Thursday, October 31, 2013

Word-Spinning with Euphemisms, Slanted Words, and Partial Information

My lesson on "The Power of Words To Manipulate Readers," was one of the recent favorites of all of my students, because it allowed them to play with words and see how they could “modify” or “spin” facts to soften harsh realities and control the reader's perceptions. The full lesson is available on my page at ( Students wrote for each other a brief, direct description of a criminal's life story, and then they rewrote that story with euphemistic descriptions to make the criminal sound like a hero, without actually changing the facts. This verbal manipulation was a challenge my students met and enjoyed, a challenge that taught them the subtle power of words to alter a reader's perspective. It also taught them the importance of critical thinking and critical reading to avoid being unwittingly manipulated by alleged nonfiction articles.

Here are examples of the "straight stories" versus the "spun stories":

The Life of John Carlton, by D.S., age 10 (He wrote both parts of his story.)


John Carlton Smith, also known as The Smashing Smith, was illegitimately born on September 22, 1935 to an unemployed migrant worker from Cuba, Jason Cortez Smith, and an immigrant from Mexico, Cortina Carlton Hermana. Both illegally immigrated to the United States, but were allowed to stay because their son, John Carlton Smith, was now an American citizen. From what records exist, it seems that Smith was a good student when he was young, getting accepted into Harvard University. However, his grades fell rapidly, and, in his second year, suspended for "destruction of private property and public property belonging to the State of Massachusses.” He was forced to hand over his name, signature, and photograph to help the police track him down if he ever began illicit activities again. It seems that, after both his father and mother died, John quit college and bought a passage to Calcutta, India, under a 2 month work visa. After the two months were up, John, having joined a multinational ring of drug dealers and thieves that frequently paid visits to the Louvre in Paris, and the Metropolitan in New York. He smuggled 82,108 tons of heroin and opium before he was arrested and tried by authorities in Afghanistan. He died of a heart attack on September 23, 1999 while serving out a lifetime sentence in Afghanistan.


John Carlton Smith- (22 September, 1935 – 23 September, 1999)
John Carlton Smith was born to a Latin-American heritage on September 22, 1935. His parents, Jason Cortez Smith and Cortina Carlton Hermana, were both immigrants from the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico. They worked on farms in various locations across America, eventually meeting each other at a farm in the heartlands of America. Despite the fact that he had to transfer schools multiple times, he was able to maintain a spotless record through the first year of college. He attended the prestigious Harvard College. He maintained the spotless record even until the beginning of his second year at Harvard. That year, he had the honor of meeting with state officials, even giving his name and photograph to them. After his mother and father passed away, John decided to take a break from college, and headed on a ship bound for Calcutta, India. He planned on staying only two months, but ended up being employed by a multinational drug company that serviced millions of people worldwide. He also took up the hobby of collecting valuables, such as antique oil paintings, vintage items, and other such goods. He frequented museums like the Louvre in Paris, and the Metropolitan in New York. He carried over 82,108 tons of medicine and valuables before he was retired by government officials. He was invited to stay at a government facility in Afghanistan, and graciously accepted the offer. Sadly, he passed away while staying in the government facility, leaving us because of a heart attack on September 23, 1999. We all miss this man, who influenced thousands of people from the young generation, and thousands more to come.

The Story of Joseph Tissue, by B.C., age 13 (He wrote the straight story, and I "modified" it.)


Joseph Tissue was born on 1943. He is known as one of the most dangerous gangsters of all time. He robbed several banks, killed hundreds of people, and had one of the largest cocaine factories in the world. He also killed Franklin Roosevelt's cook, Pop Lolli. However, all legends and great stories must come to an end. Joseph Tissue was finally arrested in 1973 and was hung in 1975.


Mr. Joseph Tissue, born in 1943, grew up to become one of the most awe-inspiring community organizers of all time. Several banks awarded him sums of cash, and hundreds of people gave their lives for him. Tissue directed one of the world's largest drug companies, serving people worldwide. President Franklin Roosevelt's cook, Pop Lolli, laid down his life for Mr. Tissue and stories about Mr. Tissue spread. In 1973, his followers finally forced him to take a break from his busy working life for two years, at which time they invited him to hang out for the last time.

The Story of Vandals, Michael Fu and Jake Smith, by B.C., same as above (I wrote the straight story, he spun it.)


Two students at Everton Middle School, Michael Fu and Jake Smith, sprayed graffiti all over the new handball courts, depicting violent scenes from graphic novels, logos of skateboard companies, and hateful profanity directed at various teachers. Police tracked down the vandals at school the next day and arrested them, charging them with "malicious destruction of property." They were taken to the local juvenile detention center and booked for their crimes.


Artists of Everton Middle School, Michael Fu and Jake Smith, painted handball courts with their Manga heroes and skateboard sponsors, and even special notes and comments to some of their favorite teachers. However, due to their growing fame, including with government officials, they have been taken in personally for signatures and photograph signings.

The whirling maelstrom of spun words continues in my classes as I keep using this lesson to teach kids the power of words: how they influence people and how they influence us. The students doing this lesson with me also analyze editorials in search of slanted words meant to affect your opinions. If you want to try the "word-spinning" aspect of this lesson yourself, either download it from the link to TeachersPayTeachers (printed above), or simply try spinning your own stories from actual news briefs. Feel free to share your results in the comments below!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Prompted by Poignancy: More Students' Works!

I offered some middle-schoolers this poem as a writing prompt: "Listen," by Miller Williams, which ends with the line: "I've had some trouble putting it out of my mind." The poignant poem recalls a narrator tricking his dog into playing fetch with a snowball, and then feeling guilty about watching the poor dog run in circles to find the disintegrated snowball on the snow-covered ground. I suggested that my students write a poem or short story with Williams's same last line, to capture a similarly poignant event. Here is the moving poem that J.C., a 7th grader, created with this prompt.

"If Only"
by J.C., age 12

I was reading a book when it happened
Didn't feel like leaving my book to find nothing
Figured it was the wind
The forest of branches around my house trying to break in

But still the tapping persisted
The rapid knocks only growing faster and faster
And finally when I heard a tortured cry
Did I care to go see
There, with its wing at an awkward angle, a baby bird, crying pitifully
Drumming the sliding glass door

I brought it to the vet
They later told me the bird was gone
Told me he--for it was a he--
Almost made it
If only we had 2 more minutes, they said
If only you could have driven a little faster, they said
If only I didn't ignore it, I said

I've had some trouble putting it out of my mind

Another prompt for middle-schoolers was my own poem, "Aah!," which explores the many ways that exclamation is used, with different tones depending upon the context eliciting the "aah!" I suggested that students find a similar exclamation, often uttered in various tones that convey different scenes. Here is what 11-year-old S.V. wrote:

By S.V., age 11

“Wow! Thanks so much!”
Who could that be?
A little girl finally getting the much-longed-for, glamorous, pink tutu?
Or was it…a teenage girl who just won the dance contest for which she had practiced so, so much?

“Wow. You have got to be kidding me.”
Who could that be?
The same little girl who just realized the tutu wasn’t for her?
Or was it…the teenage girl sadly discovering that actually, she had lost by one point?

“Wow! I can’t believe it!”
Who could that be?
The beaming little girl hugging the new, even more gorgeous tutu that her parents just gave her?
Or was it…that teenage girl who found out that the judges had miscalculated and that she had won?

Wow…I didn’t know “wow” could be said that many ways!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

THIS ANGERS ME: The Advocacy of Sensationalism Over Integrity

One of my private writing students was assigned by his high school English teacher to write a personal narrative about a challenging event in his life. He wrote about almost winning an academic team competiton, and I helped guide his recounting of the event. He used vivid descriptions, authentic dialogue, and showed the excitement and tension that he and his team experienced, even though he did overwrite a bit. According to the rubric used by his school teacher for grading, I would have given him a score of B+. But his school teacher gave him a C- because "winning a competition is not enough of a problem." The teacher said he was looking for a stronger, more dramatic climax, something "more compelling."

But this event WAS dramatic to this sheltered 13-year-old, and he was graded not on his writing, but on his lack of depth of experience! His teacher suggested that he rewrite the story and add some bigger problem; and when our mutual student pointed out that such a revision would mean fictionalizing his memoir, the teacher told him that he didn't have to make things up, just "embellish." Such embellishment of so-called memoirs is what discredited famous "NONFICTION" books like A Million Little Pieces and Three Cups of Tea. I am profoundly disappointed by the mixed message given to my student in his school.

We do not need to raise more tabloid-level journalists or phony college-essay-writers who make up personal tragedies that end up securing "sympathy admissions" to colleges. If you ask someone to write about his life, judge his writing, not his life. Lying is for fiction--and rightly so.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Inspiring More Than Requiring

As an author, as well as a private writing teacher, my aim is to inspire awe for words and awesome writing, and to create meaningful connections between minds. Such connections enable us to see the commonalities more than the differences among us, in terms of perceptions, values, realizations, and passions. Such connections remind us that like-minded, potential friends are always within our reach, as represented by the authors (and characters) whose words resonate in our minds. Such connections help us to not take ourselves too seriously, as if we alone have our particular challenges to overcome and no one can possibly understand. Connections through words can establish fellowship among people, and mitigate loneliness and apathy. I view my lessons as my earnest attempts to teach students how to think and how to convey their thoughts clearly, instead of how to absorb others' facts and ideas without deeply pondering them, and then regurgitate those adopted ideas within predetermined formats.

To parents who mistakenly hire me to teach their kids how to write for better grades or test scores, I say that my mission is to enlighten students: to shed light on the power of words, and to lighten the load of stress that kids feel due to the quantifying of quality in language arts education. That means I nourish their minds with poetry. That means I help them grow through reading and writing fiction as well as nonfiction, essays and memoirs, speeches and private reflections. I don't care that much if my student receives a 5 or a 6 on his school's writing assessment. I care far more about whether that student knows how to assess his own personal Best in qualitative terms.

To kids who have shared with me a graded piece of writing from school, to ask if I concur with the grade, I respond directly to the matter on the page, not the letter scrawled in red ink across the top. If pressed by a student or parent for my opinion regarding a grade received, I often disagree with school teachers--and sometimes even surprise students with much lower assessments of their school work based on what I've seen from them in my classes. I once recall such a surprised student then surprising me by looking vindicated by my assessment of her teacher's far-too-generous grade. "I kind of thought the same thing," she explained, "because I saw a lot wrong with my essay, but I ran out of time and had to turn it in." That comment was my "mission accomplished" message for the day.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Student Work! A Touching Poem About Swishing Away Stress

A young teenage student responded to a poetry prompt called "Shredding the Cloak of Angst," about choosing to combat stress with an activity that either ignites our passions or soothes our souls. In the poem (which I wrote), the stressed-out writer decides to walk away from the blank computer screen awaiting her typing, and from her household and community responsibilities, to turn up her favorite music, and simply dance without thinking, dancing with her soul as well as her body. J.Z., in his poem below, finds that kind of healthy release in playing basketball. His poem shows clearly how stress-relief doesn't have to mean escaping into unhealthy patterns, but rather, redirecting oneself into fulfilling, fun activities that re-balance us.

by J.Z.

To throw out the cloak of anxiety
The one that is invisible,
Growing heavier day by day,
Crushing down my soul,
While the crying basketball
is getting softer and softer,
above the ground,
To free myself from its devastating touch,
I get my basketball shorts,
My shiny, black basketball shoes,
And turn on my ipod,
to the most pumped up songs,
I close my eyes,
then BOOM,
Im a new person
ready to shine on the court,
As I take a great sigh,
I blow off the dust in my soul,
I began to bounce the ball
On the golden ground,
Over and over again,
As every piece of dust in my soul has vanished,
I jump for my shot,
and swish, goes the net.