Category Archives: writing

I’m Taking Bets

How well do you think students will be able to follow these directions?  This is what they’ll find on their Blackboard pages while I’m away in DC next week:

There’s a lot here; please read it all carefully.

For your final paper, you’ll produce a researched essay in which you state and support a position on an issue of your choosing.

I would suggest (strongly) that you craft your position around the issue that you researched for the analysis paper, since most of your research for that topic is already done.  If you decide that you want to veer off in a different direction or go in-depth with an aspect of your analysis that you didn’t have time or evidence to pursue in your last paper, however, you’re more than welcomed to do that.

As part of your pre-writing work, please read ALL of the “Debate about Animal Rights” and the “Debate about the Death Penalty” essays in your text (4 essays, pgs. 422-454).  Please note the organization of these essays, the ways in which the authors emphasize and support their main points, the way the opposition is addressed, and how the essays conclude.  Work on identifying not only topic/purpose/audience, but also strategy; HOW does the author craft his or her essay to achieve the desired effect on the reader (what IS the desired effect on the reader)?  How are the essays similar, and how are they different?  Which essays were most compelling to you, and why?  BE SPECIFIC; point out passages or strategies that you found especially effective and articulate the differences and similarities you find in the essays.

Please note, also, the language that each of the authors employs; what is the general tone of each of the essays?  I have noticed that our class is still struggling to find a professional tone; I’m not asking you to become someone you’re not – to change your voice entirely while you’re writing – but I do expect you to know – and to be able to employ – a professional, academic tone when such is required.  That means using the correct words in the correct ways, crafting complete, complex, and coherent sentences and paragraphs, and being able to organize your thinking into a sustained and thoughtful essay that is easy to read and understand.

That means drafting.  At some point during the week, you need to connect with AT LEAST TWO of your classmates to workshop your first draft of this essay.  Please come to class on the Tuesday we return (the 29th) with a complete SECOND draft – along with the notes and feedback from your classmates – you will be graded on this – and be ready to workshop.  Note the attachments above; use them to help you give thoughtful, careful, and meaningful feedback to your peers (author’s note; here, I attached three PDFs; one that articulate the purpose of peer review and two that offer different strategies for both giving and receiving (and using) feedback).

Please also continue to read and critique opinion pieces from the newspaper, and to listen to analysis from NPR.  Listen to the strategies, notice the language, and pay particular attention to introductions, support, and conclusions.  Providing evidence of these pre-writing exercises will count toward your crafting grade (see below) and will help to make your writing stronger.

 

Come to class on the 29th with all of your pre-writing (including your first draft and all your revisions) and a complete, printed copy of your second draft.

 

These papers will be graded on three components:

Craft  20/100 – the paper shows strong evidence of a command of writing as a PROCESS.  The writer provides plentiful evidence of “behind the scenes” work by articulating a clear topic/purpose/audience, showing evidence of careful and engaged pre-writing activities – including significant exposure to professional examples of the genre – and engaging in a vigorous and attentive workshop and revision practice.  Significant and substantial revisions are evident from first to final draft, and the author is able to both offer feedback to others and engage critically with his or her own work using peer feedback and employing critical reading skills to his or her own writing.

 

Content 60/100 – the paper is well written and complete.  The introduction is engaging and thorough.  The organizational structure establishes relationships between and among ideas and events, presents a logical progression of ideas, and is unified and complete: the paper maintains a consistent focus on the topic.  Credible, relevant evidence is provided to back up the author’s claims, and the opposition’s best counterpoint is addressed clearly, accurately, and fairly.  The author provides sufficient background for the reader to understand the “so what” questions and does not assume facts not in evidence.  The author demonstrates a solid grasp of the complexities of the issue, and is able to present a logical, defensible position to a neutral reader.  The conclusion is logical, reasonable, and satisfying.

 

Style 20/100 – the paper is written in a consistent, accurate academic voice, and sustained awareness of audience is evident throughout the paper.  The author is in control of the vocabulary of the paper; all of the words mean what the author intends, and word choice is precise, artful, and appropriate to the writing task.  All sentences are complete, and all paragraphs are cohesive (one idea per paragraph).   Sentence structure varies according to the writer’s need and are consistently clear, logical, and enjoyable to read.  Evidence is cited in proper MLA format, and the Works Cited page is formatted correctly.  The author does not employ rhetorical questions, personal pronouns, or faulty logic.

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Filed under about writing, concerns, lesson planning, Teaching, writing

Ten Things Tuesday

Ten things my students chose to write about for their position papers:

1.  Puppy mills.  This student went ahead with this despite my recommendations that she choose another topic.  The standard for a topic was that reasonable people could disagree about the issue, and she admitted that reasonable people could not defend the heinous practices of puppy mills and yet, there it was, a paper arguing against the heinous practices of puppy mills.  Sigh.

2.  Electric Vehicles.  This one wasn’t so bad, though it was boring to read.

3.  Abortion.  Natch.  This paper was horrendous; it was all I could do to figure out what the student was trying to say.

4.  Electroshock therapy.  While this student started off strong, the paper fell apart about a quarter of the way in; he focused more on the history of the practice than on arguing that the way it’s currently being applied should be reconsidered.

5.  Animal testing.  This paper was completely incomprehensible.  Observe, a cut-and-pasted paragraph from the essay:

Martasian (student’s beliefs about animal research) found that students have more negative attitudes towards animals testing than undergraduates involved in animal research. The study also shows pervious work by examining feeling towards two nations. Some previous studies of this kind were characterized by a single nation. The same study that involves the two nations, those nations were among the British and Americans. Newkirk (wrote the book Free the animals: the story of the Animal Liberation Front) found animal welfare is more highly developed in North American than in Britain. Two groups were recruited from Britain and the United States.

Really; I have no idea what to do with that.

6.  Gay rights.  This one appeared in a couple of my classes.  One student did okay with it; the other tried to argue that gay marriage should be banned because it does not provide a good environment for children.  Needless to say, I eviscerated that paper, pointed the kid in another direction (reasonable people can argue for the separation of civil and religious marriage, so I encouraged him to take that angle) and sent the paper back for revision.

7.  Obamacare.  I told the students that they were welcomed to write about what they thought was an important issue and that, even if I staunchly disagreed with their position, they’d get the grade if they did good work with it.  This kid got all of his information from well known right-wing propaganda machines and forwarded claims that I could debunk on Google.  I sent the paper back and told him to try again.

8.  Whaling.  This was another paper that started out with a good premise but fell apart before we got to page two.

9.  NASA funding.  I haven’t read this paper yet, but the kid who wrote it wrote a surprisingly effective (and entertaining) analysis about calcium, so I have high hopes.

10.  Funding for the arts in schools.  This paper is another I haven’t read yet and, to be honest, I’m kind of dreading it; the student who’s writing it hasn’t produced anything of any kind of quality all semester (AND he admitted that he started the paper the night before it was due, despite my trying to get them to run through a drafting and revision process for weeks).  Oy.

 

 

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Quick Hit: Getting Ready

So!  I start teaching at the two community colleges the Tuesday after Labor Day.  Next Tuesday marks the start of staff meetings.  Of course, both colleges are holding important, orientation-type meetings for new adjuncts on the SAME DAY, but I was lucky that the staff meetings at Not Local Community College (NLCC) end in exactly enough time for me to hop in the car and make my way to Local Community College in time to make it to the meetings there.

Phew!

I’ve just about got my syllabi put together.  I’ve found myself stressing most about the schedule part of the document; I tend not to schedule out a semester’s worth of classes just because experience has taught me that scheduling is a pointless exercise; the first two days go as planned, generally, but then the class takes on a life of its own.  I don’t want to spend a lot of time and energy on a plan that I’m going to abandon in the second week of classes.  If I abandon the idea of mapping out every last class meeting, I can say with some confidence that my syllabi are ready to be printed.

Neither of the classes I’m teaching (college composition and developmental writing, which is essentially pre-comp) are particularly challenging for me to teach; I’ve done it many times before, and I have more than ample materials and facility with the process to make it work.  I’m going into two entirely new environments, however, and I think that’s what’s accounting for the mild case of low-level jitters I’m experiencing lately.  I’m sure that, once I get a feel for what the respective colleges are like (and get to know my colleagues and supervisors a bit better), I’ll fit right in.

So, that’s my professional life at the moment.  What are YOU all up to?

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The Post I’ve Been Promising

So!  I promised you all a post that recounted my experiences at Classical Private School.  I’m sorry I’m only getting to it now; I’ve been preoccupied with the (soul-sucking) job hunt and have kind of been avoiding thinking about CPS a whole lot.

The last thing I wrote about, if memory serves, is that I’d agreed to teach a writing workshop as a volunteer for six weeks.  After a heart-to-heart with Dr. Wong, I discovered that CPS had no budget and couldn’t pay me (or, Dr. Wong assured me, she’d have hired me by that point).  She gave me the impression that she was fairly confident that their budget for the 13-14 school year would be sufficient to bring me on board, though, so that was encouraging.

In any event, I taught the writing workshop for the six weeks.  It was a little bumpy because the kids weren’t sure what the expectations were; some of them were under the impression that it was a required course while others were sure it was a volunteer deal, so I didn’t get consistent attendance.  Two of the kids were convinced that they didn’t NEED any writing instruction (though Dr. Wong made a point of assuring them that they did) and one boy spent most of the time goofing off (there’s always one!), but the rest of the group did really well.  Once they were reassured that I wasn’t teaching grammar, they kind of got into it (the adults in the school kept insisting on calling it a “grammar class” until I corrected them in front of the students – yes; I’d be teaching grammar, but it was a writing workshop.  The focus was on the writing process, not on grammar, per se).

I pulled out some of my more successful lesson plans for the course; we did a unit about the basics of the writing process (topic, purpose, audience!) and about the different rhetorical situations one encounters (you need to know topic, purpose, audience before you start writing so you can be sure you’re addressing yourself properly to the situation and the reader).  We reviewed some of my more stunningly awful emails (that’s ALWAYS a popular lesson).  We played the synonym game.

After I got them used to the idea that writing is a process and that it’s okay (good, even!) to start out really, really badly, we wrote.  I had them write personal narratives (tell me the story of your name) and, I think, it went very well.  The kids work-shopped their papers with each other (using some very clear and specific guidelines I supplied for them; workshops are only effective if you know how to do them, and they had never done them before meeting me) and ran through several drafts of their papers.  What was most fun was that a bunch of them didn’t really know their name story, so they had to go home and ask about it.  When I came back after we’d started these papers, a couple of kids were excited about the things they’d learned, and they reported that they really enjoyed the writing once they felt they had a good handle on what they wanted to say.

The one big hiccup was that, one afternoon, I was completely usurped in a really disrespectful and inconsiderate way.  I drove an hour each way to get to this place.  Keep in mind, as well, that I was doing this as a volunteer.  Well, one afternoon, I arrived and was asked if I would mind if Dr. Palmer interrupted my class for a few minutes to let the kids know about an elective he was going to be launching in the coming weeks.  Of course I don’t mind, so I say so.  Well, Dr. Palmer walks in five minutes into my class (we’d barely gotten started) and proceeds to take up more than my hour talking about the course he was designing around the acoustics of electric guitars.

Seriously.  I sat there waiting for him to finish, and I ended up having to leave well before he was done.  I was furious.

Beyond that, though, it went well.  The kids reported, in their evaluations, that they learned quite a lot about their own writing process in the short time we spent together.  They offered suggestions for what they’d like to know more about (were we able to spend more time) and expressed some satisfaction that they were noticing that writing felt a little less ominous to them for our having worked together.

I was sent off after my last class with a small offering to help offset my gas expenses, a coffee mug, and a CPS mouse pad.  Though Dr. Wong was not in the building that day, the Dean of Students offered me what I thought were heartfelt thanks and an eagerness that we maintain communications.  I left feeling pretty confident that someone would be in touch to offer me a position in the fall.

I haven’t heard a thing from any of them since.

Seriously.  Crickets.  No calls, no emails, nothing.

I’m not going to call them.  At this point, I’m reasonably sure that if they could have hired me, they would have, and I’m not in a position to accept a long-distance volunteer teaching gig.  I’m disappointed, though; CPS wouldn’t have been a perfect fit for me, but I think that I could have done some pretty significant good there.

I wish them all the best going forward.  Maybe our paths will cross again sometime.

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New Class Idea: The Ambiguous Hero

I’ve been captivated, almost forever, with the ambiguous hero; the good guy who does bad things (and, conversely, the bad guy who does good things) and what role he plays in our psyche and, in a larger sense, in our culture.

A friend of mine wants to teach a summer class with film, and we were talking about this idea over dinner the other day.  I haven’t been able to let it go, and here’s what I’ve come up with.  I’m going to need some help zeroing in on the specifics – the assignments, the competencies and objectives, that kind of thing -  but here’s what I’ve got for materials so far:

The Dark Knight: the second of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy – this is the one with Heath Ledger as the Joker.  Christian Bale’s Batman is the perfect example, I think, of the ambiguous hero.

A Dry White Season:  This is based on a novel written by a white South African who gets involved in the anti-apartheid movement after someone he knows personally dies in police custody.

Gandhi:  You know this story, and I keep coming back to it as a conversation about civil disobedience and the question of how resistance is characterized on the different “sides” of the debate in question

Gone Baby Gone:  PLEASE tell me you’ve seen this movie!  It’s about a kidnapping, and centers around HUGE issues of “right” and “wrong” and where the law clashes with morality

Harry Potter:  I want to investigate Snape.  The idea of the double agent is always an interesting one.  I’m not sure which film I’d use, though; likely the last one.

Iron Jawed Angels: Another civil disobedience film – this one focuses on women’s suffrage and the outrages that some women suffered at the hands of law enforcement.

Milk:  About Harvey Milk and the early struggle for GLBTQ rights and recognition

Mississippi Burning:  This remains one of my MOST favorite films, mostly because of Gene Hackman’s REALLY complex character.  This scene alone is worth the film:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlzaBi_QxPw

The Negotiator:  This is the story of a cop who takes hostages in order to reveal corruption in his department – a good guy doing a bad thing for a good reason.

Leon, the Professional:  A hit man who adopts his 12 year old neighbor after her family is killed by a corrupt cop (played terrifyingly by Gary Oldman).  He’s a good guy who does bad things, and we have to reconcile his work with his personality.

Schindler’s List:  You know this one, too, I’m sure.  I think that Schindler started out as a bad guy doing a good thing (though for selfish reasons) and evolved into a good guy.

Shawshank Redemption:  Andy as a wrongly convicted man who becomes a criminal in prison, but who never gives up his humanity.

Tsotsi:  I haven’t seen this one in a LONG time, so I’m not sure if I’m remembering it correctly, but I think it’s about a boy who steals a car and discovers that he’s also stolen a baby.  The film tells the story of what he does after he realizes he’s got a tough choice to make.

Unforgiven:  This is a Clint Eastwood western.  Eastwood is a retired gunslinger who gets called back into the life of crime for reasons that he thinks are honorable.  His character is a tough one to suss out, and the film really makes the viewer work for the payoff (plus, it stars Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, which makes it that much better).

I was also thinking that I would have the kids read Bel Canto (which asks the “terrorist or freedom fighter” question) and, if they’re given permission from their parents, to look at a couple of episodes of Dexter (a serial killer in a Showtime series who only murders murderers who get away from the legal system).

I think there’s a lot of richness to be mined in this “good guy doing bad things / bad guy doing good things” question, I just need to think about it a bit more before it takes on any kind of substance that resembles a for-credit class.

What do you think?

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Filed under colleagues, critical thinking, doing my own homework, Dream Course, film as literature, fun, GLBTQ issues, Holocaust, lesson planning, Literature, Mrs. Chili as Student, politics, Teaching, winging it, writing

First Draft Friday

I love alliteration!

SO!  The first draft of The Paper is done!  It clocks in at 22 pages (plus 5 pages of sources), the conclusion is pathetic, and I still have to go back through and cite some sections, but it is a complete draft.

Who wants to read it?  Email me at mrschili at comcast dot net and I’ll send you a copy.  Be forewarned; I want good, constructive feedback on this bad boy; if you’re going to read this (and I’ll be very grateful if you do), I’m going to ask that you be clear and specific about what I need to do to make it better.

My goal is to have it in front of my professor in second-draft form sometime early to mid next week (I’m aiming for Wednesday, but since she hasn’t given me a deadline, I’ve got some flexibility).  The final is due on the 15th (my deadline, not hers; I think she gave me through the 18th, but I’d rather put it to bed sooner rather than later).

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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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