Monthly Archives: November 2009


As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m spending a fair bit of my professional time lately thinking in terms of argument, debate, and persuasion.

This morning, I introduced the concept of rhetorical argument to my high school juniors and seniors, and I’m fairly sure that they really didn’t get it.

If you haven’t had much experience with them, allow me to explain that, in general, teenagers are a very sensitive and emotional lot. Further, they are very often prone to the exaggerated and the dramatic; if it’s worth doing, it seems, it’s worth doing BIG.

I probably should have remembered this when I tried the same tactic with them that I did with my L.U. kids; I came into class and wrote “arguing” and “fighting” on the board, then I asked them to discern a difference. Not only did they have trouble keeping their consideration grounded in the rhetorical (they wanted to explain that “fighting” necessarily involved some sort of physical altercation), but they had a tough time drawing a distinction between what one does when arguing with someone and what one does when fighting.

It took a while, but I managed to get them around to the ideas that my favorite LU kid came up with in terms of the goals of the different activities; the CHS kids were able to comprehend that, in this scenario, anyway, the goal of argument is agreement, where the goal of fighting is power.

They’re still firmly in the realm of fighting, though, so my aim for this week is to get them to understand the difference between reasoned and careful argument and, well, ranting.  To that end, their homework assignment for tonight is to go online and find a couple of different rants; one with which they agree and one with which they don’t (I gave them some suggestions for where to look).  Their task is to work through an analysis of each of these presentations; to determine the message and the intended audience, to see and explain the organizational structure of the piece, to recognize and respond to the way the opposition is addressed (and characterized), and to evaluate the piece as a whole in terms of its efficacy.

Tomorrow’s class will be about the structure of argumentative pieces and the ethical use of information.  The kids are going to go out of their minds in this unit, I think; I’m fairly certain they’ve never been pressed to present their thinking – especially about things they feel strongly about – in ways that are organized, careful, and logical.  Keeping them from rolling their eyes at each other and engaging in ad hominem attacks is going to be my biggest challenge, I think.  Wish me luck.


Filed under critical thinking, debate and persuasion, fun, funniness, I love my job, lesson planning, rhetoric, student chutzpah, Teaching

Clearly, This Sort of Thing Has Worked for Them So Far

You know, if it didn’t actually HAPPEN to me, I wouldn’t believe it, either…

1. A month ago, I announced, loudly and for about a week, that my Pink Paper Policy was coming to an end. I posted the details of the new and improved homework policy on the classes’ websites. I handed out hard copies of what I put on the sites. Further, I told the kids that they had until today to get in everything they owed me; anything that wasn’t finished by today stays a zero in their grade book.

LAST NIGHT, a girl whom I’ve not seen for about three weeks (not sure why she’s not coming to school) emailed me.
Im sorry I have been out
Could I have an Updated list of things I need to turn in to you

Um. No. I’ll see you in class next year, because there’s no way you’re passing this term.

2. One student – a painfully immature junior – decided to resubmit an essay I’d sent back to her for a rewrite without actually rewriting it. I don’t know what she thinks that’s going to get her; the piece earned her zero points the first time, and it’s clearly no better now.

3. I’ve got one kid in the freshman sophomore class who fancies himself a wordsmith. The end result is that his papers are almost always nearly incomprehensible. I think he subscribes to the “if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit” school of thought; I really do believe that he thinks that if he uses “big words,” people will think he’s smart. Here’s a hint, my darling; in order to sound smart, you’ve really got to understand what all those big words actually mean.

4. One boy, who’s done just about nothing all term, proudly handed me a stack of make-up work this morning. A quick glance through it showed me that he must have spent all of ten minutes putting the answers to my (pretty complex) questions together. I’ll replace his zeros with 50s, but there’s no way he’s getting full credit for two-sentence answers to essay questions.

Oy. I’m actually looking forward to this five day break.


Filed under concerns, dumbassery, failure, frustrations, General Griping, I love my job, student chutzpah, That's your EXCUSE?!, Yikes!, You're kidding...right?

Sometimes, I Really DO Get Through

VERY long story short; CHS has decided to implement a program whereby teachers can hold classes online. We submitted a proposal to the DOE outlining our plans for document-able indirectly direct instruction time, and we got approval for the idea. We launched the program this week, and are using the time to make up for some of the days we lost when there was no heat in the building last month.

Anyway, my online classes were held on Thursday night, and I spent most of Thursday burning lots of calories worrying about them. I’ve taught “hybrid” classes before, but they didn’t involve interactive online classes; I had no idea if I could pull this off.

I decided to plan lessons for both my levels that revolved around letter-writing. I’ve mentioned here before – more than once, in fact – that I’ve often been stunned into shocked silence by the utter lack of decorum and regard with which some students hold email communication. I suspect they’re thinking that email is inherently an informal method of communication and, as a consequence, they send me shockingly familiar, often rude emails, all (I can only hope) without realizing how incredibly badly they come off.

When I was teaching at the junior college level I wondered – often, and often out loud – why no one had ever taken these kids aside in high school and given them at least a rudimentary foundation in polite communication. Regardless of what a student wants to do in adulthood – doctor, chef, auto mechanic, hair stylist, engineer – he or she is going to need good, solid communication skills. Further, he or she is going to need to know how to discern what register should be taken when making that communication; knowing how to read the level of formality that a situation requires is a life skill, not just an academic one.

Now that I’M teaching in high school, I make sure that MY kids get taken aside and given a bit more than a rudimentary foundation in polite communication, I can tell you THAT!

Anyway, I put together quick lessons in register and basic letter writing for the online classes (which went well, I think), then spent Friday’s in-school, face to face classes reviewing what we went over on the computers. Most of the kids were pretty clear about what was going on; while they admit that they don’t have a whole lot of practice with switching register, they got the basic concept (“you don’t talk to your grandmother the same way you talk to your friends in the lunch room”) and were willing to play around with the idea a bit.

I took part of the class to go over some of the basics of email. I pointed out to the kids that most of our written correspondence comes in some electronic form, but that the means of communication shouldn’t keep students from considering what register should be used. An email to a friend can be super casual (“Hey! ‘Sup? You still coming by this afternoon?”), but an email to a person in authority – a teacher, a boss, a client – should be a bit more formal. Don’t fail to include an opening greeting – address your reader, I told them, it’s polite. Close your message with a closing salutation; write “sincerely,” or something similar, and don’t forget to sign your name (ugh! My Local U. students have email addresses that are randomly generated by a computer program; I can’t discern who an email is from by the address, so when they don’t sign their messages to me, I have NO idea who I’m talking to).

Just before we finished the lesson (I also went over the dangers of “reply all”), I mentioned one last thing; “it is probably a good idea,” I told them, “for some of you to register a more professional sounding email. You know if I’m talking to you, right?” Several students grinned shyly and nodded; they knew who they were.

Before Friday night was over, I had received two emails from students in my class. They had created new email addresses for themselves and had forwarded the information to all the teachers at CHS. One student (God, I love him) included this little message:

Dear Teachers;

After a presentation today on “email manners” by Mrs. Chili, I decided to create an email that is more professorial than the one I had previously.

Thank you,

Sean Student

Most of my work is a practice in delayed gratification; students usually come to me long after a lesson is over to tell me that something I taught them is meaningful in their lives. It’s pretty cool when they get it right away.

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Filed under about writing, analysis, General Griping, great writing, I love my job, lesson planning, out in the real world, self-analysis, success!, Teaching, the good ones, writing

What’s Your Purpose?

Kizz put up a post today in which she ruminates on the idea of positing a purpose.  This resonated with me because, in my line of work, the concept of purpose  and the concise and eloquent expression of it are often at the heart of much of what  I do.

When I talk to my students about purpose, I give a pretty clear and (I think) easy definition of the concept; the purpose of a piece is the reason it exists; what was the author trying to make happen through the creation of this piece?  I teach my kids to make very sharp distinctions about the different aspects of the things we investigate, be they films or poems or novels, speeches, advertisements, or letters;

• plot (or topic) is what happens (or what the piece is about)

• theme is the big idea (or ideas; there are most often more than one)

purpose is what the author wanted to accomplish with the piece.

Theme and topic questions are best answered with nouns – “this story is about friendship” or “that essay is about avian migration patterns and their effect on consumer spending.”  Purpose questions are answered with verbs – the purpose of this piece is to entertain or to inform or to analyze.

Kids find, in pretty short order, that purpose is not only pretty important – it’s what holds much of their writing together, after all – but that it also shows up in a lot of different places.  While some kids revere authorial intention above all else (I’m trying to break them of that, in fact), I will admit that working on discerning an author’s possible motives for writing a piece helps the kids to put that piece into a larger context and perspective; it helps them to get it.  Being able to come up with a possible reason that someone bothered to go through all the trouble of writing – much less of publishing – a piece of work really is an analytical exercise, and while I don’t hold much with the authorial intention angle, I often do ask the students to consider the author’s possible motivations for putting these words down in the way that he or she did.  I find, more than anything else, that getting the students to consider purposes helps them to clarify their own approaches to the material, and helps them to solidify how they think and feel about the piece in the end.

Where the idea of purpose comes up most notably, though, is in every writing exercise that students undertake.  They need to keep purpose in mind when they’re composing a letter, when they’re answering a question (I teach them to look for the verbs used in the questions they’re responding to – the way they “describe” is going to be very different from they way they “define”  or the way they “analyze;” or, at least, it should be), or when they’re composing a story or a poem.  Purpose is the glue that holds the whole thing together; it’s the unifying force of their writing, and when it’s absent, it’s obvious.

It is true that nearly every class I’ve ever taught has identified “organization” as a fundamental weakness in their writing.  They know what they want to say, they complain, but they don’t know how to get there.  That’s because they lack a purpose – they could have all the information at their fingertips, have all the time and resources in the world, but if they don’t have a reason to sit to write, they’ll likely never be satisfied with what they produce.  Try it sometime; before you begin a writing project – a letter to that fabulous restaurant you went to last week, a memo to your office, an email to your best friend about what you saw in the grocery store the other day – really think about what you’re trying to accomplish by sitting down to write; what do you want to happen as a result of your effort?  Once you’ve got a clear purpose in mind, you’ll likely find that the writing is much easier that it would have been without it.  I have multiple purposes for this piece, I think: I want to share my thinking with you (so that I can get your feedback), I want to record my own thinking so I can refer back to it later, and I want to explain the way I think about purpose and its importance in my teaching practice.  All of those things have informed the way that I’ve constructed this piece; how I’ve organized my information, what I’ve chosen to stress (and what I’ve left out altogether), and what voice and tone I’ve taken.  Were my purpose different (say, if I’d had a crappy day and just wanted to vent my shit), I would have put this whole thing together very differently.

Discerning purpose is, at least in the context of a creative exercise, a distinctly meta-cognitive thing; one has to be willing – and able – to investigate one’s motivations in order to be able to articulate a clear (and honest) purpose.  I think that this is one of the reasons that so many people have such a hard time positing purpose; we’re not really practiced in looking closely at how we think, or at what really motivates us. Think about how motivated some of us (ehem.. me!) are to write letters of complaint.  We don’t necessarily want to admit it, but when we write letters to businesses that have given us lousy service, it’s important, I think, to remember that intimidation – whether through righteous indignation or not – really is our purpose.

Not for nothing, but I also think that purpose, more than anything else, is the reason I could never sit to write a novel; I can’t find a purpose to the exercise that works for me and, accordingly, I can’t find enough motivation to string that many words together.  Purpose is a great motivator!


Filed under about writing, analysis, colleagues, composition, critical thinking, debate and persuasion, I love my job, out in the real world, Questions, reading, rhetoric, self-analysis, Teaching, writing



My friend Eddie posted an entry the other day about some of the dumb things that students say.  We can only hope, we teachers, that the students genuinely don’t realize how dumb they really sound; to think otherwise would be to begin a spiral into despair from which few of us would recover.

In the vein of “if it didn’t actually happen to me, I wouldn’t believe it,” I’m going to share this little nugget with you.

By majority vote, we decided to read To Kill a Mockingbird in my I/II class.  The kids started reading last night, and this morning, I put a “choose one question” quiz on the board for their free write time.  Each of the questions was pretty straight forward; I asked them to tell me about the narrator, or to describe the setting and explain why is it important, or to analyze a particularly important (and kind of funny) scene that happens in chapter 2.

Hand to God, this is an exact transcription of one of the papers I received at the end of class:

Mrs. Chili.  I have only read up to page 11.  So I cant really answer these questions.  I have only read to 11 because I had alot to do last night and I did not use my time as well as i could have.  I opend the book at about 10:00 and read untill I almost passed out.  I am very sorry and I hope you know i am doing my best to do good and pass this and all my classes and here at CHS.

To which I responded:

Okay, Jan, but you understand I can’t give you credit for work you don’t do….



Filed under dumbassery, failure, student chutzpah, That's your EXCUSE?!, Yikes!, You're kidding...right?

How My 12-Year-Old Helps My Teaching Practice *Edited*

One of the things I do to further my teaching practice is to act like a student.  When I’m getting ready to teach a unit, I will do a fair bit of investigation and research on the topic, I’ll read articles (and other people’s lesson plan ideas) and I’ll try to get at least a working outline of how I’m going to approach the material over the course of however many class periods I’ve set aside for the job.

One of the things I’ve never been overly confident about, either as a student or a teacher, is the area of debate and persuasion.  While I really do think of myself as a pretty fair critical thinker, I have a rather lower opinion of myself as a persuader, especially in person.  I’m what I call a “ten minute delay” person; I’ll think of a great response ten minutes after it’s relevant, usually in the car on the way home.  Gah!  In addition to that, I don’t find that logical connections come easily to me; I really need time to get smoothly from point A to point B.  If I’m talking off the cuff, I’ll fall into logical pitfalls as sure as I’m standing there.

To try to get a better handle on this whole debate and presuasion thing, I started reading about the art of argument about a month ago.  Thank You for Arguing is on my bedside table, I’ve got lists and definitions of logical fallacies at my desk, and I ordered (and received) a concise little Rulebook for Arguments from Amazon.

After spending some time working on getting a better understanding of the mechanisms of argument (and lightening up about the “rules”), I’m finding that I’m looking at the dynamics of my family in new and very interesting ways.

Case in point; Punkin’ Pie, my beloved elder daughter, is having a bit of a time in school.  Truth be told, she’s always had a bit of a time in school; typical of many young people, my daughter is far more interested in friends, t.v., and, well, pretty much anything but school, really.

Several weeks ago, Punk came home with the year’s first progress report.  Her numbers weren’t good (even worse if one considers that her parents place an especially high value on academic achievement).  We took beloved daughter aside and asked her what needed to be done to bring her low grades up to a level that would get her parents off of her proverbial back.  She told us that she needed to focus more on organization; that she was doing the work, but she often lost it between completing it and handing it in.  We reiterated how quickly zeros killed averages, and the child assured us that she had a handle on her problem.

The report card came yesterday.  Punkin’s English grade is, well, let’s just say that Mom (and Dad, too, of course, but mostly Mom) found this grade to be entirely unacceptable.

I had to leave for my Local U. class, so I decided to not press her too hard about this issue right before I had to head out; it seemed unfair of me to start something I was likely unable to finish.  Dad had no problem getting into it with her, though, so I had first-row seats to a pretty engaging discussion.

What I was able to observe from my semi-detached perspective in the few minutes before I left for work were gorgeous examples of what I now recognize as the appeal to popularity and the straw-man proposal.  EVERYONE hates the English teacher, my daughter claimed, and EVERYONE else is failing; thereby, she hoped, making it acceptable that she is getting a C- which isn’t, in point of fact, a failing grade.  The teacher is terrible; her policies are confusing and inconsistent, so it isn’t Punkin’s fault that she’s not turning work in on time; if the teacher were more predictable and consistent, everything would be different.

I took my observations to Local U. with me and started to talk about the difference between “arguing” and “fighting.”  I asked the kids to give me the qualities and characteristics of each, and they came up with a lot of great stuff.  Observe:

When we were running out of steam, I wrote “Goals” on the board.  One young man (he’s the one who took the picture, by the way, and I adore him on general principle), was looking carefully at the board.  “Oh, wait!” he said, “I totally get it now!  When you’re fighting, your goal is power.  You want the other side to do what you tell them to do because you’re stronger than they are in some way – they don’t have to like it, they just have to do it.  In an argument, you’re trying for agreement; you want the other side to want to do what you want them to do!”


I still don’t know that I have this whole logical argument thing under my full and complete control (in fact, I think it’s safe to say that I don’t).  I do, however, have a much stronger grasp of the concepts of argument and persuasion than I did before I started doing all this reading (and before I had a teenager.  Would that I could teach her the nuances of argument; I could do with a lot less fighting in my household.  Sigh).  I do love, though, that I can take experiences from my personal life to strenthen my professional life – and vice-versa.


Filed under compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, debate and persuasion, I love my job, Learning, lesson planning, Local U., out in the real world, self-analysis, Teaching, the good ones

JUST the Boost that I Needed

It’s been a rough couple of days for me professionally, so when I found this in my inbox this morning, I nearly wept.

Sometimes, the positive reinforcement comes at exactly the right moment.
Dear Mrs. Chili:

This may be corny, but I have unfortunately never been a fan of English, it wasn’t until my senior year in high school that I had a teacher that actually got me to enjoy English.  I just want to say that, keeping in mind this will probably be the last English class I ever take, it has been one of my favorite classes, along with my favorite English class ever. The way you conduct class, allowing us all to interact and be comfortable in doing so, gets the “job” done in a manner that not many teachers have the ability to do, and I admire you to a great extent for that. It is very enjoyable to come to class; in fact, I call my mom just after every class as I feel it is so refreshing that I have found a new enjoyment in a subject that I never was interested in. So though I have never expressed something like this to a teacher before, I just felt the urge to tell you how much I am enjoying class and I MOSTLY wanted to thank you for that. I don’t have the steadiest background, and coming back from two weeks at home, tonight’s class completely brightened my mood; as I sit here it is just nice to think about the fact that we have such a welcoming and delightful class and I realize it may be the little things such as a class that make us happy in our days.


Filed under I love my job, self-analysis, success!, Teaching, the good ones