By Dr. Renee Peterson
The blank page, the blinking cursor, the brand-new plan book, the new school year - these are things that haunt us: the writers, the teachers, and worse, the teachers of writing. I spent twenty years teaching young people the craft of writing well, and for quite some time I approached each new school year wondering how to capture their attention and help them to find a reason to write and a desire to write well.
I believed that becoming a good writer needed to start with two pre-writing requirements: reading good writing and thinking interesting thoughts. One who writes must know what good writing looks like and must have something to say about something. As you teach, you collect those gems that you consider your “go to” passages, lessons, activities that always seem to resonate with the students. Years ago, I found an interesting piece by Paul Auster entitled “Why Write?” This selection is brief and interesting, and it can lead to many first discussions or assignments as you begin to discover your students. No matter what objective I wanted my students to accomplish, this little essay did its job. “Why Write?” became a gem of mine.
The following is section 5 from Auster’s essay printed in The New Yorker’s final edition of 1995.
Before beginning a discussion of text, have your students number the paragraphs if that task hasn’t already been completed. Then during the discussion, the speaker has a way to refer to the mentioned passage.
In your preparation for the lesson, choose the skills or ideas that you want your students to learn and have a plan to get them there. Although a discussion of a text can rabbit-trail in many directions, as the instructor/facilitator, you need to be ready to lead them with a purpose. The following are examples of ideas I wanted my students to take away from this passage, you may think of so many more!
To understand a writer, the reader should make a connection with him/her, however, students tend to focus on those things that are foreign to them. To help my students to grasp this concept, I told them to circle any word/phrase/idea that was unfamiliar. They typically began with names, the players listed in the first paragraph, anything having to do with baseball, then unfamiliar vocabulary such as brusque in paragraph 5. They may use this as their argument for why they cannot find common ground with this writer or make any connection to the text. Move the discussion to the things that they like, music, sports, film – anything with celebrities to idolize. They will soon realize that there is a familiar concept here: the excitement of meeting a celebrity that you idolize. Huzzah! Connection made. This connection may grow into empathy for 8-year-old Auster lamenting the autograph he could have had… if only. Conversely, when it is time for your students to write, encourage them to think of placing the details of a new event or idea within a familiar frame. Good writers never need to say, “you had to be there”; a good writer takes you there.
Writing prompt: Using the familiar frame of a journey, describe a journey you have recently experienced – remember it must have a beginning, a middle, and an end!
One text can have various levels of meaning. I approach this concept in different ways depending upon the current ability of the students. For my AP students, we may discuss this concept as the supposed thesis and the actual thesis. For my freshmen, we may discuss “what the piece is about” and “what the piece is REALLY about.” Other times we may simply discuss the thing and the other thing. In Auster’s text, what is the thing, the supposed thesis, what the piece is about? If the students have been conditioned to find the thesis in the position of the final sentence in the opening paragraph, then they will quickly find the thing: the hero-worship of ball-player-celebrity Willie Mays. But is that what the text is really about? As you encourage the discussion as a class or in partners or in groups, you will find some of them heading to the idea that Auster is sharing his story of how he became a writer (par. 10) or why he is always prepared.
Writing prompt: Tell a story about something that happened to you with a lesson that could apply to anyone.
Repetition with a purpose is a powerful rhetorical tool. Auster’s text opens with the statement, “I was eight years old.” Very declarative, matter-of-fact, attention given to the audience in the fact that we all can relate to being eight years old. He immediately takes us back to a time in which the immediate is paramount, and one simple event can send us into convulsions of anguish. We get it. We understand the childish idolatry of a celebrity. Age teaches us that celebrities are merely human beings, just like us. In paragraph 8 Auster repeats the clause, “I was eight years old,” but it’s different this time. The first time, we understand that he is differentiating himself from adults, he was only eight. Later when struggling to fight the tears of frustration and loss, he is desperate to differentiate himself from babies: he was a “big kid” and should not cry over such silly, childish things! They may have been the identical words, but the meaning is very different.
Writing challenge with an open prompt: write a simple clause. Use that clause as the first sentence in your essay, then again later in an essay with a very different meaning.
Failure can be a more powerful, life-altering experience than success. Depending upon your group of students, this may be the only lesson needed from this text. Too often our students see failure as something that is horrible instead of viewing it as a springboard to something new. Even the most literal students seem to be able to make the inference that Auster’s failure to get the Mays autograph led to his carrying a pencil always, which in turn, helped him on his way to becoming a writer. Journal entry or quick write: share a failure you experienced and explain what you learned from it.
Titles have significance…usually. From time to time an editor will throw a title on a text simply from the necessity of having one, but when a writer chooses a title for a text that he has written, he has a reason for it. Why is the title “Why Write?” rather than “Why I Write?” What is the difference in meaning? If you have been discussing several aspects of this text, the students should be running away with ideas here, if not, you may lead them with yours. With advanced students, I have paired this text with two essays entitled, “Why I Write?” by George Orwell and Joan Didion. Adding paired texts gives more opportunity for making connections, drawing conclusions, and having thoughts that prompt writing. Writing prompt 1: Explain the significance of the title of the essay. Writing prompt 2: Compare/contrast Auster’s essay to either Didion’s or Orwell’s essay. Be sure to address the similarities/differences in the titles and the significance of such.
Be prepared! Recently I was reading Twyla Tharp’s 2003 book, The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life, and in chapter 2, “Rituals of Preparation” she mentions this very essay by Paul Auster. She uses it to encourage her readers to be ready to be creative: “What is your pencil” she writes, “What is the one tool that feeds your creativity and is so essential that without it you feel naked and unprepared?... Pick your ‘pencil’ and don’t leave home without it” (Tharp, 2003, 30). What a wonderful way to begin the school year – encouraging your students to be prepared to learn, to read, to write, to think every day. Quick write or journal entry: Choose your “pencil.” What is the tool you need every day to be ready to be an excellent, productive learner?
READ, THINK, WRITE… then we talk. If I had a nickel for every time I have given this instruction to my students in the past twenty-some years, I could retire already. Get them reading, thinking, writing, and discussing… our little gems can get that started!
WVCTE is wondering....
How do you get students reading, thinking, writing, and discussing?
Auster, Paul. (1995) Why Write? The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1995/12/25/why-write.
Tharp, Twila. (2003) The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Dr. Renee Peterson is the theatre instructor, the International Thespian Society Troupe 8066 director, the Cardinal Players director, and the Drama Club advisor for Spring Mills HS in Martinsburg, WV. Renee spent 21 years as a teacher of English in public and private schools, for grades 7-12, with students of all levels in three states before changing her role to theatre director. She reared two wonderful children to adulthood while earning two master's degrees and a doctorate. Second only to teaching her own students, Renee finds joy in encouraging young teachers because "They are the future of our profession, and our students need them to be awesome teachers!" she says. Renee and her husband Tom enjoy their empty nest that is perched on 50 acres on the top of a ridge in Southern Berkeley County, West Virginia. To read her musings and missives, follow her blog at www.thelearningdoctor.me and her Twitter posts @renpetwv. To keep posted on the shows and activities of The Cardinal Players, follow them on Facebook or Twitter @smhsplayers.
One of our most important jobs as educators is to elevate our students’ voices. Our classrooms should be places were students feel that their voices will not only be heard, but that they will make a difference. I want them to consider their roles in their community and world. Right now, West Virginia is facing some extra-ordinary challenges: a struggling economy, a population decline, an opioid epidemic. Young people in West Virginia are discouraged. They constantly hear negative things about our state, and they ignore or don’t know is that West Virginia has a rich literary and art tradition. That our state exists because Mountaineers rejected slavery and valued freedom. Activists and artists are working tirelessly to create accurate reflections of the complexities and contradictions of our state and culture, and preserve our rich, history and traditions.
This year I decided to try something. I wanted find a way to not just engage my students in conversations about West Virginia and our struggles and successes, but I wanted them to be thinking about their place in West Virginia—how as young people they have a unique voice and perspective regarding how fix problems in our region. I believe that West Virginia’s path forward begins in our classrooms. (To read an Op-ed Karla Hilliard and I wrote about this, click HERE.)
This year, I taught my introduction to rhetoric to my Advanced Placement Class through the lens of Appalachian studies. You can see an overview of the unit HERE. The goals of the unit are (like West Virginia) diverse and multi-faceted. I wanted students to master the basics of rhetorical analysis, but also immerse themselves in the rhetoric surrounding our region.
The final culminating project in this unit was for the students to apply what they learned about crafting effective arguments, and create a proposal to present at the 40th Annual National Appalachian Studies Conference. We approached the task as an exercise in rhetoric. I asked the student to first choose something we studied in the unit that resonated with them. We covered a wide range of topics related to Appalachia: literature, poetry, environmental issues, the opioid epidemic, diversity, veterans, and stereotypes.
Then, students were split into teams had to write a proposal to present their chosen topic at the ASA conference. I asked the students to consider their unique voices. They are teenagers in Appalachia today, and they have a chance to share a concern or a topic with a conference of academics, writers, and activists. We read a few sample proposals and studied the conference website, program, and theme. I asked them to think about their proposals as persuasive essays and apply what they learned through our study of effective arguments.
The kids had a week to put together a “pitch” and write their proposals. They then presented their proposals to the whole class. I chose what I thought were the “top 10” pitches and gave them to a panel of teachers and administrators in my building to evaluate. They narrowed it down to four that they thought were the exemplars in terms of executing the task.
I put these four exemplars and my unit presentation together as a panel proposal for the conference, submitted it not really imagining that we would actually get accepted.
But then we did!
And not only did we get accepted, the conference committee emailed me to say how excited they were the students would be attending.
We were going to Blacksburg.
Below are three take-aways from taking 13 teenagers to present at the 40th Annual Appalachian Studies Conference at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA on March 9-12:
1. Kids rise to the occasion.
My students prepped and prepared like professionals. I required them to meet with me bi-weekly to show me the progress of their project, and then we had a “dress rehearsal” the week before. They worked so hard. They understood the gravity of the opportunity they were being given, and their presentations were thoughtful, smart, and executed with more grace and poise than many presentations I’ve had to sit though given by adults. They blew everybody away.
We were also asked to sit in on a round-table discussion on youth and activism through art, and the authenticity and honesty of my students brought me and the rest of the room to tears. They were rock stars.
2. There is a wealth of educator resources at this conference!
Not only did I learn about several new pieces of Appalachian literature (read about Robert Gipe’s novel, Trampoline HERE), but my students and I learned about several incredible programs, organizations, and educational groups who care deeply about and are working on many of the same things we were discussing in our own presentation. And the authors and artists! My students were in the same room as Silas House, Jason Howard, Roger May, and Nikki Giovanni.
Roger May is not only a gifted artist, but he is also the director at Appalachian South Folklife and the Looking at Appalachia project, and a generous and kind human. Here he is taking time out of the opening of his own gallery show to answer my students’ questions about his photography.
And here is the incomparable Nikki Giovanni. Giovanni was brilliant, funny, honest, and by far one of the highlights for my students.
3. Young people want their voices to be heard.
My students had the opportunity to participate in discussions about activism, art, and literature. And because having high school students actively participate in this conference is a bit of an anomaly, they were encouraged to speak up and share their perspectives and opinions. What I noticed was a maturity and a sense of importance settle over my students that I had not previously seen. They reveled in having adults who were not their teachers or parents, care about what they thought. I realized that giving them this opportunity to simply be heard was one of the most important and powerful components of this activity’s success.
For more reflections on this wonderful weekend, you can check out my Twitter feed @jessica_salfia, and look for the #ASA2017.
WVCTE is wondering...
How do you incorporate ways for your students to share their voices or impact their communities in your classroom?