” Bruce leaned forward. “She kind of leads you in, it’s a nice night, he’s drunk but kind of in a nice-sounding way, and he’s young, so he has an idea.”
“Francis?” we all waited. And waited. And waited.
“It’s like the short sentence in the middle stops it.”
“Interesting. What do you mean?” we all waited some more. Dino wanted desperately to talk; I waved him down.
“Like, not telling you what happened…”
“..yet. I totally agree.” Dino could wait no longer. “It’s like she’s giving time to process what this idiot did before going on to say what happened.”
“And then she tells us what happened, and both sentences are different from the first three.” Arthur pointed out.
“What do you notice?”
“It’s like…parallel? The 20-year-old hahahahaha, um, and then the 20-cent bottle rocket.” Bruce pushed back his glasses. “So she tells you why things went wrong (eww).”
“Nice. Notice at the end, the use of two general terms that convey exactly what happened: ‘successful blastoff’ and ‘failure to launch’.” They all laughed. “So first she explains why things went wrong, then she tells you what happened, generally, and your imagination fills in the details.”
“Good discussion; you’ve talked about how her writing achieved her goals. What you haven’t mentioned one way or the other is the quality of the writing.”
“I don’t know what good writing is.” from Arthur.
“Look at the board.”
They looked again, and were quiet.
“I could give you some of the technical ways in which it’s great. Remember the many times we’ve discussed working words and glue words? Let’s go through it again.
(Note: C. Edward Good’s oops book transformed my writing a decade or so ago. Good gives full credit for work/glue concept to the originator Richard Wydick, but Wydick didn’t get specific the way that Good does. I teach a modified form of Good’s structure.)
“So how much glue do you see?”
“Wow. Not much.”
“Remember, glue is not a matter of bad or good. Articles are essential, as are conjunctions and pronouns. She uses the simple word ‘it’ to great effect. And starts a sentence with ‘And’!, which some teachers say is wrong, but they’re wrong. She opens with ‘a young man named’, when ‘Travis Hughes’ would do nicely. It’s not all about following rigid rules.”
“She uses ‘to be’ as a main verb, too.”
“Right, another thing that shouldn’t be taken to excess but is used beautifully here. And let me tell you something: I am not a fan of Caitlin Flanagan’s ideas. If she’s against fraternities then I’m strongly tempted in favor of them. But if I ever wrote an essay that’s half as evocative, as rich, as this five-sentence paragraph, I’d count it as a good day. So now, look down at your three sentences.”
They all groaned. I laughed.
“No, I’m not trying to make you feel inadequate! That’s not the point. Here’s the question: how much work did you put into crafting them? How much time did you spend choosing words, thinking about active verbs, how much did you think about how much weight each word could pull?”
“Right. You just wanted to get the assignment done. Well, this is what I mean by our new focus on writing. When I ask you to write sentences, using a particular style, I don’t want you to just get it done. I want you to think about the words, form a picture in your head of what you want your sentence to do, or the idea you want to communicate. It’s easier at first to work with images or actions, but over time, you want to spend the same time making your ideas as vivid. But the point here is the quality of your writing, not simply putting together a grammatically correct sentence. You all have the stuff to become strong writers.”
“Writing is thinking, you always say.”
“That’s right. That’s stage one. That’s what everyone has to understand first. You’ve got that part down, all of you. Now it’s time to craft your thoughts, make them compelling, think about presenting those thoughts to their greatest advantage.”
I’ve been teaching English longer than I’ve been teaching math, really, although not in public school. Math, at its core, has a procedural, structural component rarely found in the study of either composition or literature, once you get past grammar. Writing or literary analysis doesn’t involve procedures, but an approach, a quality of thought.
I started into a full jeremiad against English high school instruction today, but decided against it. I don’t know enough about what goes on in the average classroom. Suffice it to say this: from what I see, we spend almost no time in high school English teaching students how to write well, or how to analyze literature to the extent of their ability. No, Common Core won’t fix this.
In math, improvement doesn’t count until the kid gets The Right Answer. Writing and literary analysis both have a big advantage in that respect: all improvement counts. I’ve taught ACT classes in which I’ve taken low ability kids from single incoherent paragraphs to five paragraph essays—still weak in language and grammar, but considerably improved from where they began and infinitely greater in self-expression. I’ve watched students with sixth grade reading skills suddenly realize that in two chapters of his memoir that cover Haiti, Rick Bragg barely mentioned that the oppressors and the oppressed were all black, and wonder why he avoided direct mention of this key fact, leading to great discussions of audience and ideology. None of the kids ended with significantly stronger reading skills or much more in the way of vocabulary—although they usually retain a much stronger understanding of grammar. However, they all improved in using the skills they had to think and express their ideas.
Best of all is when you get smart kids who understand what’s on offer. I can’t give them procedures. I can give paths, methods, considerations, advice. But not a flowchart on how. Sorry, Don Hirsch. It’s not all about content.
Of course, that’s what makes it so fun.