Tag Archives: good

Why You Should Teach Your Kids to Steal

29 May
Two of Beerbohm's self-portraits. "The Th...

Two of Beerbohm’s self-portraits. “The Theft” depicts him stealing a book from the library in 1894. “The Restitution” shows him returning that book in 1920. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago, I taught my students how to steal. It was the best lesson I’ve done in ages.

No, I’m not talking about petty shoplifting or muggings. I’m talking about a blatant, shameless, grand larceny of ideas. I’m talking about stealing words.

Typically, we teachers frown on copying, but I argue that copying other writers–stealing their syntax and flow right from under their noses (or proses?)–is one of the best ways that students can learn to write. In our focus on originality and personal expression, we can often forget that human beings learn best through mimicry. The same way that we learn how to cook by watching Mom and copying her recipes, we can learn how to write by stealing from better writers’ stories.

Recently, a fellow teacher and I showed students how to write the first chapter of a novel by having them copy the first chapter of the Hunger Games sentence by sentence–mimicking the exact structure and purpose of each Hunger Games sentence (description of setting, action, dialogue, etc.) but changing the individual words themselves to suit their own stories.

My students have never written so well in their lives. The scenes were full and detailed, the sentences were varied and interesting, and the dialogue was punchy. And my students noticed the difference, too–they began to get the feel for pacing and structure in a way that they never had before. Far from being bored or annoyed, they were inspired by having such a clear road map (and I imagine they enjoyed as the sneaky fun of intellectual theft as well).

Do you ever ask your students to steal from other writers? If so, when and how do you do it?


The Most Important Thing We’re Not Teaching Our Students

9 May

Last week, the CRCT (a local standardized test) swooped down upon the Chatham County Public School System. With its intimidating blank answer sheets and telegraphic “STOP DO NOT TURN THE PAGE UNTIL INSTRUCTED STOP” commands, it bullied students through a battery of tests on math, reading, social studies, and science.

Managing emotions - Identifying feelings

Managing emotions – Identifying feelings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These tests try to cover all the bases of a good education. Though we can debate till the cows come home whether or not standardized tests measure student achievement in these areas reliably (I, myself, am still forming my opinion on this topic), there is no arguing the fact that these tests completely fail to measure one extremely important element of a child’s education: emotional intelligence.

Though we may be teaching our students basic academic skills, are we teaching them the emotional intelligence they need to use those skills thoughtfully? How can we tell?

Studies show that students who demonstrate emotional intelligence (which includes being aware of, understanding, and managing one’s own emotions and the emotions of others) are far less likely to become dependent on drugs or alcohol. They are also more likely to become successful leaders and entrepreneurs.

Writing teachers are in a unique position to teach this skill; studies show that reading and writing increase emotional awareness and help students to put themselves in others’ shoes (see this New York Times article for more details). So why isn’t this kind of emotional growth just as big of a focus in schools as the ability to comprehend a scientific passage on toads? Why don’t we try to measure this, too?

There are lots of interesting “EQ” (emotional IQ) tests available to educators, and I am thinking of using them in my classroom to assess my own students’ emotional growth over the course of the year.

What do you think? Should we give our students “EQ” tests? What are some other ways that we can measure the effect that we have on our students’ abilities to handle their emotions?

Why Farts, Zits, and Slobber Are Good for Your Classroom

2 Apr
Acne vulgaris ill artlibre jn

Acne vulgaris ill artlibre jn (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have never understood why so many writing teachers tell their students they can only write “nice” things, like poems about sunsets or florid thank you notes. I don’t mind these assignments, exactly (and I certainly think there is value in thank you notes), but I can’t tell you how many times my students have almost ruined a truthful and hilarious essay by saying something like, “But I can’t write that! It isn’t nice.”

Well, news flash: life isn’t nice. In fact, life is kind of gross. Especially when you’re in middle school, and you haven’t yet figured out what to do with body hair or deodorant. As teachers, I think we have to embrace that grossness and give our students a safe place to talk about it.

My favorite lesson in the Cure for IDK repertoire is the love poems lesson–precisely because we encourage students to write about exactly the things that aren’t nice about their loved one. Encouraging students to look at the people they love from an unflattering angle consistently results in the most vibrant, truthful, specific, and detailed writing my students have ever done. In case you don’t believe me, here’s an example from 4th-grader Diamond Sledge about her older brother:

Crusty Love

Your pimples rub against my face so roughly,
It feels like they are going to pop on my face,
And your stubble chin hairs feel like little ants biting me.
When will it stop?
When we sit on the couch together,
You have toenails that are 10 feet long
with bunions on them,
And enough dirt to fertilize a garden.
They scratch me so deep, it makes me want to scream.
Your big fat head gets in the way at the movies,
When you are in front of me,
Your stinking feet are always in the way when I am sleeping,
Your garbage-smelling breath always in my face when you talk
to me,
Your big frog-like eyes always staring me down in the face,
Your big fat crusted lips trying to kiss me all the time,
All you do when you talk is spit a pool in my face,
Even though I know you love me,
You have got to stop not taking showers!

Try giving your students an equally gross writing assignment, and let me know how it goes!

The Biggest Secret Your Students Keep From You

2 Mar

Image via Wikipedia

Here at Deep, we recently surveyed several dozen high school English teachers to see what their biggest teaching challenges were and how Deep could help them out. We expected to hear complaints about large class sizes, poor writing skills, and not enough planning time, but the response was surprising and specific:

The biggest problem, teachers said, is that the kids just hate writing.

To which my response is, No! They love writing. They just keep you in the dark about it.

Think about it: they love writing text messages, they love scribbling raps on the backs of worksheets, they love Facebook comments and tweets. They love passing notes furtively under the table. They love scrawling their names in Sharpie on bathroom walls. They love carving stories into their arms and chests as tattoos.

Students love writing. They just love a different kind of writing.

Here are some of the differences between the writing that they love and the writing that they are asked to do in class, with some suggestions for how to bridge the gap and get your students excited about completing your assignments:

1. Ownership.

If you were going to buy a new car, would you rather buy the car that you picked for yourself, or the car that your weird third cousin picked out for you?

Similarly, students prefer writing when they can pick their own topics, rather than topics that a textbook or a principal chooses for them.

Try assigning free writes or journal time. If students know that the writing is theirs, not yours, they’ll be more likely to open up and get comfortable with putting words on paper.

While it is important to eventually teach students to write on specific assigned topics, see if you can give them a little leeway in how they write about those topics—can they write a poem about their interpretation of a story, rather than an essay? Can they write a monologue from the point of view of a character? Can they write an essay that connects their own life experiences to the topic at hand?

2. Technology.

Cell phones today are like an extension of your students’ brains. Working without technology can feel crippling to some students. (Besides, every project feels “cooler” when you have some expensive equipment attached to it.)

What if you let your students tweet discussion questions, or write poems on an iPad? Can they make an audio recording of their poem? What about a video essay?

3. Audience.

It’s a lot more fun, and a lot less intimidating, to write for your peers than for a teacher. Click here for some more ideas on this topic.

Why You Should Never Tell Your Students They’re Smart

12 Feb

I grew up during the self-esteem craze of the early nineties. In third grade, I had to take a class called “Me-ology” in which I completed an entire workbook about how special and amazing I was. The theory was that if kids thought they were brilliant and perfect and special, they would do better in school. As I’m sure many of you can imagine, this was an extremely stupid and unsuccessful exercise. All it did was make me painfully sensitive to criticism of any kind.

As it turns out, telling kids that they are smart and great and special actually has a detrimental effect on their performance in school. For example: in one recent study, two groups of students took an easy test and did well on it. One group was told, “You did so well on this test! You must be so smart.” Another group was told, “You did so well on this test! You must have worked so hard to prepare.

Guess who did better on the next test?

By an astonishing margin, the kids who were told “You must have worked so hard!” outperformed the “you must be so smart” kids. And for reasons that are obvious: if you think that you are smart enough to succeed naturally, then you don’t put in any work. If, on the other hand, you recognize that you aren’t perfect, and that it takes hard work to achieve a goal, then you are set up for success.

Set your students up for success. Praise them for hard work and diligence. Prepare them to face a challenge. Don’t feed them the myth that they’re perfect.

After all, they can’t control their IQ score, but they can control their effort and attitude.