Friday, August 9, 2019

Student Response to "The Animal School," by George Reavis

"The Animal School," a fable by George Reavis is one of my favorite prompts for middle-school students (click on the story title to read the short text, which I first read in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book). The story teaches a lesson about teaching lessons--to animals. The animal students find themselves in a school that forces them to learn athletic skills that contradict their natural abilities--like the duck who is forced to keep practicing his running on the track, and discouraged from focusing on swimming, in which he excels. Torn webbed feet and low self-esteem certainly won't motivate such a student. This fable is about teaching to students' strengths, rather than highlighting their weaknesses and setting them up for failure; it's about designing lessons to suit individual learners' needs; and it's about self-directed learning and the importance of nonconformity to inspire students to reach their full potentials. 

After discussing the story, I assign two possible writing prompts: 1) students can write their own story about an animal NOT mentioned in "The Animal School" who rebels against a teacher who ignores abilities and needs in favor of a "one size fits all" approach to education; and 2) students can write a persuasive letter to the head of the Animal School to demand changes in unjust curriculum requirements. Oliver, a 12 year old, found a unique way to complete both prompts and link them together. I was so impressed by the voice, humor, and description in his story, and by the clever letter that he wrote from the principal to the complaining parents, that I asked him to send me his final draft for this blog. Below is Oliver's tale of a fish who attends the Animal School, and makes waves, so to speak, first by beating his swan teacher's record in swimming, and then by questioning an oblivious teacher who tries to force him into risking his life by running on land. I hope you enjoy and admire his work as much as I do. Please consider leaving a comment for Oliver, below this story.

As a fish, I love swimming; I mean, it’s one of the only things I can do. Then came September 2, which was the first day of Animal School. I was so excited to meet new friends and learn new things. When the day finally came, my Mom woke me up early in the morning and brought me outside. 
“Sorry, son,” Mom apologizes, “I can’t swim you to school today, so I signed you up to swim with the duck family.”
“That’s fine,” I respond. 
“Okay. Have fun at school.” Mom hugged me goodbye.
I swam up to the surface to meet the duck family. The little duck was Kevin, who was going to be my classmate. We spent the entire swim to school talking. It was nice to have someone to talk to other than my parents. There weren’t really any other fish or animals around where I live. When we arrived at the school we were greeted by the principal. An old bulldog with tiny spectacles, he had a large head with a soothing smile. 
“Good Morning everyone, I am Principal Hank,” the bulldog announced. “I just want to say that today everyone's first class will be Swimming with Mr. Swanson.”
Mr.Swanson wanted to start the year off by assessing us. I thought it would go fine. Except there was one problem: we were being graded. This made me nervous, I didn’t know how he was going to grade us without a standard. What made me more nervous was that I was first. What if I was a slow swimmer, compared to the other water animals? Well, at least I knew how to swim. Jones the squirrel was scared out of his mind. He paced back and forth and winced at the sight of water. For the assessment, we had to swim along the shore from point A to point B. Mr. Swanson demonstrated his swan dive and finished with a time of 24 seconds. What if that was the standard? Do we have to beat that impossible time to pass?
 I was at the starting line. The instant I heard the word “go”, I swam as fast as I could. There was still a chance of beating the record. I shattered Mr. Swanson’s time with 16 seconds! I could hear the entire class cheering; Kevin was screaming his head off. A wave of relief came over me. I knew that no matter what, I would get a good grade. Kevin was next, finishing with a time of 21 seconds. Mr. Swanson was so shocked at this that he came over and high-fived Kevin and patted me on the head.
“What a relief! I think it's guaranteed we get an A. We did beat the Instructor,” Kevin laughed.
Swimming makes one less thing to worry about--or so I thought. The rest of the class was made up of land animals, except for an eel. Jones the Squirrel sank like a rock. When Jones finished, it was Fluffy the Cat’s turn. Fluffy screeched after putting a toe in the water. All of us saw the disappointment in Swanson’s face. Mr. Swanson assumed everyone was a water and land creature like himself. When he saw that only 4 out of 32 could swim, he gave the rest of the class a 1/20 while giving us a 20/20. The water animals felt awful for our classmates, so we all agreed that tomorrow we wouldn’t try, so the animals could get a good grade. It was unfair to grade like that, but before we could talk with Mr. Swanson, the next class was announced: Running! My heart sank to the back of my chest. 
Everyone is nervous on the first day of school, but this feeling was different. This feeling was dread.
“You can just talk with the teacher and you’ll be fine,” Kevin comforted.
“Al--Alright,” I respond.
Kevin walked with me to the teacher, Coach Jack.
“Sir?” I asked nervously. “Do I--Do I sit out for running class?”
“Do you have a doctor’s note?” Coach replied. 
I started to tremor and swim back and forth. “Umm, Sir—Sir… ”
“But he’s a fish!” Kevin talked for me.
“That means he is a water animal. Are you discriminating against his kind? Just because some fish can’t walk doesn’t mean all fish can't walk,” Coach Jack said sternly. 
“Are you crazy! All fish can’t run!” Kevin yelled.
“See what I mean? That is stereotypical. And watch your tone there, young man!” Coach yelled.
“I can’t run knowing my friend is going to fail because of a clearly oblivious teacher!” Kevin exclaimed. Coach Jack was swelling up with anger.
Before Coach Jack could say anything, the eel from swimming class joined in: “I can't either.”
“This is outrageous!” Coach Jack stomped. “You three just earned yourself detention after school!”
Coach Jack was in the opposite of a fantastic mood, especially when I stayed in the water. He constantly tried to drag me on shore to run. When the other students saw this, they knew something was wrong.
“What are you doing?” Jones the Squirrel questioned.
“He won't--won’t participate in running,” Coach struggled, trying to catch me.
“Stop, I can’t—I can’t breathe on land,” I protested.
“Stop with the excuses! I’m not in a good mood, just cooperate,” Coach responded.
“But fish can’t swim. Stop it!” Jones exclaimed.
“What is wrong with you children!” Coach Jack gave up.
The rest of the students were crowding around Coach, trying to protect me. Tim the Turtle hid me under his shell, while George the Eaglet snuck behind Coach.
George was always a bit of a trouble maker, and now was no exception. This time he was doing it to help me. George picked up Coach Jack with his talons and dragged him away.
“How does it feel?” George taunted.
This unruly event became the start of many complaints and, some might even say, a rebellion. Weeks later, Coach Jack was fired and everyone tried to forget the events that happened. Complaints were still being sent and the school seemed as if it were about to come to an end, until Principal Hank sent out a letter.

* * * * *

Dear Parents, and Guardians of Animal School Students,

We have heard your complaints about our educational system. The system comes with many pros and cons, so try to see the situation from our perspective. We believe our children should be well-rounded, instead of being like a one-trick human. This opens a plethora of skills and opportunities for the kids (not just goats). The most important would be for safety. Who knows when the children might have to climb a tree to escape? Maybe they fell into a lake where they could drown, or even fish could wash ashore. The skills taught at Animal School would prepare them for those situations. Safety should be a priority for a parent, right before happiness. Our children need to discover what they love. 
When I was a young pup, my favorite activity was running. I would always race to the top of a hill with my friends or play games like Tag. One day my friends and I raced around a lake. I was so scared of falling in the lake that I didn’t pay attention to anything in front of me. Ironically, I tripped on a tree root and fell into the lake. I started to kick my legs frantically and swung my arms, and I found myself swimming. I loved it. Even today I swim every weekend at that same lake. This is the reason I created Animal School, to help children learn their true potential. Perhaps I shouldn't have to push the kids to do the impossible. Next school year, I will implement new classes personalized for the students. Fish no longer have to take running or climbing, but will learn jumping out of the water. Ducks will be able to take modified running, and no longer need climbing. I hope this satisfies your complaints, but just remember to encourage your children to learn new things. 


Principal Hank

Clearly, Oliver thoroughly understands the messages of the original story, and I applaud his sequel, which is more memorable even than the original story!

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Essay Writing with "E IEI O" Structure!

          I have focused many of this summer's private lessons with middle-schoolers on strengthening their essay-writing skills. No amount of outlining or filling in graphic organizers has as much influence on my students as deconstructing sample body paragraphs based on my E-IEI-O mnemonic device for the five essential elements of every body paragraph:

          I provide examples of both weak and strong paragraphs, and read them aloud with my students. I then give them a checklist that calls their attention to each of the five structural elements above, to consider in terms of: vagueness versus specificity in word choices and examples; whether each sentence builds upon the preceding one; unnecessary repetition of words or ideas; clarity of assertions and examples; smoothness of transitions; inclusion of contextual set-up for quotations; and the overall power of the writer's insights. After this editorial exercise, which empowers them to fill the margins with notes guided by the checklist, I assign a single paragraph response to a short story or a poem. The students may write about the theme of the literary work, or focus on the style and power of the writing. Full of the desire to emulate the strong essay paragraphs that made them exclaim, "Ah, I didn't see that!," and the even greater desire to avoid emulating the weak essay paragraphs whose margins they filled with questions and critical words, they write. 

          Today I have created this example paragraph below, for students to emulate, based on a poem from my book, Writing Success Through Poetrywhich you will find on page 52:"Thirsty Plant and Cloudy Sky." This would be helpful for a middle-school student to read and study, along with the poem (so get yourself a copy of my book with a quick click on the link embedded in the title above). 

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“E-IEI-O” Example Essay Paragraph About the Theme of a Poem: “Thirsty Plant and Cloudy Sky,” by Susan L. Lipson

Structure of a theme-based paragraph about literature
E-Establish theme
I-Illustrate theme with quotations from text, set up in context
E-Explain what illustration/quotation shows the reader
I-Interpret implications of the quotation that expand on established theme
O-Overall “take-away” lesson for broader understanding of theme

“Thirsty Plant and Cloudy Sky,” a poem by Susan L. Lipson, presents a metaphorical conversation between two personified friends--Plant and Sky--in which Plant offers comfort to his “blue” friend, but not solely out of love for Sky. Plant initially exhibits compassion: “Now sob, my friend; release a thunderous yell! Shared tears help friendships grow….” But then Plant adds quietly, “And ME as well--truth to tell!” The murmured confession of the ulterior motive alerts the reader that Plant may be encouraging the Sky’s sobbing--that is, rain--to quench his own thirst and boost his growth. Although the reader may doubt the Plant’s love for his friend, viewing Plant as a user more than a giver, no harm has actually occurred, only a mutually beneficial rain. Thus, the poem teaches a lesson about the codependence between friends and the importance of looking at the outcome of our interactions as well as the intentions behind them. 

Notice especially that the essay paragraph provides enough information about the poem it discusses that you don't have to read the poem in order to understand the paragraph. Also note how the "Overall sentence" broadens the topic established in the first sentence, and how the "Interpret line" offers an opinion based on "reading between the lines" (not based on the text itself, but on an opinion of what seems to be implied).