Room 313

adventures in teaching creative writing

False Starts

So often in writing an essay our students don’t know where to begin. I think back to my first year of teaching high school English when I operated from the ass-ass method of teaching writing: I’d assign it and then assess it. No pre-writing. No showing my students example essays. Just a handout with a rubric on it and a due date.

These days I try to help my students along the way when they’re working on a formal paper. We brainstorm individually, in small groups, and as a whole class. We look at example essays, and I teach mini-lessons on different writing traits like action verbs or interviewing skills I want my students to include in their writing. They meet in writing groups and offer feedback and revision suggestions before I ever lay my eyes on the final draft.

When I read Penny Kittle‘s book Write Beside Them, I learned a valuable lesson: I should write every essay I assign my students. By going through the process, I can experience what my students will go through. I can offer advice, and I can gain credibility by sharing my example essay with them. As Kelly Gallagher says, as the teacher in the classroom, I am the best writer. I need to share that with my students. I’m their English teacher. Shouldn’t I share my writing with them?

Kelly Gallagher one-ups Penny Kittle in that he challenges teachers in his book Write Like This to not only write alongside their students but to draft on the fly in front of them. This can be scary. I feel much better about sharing a polished final draft with my students than flailing about on the keyboard, desperately trying to fling together some coherent sentences. My classroom is equipped with a projector and a SmartBoard, so I can just sit at my desk and draft a few paragraphs. As I draft, I narrate what I’m thinking and doing. Sometimes if I get stuck on how to phrase something or if a word doesn’t come to me, students will chime in and help me. They see me working through the process and realize I don’t magically write perfect essays on the first attempt. Since they will eventually see my final draft as well, they will know that I’ve revised my work and hopefully will follow suit in their own writing.

This school year my students are working through problem-solution essays, beginning with a narrative essay about a personal experience. I let my second hour class pick my topic from a list, and they asked me to write about my bald spot, a fairly superficial yet entertaining topic. For each of the four English classes of the day, I drafted a slightly different opening.

Ultimately, by writing these memories down, another memory came to me, the most compelling way to begin the paper.  Were these four openings a waste of time? Absolutely not. Sometimes writing down a number of beginnings, or false starts, can lead to the best way to start a paper, whether it’s narrative, expository, or persuasive in nature. For your reading pleasure, here are the four different openings I tried for my problem-solution essay about my bald spot.

2nd hour

“You’re getting a little thin back here,” said Brandon, standing behind me. “I think you’re going bald.”

“No way. I’m too young. You’re kidding, right?”

He wasn’t. It was the final semester of college, and I was already starting to form my very own bald spot. When I was six years old, I asked my hairdresser to give me my father’s haircut. I told her I wanted a bald spot just like him. I thought that’s how he got his haircut. I didn’t realize that he had no control over the moonlike gap in the back of his head.

Currently, bald men can take a pill called Propecia or they can apply a product called Rogaine to their bald spots. I remember in high school a classmate named Colt who already had a major receding hairline when he was just a junior in high school. Currently, at Deer Creek High School, I have noticed a junior who has a similar hairline. At least when I was in high school, I had all my hair.

5th Hour

I am sitting in the chair with the hairdresser behind me. She’s holding the scissors like always, and she asks me how I want my hair cut today.

“Just like my dad,” I say.

“What do you mean?” she asks.

“Well, he has a spot in the back. I want one too!”

She laughs. “How about we go with just a regular haircut like last time?”

My mom agrees with her. As a six-year-old, I had no clue that my father’s bald spot was a genetic inheritance and not a hairstyle choice.

In high school, I heard that you received your hair DNA from your mother’s father. I had hoped that was the case because Bop still had a full head of hair, and Pa-pa (my dad’s dad) had the infamous Stephenson bald spot. I crossed my fingers, but by my senior year in college my friend Brandon was warning me of the thinning patch that emerging on the back of my skull.

6th Hour

Celebrities my age like Channing Tatum and Ryan Gosling still have their hair. They might cut it off or grow it long, but at least it’s there. Secretly, I like to believe that they have to wear wigs or have had to use hair plugs. Or maybe they simply use Rogaine or Propecia. I myself just sport my bald spot each day and sometimes forget it’s even there.

When I was in high school, I hated wearing hats. I thought they looked awkward on me, and I rarely wore them. Nowadays, I don’t mind hats one bit because they cover up the ol’ bald spot, and they keep the sun out of my eyes. Who knew how handy a hat could be?

At Sport Clips where I get my hair cut, the stylist holds up the mirror for me to see the finished product. The stylist always angles the mirror in such a way that my bald spot is not visible. Maybe that’s in the job requirement, but I still know it’s there in all its pale white glory.

7th Hour

Looking back, I should have believed Brandon. It was senior year at OBU, and we were about to graduate. One afternoon as I was sitting in the rocking chair in our little apartment, Brandon approached me from behind and began to inspect my hair like a gorilla.

“Dude, you’re going bald,” he said.

I reached my hand back and felt the hundreds of hairs dotting my future bald spot. “No, I’m not,” I said, already entering a state of denial. “I don’t feel anything different back there.”
“Trust me, man,” Brandon said. “You better do something about that.”

Flash forward eight years later, and I have yet to try Rogaine or Propecia, two items on the market men use to cope with their baldness. Instead, I sometimes merely use a baseball cap to cover up the ol’ bald spot that now shines like a full moon from the back of my skull.

My father has a bald spot too. In fact, when I was in first grade, I requested his hair style from the hairdresser. She did not oblige my request, and for that, I am thankful. However, I probably could have used some coping strategies back then that could possibly have helped me today.

*   *   *

A few days later, my students got to hear my final draft of this essay (punnily named Breaking Bald), which I’m attaching as a Word file to this post. I offered the essay up to them on the SmartBoard, blown up in 24-size font, so they could examine my content and mechanics. I took their feedback all day, and I revised multiple times, even letting go of my shout-out to Tobias Funke and his terrible hair plugs from the hilarious sitcom Arrested Development. My students pointed out that I had strayed too far from my main topic, and since the essay length was only around 1.5-2 pages, I let Tobias go.

In the midst of my revision, one of my students in seventh hour raised his hand and asked, “What are you doing?”

“What do you mean? Changing the words?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” he said. I laughed to myself and explained that I meant it when I said I wanted my students to revise their writing, so I wanted to show him and his classmates that I was willing to do the same.

How do you teach writing? Have you moved beyond the ass-ass method? Do you share your writing with your students? Is it polished or rough? Do you let your students critique your writing?

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5 thoughts on “False Starts

  1. Lezlie Christian on said:

    Jason, I decided also to follow Kelly Gallagher’s advice from Write Like This and model the writing process with my students, and have found their criticism was spot on; also, the more hesitant or unsure students saw examples of helpful peer review as well as revision.

  2. mrdalsky on said:

    You know, I’ve never thought of doing this before. Yes, I’ve shared some of my writing, but not in any depth. And I didn’t realize how doing that could be beneficial. My juniors are in the middle of writing a persuasive speech and while I’ve shown them examples, I never showed them any of my own examples. I will definitely be thinking of how this can fit into future units. Thanks for the tip!

  3. kinden on said:

    Great post – love the description of ass-ass methods of teaching. I have also engaged in modelling writing in class, and also in sharing my own draft and polished pieces with them. It creates a community of learners and also reminds us how hard it can be to share in public spaces. I referenced you blog in mine this morning: http://messyprofessional.wordpress.com/2012/10/21/stealing-this/
    Thanks for sharing your practice!

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