Category Archives: great writing

Improving My Argument

*A continuation of the Counting My Chickens series*

I’m soliciting advice on how to present a particular argument.  Your input would be most appreciated.

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I am prepping to give a writing workshop at CPS on Friday, and I was going through the folder of information Dr. Wong gave me a few weeks ago when I first visited the school.  In it are fliers about the grading system, the dress code, tuition, things like that.  Included in the packet is the school’s handbook, and in that handbook is a whole section about “Respectful Language.”

Oh, boy; here we go….

I’ve written about how I feel about “colorful language” a number of times (notably here. There are other posts, too, I’m sure, but I don’t have the patience to look them up right now).  I feel – and have always felt – as though it’s my job as a teacher to give kids a strong command of their language – ALL of their language – and to teach them when it’s appropriate to use which rhetorical strategies.  Sometimes, and particularly when we’re engaging in creative endeavors, a particular of class of words is required to get across the true tenor of one’s meaning.  Those words exist for a reason, and part of my job is to make sure my students understand both when they need to employ them and when the rhetorical situation allows for it.

Like a fucking lady

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The upshot of the section in the handbook is that if you have a strong enough vocabulary, you don’t need to utter imprecations.  I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy that, and I’m trying to figure out a way to present that case in a way that is clear, logical, and defensible.  If I’m going to be asked to join this staff, I cannot have a limitation placed on what I can and cannot accept from students in terms of their own self-expression (and, not for nothing, “blasphemy” is listed as a no-no, as well.  Insert derisive snort here).
I have success with my students because I work hard to build an environment where they know they’re safe to explore what they really think and feel, not just what they think they’re expected to think and feel.  I work hard to create a truly judgment-neutral zone in the classroom so that kids can dismiss their inner critics and stroll out on limbs of thinking they’re not certain will support their weight.  I want them to dig under their proverbial beds, to open their proverbial closet doors, and to peek at their proverbial boogeymen, and to trust that I’m going to be there to help them find a way to get those ideas out of their heads in satisfying ways;  the only way I can do that is if I let them know that – at least in this class – they’re free to express themselves as authentically and as openly as they’re able to.  Sometimes (often, in fact), that expression is raw and painful and ugly, and that HAS TO BE OKAY.  Sometimes, the only way into a really great idea or a profound self-discovery is through the fucking wars, and that HAS TO BE OKAY.

If I’m going to be asked to teach anything beyond the basics of grammar and business writing etiquette (I can NEVER spell that word right the first time!), I’m going to require that there be nothing off limits for my students to write or say within the walls of our classroom.  I will make certain that they have a very clear and firm understanding of social contracts, and I will continue to reinforce the concept of rhetorical situations and the importance of tailoring one’s message to one’s audience, but I can’t function if I’m to treat an entire mode of expression as taboo.

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Angry Love Letter

I subscribe to Letters of Note.  You should, too.

This was today’s offering.  It’s a letter from Pat Conroy, the author of, among other things, The Prince of Tides, in response to hearing that a school board in West Virginia had challenged the inclusion of that novel and another of his works, Beach Music.  The letter was published in the local newspaper, and the challenges later failed.

Letters like this make my proud to do what I do.
To the Editor of the Charleston Gazette:

I received an urgent e-mail from a high school student named Makenzie Hatfield of Charleston, West Virginia. She informed me of a group of parents who were attempting to suppress the teaching of two of my novels, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. I heard rumors of this controversy as I was completing my latest filthy, vomit-inducing work. These controversies are so commonplace in my life that I no longer get involved. But my knowledge of mountain lore is strong enough to know the dangers of refusing to help a Hatfield of West Virginia. I also do not mess with McCoys.

I’ve enjoyed a lifetime love affair with English teachers, just like the ones who are being abused in Charleston, West Virginia, today. My English teachers pushed me to be smart and inquisitive, and they taught me the great books of the world with passion and cunning and love. Like your English teachers, they didn’t have any money either, but they lived in the bright fires of their imaginations, and they taught because they were born to teach the prettiest language in the world. I have yet to meet an English teacher who assigned a book to damage a kid. They take an unutterable joy in opening up the known world to their students, but they are dishonored and unpraised because of the scandalous paychecks they receive. In my travels around this country, I have discovered that America hates its teachers, and I could not tell you why. Charleston, West Virginia, is showing clear signs of really hurting theirs, and I would be cautious about the word getting out.

In 1961, I entered the classroom of the great Eugene Norris, who set about in a thousand ways to change my life. It was the year I read The Catcher in the Rye, under Gene’s careful tutelage, and I adore that book to this very day. Later, a parent complained to the school board, and Gene Norris was called before the board to defend his teaching of this book. He asked me to write an essay describing the book’s galvanic effect on me, which I did. But Gene’s defense of The Catcher in the Rye was so brilliant and convincing in its sheer power that it carried the day. I stayed close to Gene Norris till the day he died. I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service and was one of the executors of his will. Few in the world have ever loved English teachers as I have, and I loathe it when they are bullied by know-nothing parents or cowardly school boards.

About the novels your county just censored: The Prince of Tides and Beach Music are two of my darlings which I would place before the altar of God and say, “Lord, this is how I found the world you made.” They contain scenes of violence, but I was the son of a Marine Corps fighter pilot who killed hundreds of men in Korea, beat my mother and his seven kids whenever he felt like it, and fought in three wars. My youngest brother, Tom, committed suicide by jumping off a fourteen-story building; my French teacher ended her life with a pistol; my aunt was brutally raped in Atlanta; eight of my classmates at The Citadel were killed in Vietnam; and my best friend was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi last summer. Violence has always been a part of my world. I write about it in my books and make no apology to anyone. In Beach Music, I wrote about the Holocaust and lack the literary powers to make that historical event anything other than grotesque.

People cuss in my books. People cuss in my real life. I cuss, especially at Citadel basketball games. I’m perfectly sure that Steve Shamblin and other teachers prepared their students well for any encounters with violence or profanity in my books just as Gene Norris prepared me for the profane language in The Catcher in the Rye forty-eight years ago.

The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The Arabian Nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language.

The school board of Charleston, West Virginia, has sullied that gift and shamed themselves and their community. You’ve now entered the ranks of censors, book-banners, and teacher-haters, and the word will spread. Good teachers will avoid you as though you had cholera. But here is my favorite thing: Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because book-banners are invariably idiots, they don’t know how the world works—but writers and English teachers do.

I salute the English teachers of Charleston, West Virginia, and send my affection to their students. West Virginians, you’ve just done what history warned you against—you’ve riled a Hatfield.

Sincerely,

Pat Conroy

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Fingers Crossed!

I’m in the process of trying to reach Leif Enger, the author of the gorgeous Peace Like a River, which my juniors, seniors, and I are reading as our culminating novel for this year.

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My goal is that Mr. Enger will consent to an Skype conference with my class to discuss this beautifully written novel, his craft of writing, and life in general.  I’ve sent messages through a couple of avenues; I’m hoping one of them gets through.

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Wish me luck, would you?

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Interview With the Vampire

Actually, it’s “Interview with the Writer of Interview with the Vampire!”

You want to know how much I love technology?  Let me tell you how much I love technology, People!  A girlfriend clued me in a little while ago that Anne Rice had announced that she is willing to come to classrooms via Skype to talk about her books and the craft of writing.

She didn’t have to tell me twice!

I got right on the computer and emailed Ms. Rice to tell her that, yes, please, my seniors and I would like very much to have her “visit” our class and talk about writing.  Her assistant and I have been emailing for a while now, and we’re circling in on a date in March.

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I assigned Interview With the Vampire today – the kids have to have their books by this time next week and we’ll start reading then.  I’m up against a couple of students who have pre-conceived notions of Rice and the novel, so I’m having to get them to start thinking like scholars about this novel instead of looking at it as consumers of entertainment.  I’m probably not going to hook a few of them, but I know for sure that I’ve piqued a LOT of interest in this class; my boss is tickled that this could actually happen (she wants to call the local paper), and a number of my former students are begging to come back to school so they can partake in this class, too.

Technology rocks.

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The Alice Light Bulb Moment

Yesterday, I posted an entry on the Blue Door in which I said that I was too busy to blog about some things, and one of the things I was too busy to blog about was the fact that in every single class I ran on Thursday, I was able to pull off  what I call “Helen Keller” or “light bulb” moments; that glorious few seconds when a kid leaps from “I don’t get it” to “OH!  NOW I see!!”  I live for these moments, and the fact that I was able to execute the same one in all three of my core English classes was kind of a record for me.  I needed to share.

The entirety of CHS is reading Alice in Wonderland.  Several of the kids have read it before (and a number of them are familiar with bits of the story through various film interpretations), but none of them has analyzed it yet; they’ve read it for the surface stuff, but really haven’t taken the time to really think about all the weird shit that happens in the novel.  I had suspected that the kids were blowing through the book without really getting what they were reading, and I suspected that they were missing some of the funny stuff, so I decided to point something out to them to see if I was correct.

At the very outset of the story, Alice impulsively follows a waistcoated white rabbit down his hole and finds herself falling for what feels like forever; she has time to observe the walls around her and to investigate an empty jar of orange marmalade, and then she starts thinking about how she’s going to apply this experience to her life when she returns to it (though she doesn’t really give a thought as to how she’s going to get out of her predicament; her impulsivity is something which serves as a constant through the novel).  She thinks to herself:

“After such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down-stairs! How brave they’ll all think me at home! Why, I wouldn’t say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!” (which was very likely true.)

I read that passage aloud and asked the kids to really think about what was being said here, both by Alice and by our narrator (who, it turns out, has a flair for snark).  They read it, and read it again, and really didn’t see anything much to it.   Just when they started thinking that I was seeing something that wasn’t really there (“because English teachers do that all the time, you know; they try to find something deep and meaningful in everything!”), one girl gasped and her eyes got HUGE and I pointed at her and said “SHHHHH!  Let them work it out for a little longer!”

Of course, this got them all riled up; they HATE it when one of them is in on a joke that they don’t get, so they went back to the passage and tried to will themselves to figure it out.  One by one, a few more kids got the joke, and when about five of them were bouncing in their seats wanting to explain it to all the other kids, I pointed back to the first girl and said “GO!”

“YOU GUYS!” she said, “The narrator is telling us that she wouldn’t say anything if she fell off the top of the house because she’d be, like, DEAD!  She LITERALLY wouldn’t say anything about it because she’s be a smear on the sidewalk!”

Yes, my lovely; that’s it exactly.

That scene played out, in almost exactly that way, in all three of my classes.  It was awesome.  My hope is that this little exercise will inspire my babies to read more carefully, and with an eye toward the snarky and ironic.  We shall see if my hope is well-founded.

I love my job.

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Ten Things Tuesday *Edited*

It’s Banned Books Week.  Here are ten books, which have been banned or challenged, that have shown up in Mrs. Chili’s classes.
*Edited to include some commentary. When I posted this, I was in a hurry and didn’t have time to elaborate…*

1.  Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

I haven’t actually read this in its entirety yet, but I know for sure I’ve read a good portion of it in excerpts.  It’s on my freshman syllabus; I expect we’ll get to it around January or February.

2. Separate Peace by John Knowles

Also on the freshman syllabus.  I read this one in high school and remember not really loving it that much.  I plan to revisit it before we read it, though, with my far more mature and trained eye to see what I make of it this time around.  I’m planning on pairing this with a viewing of Dead Poets Society; those two works should make for some really interesting coming-of-age discussions.

3. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I love this novel.  I taught it to my juniors and seniors last year (after having read it only a month beforehand).  While I can hazard a guess as to why some of the other books on this list have been banned or challenged, I can say with some pretty confident certainty that several religious groups found this one objectionable; it imagines a Puritan-like dystopia in which fertile women are used as surrogates for powerful men.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I can’t begin to tell you how important this book is in my curriculum.  Again, my freshmen are getting this book, and I’ll likely pair it with The Book Thief (I did this last year to great effect).  There is such richness to be mined from this unassuming little book, and I think that a lot of people will tell you that this novel was pivotal for them; I know it was for me, both as a reader and a teacher.

5. Native Son by Richard Wright

I taught this just before Handmaid last year, and I have to tell you that the entire unit was one long string of out-of-the-park home runs.  This novel is SUCH a contradiction.  It is a technically easy read; there are no complex vocabulary words and nothing mechanical that would keep even the most novice reader from getting through the pages.  The concepts that the book deals in, though, deliver non-stop sucker punches to those willing to dig – no, make that scratch – below the surface of the plot.  We could have talked about this novel for WEEKS longer than I scheduled time for, and the students referred back to this work as a touchstone for almost everything we read after that.  Like Mockingbird, Native Son is a foundational piece in my curriculum, and I can’t imagine that ever changing.

6. Schindler’s List, by Thomas Keneally

This one was a bit of a cheat.  I don’t actually teach the novel; I teach the film.  Honestly, I don’t think that the book is terribly well written, and I feel like the style of the prose detracts from the vital message of the story.  Speilberg’s film, by contrast, reaches into your chest from the first frame and doesn’t let go until LONG after the final credits have rolled.

7. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

To be honest with you, I’m not sure that I’ve actually read this novel.  I want to say I have, but I can’t, at the moment, call to memory exactly what it was about.  Regardless, it’s on my junior syllabus, and I’m eager to get to it (or get to it again, as the case may be).  I have a deep and abiding respect for Toni Morrison, and I’m looking forward to the conversations this novel is sure to generate in my class.

8. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

This is our all-school read.  Everyone should have the novel by next Tuesday, when we start reading as a community.  Each of my three core classes has voted to defer the next novel in their reading list in favor of focusing on Alice for the month of October.  Like Huck Finn, this is a novel I’ve never read from cover to cover… yet.  I know the story well enough from the numerous excerpts I’ve read (and interpretations I’ve seen) to feel pretty comfortable teaching it.

9. The Giver by Lois Lowry

A teeny-tiny little wisp of a book – seriously; you could probably read it in one good pre-bedtime stretch – but it packs a pretty heavy philosophical punch.  My freshmen are finishing their final wrestling with this novel this week.  So far, we’ve managed to discuss the ethics of “release,” we’ve rooted around the idea that a dystopian novel critiques the present (and what Lowry was critiquing in this work), and we’ve chased down the reasons why human beings seem unable to deal with a perfect society; each of the kids commented that the novel was “creepy” because it was “too perfect,” and one boy (Goddess LOVE him!) brought up the scene in the Matrix where Agent Smith comments that their first attempt at the program failed because it was too good; there was no want or conflict, and the humans couldn’t handle it.  “Whole crops were lost,” he said.  The students had a GREAT time with that.

10. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling

I’m relatively certain that all the Harry Potter novels have been banned or challenged at one point or another.  This one is on the Film and Lit syllabus because, even though each of the novels deals with the theme of coming of age (Harry comes of age incrementally in each of the works), I really do think this one is where he (and his friends) turns the proverbial corner.  While my students are a little daunted by the thickness of the tome (and I’m a little insecure about teaching the middle book in a long series), I’m desperately looking forward to this unit; I can’t wait to see how the kids re-approach a work they read as kids (and think they know).

Happy Tuesday, Everyone!

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Want a Project?

So, here’s the story; I’ve been given 100% free rein to do whatever I want in building, from scratch, an entire English department.  From scratch, People; I have absolutely no constraints – I can pick whatever books I want and teach them in whatever order I want using any projects and assessments I want and….

You get the idea.

While I’m in love with the idea that this is entirely mine to create – how many of my colleagues fantasize about being able to teach the books they love instead of the books they’re ordered to read by the administration or the state? – I’m also here to tell you that absolute freedom isn’t necessarily conducive to creativity.

I need edges.  I need guideposts.  I need something.

When I met with Mike the other day to talk about getting the planning started, I told him that I was almost paralyzed by all my freedom; I had no place to put in, I said, and I found myself staring at a blank computer screen, wondering just where the hell to start.

That’s when he suggested that we create a canon.  We’ll compose a list of books that we feel deserve a quasi-permanent place in the various curricula.  The idea is that we’ll have a list of books that we go to whenever we’re teaching, say, a freshman core class, and choose some anchoring texts from among that list that fit with whatever the school-wide theme is for that year (as opposed to teaching the same books every year – if it’s freshman, it must be Romeo and Juliet! – which, frankly, we teachers just don’t want to do).  That way, we figure, we’ll never teach a book to a junior class that already read it as freshmen and, in the process, we make sure we hit at least some of the more widely-read novels that colleges expect students will have some passing familiarity with (and that we either love or never got to ourselves in our own educations).

So, I’ve got this list.  It is by no means a complete list, and I’m leaving it entirely open to revision and/or suggestion, so that’s the first part of your project; if you see something on the list that shouldn’t be there – or there’s a book that is dear to you that you think should – speak up.

The second part of my request is a bit more involved, though; I’m going to ask you (especially you English teachers) where in the course of four years you’d place a book.  It’s pretty much decided that freshmen will get To Kill a Mockingbird and The Book Thief, and that seniors will get Frankenstein and Beloved – and there are a couple of other novels that will sort themselves out simply because of their subject matter or their voice – but I’m really interested in finding out what you all think about where the books should go.  You don’t even have to take on the whole four years; if you teach sophomores, for instance, tell me what books you either teach or wish you could teach to that bunch.  If you teach college, tell me which books you want your incoming freshman to know in order to have discourse about the novels that you teach at your level.  I’ll take any and all input any of you wants to offer up… and thanks!

To Kill a Mockingbird
The Book Thief
Native Son
Invisible Man
The Sunflower
Ender’s Game
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Frankenstein
Hamlet
King Lear
MacBeth
Much Ado About Nothing
The Taming of the Shrew
Othello
The Great Gatsby
The Things They Carried
The Kite Runner
Night
Watership Down
1984
Fahrenheit 451
The Giver
The Color Purple
Beloved
A Christmas Carol
This Boy’s Life
The House on Mango Street
Oliver Twist
Catcher in the Rye
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
As I Lay Dying
A Farewell to Arms
Brave New World
A Member of the Wedding
The Bluest Eye
Cry the Beloved Country
Things Fall Apart
Pride and Prejudice
The Scarlet Letter
Lord of the Flies
A Clockwork Orange

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