Thursday, February 27, 2014

Sharing Words from Teacher Heaven

I am in Teacher Heaven after reading an absolutely brilliant literary response to this quotation from H.G. Wells: "Advertising is legalized lying." This young author has been fascinated by our previous lessons on the subtleties of word-spinning, as seen in ads for products and political campaigns. He has synthesized much of our discussions in this lively, wry essay on advertising. And his essay structure outshines many high school, even college-age, writers. The only editing I did--I swear!--is to alter some misspelled words and delete one superfluous phrase. The vocabulary and information about obscure plants, etc., are all his! I provided nothing, in terms of the information he shared, except for the initial prompt by H. G. Wells.

Legal Lying
 by D.S., age 10 

H.G Wells once declared that advertising was simply legalized lying. In many cases, his statement is completely true, but to understand why, we will have to take a journey back in time to around 4000 BC, the time of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. In the large cities of these ancient civilizations, merchants crowded together in marketplaces and inevitably competition arose. This competition sparked the roots of modern ads. In an environment where people had their choice of where to shop, instead of depending on one sole shopkeeper, the merchants had to squabble over the stream of revenue that came into the marketplace. As the marketplace rapidly expanded, the merchants would have to convince shoppers to buy at their stall. Soon, shrewd shopkeepers found out how to present their product in the most favorable way possible, namely by omitting some important information. In this way, "Discounted Week-Old Cabbage" was discarded in favor of "Cheap Value Cabbage." Advertising, and its association with lying, was born. Meanwhile, in archaic England, the first advertising had taken a slightly different path. Shops began to hang wooden signs outside of buildings to publicize their establishments and to clarify what they did. For example, a wooden board with a drink on it would be a pub, or a hammer and nails would mean Carpenter, and so on, and so forth. The great-granddaddy of the classifieds in the newspapers of today were born.

Let us fast-forward now to the 16th century. The first paid ads are beginning to pop up in the newspapers of the time. The most shrewd of the advertisers have realized that the public believes that the newspapers are to be trusted and that many people read them, so, taking advantage of the lust for money that many people possess, they paid advertisers money in order to let their ads reach a wider audience. This was also when people began to realize that the products in ads weren’t exactly what they claimed to be. By the time Mark Twain rolled around, "quack" medicines featured in "quack" magazines and paid testimonials had already begun to crop up around the Western world. Admakers and entrepreneurs were really little more than scammers who took advantage of the public`s gullibility to sell products with grand names like Revalenta Arabica, which took advantage of the obscurity of the name in order to attract customers into thinking that it was some new scientific wonder, which was, in fact, simply dried lentil flour with the nutritional value of ground split peas. In the face of this, people like H.G Wells slowly began to realize the true nature of advertising.

Let us now move to the early 20th century. In the face of increasing public pressure, lawmakers began to take steps towards limiting and restricting advertising. Before the turn of the century, advertisers were required to state any harmful information or anything negative associated with the product. But once again, admakers found a way around the restrictions. At the turn of the century, we arrive at our predicament today.

Many of you, I am certain, have seen the fine grey print that seems to haunt the bottom of every ad site, or heard the speed-talk at the end of commercials. This is what has become of the efforts to stem the onset of false advertising. The truth is hidden away nearly out of sight to the common consumer. What is happening today is like governing mining with laws written when there was still a man shaking a pan over a stream--if you are an adult not in prison, you can stake a claim. Companies can comply with the law by hiding the information NEARLY out of sight, and still do perfectly legal actions. So, at the end of this long journey, H.G Wells turned out to be right. But all we can do for now is keep our eyes open and ears sharp for the legal lying all around us.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Creativity Defies Expectations

    Creativity flourishes in the absence of expectations. Teachers who offer broad writing prompts to students should be seeking to inspire a broad range of creative responses--not preconceived "right" answers. Grading of such responses has to focus on the depth of thoughts behind the words, as well as on their strength, in terms of structure and word choices.

     I recall being assigned an essay in college with an open-ended prompt to "compare three works by Samuel Beckett to explore recurrent themes and write about a unifying thread in the body of work." I asked my professor, “Is there a particular aspect of the works that you want us to focus on?” 

     The professor replied condescendingly, “This is an upper level English course. You should be able to find your own thesis by discovering a common thread between the works. It’s an open-ended prompt. It’s up to you to THINK.”

     A few days later, after hours of poring over books in the library, I found what I considered an intriguing connection between the works—a connection that inspired a strong thesis. I then composed with passion an essay that I turned in with pride. I expected awe from my professor.

     What I received instead of awe was a B-minus. Me? A B-minus?! Never! I thought, stomping down the long hallway to his office after class. I asked why he graded me so harshly, and he replied, “You must not have covered what I was looking for.”

     “What you were hoping for? I thought you said it was an open-ended prompt. Did you not like my writing style or something?”

     “No, your writing was probably fine, but like many of your classmates’ essays, it just didn’t cover what I was looking for.”

     “Meaning what? That you actually did have a prompt in mind, and wanted us to somehow figure out what you were looking for, rather than what we were looking for? Why didn’t you just assign the prompt you expected us to answer? This is totally unfair!”

     He raised one eyebrow at me, over the top of his brown plastic glasses. “I’m sorry you feel that way. You’ll still have a B in the class, though, and you should be happy, since this is an advanced class and you’re, what, only a sophomore, right? You did better than some of the seniors, you’ll be glad to know.”

     I sighed, exasperated. “That’s not the point! I don’t care about how some seniors did. I KNOW I wrote a solid essay. I know how it compares to my other essays—which were all A’s and A-minuses, if you don’t recall. I really believe I deserve a higher grade. Would you please reread this—“ I took out the essay from my backpack—“and reconsider? Please?”

     He sat back in his chair and tapped his pen on the edge of his desk, while staring at the essay in my hand. “I don’t have the time to reread essays for every student who complains. Course grades are due tomorrow, and I’m in the middle of submitting them. You’d have to take an Incomplete in this class, you realize. And then I’d get around to rereading your essay when I have time.”

     “Fine, then give me an Incomplete. All I’m asking is that you read my essay with the same open mind you asked us to use when searching for our theses.”

     He sniffed. “I already did. But since you’re so insistent, and so worried about getting a B, for some reason, I will take a second look—at my convenience. Just know that I rarely change a grade.”

     Two months later, at the end of the summer, I opened my mail and found a grade change notice, but no copy of my re-graded essay. He had given me an A-minus for my course grade. Too bad he didn’t have the guts to contact me personally and apologize for not reading my work as carefully as he should have, in the first place.

     A teacher who has preconceived expectations should not offer prompts designed to evoke original thoughts and inspire creative approaches to writing. That kind of teacher is not one who inspires, but just requires. At least my professor indirectly acknowledged that my interpretation of his prompt was acceptable after all. Maybe I even taught HIM something by standing up for my “wrong answer.”

     I hope that all of my writing students—and ALL students—are familiar enough with their own standards of “Best” to know when they can legitimately demand reconsideration of an unjust grade in their regular school classes. Creative writing has no right or wrong answers; only strong or weak ways of presenting one’s perspective. Strong words deserve respect for the effort taken to craft them. (This is why I never grade my private students' works, only critique and coach them to revise until they feel satisfied with their own new standard of "best." I let regular classroom teachers deal with predetermined standards in their graded assessments.)

     Often I am surprised, as my professor was, by the approaches students take to my prompts. Some kids want me to lay out a plan for them, because they want to make sure they "get it right," but the highly creative ones not only don’t want my input, but they inspire me to see their unique perspectives. Nothing beats the joy I have in saying, “Wow, you taught ME something today! I wish I had thought of that myself! Very cool! Thank you! Oh—and will you give me a copy to post on my blog?”

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Pupils Ponder Poetry Prompts, Producing Poignant Poetry

          Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins--one of my favorite poets--wrote a poem called "Walking Across the Atlantic," in which he imagines on two levels what it would be like to walk across the ocean. On one level, he is "checking for whales, waterspouts" and feeling "the water holding up my shifting weight," and on another level, he tries "to imagine what/ this must look like to the fish below,/ the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing." My student, A.Y., age 11, connected with this poem's dual perspectives and wrote his own poetic response, "Running to Heaven."

Running to Heaven
by A.Y.

On the night of July 4th,
I ride a firework into the sky,
As it booms,
I leap onto a cloud,
I feel the spinning air and water supporting me as I run to heaven.
Soon, I'll sleep on a silk bed in heaven,
but for now,
I can only think about what passing-by birds think
when they see two suns above them,
one running towards the other.

I see those two suns, too--and one star writer

Another student, D.S., 10 years old, wrote a poem in response to "Victory in Defeat," by Edwin Markham, an poem about the irony that "Defeat may serve as well as victory/ To shake the soul and let the glory out." Markham's words touched my student's heart, and made him deem the poem a "kind of oxymoron." The student found the last line especially poignant: "Sorrows come to stretch out spaces in the heart for joy." How Markham's poem moved and inspired this young writer seems apparent in his own poem, "Constructive Criticism."

Constructive Criticism
by D.S.

Criticism may serve as well as praise
To make the words and story greater.
When the stern schoolmaster is lecturing,   
The student is driven to prove himself better.
Only the writer who knows the pain of criticism
Can really know the feeling of greatness.
The hurt comes to make space for will and determination
For him to be one of the greats.

I, by the way, am NOT the "stern schoolmaster," though I actually did give this poet some constructive criticism before I typed his work here. My criticism, however, was very minor: one misspelling--of "criticism"; one use of "that" where "who" belonged (which the student corrected by himself after I marked it with highlighter and asked what needed fixing); and  one nonspecific pronoun easily remedied by a simple deletion. The only reason I'm even mentioning these amendments is to prove that: 1) even a poem this amazing wasn't "perfect" the first time around; and 2) this writer is certainly poised "to be one of the greats." 

Please leave your comments for my students in the comments section below. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Nine-year-old Student Channeling Ray Bradbury?

          I gave one of my favorite photo prompts--a boy sitting in a wheelchair as he blows bubbles--to 9-year-old A.C. with these instructions: "Write a story about this boy, showing his point-of-view, as he blows bubbles and watches them fly away. Show how he feels, sitting in his wheelchair, as the bubbles freely float away." Here is the story. My comments will follow.

The Bubble Solution
By A. C., age 9

         A little boy sat hopelessly in his wheelchair and blew a bubble. As he dipped the wand into the solution and blew the bubbles, he wished he could fly away like the bubbles. He wished he could land on a grass field like he used to when he could walk. Then his eyes followed the bubble he blew. It glided across the streets. Finally it landed. It landed on a little boy in a wheelchair—just like him.
         “Jose!” the other little boy exclaimed jovially. Jose wondered how the boy knew his name. The boy rolled his wheels over to Jose and smiled.
         “I’m the future version of you,” he said, as he stood up.
         Jose widened his eyes like a tulip opening its petals. He blinked. He tried to speak, but no sound came out. At last he finally pulled himself together and asked, “You can walk?”
         The future version nodded his head and said, “All it took was some belief in myself and practice.”
         “Is that the key?”
         The future Jose nodded again. Then, suddenly he vanished. The present Jose thought about that for a moment and started getting up. He carefully balanced himself and started limping. He had done it! “Thank you, Jose,” he said to himself. “Maybe sometimes the solution is to just believe in yourself.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *
          When A.C. showed me the finished story, I exclaimed, "Wow! How did you think of this?! It's like a sci-fi story. Like something a young Ray Bradbury would write!" To her puzzled look, I replied with an explanation about who Ray Bradbury was.
          She smiled at my comparison to a "brilliant author who used science fiction to teach big life lessons." Then she explained that "lately I've been into Star Trek a lot, so I guess I was thinking about the boy seeing another version of himself, and…well, I just thought it would be a good idea."
          "So you wrote a science fiction kind of story, like a parallel universe, right? And then it becomes his imagination…"
          Nodding vigorously, she added, "And, his imagination helps him walk again because he learns to believe in himself."
          The power of mind over body, she meant. Right? The power of the mind--yes, indeed!