Category Archives: reasons for writing

Is this cheating?


Students are returning from vacation, and I have imagined a “real-world” writing assignment.  Although this outline represents my draft thoughts, I am leaning towards using it as a welcome-back exercise–in an attempt to  have the departing seniors (a) write with meaningful purpose and (b) play a significant role in designing our experimental “biography unit.”  Is it cheating to have them spend time writing such an essay?  I don’t think so, but thought it would be fun to ask colleagues and other readers.

Incidentally–don’t tell the students–the “list” they will pick up comes from Tony Wagner’s recent writings.  I won’t name which ones, in case some students are closely following this personal blog.  (A number of them subscribe to our course blog.)



List seven basic skills you will take away from your high school experience.

Pick up list of seven skills identified by recent book on the issue.

Reflect on similarities and differences between these two lists.  For example, what do these patterns mean about your past and future formal schooling?

Use these reflections to write an essay that follows this format:

intro to main idea

most exercised skill in this class

least exercised skill in this class

implications for design of upcoming “biography unit”

concluding thought, which offers insight gained from preceding analysis

(due to TURNITIN by end of this week’s block class; include amended pledge, which acknowledges, for example, conversations with classmates)

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Do we really need poetry?

In several of today’s classes–two sophomore and one senior–we listened to the NPR piece about John Borling’s book of poems, Taps on the Walls.  Having heard this interview during my drive to work this morning, I wanted to share it with students, and hence with readers of this blog.  It is a remarkable answer to a question I have asked my poetry classes in the past:  do we really need poetry.

After students listened to the program, which I recommend you do (7’48” long), we literally tried our hands at composing with the code used by Major General Borling and his prison mates.  Since the sophomores are just finishing The Kite Runner, I asked them to start a poem in the voice of Amir–a poem expressing what Sohrab means to him.  Then they were to try tapping the first line of this poem for their neighbor, as one concrete way to appreciate the importance of poetry for Mr. Borling during his six and a half years of brutal captivity. You can catch a glimpse of their handiwork on the youtube video above. I hope this mini-lesson opens for them a small window on the remarkable human spirit and its need for artistic expression.

p.s. Apologies for the extra youtube videos; I am trying to learn how to post just the one video I made, without these extraneous, unendorsed connections.


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Hamlet’s facets, posing questions

The seniors recently wrote about Hamlet, at the end of Act Two.   My wife remarked that the instructions modeled my thinking to these students, so I decided to share those instructions here.  The text of their assignment below reminds me of work with Project Zero and the idea of “making thinking visible.”  (In this case, my thinking becomes visible.) I have pasted the students’ instructions underneath this sentence; afterwards, I reflect on this approach to generating a question.


Hamlet Writing, after Act 2

Choose three separate lines or brief sets of lines from Hamlet’s soliloquy (2.2.501-558) that support your answer to the question below*.  Following the “11-sentence” model, use these chosen quotations in your paragraph.

Hamlet mixes feelings of superiority—for example, through his confidence in manipulating people’s perceptions of him—with an apparently uncontrollable emotional side that is overwhelmed with grief.  In sum, he feels above everyone else and overwhelmed—that is, in control and out of control.

*What light does his soliloquy shed on the tension between these two sides of Hamlet’s character?

(State your main idea with some version of this basic structure: “the speech reveals that . . . .”)

Summary of sample student interests in Hamlet’s character


Determined, willful; passionate; extreme; takes risks

Sense of duty; loyalty

Manipulates people while remaining seemingly unengaged; gets what he wants     without appearing overtly forceful; his ability to pretend

Grief as the driving force

Intelligent; good at reading people; tricky, clever

Emotion takes over his whole being; distinctive intensity; emotionally genuine

“plays off” two completely different personalities—disingenuous and genuine

switches diction from obscure riddles to elegant poetry

mischievous side—funny, entertaining

strange logic in pretending madness while mocking others for insincerity

mistrusts others, even in family; skeptical, resistant

complex characteristics, mysterious, unpredictable

his sense of entitlement and cockiness; shows others his power

REFLECTIONS (and brief explanations)

 As we were nearing the end of Act Two,  I asked students to write on an index card the facet of Hamlet’s character that most interests them and to explain why it draws them in.  While they read the “O what a rogue and peasant slave” speech for homework, I summarized their interests.  That summary is the italicized list you see above.  I considered the patterns emerging from their varied interests. You see these considerations immediately above the question.  As these patterns developed, the question started to take shape–more from the combination of their interests, than from my preconceived responses to the play and its main character.   I did not know what would come from examining their interests, but I was excited to find out.  By transcribing, combining and studying their ideas, I started to see a tension that I could phrase in terms they would recognize.  (I explained this process to them in class before they started writing, so that they would know how to read this instruction sheet.)  We will see how their writing turns out, but I feel this process of creating a question from their genuine affinities has promise.

In addition, the list of student interests shows them–all of us, for that matter–how rich a character Shakespeare has created.  With no prompting from me, the students have demonstrated Hamlet’s complexity.  I told them we were using the term “facet,” instead of the plainer word “aspect,” because it adds the idea of a gem stone.  Hamlet is a gem, and so are they.  We all have many sides to us, and I am excited to see how each of the students addresses the tension they have collectively identified in Hamlet.

 This kind of excitement is one of a teacher’s simple pleasures.  Simple, yes, but at the same time a deep pleasure because the exercise is growing from authentic student interest.  These features of Hamlet resonate with them for various personal reasons.  Those connections alone help me help them.

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The Art of Translation

The Art of Translation.

I wanted to share this recent reflection by a girl in one of my high school senior classes.

She typically writes with such clarity and depth.

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signifying nothing 5.5.23

This week, the seniors and I have been working on the difference between a poem’s speaker and author.  The following sequence of ideas arose this morning, while my wife and I drank coffee and talked on the deck,  and while the sunlight  touched the tops of our neighbor’s seventy-foot pine trees.

We saw his pine trees, as well as what used to be an equally tall oak, until a July storm dropped its top half.  During this morning’s coffee talk, I recalled that our neighbor, let’s call him Paul Bunyan, finally began cutting the fallen limbs with his chain saw last night.  Mention of the chain saw reminded me of Frost’s poem, “Out, Out,” which the seniors had recently read.  In fact, some seniors may be using that poem for their first essay about tone; I hope I steal none of their thunder with this post.  (Ssshh, don’t tell any  of them about this post, yet.)

Naturally, at least for us two career literature teachers, Shakespeare entered the conversation–in the form of Macbeth, whose speech after Lady Macbeth’s death includes the phrase “Out, out, [brief candle].”  When I repeated Frost’s title, my wife gave Macbeth’s next thought, “Life’s but a walking shadow” (5.5.23).  At this point, my mind returned to this week’s work with seniors; I often find my mind going there.

Here, I thought, is a fine example of the energy created by the difference between speaker and author.  My first thought on remembering Macbeth’s speech was that I disagree with his final claim that life is a “tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing”–especially as I sat with my wife during this morning’s sunrise.  Then I realized, perhaps in a freshly rich way, that so does Shakespeare.  If he agrees with Macbeth, why bother writing all of these plays?  At this point in the Scottish play, Macbeth has reached the very bottom of his despair and hopelessness.   Ever since he has told himself that he is in bloody murders too steeped to turn back, he has been pursuing an untenable human course.  He has separated himself from his most worthy being, as well as from other people.  His moral coherence, his ethical integrity has been dissolving, unlike the blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands, which she cannot remove with her bootless cry, “Out, out, damned spot.”

Shakespeare, the author of Macbeth’s final desperate words, does see human life as signifying something, even while imagining a character who does not.  In fact, through his art, the author tries to lead us away from such despair by enacting the journey that led to it.  He wants to bring the lesson alive on stage.

And here, at this junction of  speaker and author, I am reminded of a critical thinking skill that appeared on my recent blog post’s list of such skills.  In this case, I am thinking of “shape meaningful schema.”  Students who understand the play’s plot, Macbeth’s decline and the speech’s words are ready to combine these understandings with the author/speaker distinction, in order to shape in their minds a pattern that makes sense, that means something, that signifies something.  With all due respect to Mr. Macbeth, I will keep making meaning–even out of his story.  I will keep helping students do the same.

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a borrower and a lender

I thought readers of this blog might enjoy a recent assignment described for my seniors.  They have started writing reflections on poems they find in our text, and I gave this guidance for their first piece; these instructions grow from a sentence in Seamus Heaney’s introduction to his Whitbread-Award winning translation of Beowulf.  Enjoy.

For this first reflection, base your writing on a single poem from chapter one of Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Gioia’s Introduction to Poetry.  In the previous assignment for this week, I asked you to pick a poem on which you would like to reflect.  As you consider this poem, use the quote from Seamus Heaney, seen in the photograph above.  His brief statement comes the introduction to his translation of the Old English narrative poem, Beowulf, which we will start reading in several weeks.  I posted his passage in a prominent place because I admire and value the thought and feeling behind it.  In his introduction, he describes a particular struggle he experienced during the translation project.  He struggled to reconcile apparently disparate parts of his past.  His perseverance eventually led to a discovery that produced the statement above our door: “my heart lifted again, the world widened, something was furthered” (xxvi).  I would like to use this statement as guidance for your first reflection.

In other words, use any or all of the statement’s parts as guides for writing a reflection of approximately 200-400 words; this will be the typical length for reflections posted on your blog.  Let me explain my thinking about how to use the parts to Heaney’s statement.  “My heart lifted”: Consider a poem that lifts your heart in a small or large way.  Perhaps the poem as a whole does this, or maybe a single line.  You can read “lifted” loosely.  In other words, something about the poem satisfied you, or rang true, resonated, or made you say “yes” in some fashion.  It made you feel fuller.  “The World Widened”: As a result of your heart’s lifting, your understanding of the world, which includes yourself and other people, has widened.  To borrow from Rilke, another poet, your orbit has grown wider.  You see more because of this poem or this line.  “Something was furthered”: This sounds like the previous part of the statement, but it also suggests that the world evolved in some way because your world widened.  Some problem was solved, some insight gained.  Some larger value was added to the world because of this thinking or feeling you are doing.  Admittedly, this last part is probably the hardest to apply, but feel free to give it a go, if you are so inclined.

As you write your reflection, use my explanation of Heaney’s passage as guidance–rather than as a set of questions all of which you must answer.  The fun and beauty of such reflective writings is that they give you a chance to notice and follow your responses.  Let the associations happen, while challenging yourself to be as clear as possible–to yourself and your blog readers.

Have fun.  Enjoy the writing.

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reasons I can’t reveal

For reasons I can’t reveal, I have created a significant number of writing prompts for original stories and essays.  The complete list of these prompts will appear on class homework blogs this year, so that students can regularly use them to start a new piece of their own writing.  Initially, I will likely limit the length, as a way to encourage the habit of writing  and to enable more prompt comments.  The list contains enough prompts that we could write one a week, and I may try to keep this pace at the start of this project.

I mention this project because I plan to participate.  Maroonballoon will host my writings that can model the process for students.  Students will have their own writing blogs, which will house their pieces from this project (for which we do not yet have a name), as well as regular reflections on the course readings.

The project and the student blogs are two more experiments.  Like Whitman’s noiseless patient spider, we need to keep sending forth filament, filament, filament ’til a ductile anchor hold.


In my next post, I will start participating in this project–tentatively titled “growing writing” or “working the soil” or “regular writing.”  The last one appeals to me, since it sets up student blogs for a complementary title, “reflective writing.”  Or we could just say “prompts” and “reflections.”  In any case, I will start with this prompt: Making things is harder than destroying them.  Who do you know who is a successful builder?  What does this person build or make—houses, clothes, food, friends or something else?

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I wanna care

Before I entered junior high school, my parents sent me to reading camp.  I do not know all of the diagnostic details explained to my parents, but I do remember regularly struggling to read “fast.”  Years after junior and senior high, I find myself telling others, including my high school students, that I struggled to read fast enough to care about the fictional characters I encountered.  Why read, if you cannot care about the people involved?  That became the underlying dynamic of my high school reading–in literature, history and elsewhere.

This remembrance of things past surfaces today, while reading reviews of Gita Mehta’s novel, Raj.  A friend just told me he is considering one of her other novels, A River Sutra, for his Humanities class’s India unit.  While reading about this novel and her other books, I encountered the following excerpt:

Princess Jaya of Balmer, witness to bloodshed and insurmountable political upheaval, realizes that royal India’s demise is imminent. “Although the rich background detail is engrossing, Jaya remains a remote character to whom one never develops an attachment,” PW [Publishers Weekly] said of this novel penned by the wife of Knopf’s Sonny Mehta. Author tour.  (from, emphasis added)

Without having read her books, I cannot agree or disagree with this or any review, but the quoted sentence sparks a memory of my early reading experiences.  The maroonballoon blog has become, especially this summer, a place to remember and recount the dynamics of my own reading and writing.  Time–in the close sense of summer vacation, as well as the broader sense of my career–invites me to reflect on the basic dynamics and associations within my own composing and comprehending.  Awareness of these personal phenomena equips me more robustly, as another colleague might put it, to understand and guide students’ reading and writing.  A heightened awareness allows me to communicate more convincingly, “I’ve been there.”  It also enables me to spot their struggles and deconstruct the confusion they might be experiencing.

Now, as an older person, I enjoy reading and writing, though still struggling to read “faster.”  I look forward, for example, to reading A River Sutra.  I also will be reading Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion in the recent Affordable Health Care Act decision.  I just enjoy reading stuff–of various sorts.

Reading a variety is important for students; they need to be flexible readers.  This wide exposure strengthens–i.e., makes more robust–their writing.  In my case, for example, reading the first pages of Justice Roberts’ opinion helped me write my letter of protest to the GA Dept of Revenue.  Writers write their reading.  Seeing Roberts’ careful wording and conceptual coherence inspires me to greater precision.  So it is with students younger than I .

Today’s title, by the way, is meant to echo the label some people use to identify the law officially passed as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (Public Law 111-148).  I know this blog post title captures a primary principle in my reading experiences, and I believe it reflects the best instincts of most people, as they consider the long-term health of all Americans.

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pattern recognition

I find myself repeating myself.

As I wrote yesterday’s post, I found myself repeating myself.  In other words, ideas or phrases kept re-emerging, floating to the surface of my attention.  For example, the gaps I mean–to echo Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall.”  The idea of gaps cycled back through my attention, and I enjoyed its return because that gave me momentum.  The momentum was fueled by the fun surprise of the re-emergence; I did not plan so much as discover it.  A bit like turning over soil and discovering worms wriggling about.  Once the idea of gaps returned for the first time, I began seeing it as a recurring theme that I could intentionally nurture.  A structure of sorts emerged, or a motif.  I could then identify and develop different kinds of gaps.  Sometimes I impose structures beforehand, but at times like this, the frameworks emerge more organically.  In these vacation reflections, I can play around with this organic material.

So what about pattern recognition?  This is a specific skill within the broader ability called problem-solving.  Teachers need to help students develop this specific skill, and literature study provides a tool for this training.  So does reflective writing.  One benefit of my playing around with this organic material–there I go repeating myself–is that I can practice pattern-recognition.  In this particular case, I have seen a concept repeated.  The start of a pattern happened unintentionally, for the most part; I then continued the pattern on purpose.

link to previous post

Students benefit from being able to “listen” to the sequence of their own ideas.  Reflective writing can provide practice at “hearing” recurring concepts in their mind.  Those patterns, I have found, serve as productive launching pads for their individual writing.  Their voices are more likely to emerge in writing that builds from patterns in their own minds.

final comments

I enjoyed seeing the idea of gaps recur.  This recognition had the ring of revelation.  Maybe not to the scale of Joyce’s epiphany, but it had a spark of joyful learning nonetheless, and that’s my main reason for sharing it.  Many writers no doubt have already firmly learned this feeling of pattern recognition emerging from their composing, but–to paraphrase Neruda’s “Ars Poetica I”– I am learning this by working with my own hands, which is the kind of learning I hope for students.

Yesterday, I hung some dill branches in the shed to dry.  Later, we can use the dried seeds to flavor dinner dishes or to plant new seedlings.  In either case, the dill work reminds me of an idea for my youtube series, growing writers.  That series explores connections between gardening and writing.  In the case of dill and yesterday’s post, I have harvested the idea of gaps  for future use.  Since the seeds are drying, I can use them any time I want–to flavor a meal or grow more plants.

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empathetic models

Yes, we teachers are, or we have that potential.  In a recent department meeting, I described the three stars of my guiding constellation as imagination, empathy and expression.  A brief word here about the middle term.

Trust and fairness drive lasting relationships between students and teachers.  Incidentally, face to face contact fosters fairness and trust more readily than online communication.  This I believe.

To build trust and fairness, I try to write student assignments, or pieces of them, as often as I can.  Not only does this practice help me anticipate and reflect on their experience, but it also presents an empathetic model to them.  In other words, they see me walk in their shoes.  I can describe my own struggles and successes with the assignment.  Additionally, as in the sample below, I can use my work to show them tricks for theirs.

Yesterday, before they started writing on the topic of true character, I showed them my brief piece on a related passage from Hamlet, the story we are studying.  They were asked how Hamlet’s “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy helps determine the level of his genuineness in telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he has lost all of his mirth.  I projected, and posted online, my short analysis of the structure of this lost-mirth speech (2.2.278 ff.).  The sample also show students various ways to punctuate the inclusion of quotations.  Enjoy this draft–a draft, mind you.  To present empathetic models, we occasionally need to show drafts.  This reminds some students that we do not have to be perfect always.

Heaven and Earth: the structure of Hamlet’s lost-mirth speech

When Hamlet explains to R & G the likely reasons for their being sent by Claudius to test him, he structures his speech in an hourglass shape.  At the top of his speech, he begins with this broad (general) statement: “I have of late . . . lost all my mirth” (2.2.280).  From there he moves into a specific demonstration of this lost joy, in order to show how deep is his despair.  “This goodly frame, the earth” seems to him “a sterile promontory” (2.2.282-3).  In this section of the speech, he expounds on the beautiful majesty of the heavens.  This paean to the skies leads to the majesty of mankind.  Here lies the hinge.  As the lower part of the hourglass descends, Hamlet exclaims, “What a piece of work is man.  How noble in reason” (2.2.286-7).  As above, he finds several ways to express the glories of human beings.  Alas, at the bottom of the glass, he returns to another broad statement: “Man delights not me” (2.2.290).  Even this magnificent creature mankind brings him no joy; he can find no light in his dark world.  Everything has fallen to the bottom, where it lies still and sterile.


In another class, students are examining specific ways in which Julia Alvarez humanizes the Mirabal sisters, legendary heroines in her Dominican novel, In the Time of the Butterflies.  More than one student has argued that showing a character in her moments of unguarded emotion brings her to life, down from her legendary pedestal.  Alvarez shows the sisters struggling to make decisions, reacting to making mistakes and needing to care for other people.  I believe that we humanize our teaching, and therefore the learning process, when we show students this side of us.  Projecting our version of an assignment can move us this direction.  To borrow from the Hamlet exercise above, such movement shows our true character, which, in turn, encourages students to do the same.  This seems like a fair exchange to me.

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