The memory of writing poetry

November and poetry.  I named my only stuffed animal November; I don’t know why.  I became aware of him when his eyes were scratched out and his rabbit ears were torn from their metal wires.  I remember accepting on some level that I had done this before I was I, before I remembered anything, and I remember feeling that I would never love November as much as when I didn’t know I loved him and didn’t know anything the way I did then, feeling the way I felt then and trying to see myself scratching out his eyes in love.

The memory of writing poetry is as dark as when I left school tonight just past six, gusty and cold as January night.  I walked past the bike rack I had given up a month ago, and I got in my Sable wagon.  Something electrical happened to it yesterday.  The radio and clock don’t work, half the dash lights are out, and the heat and defroster are frozen on, full blast.  I was warm by the time I stopped at the strip mall to pick up the pizza and subs.  I won’t need to get any of it fixed for a while, though I miss the radio.  I must have hit the knob six times during the five-minute drive home.

November we write poetry, mostly as muck we shape later.  We aim to make a mess, I say.  Don’t worry about spelling, poetic forms, rules of any kind.  Some days it’s work, but some days you’re unconscious.  I remember a college day playing ball in Blow Gym, and shot after shot falls; I steal the ball and race for a lay-up, three guys behind me, but I stop and do this jumper at the end, the three guys flying by me and hitting the wall.  I don’t remember it going in, but I remember knowing it goes in and being happy for the knowing and not seeing, for the forgetting that makes memory.  One guy, a real gym rat, pats me, says, “It’s a good thing you pulled up ‘cuz we were coming down on you.” That day made the other days all right.

Moving from desk to desk this week, I pushed through a hundred and twenty writer sketchbooks.  I promised not to read them but only to count the pages and finger the dog-ears.  Show me shop floors strewn with shavings and sawdust.  Brown leaves blown back through black afternoons.


Student blogging: the power of a world-wide audience

[This article appeared first in The Journal of the Virginia Writing Project‘s spring 2008 issue.  I have made a few minor changes to it for publication here.  My thanks to the Project for permission to republish.]

Good courses teach me stuff I don’t know, but great courses are more like revelations of things I didn’t know that I didn’t know.  Last year’s summer institute was a great course!  I discovered that I am permitted to use my writing instincts in teaching writing.  That may seem obvious, but it was a revelation to me. I love to write and to self-publish, but I never honestly thought these loves would also interest my students or affect my teaching.  Instead, before this past summer, my main means of motivating students to write well had been to instill the fear of my red pen.  But this year I’ve been selling my ninth graders on what has always sold me: writing for an audience.

So far, my classes are using three ways to discover audiences outside of the classroom: web logs (otherwise known as blogs), a class literary anthology, and submissions to print publications.  This article presents what my students and I did this year with the first of these efforts.  Through a lot of trial and error, I figured out one way of including blogging in a writers’ workshop classroom model.

Authentic Audiences

Before this year, I was already discovering that students usually put more effort into their writing when they know other students will read their work than when they know that only I will read it.  Also, when I tell students that their peers will be reading their papers in the next class, I find that all but one or two of them get their papers in on time.  Real-world deadlines involving real audiences seem to work better than my artificial deadlines, even though I enforce my artificial deadlines with real penalties.

This past summer’s institute opened my eyes to my hypocrisy concerning audiences – a hypocrisy that should have turned my writing focus around years before.  Before this past summer, I had made my students pretend that they were writing for real audiences, even though they were writing for only me.  Indeed, the audience in a typical student paper is not a teacher but a construct, a kind of dramatic convention the student and the teacher pull off to make the paper assignment work.  Since the teacher usually knows more about the paper’s subject than the student, the student is conscious of telling her one-man audience something he often already knows.  Despite this, students and teachers pretend that someone besides the teacher will eventually read the paper to be informed or entertained.  It’s a fake audience, and the cost is often a paper with a strained, pretentious, and fake voice.  The long-term cost may be a student with a learned loathing of writing.  So why just pretend?

Why Blogs?

Blogs, the popular, shorthand name for web logs, give students an authentic audience in a twenty-first-century medium with which they are comfortable. Blogging also helps students associate good writing with their increasingly technological future.  Blogging may not be the latest online phenomenon, but its current growth is still phenomenal.   As of this past September, a recognized tracking service counted over a hundred six million blogs worldwide, up from seventy-five million this past April. Over fifty-seven million Americans read blogs. The number of readers worldwide, of course, is far higher.  Blogs are a recognized medium with an authentic audience.

Blogs are the most writing-oriented of Web 2.0 type web sites. (Web 2.0 is shorthand for web sites with visitor-generated content, such as blogs, social networks, and photo- and video-sharing sites.)  Blogs, after all, evolved from online diaries. Despite their technical evolution and subject-matter expansion over the past ten years, good blogs still require good writing.

Blogging demonstrates that a popular online medium can honor good writing. My survey results indicate that most of my students either blog or participate on social networks. By incorporating good writing in a popular teen genre, teens are more likely to write and are more likely to discover more sophisticated possibilities for their existing online spaces and, more importantly, for their future online endeavors in whatever form they may take years from now.

Ensuring a Positive Online Experience

Around the beginning of November, I launched our multi-user blogging network.  Each student had her own blog site and was free to choose from a number of skins for her readers’ interface.  When she posted on her blog site, she came up with her own topic, title, and genre listings for the post.

I was blogging on our site along with them.  Like many of my students, I took on a blogging alias, and we kept a running list of who was who to make it fair.  Ostensibly, I was modeling blogging for my students, but the main reason for my participation was that I just didn’t want to be left out.  They were having too much fun. (I must not have been getting enough attention on my adult-world blog site because, after our site got going, I started checking my site on it for comments after I published something halfway decent more often than I checked my adult-world blog for comments.)

I required that students leave eight comments per blogging check (usually, every two or three weeks) on other students’ posts.  I didn’t comment on my students’ blogs because my students may not have been ready for their teacher as a subjective reader.  It also sounds potentially creepy: “I heard this teacher was leaving comments on his students’ blog posts!”

My students and I deliberately kept our comments positive.  In the classroom, we have writer support groups where the students and I can receive all the constructive criticism we want.  Online, though, I wanted my guys to experience what I struggled to accept during the first three years of my own blogging: specific, unmitigated praise.  This past summer, I was fuming in a post that my blog readers weren’t leaving any constructive criticism of my writing in their comments.  One comment a reader (another writing teacher) left me in response to my post helped me see things differently:

As a teacher and reader of your blog, I’d much rather enjoy what you write and respond to what inspires and excites me–as this piece has–than edit and critique your work. I trust that as you write more, you’ll find your way to more and more clarity about how to polish your writing to a shine. I think celebrating what’s working in a piece has far greater value in keeping us inspired to write and improve than anything else.

Her comment led me to understand that purely positive comments on blog posts were more important in the long run to me as a writer than critical comments.  I also began to see how my own writing had improved over the three years I had been blogging despite the lack of criticism.

I emphasized to my students that praising doesn’t mean faking it.  Blog commenters maintain their integrity (and credibility) by selecting an aspect of a post on which to lavish praise.  Of course, a comment can be effective even if it involves no praise, so long as the commenter expresses some connection with even just part of the post.  This specificity is what gives a comment its worth.  When someone picks something in one of my posts to either compliment or to expand on, I feel read.  After blogging for three years, I know that some stuff just isn’t getting read much.  Some of the other un-commented-upon material was probably read or appreciated, but readers just don’t have much to say about it.  (I’ve learned also that longer pieces don’t usually get read very often unless they’re personal or funny or both.)

Student commenters were also free to politely disagree with the substance of any post.  The disagreement could be strong, I told them, but they were not to criticize or even to point out perceived mistakes in other students’ writing (grammar, syntax, etc.).  I found that it was important to drill students on the art of good commenting.  I warmed to my task; I think students need to learn how to be both honest and positive with each other and with each other’s writing.  Despite my drills and my entreaties, I still had to ask a student to modify a comment every now and then.  Sometimes I redacted a comment as soon as I read it, fearing that the comment might hurt relationships or tear down the encouraging atmosphere the students and I had worked to inculcate on the site.

Feeling Read All Over the World

Comments make students feel read, and feeling read is one of the best things about writing.  If you ask a writer how she came to see herself as a writer, she will probably tell you a story or two about some of the first times her words got to other people.  Maybe she published a poem in an elementary school anthology.  Maybe a class put on a play she wrote.  One way or another, she felt read.

Site stats also confirm to my students that their blogs command a higher readership than they could probably expect from taping their work onto our classroom walls.  I reminded students that anyone on the planet with Internet access could read our posts – a potential audience of millions.  I did get practical when I explained the site statistics, which amounted to hundreds of visitors instead of millions, but they were pretty impressed with the few hundred unique visitors over the life of their blogs.  I also explained search engine dynamics.  I told them how more words and the passage of time means more hits and more links and maybe more readers.  Many of them quickly grasped another rule I never taught them: the more regular the posts, the more regular the readership.

I hope that other readers outside of our class members have been (and will be) drawn to something fairly unique: a self-contained community of online writers.  I hope also that readers will be drawn to the writing itself.  Of course, there’s no hiding that it’s ninth grade writing.  I didn’t advertise the writers’ age or make the site look like a school site, though.

A Gated Community

More words on our site may have meant more readers, but not more commenters.  We blog in a kind of gated community.  Everyone can see us, but only my seventy honors students can comment on posts there.  The site’s gate keeps out possible predators as well as commenters who may not wish to play by our rules.  But the site’s exclusivity also gives the students another way to experience the writing community that they’ve begun face to face in class in writers’ support groups and other activities.  Internet safety, then, dovetails with my vision of augmenting our experience as a writers’ community by bringing it online.

I also described this fishbowl feature in an email introducing our site to my students’ parents.  I invited the parents to enjoy their students’ posts and comments.  I employed my reverse-psychology, parental-relations strategy here: I find that the more I tell my parents, the less they think there’s anything to be concerned about.  Each month of the school year, I send them long, colorful ezines of what we’re doing in class.  Most parents delete them without reading them, saying to themselves, “This guy must have it together.”  So, predictably, I didn’t get any emails, positive or negative, about any online content during the four and a half months our site was up and running.

I instituted some other policies to maintain online safety.  I told the students that I would read every post and comment, and I followed through with that.  I did not allow any music, pictures, or videos: I had enough to keep track of just with the writing!  I disabled trackbacks and pingbacks to insure that no spam reached our sites.  I made students sign a code of conduct that referenced the school’s online acceptable use policy the students signed at the beginning of the year.  The code of conduct also contained specific and dire consequences for code infractions.  I assured parents that the sites were in compliance with our school system’s policies and regulations manual.

Not a “School Site”

I have discovered that high school students don’t go out of their way to write on “school” sites.  According to the results of my written survey, a majority of my current students have a social network page (e.g., My Space or Facebook), a YouTube account, or a blog.  Moving from such user-centered environments to an institution-centered one is comparable to returning to dial-up after a few months of high-speed Internet.  I’m not trying to compete with Facebook, of course, but I’m not going to needlessly repel students, either.

Besides, how could my students feel like real writers if they were writing on a school site?  They’d probably feel like they were on training wheels as the “real” Internet writers streaked by them on motorcycles.

I did a great deal of research to find out what multi-user blogs and private social network sites are available.  All of them that I found last year were either too “educational,” too inflexible, or too easy for students to bring objectionable material into.  Others did not have the right combination of universal viewing with membership-only interaction.  Some services may be right for you, such as Blackboard (if your school system subscribes to their blogging services),, and  This last is a social networking site that is working hard at meeting teachers’ needs, but it didn’t offer enough teacher control when I was researching sites.  Besides, my school system’s Internet filter began blocking Ning around the beginning of this school year.

I gained a lot of flexibility by building the site on WordPress MU. I had my Internet server download the MU (“multi-user” blog) software from, and then my server followed that site’s instructions to install and configure it.  MU has a sensible interface that all of my students understood almost at once.  It comes with several “skins,” or blog-page looks, for students to choose from.  I also installed simple plug-ins that enhanced the sites’ capabilities.

I have no training in computer technology (though I admit that I enjoy technology), so I needed lots of help customizing the site to fit my purpose.  I found MU’s online forums to be helpful, though many of the old pros helping out the rest of us were often cranky.  (Well, how pleasant would I be if I were giving away my time and being asked the same question three times a day – questions that could be answered by digging a little in the forum’s back pages?)

How Blogging Fit into My New Writers’ Workshop Model

Around the same time we started blogging, I started to use the writers’ workshop model I had discovered at the Summer Institute through the writings of Nancie Atwell and Lucy McCormick Calkins.  About a month into the blogging, I began to see how the blogging and the writers’ workshop could complement each other.

I showed students how their writing might progress from their English class sketchbooks through very polished pieces for print publications, and I described blogging as falling in the middle of this continuum. I taught students to take material out of their writer’s sketchbook (free-writes, reader responses, and poetry “messes,” for instance) and to develop them into blog posts.  I also asked the students to choose some of their blog post writing, in turn, to revise for more polished writing.  By making the blog posts a kind of middle step between sketchbook writing and more formal pieces, I was able to claim that blogging wasn’t really all that much extra writing.  These writing “steps” also got students practicing revision without my having to force them.

I also let students post any writing they wished to (school appropriate, of course).  Most students published a mix of sketchbook work that they developed for their blogs, work they wrote for other assignments and classes, and work they wrote specifically for their blog sites.  I introduced a few genres in writers’ workshop mini-lessons, and students often experimented with these genres on their blogs.

I required my students to publish at least 300 words in blog posts per blog-check period, which became about every two weeks.  Four of the eight comments each student had to leave on others’ posts had to be either the first or second comment to a post.  This latter requirement assured that everyone got some of these valuable comments and that early postings did not attract all the comments just because they were at the top of the list.  I was afraid also that kids would get cliquish and that less popular kids wouldn’t get as many comments as the others.

At first, I made the posts and comments due every two weeks, but when we had to focus on other parts of the curriculum, I stretched it to every three weeks.  I was glad to stretch it out because it took me about eight hours to read and tabulate all of the posts and comments for a given blog-check period.  I have seventy-five honors students, so every third weekend was pretty much shot.

In keeping with the positive spirit with which I wanted my students to approach their blogging, I never formally assessed the quality of their online work.  I had enough assessments of their writing from the more formal pieces that the county curriculum guide requires and from the few blog posts the students developed into more polished pieces.  Besides, any kind of assessment of this material on top of the time I was already spending reading all of it would have done me in.

Despite the lack of formal assessment, I found that the writing quality overall on our site was pretty good.  Five or six of my writers occasionally amazed me, writing poetry or stories at a level most college students probably haven’t reached.

With all of the reading I had to do to adequately oversee the material, I was delighted to find that, for the first time in my career, I was beginning to know my students as writers.   As a result, I have been able to encourage my students to write in certain directions based on how effectively they’ve used their blog space.  I now have a few budding poets, fiction writers, and personal essayists!

Student Feedback

My students gave our blogging positive marks in a survey I gave them about a month after we began blogging.  Over ninety percent of them rated it either “It’s okay” (Hey, that’s effusive for ninth graders!), “I like it,” or “I love it.”   When I modified the question somewhat to ask if they would prefer to write the same amount but in more traditional assignments handed in to the teacher, only two students in the fifty-nine who responded to the survey indicated their preference for traditional assignments.

The survey also brought me some good news related to whether students were “feeling read.”   In response to a question about how much they liked reading their fellow students’ blog posts, only six percent of my students expressed any distaste for it.  Also, all but three of the fifty-nine responding students enjoyed reading the better comments to their own posts. 

Here are a couple of the more positive student comments:

I love how I can see what other people like about my writing without being in class. It is a way to encourage other’s writing and to grow in my own writing. I have found that I have a nice poetry voice through the blogging. I HATED writing before this year, but now that I get positive feedback, I am liking it more and more. THANK YOU [our site]!

I really like using [blogging]. I really enjoy reading some of my class mates work that I wouldn’t have gotten to read without our blogs. I also really like that we can post whatever we want (we don’t have specific papers we have to post or pieces on certain topics). I like that we have so much freedom with our blogs.

One of my biggest success stories involves a young man whose parents introduced me to him just before the school year began.  He and his parents told me that he loves reading (he had read most of Shakespeare’s plays, for instance), but that he has always hated writing.  They were concerned about his being in honors English because English class had not been his strong suit.  Some of his other, current teachers have since told me that he has been writing for our site just about every chance he has gotten.  He has written a wonderful science fiction serial that developed quite an online readership.  He’ll be submitting the serial for print publication in the next couple of weeks.  His expression and punctuation have improved in the process, too.

More critical comments from my survey responses involved the site’s navigation, my refusal to allow pictures and music, and the amount of writing I required.  Many students didn’t like my rule that four of the eight comments had to be one of the first two comments to posts.  In response to their concerns, I added a Google reader in order for students to find new posts quickly to meet their “four comments must be one of the first two comments to a post” requirement.

For an experiment, I also threw out the “first two comments” requirement for the last blog-check period.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the comments were as evenly divided as they had been before.  Next year, I’ll still keep the rule for the first couple of months, but then I think I’ll drop it once I feel like students have broadened their blog-reading horizons sufficiently.  From what I could gather, about two-thirds of my students were sorry to see us stop blogging in mid-March, but the rest of the students were somewhat tired of it.  Next year, I need to figure out a way to have more frequent checks, which makes students focus on the site more.  I think the blogging will be more integrated into the students’ writing plans as I increase the use of the writers’ workshop model next year.

Blogging for Academic Students

I wouldn’t try this broad form of blogging with my academic students.  They just don’t have the interest in writing that my honors students have, and many of them wouldn’t take the assignment seriously.  Besides, seventy students turns out to be enough for this exercise.  It would have drained the life out of me to have had my other fifty-four students blogging, too, considering that I was responsible for reading everything that goes up on the site.

I have a more focused blogging lesson plan that I’ve been using over the past few years for both my academic and honors students.  I’ll use it again this spring to teach all of my students Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, a play about jury deliberations after a murder trial.  I assign each student a juror number and split each class into two jury rooms (i.e., two multiple-user blogs).  The students spend two days in the computer lab interacting with their fellow jurors and discussing the play’s evidence.  That’s more of the assignment size and time span I need effectively to get my academic students involved with blogging.

Please feel free to visit our site anytime to see for yourself the good and bad aspects of my approach to student blogging.

How to mark a book

We pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

– from “Marginalia” by Billy Collins

From the looks of a lot of home libraries I’ve been in, it would be presumptuous of me to start right in with “how to mark a book.” I might as well start in with “how to destroy your garden.” Most people would never mark a book. Most people teach their children not to mark or draw in books. (I think that coloring books are meant to wean us from marking books. They’re a kind of nicotine patch for preschoolers.) Once they start school, children must lug around books all day and read them, but they must never mark in them. At the end of the term, students are fined if the books have marks. So we have a nation that equates marking in books with sin and shame.

To most adults, I think, books are rarefied or holy, perhaps too holy to interact with. Books crouch on shelves like household gods, keeping ignorance at bay. A small library on a home’s main floor may amount to a false front, a prop to give neighbors a certain impression of their host’s intellectual life. Neighbors may get the idea that he holds a reservoir of learning that could pour out of his mouth at any twist of the conversation.

But the presence of a book may have nothing to do with its impact on its owner. A lot of people never really get mad at a book. Few people ever throw a book, kiss a book, cry over a book, or reread a page in a book more than once or twice, if that. Some people never use a dictionary to find out what a big word in a book means. As a species, people don’t interact with books much.

[marked page]I’m not suggesting that you mark every book you own, any more than I would suggest that my dog mark every tree he sniffs. But you should be free to mark up most books in the most worthwhile core of your collection. My dog has his favorites, and so should you.

I mark in (i.e., annotate) a book for four reasons. First,  I annotate a book to create trails as if I were the first person to hike through a particular forest. I may want to read the text, or part of a text, more than once. (Why else would I keep the book after I’ve read it?) During my second reading, my first reading’s marginal comments and summaries quickly give me the gist of my first reading so I can take advantage of my second, which has its own charms.  It’s like I’ve blazed a trail for my future self.

(It’s funny how people and bookstores price used books on sites like and The fewer the marks, the pricier the book! This is backward thinking, so take advantage of the bargains. People love the idea of a pristine forest, but wouldn’t you compromise some of that pristine-ness for a well-marked trail if you wished to hike in that forest?)

Second, I annotate a book to interact with the author – to hold up my end of the conversation.  Without annotating, books are like lectures.  I make reading a conversation instead by jotting down my reactions as well as new thinking a passage leads me to. When I read or refer to the book again, my earlier, written realizations or ideas often mean more to me than the book’s text.

Third, I annotate a book to learn what the book teaches, and maybe not just the book’s explicit content. By the time I break in certain books, I’ve gone beyond just the book’s facts and opinions.  I’ve developed new interests or considered new ideas. Maybe I’ve learned more about myself.  (Books often meet me in ways the author couldn’t have anticipated, though an author who writes a penetrating and nuanced book provides such experiences to many readers.) By annotating, the book becomes my territory, to return to my dog and his trees. In fact, a book sometimes becomes part of me in some way.

Finally, I annotate my books to learn to write, or at least to learn how a sentence or paragraph was written. My improvement in writing and in literary analysis involves close readings of writers I admire. There are patterns in the use of nouns, pronouns, verbs and other parts of speech; there are patterns in syntax and in sentence variation; and there are patterns in sound devices, such as alliteration and assonance. I mark these with different symbols or colors, and I connect these dots. Patterns emerge, and style emerges from patterns. To read like a writer, I have to annotate like one, too.

How to annotate a book

Speaking of style, you’ll develop your own annotation style very quickly.  But like a writing style, your annotating style can always be improved even if your style works for you.  So here are some ideas for annotating.

First off, let’s be clear: where does one annotate? In the book’s text and in its margins.  Interlineations are notes you insert between the text’s lines (difficult to do in most books).  Marginalia are notes you write in the text’s margins.

Use marks.  Use question marks to show what is unclear or confusing. Use exclamation marks or smiley faces to show your agreement or delight. Employ other marks, and invent still others with their own significance!

Marginal comments serve many purposes.  Summarizing a passage’s information in the margins can help you find information quickly and can help you go beyond a first-draft reading quickly the next time you read a passage.  (Summarizing in the margins means you’ll never accidentally separate your summaries from the book summarized, as you might if you wrote your summaries in a notebook or somewhere else.)  Stating your agreements and disagreements with the text helps keep your reading more conversational and may give you material for use in later assignments – essays and discussions, for instance – if you’re reading for a class or book group.  Reflecting on associations you’re making with the text – associations such as other books and movies, personal memories, and current events the text reminds you of – makes the reading more personal and more valuable to you in the long run.  Your book’s margins may begin to resemble a shorthand journal or diary!  Associations, such as a song, a dream, or a stray memory, may seem random, but they may carry more psychic weight than you may realize at first.  When you connect the dots during a subsequent reading, those connections can be powerful!  (I love to write about how my experiences in reading a single text differ over time.)

Highlight, bracket, or underline text you think will be the most significant to you when you read those pages again later.  Consider labeling the text that you highlighted, bracketed, or underlined: you’d be leaving a better trail for yourself for subsequent readings.

Circle words you’re not familiar with, look them up, and write their definitions in the margins beside them.  Consider creating on a blank page in the book’s front or back matter a running glossary complete with the page numbers where the new words can be found in context.

Mark and label a work’s literary and rhetorical devices.  This will assist you in any assignment involving literary analysis by helping you to discover how the author gets across his material.  It may also lead to an appreciation of the writer’s craft that could improve your own writing style!  You may wish to use different shapes (triangles, rectangles, ovals) or colors to mark different literary devices.  Draw a quick legend to later remind yourself of what each shape or color stands for.

Make impromptu graphic organizers – tables, diagrams, and the like – in the margins to summarize your understanding of complicated passages.  That way, you won’t have to learn the material all over again in subsequent readings.

Cross-reference topics and ideas that recur in the text.  If you’re interested in references to tragedy in a book about the history of theater, for instance, write the page number of the most important text on tragedy in the margins beside the book’s other references to tragedy.  That most important reference to tragedy would also be a place to jot down the page numbers where all of the other references to tragedy you’ve discovered can be found.  (You might even put letters such as T, M, or B after those page numbers to indicate that the information is at the top, middle or bottom of the page in question.)  You’ll be able to quickly find related material the next time you use the book!

The next logical step when you begin to cross-reference is to start an index in the back or to supplement the book’s existing index.  (Click here for an example of an index I put together for one of my core books.)  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve referred back to my own index to find things in a book.  The index sometimes also develops into a shorthand list of things that I found helpful or inspiring in a book, so my indexes have sometimes served me as alphabetized lists of writing prompts.

Click here for an outline that includes these annotation methods and a few others.

Here are two other resources for learning how to make a satisfying mess out of your books:

“How to Mark a Book,” an essay by Mortimer J. Adler

“All Books are Coloring Books,” a book review of The Art of Reading: a Handbook on Writing by Roger J. Ray and Ann Ray

Why I, like, like like

In a published letter to the editor this past Sunday, Bill Tracy of Springfield criticized D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee for her use of “my parents were like,” “she was like,” and “they were like” during a recent interview with the Washington Post.  Here’s Mr. Tracy’s argument:

While the use of “were (was) like” as a combination verb/adjective has become distressingly commonplace in conversations, particularly among the younger generation, one would expect a person in charge of a public school system would speak a bit better.

Mr. Tracy believes also that “they said” or “they reacted” would have been “more precise and grammatically correct” choices for the chancellor.

But think what you can do with “were (was) like” (and its cousin, “were (was) all”).  Instead of merely quoting someone, you’re offering, to an extent that varies with the purpose, audience, and your own talents, a quick impersonation of the person quoted.  Because that’s what you do when you start with “he was like” or “he was all”:

And she was like, “Get out of the bathroom!  Now!” [“Now!” is presented as a shriek; speaker jumps up and down and starts pounding a wall or table.]

I wouldn’t expect that kind of a performance-sketch if you prefaced your quote with Mr. Tracy’s “they said” or “they reacted.”  In fact, if you prefaced an impersonation with “they said,” I’d feel you were being a bit unfair or over the top.  But because “were (was) like” includes a quick brushstroke of the quoted person’s attitude, body language, and (sometimes) actions, it is, in its way, more precise than “they said.”

People who use “he was like” (and I am one of them) are usually somewhat unfair with their impersonations, but the person listening expects nothing less when she hears the “he was like” introduction.  She gets the speaker’s side of it, she knows the speaker is exaggerating his subject’s mannerisms and inflections (and maybe his volume and some other things), and as a good listener and observer she learns something about the personalities of both the speaker and his subject.  She is also in a position to interpolate what really happened.  How much communication goes into a sentence or phrase starting with “he was all” or “he was like”!

“Was (were) like” is really a verb/adverb combination, not a verb/adjective combination as Mr. Tracey states, and The American Heritage Dictionary lists the following as an informal use of “like”:

[U]sed to convey a person’s reported attitude or feelings in the form of direct speech (whether or not representing an actual quotation): so she comes into the room and she’s like “Where is everybody?”

The American Heritage Dictionary has a more conservative philosophy than, say, Merriam-Webster concerning new usage, so I’m guessing that, if the AHD accepts “was (were) like,” it’s not going away.

Mr. Tracy would have been on firmer ground had he argued that Chancellor Rhee should have had the presence of mind to consider how her mini-performances would look in print.  Whenever I read something like, “He was all, ‘I’m never speaking to you again as long as I live!’” I know I’m missing the mini-performance that must have come with the speaker’s quote.

I would have been with Mr. Tracy also had he complained about the use of “like” as a random word or sound in a sentence.  (Chancellor Rhee must not have fallen for that one.)  I use “um” that way, but at least “um” can’t confuse my listeners the way “like” can.  For instance, if someone who uses “like” in this haphazard manner says, “He was like an army sergeant,” I’m not sure if he’s using a simile or identifying the subject as a sergeant.  That’s imprecise, though if the speaker had the latter intent, some well-placed commas could help.  But commas don’t help much in conversation.

This use of “like” has its advantages over my “um,” though.  Some people start a sentence with “like,” and it means, “I don’t know exactly how to break this to you, and I really shouldn’t have to say this to anyone other than a moron, but I guess it’s my duty to let you know that . . .”  “Like” is looking pretty economical, eh?

You may argue that my “um” can say the same thing, and I confess that I think I can contort my face and roll my eyes and say “um” in a way that gets across something of the same message.  But a sharp “like” gets the message across without the performance.  Ironically, I guess.

Sometimes I suspect that a person uses “like” in the middle of a sentence to suggest that she has thought about it, and what follows is just the right word or phrase.  In other words, it serves to emphasize the word or phrase that follows it.  Sometimes, though, I think “like” used in this way simply means, “if you will,” “per se,” “in a manner of speaking” – that sort of thing.  In other words, the speaker is suggesting that what follows the “like” is probably not the right word or phrase.  The fact that I have to decide between these opposing meanings makes me think that this more random-sounding use of “like” is imprecise.

The main issue I have with Mr. Tracy, though, is his choice of medium.  I rarely read letters to the editor. How can you get anything thought through in a letter to the editor?  The article Mr. Tracy comments on is nowhere in sight.  Assuming I could get an eighth of this post published as a letter to the editor in anything like its present form, Mr. Tracy’s letter would be nowhere in sight.  A blog is, like, sooo much better.

The tyranny of the secondary school


Last week, I failed to secure the conviction of the five-paragraph essay.

I start with the excuses.  I haven’t practiced law for over a decade now.  The judge had no concept of the learned treatise exception to the hearsay rule.  The jury found against us by the thinnest of margins: three to two.  The majority on the jury pointed out that my co-counsel and I had not produced sufficient evidence that Ms. Essay had corrupted the writing of vast numbers of grade-school children.  But how many children did we have to bring in as witnesses?  How many lifeless, voiceless expository papers?

We certainly proved Ms. Essay’s corrupting influence. We failed to produce evidence of the problem’s pervasiveness only because the judge wouldn’t permit us to put it on.  You see in the above photo some of the other lawyers comforting me at counsel table after the judge ruled that I could not get my evidence out of my treatises through my experts or through any other means.

But I must take a deep breath here.  I am not writing to vent or blame the ref or even to retry the case against the five-paragraph essay.  I am writing about a similar but larger problem: the tyranny of the expository essay (five-paragraph or otherwise) in secondary education.

We performed the mock trail as part of the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s summer institute.  For the record, Ms. Essay was there in person and proved to be a strong witness on her own behalf.  My opponent and I were chosen as lead counsel because of our legal backgrounds, but both of us agree that our co-counsel out-lawyered us.

Despite the adverse verdict, our witnesses made their point: the five-paragraph essay doesn’t work, and almost none of them is teaching it anymore.  Unfortunately, these witnesses are in the minority among grade-school teachers in that respect today.  The roots of the five-paragraph essay’s pervasiveness go back more than a century to when instruction in the written form of rhetoric was carved up between expository writing and composition (i.e., what was left of written rhetoric).

My first hint that high-school students have little concept of the flexible fundamentals of rhetoric came during my first year of teaching when my entire ninth-grade class failed to recognize a rhetorical question.

“How many sentences are in a paragraph?” I asked.  I was making some point about the flexibility of a paragraph.  I assumed they knew that a paragraph could hold any number of sentences.

“Five,” almost all of them called back in unison.

I have since tried to trace down the source of the “five” answer in vertical meetings among fifth- through ninth-grade language arts and English teachers.  The teachers in those meetings all recognized the answer five, but none of them pointed to her own grade’s instruction as the culprit.  Instead, they pointed to third- and fourth-grade teachers, none of whom, as I may have mentioned, were in attendance.

Part of the problem with the current instruction in writing in most public schools is that structures teachers intend as “scaffolding” become religious dogma for students.  I once heard some pastors joking about one of their number’s strategy of moving a piano one inch every Sunday in order to reposition it across the chancel without upsetting the congregants’ religious sensibilities.  Children are at least as dogmatic as adults, and they often defend the constructs they are taught with a religious and territorial ferocity.

A couple of months after the “five” incident, my department head observed my explanation of the five-paragraph essay’s requirements during my first semester of teaching.  My explanation to the class was perfunctory, and she encouraged me to go back and really teach it: to model a thesis sentence, to have the class write topic sentences together, to practice the requirements in chunks and in groups.  She was right, of course.  But while my students’ writing in general got much closer to meeting my structural requirements after I had taken her advice, their writing was still dull and voiceless.

This summer at the institute, theory is confirming what I have observed in the classroom: teaching one structure for all expository writing does bad things:

  1. It produces “a voice of serious-minded pretentiousness, statements of the obvious, and high-flown diction,” as Tom Romano describes it in his book Crafting Authentic Voice.
  2. It poisons students’ minds against the essay, a wonderful literary form that was first used, and used well, for personal expression, and that offers a great deal of flexibility.  (Have you ever read some of the early essays in essay anthologies, starting with those by Michel de Montaigne?)
  3. Despite the efforts of many teachers, the accretion of years of expository writing leaves students with the impression that the five-paragraph essay is the only way to write an essay.  College composition instructors complain about this mindset.
  4. Instead of teaching structure, teachers requiring five-paragraph essays are preventing students from learning structure.  By giving them a one-size-fits-all structure (the hat is fine; just whittle your head a little), teachers are preventing students from seeking and discovering a structure that fits their content and voice.
  5. Students need an authentic audience as part of the process of reclaiming their voice.  What is the audience of a more formulaic expository essay in high schools?  The audience is a construct, a sort-of dramatic convention, that the teacher and the student believe in to pull the essay assignment off.  The real audience, of course, is the teacher.  In the case of an expository essay about literature, the high-school student assumes that the teacher knows more about the essay’s subject than the teacher, yet she must pretend that her audience knows less.  This complicated, rarely discussed relationship between writer and audience spooks the writer and deadens voice.
  6. What the hell is an objective essay?  Classical rhetoric had no notion of objective writing.  Aren’t we supposed to be teaching students to be critical readers, to discover bias in their reading, and to discern fallacious arguments?  How can we then turn around and teach the gospel of an objective essay and reinforce this belief with the proscription of elements that hint at subjectivity, such as humor and first-person pronouns?
  7. If we want students to take risks with expression and content, we must be prepared for them to take risks with form.  Shouldn’t form serve content, in any event? Isn’t that the problem rhetoric got into before the eighteenth-century Scottish reformers claimed that rhetoric is more than window-dressing for ideas, and before they insisted on reinstating a moral component of rhetoric?

I write with the heat of conversion from my own, forsaken faith in the five-paragraph essay.  But my target is not just the five-paragraph essay or the use of any other off-the-shelf structure in writing instruction.  I believe that colleges and high schools overemphasize literary analysis essays in general.

Like kudzu, expository writing about literature has its place.  Reading reflections help us learn more about the materials we read than if we only read them. Good expository writing can also act as a bridge between a reader and a piece of literature.  But much of the expository writing about literature that is published today (a lot of it we call literary criticism) is crabbed and esoteric.  It is more unapproachable to an average, educated reader than the work it sets out to explain. Michael Hamburger’s point in his book The Truth of Poetry is well taken:

Instead of mediating between the work of art and a non-specialist public, [literary criticism] has become as specialized and as difficult as modern poetry is reputed to be; more difficult often, because poetry has its own way of communicating complex perceptions, and because critics have added their own complexities to those of their texts.

Indeed, Cliff Notes and Spark Notes provide a truer form of expository writing today than does academic journal writing in general, if evidence of public consumption has any credence anymore.

When I was an English major at the University of Virginia in the late ‘70’s, the English department there was considered by at least one national ranking to be the best in the nation, just ahead of Yale’s program.  I took 54 hours of English as an undergraduate – a good number above the hours I needed for my major.  Except for my grade in a single course, my grades were determined by a combination of expository essays written outside of class and expository essays (glorified short answers) written in response to exam prompts.  The one exception was my freshman composition class, which I failed to place out of before entering college. Despite the stigma of remediation that hung around the class, I learned more in that course about how to write than I did in the other 51 hours of English combined.  In composition class, we learned something about eight different modes of rhetoric and practiced writing in them.  We read excerpts from great literature, found patterns and techniques in them, and adopted in our own writing some of the techniques we discovered.  What stuck for each of us became parts of our individual writing voices.

None of this happened in my literature classes, though.  We read and discussed literature, and we wrote essays about it.  We were never instructed on how the kind of writing we did in any of the modes of rhetoric might inform our expository writing.  We were never instructed on how to write at all.  We rarely got meaningful feedback on our writing.  I didn’t know that I could get any help, though I realize now that I could have gotten help had I asked for it.  And my experience was not uncommon at what was arguably the best English program in the country.  (Incidentally, I understand that Virginia has since fallen pretty far from its former, short-lived eminence.)

English departments have emphasized the study of literature at the expense of a more well-rounded study of rhetoric and composition for over a century.  According to the sixth and current edition of The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Writing, the two professors who held Harvard College’s Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory were the central cause of this change in emphasis, and the nation’s other colleges (and its secondary schools), not surprisingly, followed suit:

In 1806 Harvard College established the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory and became, thereafter, the dominant influence on the development of rhetoric at other American colleges. Edward T. Channing, who held the chair for thirty-two years (1819–1851), continued the Scottish emphasis on belletristic taste and the psychology of persuasion but shifted the emphasis in practice from speaking to writing and increased attention to literary exempla. From the literary models, Channing derived rules for correct grammar, style, and organization, which were taught more and more prescriptively as the century went on.

Francis J. Child, who held the Boylston Professorship after Channing (1851–1876), had studied philology at a German university before taking the chair and came to Harvard determined to turn the study of English from rhetoric to literature. Child bitterly resented the time he had to spend correcting student compositions. He delegated as much of this work as he could to faculty underlings and concentrated on enlarging Harvard’s offerings in literature. In 1876, to keep Child from moving to Johns Hopkins (the first American university to be organized in departments on the German model), Harvard created the first Professorship of English for him, and Child spent the next twenty years developing the English literature curriculum. His successor in the Boylston Professorship, A. S. Hill, continued the rule-bound focus on written composition begun by Channing, but it was now clear that composition was a second-class subject and that rhetoric was hardly mentioned in the English department.

(Emphasis mine).  I resent the time I have to spend correcting student compositions, too.  I’m discovering through this summer’s institute, though, that most of this time is poorly spent.  This year I intend to spend less time writing notes on papers and more time training and coaching writers.

George Steiner sees the same development as the Bedford Bibiography in terms of literary exegeses’ dominance over their subject matter, the “primary” works of literature and art that, he argues, have not flourished in modern times.  His book Real Presences describes academia as the chief culprit in this triumph of “secondary and parasitic discourse” that he dates from around the turn of the twentieth century. The American universities around that time began to import “the pedagogic programmes, the ideals of graduate study and doctoral research, the bibliographic orientation towards the secondary, of the German university system.”  So Steiner concurs with the Bedford Bibliography concerning the cause and the timing of the American academic love affair with secondary (exegetic) writing about literature.

Hamburger measures in monetary terms the poets’ diminished role at the hands of those who explain poetry, and, like the Bedford Bibliography, Hamburger places the time frame in the latter half of the nineteenth century:

Very few, if any, serious poets since Baudelaire have been able to make a living out of their work; but thousands of people, including poets themselves, have made a living by writing or talking about poetry.

Hamburger and Steiner see poets and other artists as the victims of the secondary, while the Bedford Bibliography emphasizes rhetoric’s victimization.  I don’t think any of them would disagree with one another on this score.  Certainly they all agree that the victims have lost ground to a Byzantine culture (and Steiner means “Byzantine” in the historical sense he develops in his book – a stifling, analytically oriented culture) of the secondary.

In passing I’d like to mention the larger, popular notion of nineteenth-century philosophy being acted upon with dire results in the twentieth century.  One of my favorite theses along these lines is that of Professor Harry V. Jaffa in his book A New Birth of Freedom.  Jaffa argues that the brand of historicism and relativism preached by John C. Calhoun may have fallen to Lincoln’s natural rights view of the republic at Appomatox, but it won the subsequent peace.  Here is Jaffa at his most strident:

The historical school, which by the 1850s had largely displaced the natural rights school of the Founding, had also given rise to the romantic movement of the mid-nineteenth century. It too repudiated natural right, because it repudiated ‘rationalism,’ insisting as it did that ‘the heart had its reasons which reason did not know.’ Accordingly, Lincoln’s Socratic reasoning was rejected, because the very idea of justification by reasoning had come to be rejected. History, not reason, decided that some should be masters and others should be slaves. This movement of Western thought, from the natural rights school to the historical school, culminated in the Nazi and the Communist regimes of the twentieth century.

The point of both Jaffa’s and Steiner’s books is the destructive force of relativism (for Jaffa, relativism in political theory; for Steiner, relativism in aesthetics and literary criticism).  I suspect that there is a deeper connection between Calhoun’s philosophy, the Harvard chair’s disdain for grading papers, and the influence of the German university system, but I haven’t proven it yet.  Like Lincoln, who used his first debate with Douglas to test drive his allegation that Douglas, Buchanan, and Taney were involved in a secret conspiracy, I’ll prove it all later.  I’ll try to work in Marx and Nietzsche, too. Meanwhile, back to high school.

Parents want their children prepared for colleges.  Parents and colleges put a lot of pressure on high schools to make students proficient expository writers, and school systems have responded by requiring English teachers to require their students to write a certain number of essays a year.  Most of those essays are expository in nature, and most of the expository essays are literary analyses.  Research papers are also required across some of the high-school curriculum, and these papers amount to more expository writing with references to evidence outside the textbook and outside of any specifically assigned reading.

To meet these demands, many English teachers emphasize a single structure.  (I have also emphasized a single structure.  I hope I’ll stop emphasizing structure on first drafts, and then find ways to teach how structure can complement content on subsequent drafts.)  Many high school English teachers teach thesis sentences, topic sentences, body paragraph structure, lead-ins (not how to write creative ones; just a checklist of what must go in them) and concluding paragraphs.  Well-recognized package structures, like the five-paragraph essay, stick, and they move from grade to grade with students.

It has become my summer’s central theme: how to manage the tricky business of meeting the state’s and the parent’s expectations for expository writing while also producing excited and skilled writers.  The two goals tend to be at odds without vigilant mediation.  Many teachers with more skill and experience than I have don’t know enough about good writing instruction theory to know that excited and skilled writers are even possible.  I don’t know it for sure yet, either, but I’ve now seen evidence of it at the institute this summer.

Many students have thanked their teachers for their help in making their writing come alive for them.  The theory behind these successes is out there, most of it written in the past thirty years and most of it recapturing parts of rhetorical instruction lost since the salubrious Scottish influence of the eighteenth century waned. We have books by Peter Elbow, Tom Romano, Barry Lane, and other instructors of English teachers singing the same chorus against the formalistic instruction of expository essays.  I usually hate sentences that begin with, “All of the literature suggests,” but this is one of the rare cases where all of the relevant, recent literature really does suggest the same thing: the pervasive means of teaching writing in most American high schools is wrong.

[picture]This afternoon I asked Donald Gallehr, a member of the National Writing Project’s board of directors, why American secondary writing education has remained so hidebound after a generation of English teachers has been taught “process” (the shorthand for process writing theory and practice that amounts to a more complete written rhetorical education).  He sees it as a combination of teacher intransigence, the heavy influence of expository-writing- and iiterature-oriented college English departments, and the overemphasis of testing codified in No Child Left Behind.

My theme here amounts to his second reason.  Since the bifurcation of Harvard’s English department into literature and composition, the small part of college English departments responsible for composition instruction has had little influence over how writing is taught at either the college or high-school level. Fortunately, since I was in school, just about every college and university in America has adopted a writer’s program similar to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The National Writing Project seeks to expand the workshop’s reach into American high schools.

[In the photo, my legal team comforts me after our defeat. I updated this post on July 8, 2014.]