On January 31st 1954, Major Edwin Armstrong, leapt from his thirteen story apartment window after writing a final apology letter to his wife of thirty years.
Even though Edwin Armstrong was responsible for the invention of:
- Regeneration in radio tubes, reducing the amount of energy needed for radio transmission
- Created the superheterodyne receiver which is the foundation of the tuner found in every radio, TV, and radar unit.
- Built and field tested the first airplane radios during WWI
- Fixing AM radio’s “static” problem by creating FM radio even when the experts said it couldn’t be done.
He ended up hurting his wife and then killing himself because of the toil of a nine year battle with AM radio (and TV) king RCA and their lawyers and their political influence. RCA owned many of the most popular AM radio stations and didn’t want the competition of FM radio infringing upon their cash cow.
So what does this have to do with improving your writing?
Our students produce a ton of writing. Some great, some good, far too much of it not so good (otherwise why would they need us, right?)
Just ask an English teacher how they feel during hour two of grading 185 essays, short stories, poems, or research papers. There’s this gray annoying noise in the back of your mind. This annoying AM static, that won’t go away. Everything starts to look the same. The mistakes are the same, the introductions are the same, the conclusions are the same. There is no FM sparkle, no lifelike artistry to their writing. It’s all static-ridden pop-art made for the consumption of teachers everywhere.
Unlike that writing, the best writing I see, pound for pound (besides my student’s blogs) are my seniors college entrance essays. What makes a college entrance essay so different?
- Seniors are completely willing to give up everything they have done so far and start over from step zero. Why should I even bother fixing their punctuation when their controlling idea makes me groan?
- Seniors are completely invested because this paper isn’t about me it’s about them. It’s their most honest attempt at inserting themselves in the world, at saying I.
- Seniors want their writing to be fresh, new, they NEED it to
- Be memorable, to be shareable when the admission officers are discussing who to admit into their school.
What’s funny is no one I know uses rubrics to evaluate whether or not a student’s college entrance essay is effective? Why? Here I’ll show you:
click to see a larger version of the Common Core rubric
SAT Writing Rubric
Now I know what you are going to say. David, those rubrics have nothing in common with the purpose of a college entrance essay, it’s the wrong evaluation tool. I mean there is nothing in those rubrics that talks about:
- The students level of engagement or interest in the topic, nothing that measures the attempt at saying I.
- The global or local value of the writing: why the writing matters.
- The freshness or unique aspect of the writing, the lack of clichéd thinking
- The memorability of the writing.
Our students spend their entire lives writing, almost exclusively, AM writing. What is AM writing?
I’ve been using rubrics to measure students’ writing for twenty years. I’ve taught AP English for nineteen of those years. I’ve created my own rubrics. I’ve had my students create their own rubrics. I’ve enjoyed trying to “game” the College Board by reverse engineering their tests and having my students shape their writing to pass the exam. And yet.
None of that has made my students’ writing, what an adult would call… great. None of those rubrics has fixed my students writing and that’s because we go about fixing writing the wrong way.
I love when teachers (myself included) try and get smart. We give students self-guided rubrics, peer-guided rubrics, multiple stages and THEN we look at their writing. So smart.
Except, when you finally get a look at their writing after they have been at it for days or weeks you realize. Oh my GOD, this idea is terrible, this approach is hackneyed or juvenile, this is completely blah.
You look at the student. You look at yourself. You think about the “stakes” of the writing assignment, it’s not that important, it’s just an assignment turned in for class. So you put some marks on the paper, maybe you pull the kid aside and talk to them a little, you might even ask to see them at lunch or after school, and you move on.
From now on my students will take four steps before they even START writing. They will:
- Make the topic their own. They will say I figuratively or literally in whatever they write.
- Make sure the paper has value. What gives something value? Either it fills a local or global need (specifically or by providing something like humor, mystery, or catharsis) or it points out a global or local need.
- Make sure that their writing is not cliché (we will talk about this in detail in a bit)
- Make sure that their writing is memorable.
So what did that look like in my class last week? Let me show you:
Step 1: We took a topic and made it our own by creating “life/like links” or connecting comparisons. It was raining so I had students create a similar graphic organizer where they found a taste, song, a solution, a smell, a place, a quote, a tool, a website etc… that made them think of the topic: rain. I wanted them to find their place in the topic. You can even do this with a quote from a story. We read LA vs. The Mountains by John McPhee on that rainy day. I put these two questions up on the board.
Then a student found a specific quote, they figured out what the quote meant and then we did the connecting comparison activity with the quote:
“shedding, falling, self-destructing, they [the San Gabriel Mountains] are disintegrating among the fastest in the world.”
Side Note: There are two important things to remember when we teach students how to pick or narrow a topic. Number one, much of what we write in school is based on a topic or assignment that has either been giving to us or required research or evidence so we limit ourselves to writing about that which has evidence. Problem number two is that the activities to help students narrow their topics still result in topics that aren’t very interesting/mature. What colleges want to see in student writing, is a subtle stab at the topic. Something nuanced. Mr. Ziebarth and I refer to this concept as the “implied thesis” and you can read about it in two insightful pieces of writing by Richard Hugo: The Triggering Town and Writing Off Subject.
Step 2: Then the students pick one of the connecting comparisons and see how writing about it might bring value to humankind by filling a universal need or pointing out a universal need. (See question number one in the picture two spots above)
Step 3: Then we worked on making sure the idea was not cliché.
You may know of more, but I discussed and drew four ways to avoid a tired idea.
- Be SUPER specific. Bring up a specific time, place, person or thing.
- Re/Mix it. Combine two ideas in a novel way.
- Be weird. Use irony, humor or whatever to transform the expected into the unexpected.
- Read and watch quality art. They give you the discerning power of an old person. Or just ask an old person to see if your idea is old, someone like me.
Step 4: Lastly, as I’ve said before, make it memorable.
Lastly I asked them to draw an image that would help them imagine where their writing was going. Something unique and memorable. Here are just a few of them.
So did it work…. well it’s a work in progress. Here are two pieces of writing that came out of this process.
Now, I know what you are thinking about Jazzy, jeez Theriault that student started their essay with a definition, that’s not very fresh. Yeah we are working on creating effective introductions and hooks for this week’s blogging challenge.
Please take the time to read more about Major Edwin Armstrong, he’s pretty interesting.
PS: I came up with a hashtag for the process of prewriting I discussed about #ineedFM
I (make the topic important to you)
Need: (make sure the writing is about creating value and needs)
F: make your writing fresh
M: make your writing memorable
#ineedFM (if you already didn’t know Sean and I use the #ideaFM hashtag as our class hashtag.
And, if you don’t mind please send California some rainy thoughts. We could use it.