One of the problems with freshman composition

Core Knowledge Blog is discussing posts that compare two 7th grade papers, one a nuanced character analysis of Anne Frank and one an essay on a chore the student hates. Robert Pondiscio had this to say:

You can’t ask kids to do “self-directed” writing about their family, their friends and their personal experiences throughout elementary school to the exclusion of nearly all else, then expect them to dazzle you with their insights into literature in middle school.


And it becomes even worse when they have written this way through high school and show up in college unaware of academic writing. It is one of the reasons I created my “Use of the Familiar to Introduce Literature” unit. Students had never, or rarely, written on literature and they didn’t understand what a literary analysis was or should be. (To read a presentation over the unit, keep reading the blog. I will be posting it here.)

I posted on “How to Create a Character Analysis” and that has become my top hit. I am fairly sure students are looking for the information they need to write a class assignment.

It is not because students don’t want to do the work we ask of them. They don’t know how.

Poetry Introduction

Poetry introduction.

A lot of our students have never read poetry or don’t realize they have read it.
Things to talk about:
What is poetry?
Where is poetry?
Who writes poetry?
History of poetry.
How do they write poetry?
How can you write poetry?
How to read poetry aloud.

What is poetry?
create a feeling
set a scene
may tell a story- used to tell a story, now more often a photograph/scene
may give a moral
may rhyme
a way of expressing something (thought/emotion)
“should be written at least as well as prose”

Ezra Pound
pay attention to the way it looks on the page

“use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something”E. Pound

if you had to pay $1 for each word in your poem, how many would you have to keep?

Poetry is an experiment. The poet is trying to say something in a way you’ll KNOW it.

concrete- not abstract

“go in fear of abstractions” E Pound

original- new way of saying that gives you a new way of thinking about the thing
has a form- shape or structure the words take MATTERS; haiku, prayer, psalm, etc.

Where do we find poetry?

  • Jump rope rhymes
  • Mother Goose
  • America the Beautiful
  • hymns
  • songs
  • poems
  • playground
  • books
  • Reader’s Digest- Life in these United States (Robert Frost)
  • comic strips, cartoons
  • music
  • radio
  • paper: editorials, qtd Tree by Sgt. Joyce Kilmer
  • on the wall? “Foot prints in the Sand” wall hanging
  • fancy magazines like Sat. Evening Post, The Atlantic Monthly
  • children’s books
  • Bible
  • SF novels- John Ringo qts Kipling
  • Fantasy novels- Christopher Stasheff quotes lots of folks

Who likes poetry?
English teachers

Okay, but who else?

police officers
song writers
people who like music
religious people
in the Bible (New Testament), Paul, quoting a poet about the people
story tellers of all kinds

Who writes poetry?
people who care a lot

  • missionary
  • dr., nurse, soldier
  • fundraiser
  • spokesperson—like Michael J. Fox for Parkinson’s

people who like to play with words
people who read a lot
journals (genre specific mags for people in certain fields)
fiction, nonfiction
people who write a lot
curious folks
people who are willing to work hard to improve—

often requires a lot of revision

How do they write poetry?
different ways

  • Virgil (Roman poet) walked in gardens all day long.
  • Thought it was a good day if he got one new line.
  • Elizabethan poet Ben Jonson wrote a prose paragraph first.  Then wrote poem on topic.
  • John Milton was blind.  Composed Paradise Lost in his head and dictated it.
  • Frank O’Hara would eat lunch with friends. Go back to work.
  • Type one poem. Get back to working.
  • Maya Angelou writes on a bed.  She’s been doing it so long she has a callous on one elbow.

How can you write poetry? How do people do it?

Colonial America
Kept a commonplace book. Place to write ideas down.
Artist’s Way-says to write three poems a day
Keep a journal
Keep a book where you put in “interesting stuff”
Someone gave me one when I was 15. I loved it. Still cut articles, etc.
Practice writing traditional poems
“paying your dues”
Hemingway didn”t write grammatically correct sentences in his novels, but he knew the rules.

Keep a list of subjects to write about.
Ray Bradbury makes a list of nouns. Eventually many become stories.

How to write a story critique

Story critique (essay)
This is a five-paragraph essay.
1st paragraph:
Capture your audience’s attention, maybe with a question or an interesting idea.
Give the background for the story. Include who wrote it and when and its name.
2nd paragraph:
Character and setting
Who is in the story? Where are they in the story? When does the story take place?
3rd paragraph:
Conflict and plot
What is the storyline? What happens in the story? What do the characters do and say?
4th paragraph:
Climax and theme/moral
When does the story resolve itself? What is the story about? What does it try to teach?
5th paragraph
Give your opinion on the story without using personal pronouns.
The last sentence should be reflected/repeated in the essay title. (This brings your whole paper full circle and makes it more coherent.)

One way to define stories

One way to define stories is by their main focus.

Orson Scott Card in his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy gave the MICE mnemonic.

Milieu- the place is the thing
Idea- it’s all about the idea, like an art movie
Character- a person is the main point
Event- some specific event propels the plot forward

Yes, stories may have elements of all of them, but one will be the most important. Introduce them to students by movies. After you’ve explained what they are, ask the students to identify movies where each of those is the focus. That way
1. You won’t be embarrassed when they don’t know any of the movies you referenced.
2. They will correct each other.
3. They can come to a consensus on which best fit.

Defining genre by length

One way to define prose genres is by length.

Short short story = less than 2000 words
Short story= less than 7,500 to 20,000 words (depends on whose definition)
Novella= more than 7,500 words less than 40,000 words
Novel = 40,000 words plus

Please note that the short short story is most often the students’ favorite. Think of it as the commercial break and you won’t go far wrong.

Tip 27: How to teach a definition/illustration paper

This is my favorite paper to teach because my students enjoy it (as much as they enjoy any paper) and overall they do a very good job with it.

To Begin
Talk about why people need to define the words they use.

I recently taught this lesson again, adding a definition/illustration example from music. I figured there had to be a song somewhere on this topic. And, sure enough, I turned on the radio and there was Tracy Lawrence singing, “Find Out Who Your Friends Are.”

An example I give here is two people dating. One says, “I love you.” The other says, “I love you, too.” Both think the other person understood what they said and agrees with it. But, in this case, the first person means, “I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” and the second person means, “I like being with you till somebody better comes along.”

Another strong example is the issue of the Challenger explosion. The engineers working on the Challenger wrote the administration and said “the secondary O-rings” have problems. Administration wrote back and asked if the primary O-rings were good. Yes, they were, but the secondary O-rings were problematic. Administration decided that as long as the primary O-rings were okay, there was no reason to worry about the secondary O-rings.

The issue here was that administration heard “secondary” and thought “back-up.” The engineers were saying “secondary,” which was the official name, meaning “second kind of.”

Because the two groups did not understand each other, the Challenger launched and blew up in sight of everyone standing there and an entire school whose teacher was on the ship.

Sometimes the difference in definitions can make a life and death difference.

This illustrates to the students why they might need to define words, even words they use all the time.

Real life examples of definition paragraphs
I also give examples of definition paragraphs from real life. This is growing over time and you could probably come up with your own set of real life definition paragraphs.

Abstract Nouns

Then I give definitions of and examples of concrete and abstract nouns.

It is important that students know the difference between abstract and concrete nouns because they need to know what they are going to be defining.

Students Begin

Then I have the students choose an abstract noun to write on.

To help the students think of the abstract term in a visual way, using the handmade approach that Dr. Musgrove presented at 2010 CCTE, give them a few minutes and ask them to illustrate the concept they think they want to write on. This allows those who are not verbal to approach the problem and this also helps students to “think outside the box.”

To help them think through, as a kinesthetic prewriting activity, I have them look up definitions for their word online. I usually have them look up multiple definitions for the word. An easy way to do this is put “define x” into Google. Then the first one is web definitions for the word, if such exist. Here they are looking for any quote on the topic.

Then, still as part of their prewriting, I have them look up quotes on the word. Here they are looking for a quote they agree with.

This is a good time to go through MLA internal citations and Works Cited for electronic sources. Only these two sources are used in the paper and most of the students do a good job with this. It’s much easier for them to say something like: “Princeton’s definition of honor is…” Or Benjamin Franklin said, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” (“Health”).

Definition Paragraph

I discuss with the students types of definitions. I have the students use the definition they found and add to it or define it more precisely.

I also have them use the quotation they found, if they wish.

I suggest they start off with questions or a personal anecdote which tell why they are interested in this word.

A student example of beauty.

A student example about love.

Three Examples

The next three paragraphs are, I tell them, examples of this word that match their definition of the word. And, since I told them to pick a word that means something to them, most of them have examples from their lives or the lives of those they know.

This is where their imagination and creativity can run riot, giving many details. I often get long papers because I allow them to choose their topic and their examples.


Obviously there ought to be a concluding paragraph to tie it all together. What should go in it? They can remind the reader of the definition. They can say what the word does not mean. They can recap the illustrations. They can add an example that was too short to give in the illustration paragraphs. They can give an example that is NOT their definition and say why it is not, ending with their definition again.

Online examples

This is one I wrote in class with the students watching, to show them the thought process I went through.

This is a student definition/illustration paper written in class.

Stripping fairy tales and leaving them naked.

The Boston Globe writes about the new, sanitized versions of the fairy tales where there is no darkness. The witch is sweet, not wicked, and the prince comes to help her, not rescue her.

Yet something important is lost when a child’s introduction to fairy tales comes in such whitewashed form. It’s not just Rapunzel: In toys, movies, and books, the old fairy tales are being systematically stripped of their darker complexities. Rapunzel has become a lobotomized girl in a pleasant tower playroom; Cinderella is another pretty lady in a ball gown, like some model on “Project Runway.”

“Fairy tale” may be our shorthand for castles and happy endings, but these classic stories have villains, too – nefarious witches, bloodthirsty wolves, stepmothers up to no good. And scholars have come to see the stories’ dark elements as the source of their power, not to mention their persistence over the centuries. Rich in allegory, endlessly adaptable, fairy tales emerged as a framework for talking about social issues. When we remove the difficult parts – and effectively do away with the stories themselves – we’re losing a surprisingly useful common language.

The sanitized fairy tale is not useful to introduce literature, but the dirty, messy, scary one is.

What is controversial?

When I am introducing the controversial arguments research paper, I start with that discussion of what it means to be controversial. This is an aspect of the paper that I once thought did not have to be explained, but I have learned it does.

Since this is a controversial issue paper, I tell my students, there must be a controversy. If one side is clearly right, there is no point in making an argument. Very few people write papers about how the Americans were interventionalists in the 30s and that is why World War II got started. There are some, but not many. There’s a reason for that.

If one side is patently obvious, what’s the point of arguing? It is only when thoughtful people disagree that there is a topic suitable for a controversial issues paper. This discussion helps me avoid the students going after the least controversial things just to prove me wrong about people arguing the topic.

This is from my TYCA-SW talk on controversial issues in the classroom.

Bikinis and Deep Thinking: Two Great Things that have to do with college

Highlighting is like wearing a bikini

OK, by now I am sure you are wondering, what does this have to do with bikinis? When you highlight, you should only cover the essentials. A one piece suit covers things that don’t neccessarily matter. A cover-up covers even more, a lot of which is not needed. A big beach towel can be wrapped around and covers everything.

That’s the middle of the three paragraphs. Good for students and it catches their attention. I think I’ll use it.

Thanks for the simile.

How to Become a Deep Thinker at College

It requires three steps:

1. Choose a mixture of courses that all seem interesting to you. No more than half of these courses should be in a subject that you already know something about. (This will keep things novel.)

2. Calculate the number of hours per week you will need to handle the workload for these courses.

3. Double this total. Keep this number of hours free in your schedule. This probably means you won’t have many activities going on. This also means the course load you choose in (1) must be reasonable.

This advice is so simplistic as to border on facetious. But it’s the truth. The students who make great mental leaps, and really become more sophisticated thinkers, are those who have more than enough time to think about, work on, grapple with, and revel in their coursework.

Again from the middle. The set up is a student from Princeton asking advice. Good stuff.

Tip 23: How to know when you have enough information for class.

If you are a new teacher, this is a concern. No one wants to get to class and find out they can only fill half the time.

There are several things you can do, all of which require work on your part. (Sorry, there are no easy answers.)

Practice out loud.

If you are going to be giving explanations, lectures, or general information, practice saying these things. It will let you know how much time you are going to take. It may also help you determine a better way to say it.

Have activities and exercises.

When you are working on a topic, always have more activities and exercises.

If you think the class will have time to do two activities, have four. If you think the class will have time to do one, have three.

Sometimes I will plan something that takes too much time to accomplish. I can usually have them finish at home or I can shorten the amount they actually have to do.

But sometimes things I think will take a while are a sail-through for the students.

Having activities and exercises helps emphasize whatever you are working on. And it keeps the amount of time in class full.

Also remember that having students work more on a topic usually enforces that topic. Students will remember 10% of what you say and 90% of what they do.

Have a related writing project.

If you are discussing neo-classical literature, you can ask the class to write a paragraph (or more) reviewing the major points discussed in class.

If you are lecturing, you can ask them for the three points they best remember from the lecture.

If you are having them do a reading, you can ask them to summarize the reading in a paragraph.

Have group discussions.

If you have just given a lecture, have them get in groups and discuss what they remember of the lecture. If they know more on the topic, they can share that, too.

Have a quiz.

Ask them to apply what they’ve been learning for the last few classes. For example, if you are reading Swift and have discussed satire, ask them for examples of satire in Gulliver’s Travels.

Or if you have just done a reading, ask them to identify a theme and defend their identification.