Parents: This Is How I Read Your Teens’ Work

I repurposed last month’s research paper by using it to create a Prezi video. My research paper’s audience was made up of English teachers, but my Prezi video’s audience is made up of my students’ parents. I’m using this video this coming fall for our back-to-school activities (though I plan on revising the video before then). (For about a minute of this video, the audio and video are out of sync. Sorry about that.)

I chose a Prezi Video because I wanted to show my face to my students’ parents. I like the idea of bullets and photographs flying in and out that support the points I make with my talk. This is important because my audience lives in a high-tech community, and I wanted my communication to imply that the course will cover the genres and occasions that my students may face in a more high-tech life.

When I wrote the script for the Prezi video, I left out most of the first three pages of my research paper, which mostly focus on the history of composition instruction as it pertains to correcting grammar, usage, and spelling on student work. I thought that I had no basis for thinking that my audience would be interested in that information since they were more interested in their teen’s teacher’s approach to their teen’s writing than to the historical factors that may have influenced it.

I also introduce myself and get to the point of my Prezi video in my script’s second sentence: “ The guy who’s supposed to spill all of that red ink all over your teen’s papers? But I don’t spill so much of it anymore. Instead, I’m learning how to be a closer reader of my students’ writing.”  By contrast, my research paper contains no introduction of myself because of a convention in research paper writing. And my research paper has an evolving thesis, starting with an initial thesis  — a “they say” — concerning the importance of giving “red ink” feedback.

One thing in both communications is evidence that grammar instruction, when it is divorced from rhetorical writing instruction, is futile. In the research paper, I give more quotes from authoritative works, and I give anecdotal evidence from “English teacher workrooms” of English teachers who complain about their students’ failure to apply their grammar knowledge to their writing. To put all of my research into my Prezi video would seem like overkill. To put the English teacher workroom generalization in a communication for parents, however, would seem unprofessional.

Writing, Fast & Slow

Ever thanked an author? I did once. I looked up the guy who wrote my college comp textbook.

Robert J. Ray

Somehow I found Robert Ray’s number and reached him at home. He had been wrapping up his teaching career and concentrating on his writing — mysteries, mostly. Typical for him, he was also writing books on how to write books. The Weekend Novelist series, he calls them.

How, I asked him, did this textbook, The Art of Reading: A Handbook on Writing, come to be? The idea came at a party:

I had been teaching an advanced exposition class at Beloit College in Wisconsin. I used that class to field test my ideas about reading and writing, and I came up with exercises to use in the class. The exercises turned into a book. I was talking about it to a classics professor at a cocktail party one night, and he happened to be an acquisitions editor at Blaisdell Publishing.

It’s long been out of print. If you want a copy, it’ll cost you $144.89 on Amazon. Check out the book’s page there: I wrote the only customer review. Well, besides “Tyler,” whose entire review is “Great Book.” Is that gratitude, Tyler?

The book — and the college freshman course I read it in — changed my approach to writing. Instead of inventing my own style, why not imitate the pros’ prose? Ray wanted me to read a few of them a little at a time and slowly. Here’s what he told me on the phone about the book’s approach:

Using colored ballpoints, the reader circles words. If you’re reading for structure, you circle words that repeat. If you’re reading for content, you circle nouns and verbs. Nouns in red, say, and verbs in blue. When you draw connecting lines, the patterns jump out at you. Seeing the patterns takes you into the style and mind-set of the writer. I still circle words.

I do, too. I did so much circling and web-making in college comp that my writing started to take on the style of William Faulkner — long, meandering streams of sentences banked by shoals of subordinate phrases and clauses.

Natalie Goldberg

Ray, like me, was grateful for another writing instructor — Natalie Goldberg, whose Writing Down the Bones is a mixture of Zen living and fast writing. Ray called Goldberg “the guru of timed writing.” Here’s how he described her approach:

It’s so simple. Set the timer. Write until it beeps. Read your writing aloud. Set your timer, write until it beeps. The timer distracts the left brain editor-critic-judge. You zone out on the writing.

So Ray still imitates from slow reading, but that’s for revisions. To get the words on the page in the first place, he writes fast.

I haven’t thanked many of my teachers years down the road. I should, but I haven’t. But I find I thank my mentors.

Circle time

My wife’s students, ages six to twelve, sit in a circle the first day of class. There is a yarn ball in the middle. Each child shares, holds onto the strand of yarn, and throws what remains of the yarn ball to the next raised hand. A web with twenty-six points, twenty-six strands, forms.

I get an email today from a friend concerned about an extreme statement his friend makes on social media. Should I talk to him about it? he asks. I don’t know, I think. Do you know him outside of social media circles?

Then each child helps wind the yarn back into a ball, sharing something deeper this time, retracing the yarn to the person before her. Doing so, she steps gently across the receding web, which represents the community that will ebb and flow and support life in that room all year.

If my friend’s friend were my friend, I think, I might ask him for some context or explanation. Community itself is context: it’s the whites of your eyes, the bad day I know you’re having, the book we’re reading together, the reaction you have to your brother, whom I also know.

There’s this scene in To Kill a Mockingbird: Jem and Scout find Atticus at the county jail one night defending Tom from a lynch mob. To Scout, the men are only “shadows” and “solid shapes,” hidden in the summer heat under drawn-down hats. Then she breaks into “the circle of light” around Atticus and recognizes one of the men.

“Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?”

Mr. Cunningham tries to retain his anonymity in the face of Scout’s friendly onslaught, but he eventually gives in, telling Scout that, yes, he would certainly tell his son Walter that Scout said hey. Then Mr. Cunningham and the whole mob melt into the night.

Each morning this way, the ball of yarn exhales and inhales in the children’s hands, then it rests near the heart of the classroom, waiting again for the next day’s circle time. At the end of the year, the students snip pieces from it to tie their hair, mark their books, and decorate their sneakers.

[Photo by suziesparkle. Used by permission through a Creative Commons license. I cropped and brightened it.]


I’m the only one who tells it: the sun is practically sideways, and a couple, having eaten supper, walks by our house. The man looks up at our second-story window and says, “What a cute little girl.”

Ford, a toddler three and a half years younger than I, has toddled to the window. The sun shines on all of his yellow curls.

I’m in the front yard. “That’s not a girl,” I tell the couple. “That’s Ford the boy.”

Not from a photograph, not a tale told by a parent: I remember it myself.

I like those unassisted memories best. I don’t have many of them. Most of my childhood, like most of most everyone else’s childhood, is mist. Puberty’s mental and physiological changes make it “impossible to ‘remember’ the consciousness of childhood,” Benedict Anderson points out in his book Imagined Communities, which I just finished.

How can a high school senior write about herself with authority? Eighteen years of life is a long time, but the first twelve years of it are largely locked behind childhood’s door. What does it mean, and what is it like, to write a college essay?

Sometimes I think I remember, in one of my mom’s albums, a shot of Ford as a little kid at a window. I’m not looking for it.

[Photo by Peter Miller. Used by permission under a Creative Commons license.]

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