Microsoft Word 2003 & a Ghost Baby

I have always loved to read and write. Last semester I was spending a weekend at my Grandma’s house and she brought up a plastic tub from the basement filled to the brim with my childhood work. Half of it was artwork. I was a particular fan of the “paint” application on Microsoft Word 2003; out of the tub I took with me a pink dinosaur that my Grandma told me I drew with the mouse in 12 seconds flat. The other half were writings, stories and poems of all kinds (and even a script for me as a sports anchor, detailing how far I had thrown the shot put). My favorite piece was a horror story, featuring a ghost baby that appeared in a family’s foyer and they hid behind an umbrella stand. It was complete with illustrations. My point is, I started playing with language when I was young and I never stopped.

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What a cute little creation. I think I’ll name him Noodle. Picture is my own.

Ghost Child

You might have thought I was kidding about the ghost child in the foyer. I was, in fact, not. Picture is my own.

During high school this love of mine further solidified through a wonderful high school teacher. Her influence on me is detailed in this blog post of mine that describes five moments of learning that shaped me into the person I am today. In her class I read and wrote voraciously. Books like Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and Unwind by Neal Shusterman were taught by her, as were all kinds of papers— research papers, analysis papers, poems, descriptive essays, personal narratives, short stories… the whole gamut. Each assignment was pivotal, in its own way. In addition, each assignment helped me to become the writer I am today.

Cue now to college, where my writing skills have been honed more than I ever thought possible. While I do not necessarily agree with all of the information I have been presented one way or another about the topic of writing, learning more about the craft has helped me realize just how important it is to embrace my role as a modern writer. Though I do have ambitions to publish a short story or two, one of my main roles as a writer is situated in my chosen career path.

As a teacher, I want my students to know that their ideas are truly important. If I don’t fully understand and appreciate the fact that my ideas are important it will be quite difficult for me to be sincere in my efforts to support the kids entrusted to me. In this day and age, the sharing of ideas is a continuous cycle. Technology being at the finger tips of many, with a few taps at a keyboard voilà— the work can be shared for the world (or a handful of lovely readers, such is the way on The Joyous Life of Jess) to see. Myself and my future students will have the same opportunity, to write towards the bigger picture (though, of course, journaling for personal desire has the means to achieve the same end). To me, being a writer means valuing one’s thoughts, ideas, and opinions as well as appreciating the thoughts, ideas, and opinions of others.

I wish I could thank little me for having so much fun writing “The Tale of the Little Brown Puppy” and “The Cottonwood Tree Ghost.” I wish I could tell little me how proud I am for creating characters like sisters Josie and Zoey or Clarissa VanCronmp. I wish I could tell little me how wonderful it is that I like to create. The foundation little me laid, and high school me continued to build on, have helped the me I am now to read and write like I do. All starting with Microsoft Word 2003 and a ghost baby. Now I just need to bring my paint skills into the modern age too.

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Bird by Bird

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Take it bird by bird, my friends. Picture is my own.

Anne Lamott is a funny gal. It would take more than my ten fingers and ten toes to count how many times I laughed aloud reading through her book on writing, Bird by Bird. One of my favorite examples of her odd wit occurs during the introduction. She is working on this terrible short story about a bald psychiatrist named Arnold who is treating a depressed female writer and her younger brother, when suddenly he gives up and starts quacking like a duck to try to get them to laugh. Lamott kept sending snippets of this piece to her father’s agent, and each time the agent would reply with something along the lines of “Well, it’s really coming along now.” Shortly thereafter, her father passes away. At her father’s urging before he died, Lamott begins to write about the experience. After some work, she sends off a few chapters to the same agent. As Lamott writes, “But I think [my father’s agent] must have read them in a state of near euphoria, thrilled to find herself not reading “Arnold.” She is not a religious woman by any stretch, but I always picture her clutching those stories to her chest, eyes closed, swaying slightly, moaning, “Thank ya, Lord” (page xxiv). I think Anne Lamott and I would get along well.

As someone who is currently working on a humorous trio of short stories from my childhood that I would eventually like to expand into a collection, I found this piece relatable and down-to-earth (which is an ever increasing rarity). Though the advice in this book is much more useful when it comes to my personal creative writing endeavors, I did find myself pondering how I could apply some of her methods to my future high school English classroom. In this sense, there were two key ideas that I ran with.

1.) Shitty First Drafts

Vulgar, yes. Useful, yes. The idea of creating shitty first drafts is a prominent theme throughout the entirety of this book. Every person who has ever written some sort of paper in the entire universe knows that the first draft is (87.4% of the time) shitty. Though it sounds bad, the shitty first draft is a necessary part of the writing process. As Lamott states, “If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational grown-up means” (page 23). The shitty first draft is a time to get ideas on paper without worrying about how those ideas are being conveyed, and any teacher worth their salt knows that is the ideas that truly matter. One way to get kids accustomed to the importance of shitty first drafts might be something akin to a free write. Whenever we start a new writing project, research or creative or otherwise, I might have my students spend a good 15 to 20 minutes free writing about the thoughts that pop into their head. Then I might have them spend another 15 to 20 minutes focusing in on one of those brainstormed ideas, writing whatever comes to mind with that topic. It’s all about accessing thinking in its purest form, and saving the worrying of refinement for later.

2.) Workshop

In addition to shitty first drafts, Lamott dedicates a good deal of page space to both elements of story and then writing the story. These include: character, plot, dialogue, setting, writing groups, and having someone read your draft. Again, at first glance these topics seem better suited for creative writing. They are. However, their association with creative writing got me thinking about workshops. Some of my favorite courses I’ve taken in college have been creative writing courses, and in those creative writing courses my professor has implemented a technique called workshopping. Essentially, workshopping is when a handful of students at a time present one piece each to the class. The class then provides constructive feedback concerning the piece. Naturally, this is easier to implement when class periods are three hours long. However, I think it is definitely still doable in a secondary classroom. No matter what type of writing my students are working on, I would like to dedicate a few days to workshopping for each assignment. This way my students can gain insight to their writing through a valuable combination of peer and instructor feedback.

Maybe I’ll utilize more from Lamott, like having my students write about school lunches when they are stuck. Heck, I can tell you right now that I could probably write a ten page essay alone on the wonderful (no sarcasm, I sincerely love the stuff) mandarin orange chicken and homemade croutons my hometown school made. Who knows, though? I can’t guarantee any specific techniques, but there are two important concepts Lamott has taught me that I will keep forever. One, write. This goes for both myself, and my students. One can’t utilize any writing strategies if they don’t write in the first place. Take it bird by bird. The second, and perhaps most important, is laugh. Laugh at myself. Someday when I pull an Arnold at the front of the classroom, I’ll just laugh.

Works Cited

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. New York City: First Anchor Books, 1995. Print.

bell hooks & Michael Foucault

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bell hooks photo CC by cmongirl via Wikimedia Commons, and Michael Foucault photo labeled for reuse by the blog Philosophy, Science, and Technology via Google. A striking pair.

A French Man and an African American woman… at first glance, bell hooks and Michael Foucault seemingly have nothing in common. One was the daughter of a janitor, the other was the son of a surgeon. One excelled through school despite it being racially segregated, the other struggled with education until they were admitted into one of France’s most prestigious universities. One earned their doctorates with a dissertation on Toni Morrison, the other submitted their thesis but had it rejected initially. The list goes on. However, upon closer inspection one could easily make comparisons between the two. Their works on social theory and their pedagogies often work well with one another.

bell hooks and Michael Foucault could both be described with one word— radical. Though the focus of their beliefs and theories can essentially be boiled down to inclusion, they both have been described as “outspoken.” bell hooks is a staunch supporter of African American rights, particularly the rights of African American women. She is, in every sense of the word, a feminist. Her first major work published was Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism. It offers a scathing commentary on the likes of sexism and racism against black women, the devaluation of black womanhood, the marginalization of black women, and the idea of a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Though much of Michael Foucault’s work is elevated to the standard of academia, he has touched upon theories that are relatable to everyone, including: power, knowledge, sexuality, and self-hood . In addition, Foucault is quite politically active. Like hooks, he leans heavily to the left in his political views. Despite earning a somewhat unfavorable view because of his stances, in France he has supported prisoner’s rights and protested the Vietnam and Algerian Wars. These two people are clearly not afraid to speak their mind, and perhaps this is why they are so well known in both the writing and political spectrums.

In addition to their writing and political activism, both hooks and Foucault were teachers. hooks is an English professor in addition to lecturing and leading small group studies on topics in ethnicity and gender. Foucault was a psychology professor. As I mentioned in my earlier blog post on bell hooks, she believes in holistic pedagogy, which translates to an education that teaches students about life in addition to academics. She had an excellent elementary education where her African American teachers allowed her to explore knowledge without restraint. In high school, she was integrated into a black and white school system (literally and metaphorically) that mostly functioned to meet standards. This very similar to Foucault’s own observations on education. He believed that schools had become, “a sort of apparatus of uninterrupted examination.” It all fits into his theory that every system is dictated by subtle pulls of power. The intricacies of this theory, I must admit, are over my head, but I can completely understand where he is coming from when it comes to an educational point of view. In his idea of the educational system, knowledge has been put out of reach from students who are directed to focus on performance rather than honing their intelligence. This unfortunate methodology is still present in school systems today, as are the oppressive classrooms of bell hooks’ secondary career. Current and future teachers alike can learn from the example of bell hooks, and the warning of Foucault.

Foucault died from AIDS a few decades ago, so I’m not sure if he ever met bell hooks but I like to think they enjoyed one another’s company if they did. Though their lives were on two completely different tracks, it is apparent that they reached similar destinations. From social justice, to politics, to teaching these two have tackled some difficult subjects that the world is still wrapping its head around today. By comparing their beliefs and theories, one can glean valuable information that is applicable both in education and life today.

Nostalgic or Not, Here Digital Literacy Comes! (To be Stated Like Someone Playing Hide-and-Seek)

Each year, technology grows exponentially. In the year 2027, technology will be 512 times more advanced than it is right this moment in 2017. How does a person wrap their head around that? I know I can’t. I mean, I’m all for hover cars and time travel. Well… okay maybe I didn’t think that statement through. I am terrified of heights and having my atoms scrambled. In addition, I am an ultra nostalgic person. If it were up to me, I’d go back to the days of VHS tapes and car phones and playing kick the can in an alley outside on a summer evening instead of laying in bed scrolling through Instagram. That being said, I can acknowledge that some technological feats are both necessary and beneficial to society as a whole. The fact of the matter is whether I am a fan of certain technological advancements or not, I will need to be on board with them as a teacher in order to prepare my students to live in a world that is driven by technology. This is where digital literacy comes in.

Last semester here on The Joyous Life of Jess I wrote a detailed blog post on digital literacy entitled, Taking Off My Rose-Colored Glasses and Embracing Digital Literacy. In case you can’t tell from the title, I was also pretty nostalgic when I wrote that piece (RIP my QWERTY keyboard). However, I believe I still managed to shed some light as to what exactly digital literacy is. As I wrote, digital literacy is the ability to express one’s self, communicate, and analyze the ideas of others via multimedia. Many people’s first thought, mine included, at the sound of this definition is probably social media. That is not wrong. However, digital literacy expands beyond social media to the way people express themselves on any technological platform— be it blogging, writing a comment during a game, coding a website, or anything in between.

After reading the list I just wrote you might be wondering, “Why on Earth do teachers need to teach children digital literacy? Aren’t they already digitally literate?” The answer to that, my good friend, is twofold. One, the idea of digital natives is a myth. In the article What Digital Literacy Looks Like in a Classroom author Brianna Crowley states, “Many adults think that because children have been immersed in technology since a young age, they are naturally “literate” or skilled in using technology. . . Some research suggests this labeling is outright false— students are no more literate with their devices that their so-called digital immigrant parents.” Crowley hits the nail on the head because there is a big difference between knowing how to work technology, and knowing how to use it productively to express one’s thoughts or ideas.

The second reason it is necessary for teachers to teach digital literacy is because of a concept that goes hand in hand with it, digital citizenship. Fortunately for you (and me) I have again already written a blog post on this topic. Essentially, digital citizenship is the way a person conducts themselves on the Internet. It could be positive, or it could be negative. The concept of digital citizenship is one many children today struggle with. I believe that because they have grown up using technology, they tend to not fully understand the consequences their online decision making might have. After all, what was once on the Internet never fully goes away. This is why teachers must help students convey their thoughts in a responsible manner. Otherwise, what they do and say might come back to haunt them (like during a job interview, not a demon in the closet).

I must say, though, that the flip side to getting students to share their thoughts in a responsible manner is encouraging them to share those thoughts in the first place. The Internet is a beautiful place in the sense that it allows anyone and everyone to share their ideas with the world without having to jump through the hoops of publishing or publicity. The Internet is the student’s oyster, so to speak. The way the world is embracing technology, it is feasible to believe that the Internet might soon become the primary source for communication. As a result, students must know how to utilize it to their full advantage. The only way to do that is to educate students on digital literacy. It is up to teachers to help students get outside of their comfort zone and embrace the online written word while also maintaining healthy digital citizenship.

So what does digital literacy look like in practice? Normally, I am against standards (looking at you Common Core). However, when it comes to incorporating technology into the classroom in a productive manner, I believe that all teachers can benefit from some guidelines. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has issued a set of standards for teachers to follow in order to get the most out of teaching digital literacy. These standards can be applied in any classroom, at any level, for any subject. Pretty neat, right? One way I might teach digital literacy in my future secondary English classroom is through project-based learning (oh look, another blog post where I have already written about PBL). 🙂 I would have students take a concept, research a connection it has outside of the classroom in the real world, and then use technology as a mode to present their findings. It’s a win-win-win-win; student’s have learner autonomy, they get down and dirty with technology, they grow their digital literacy skills through a form of the written word, and they get to see how their learning applies outside of their education. Woohoo!

In conclusion, let’s not play hide-and-seek with technology. It is completely and utterly okay to be fond of the past, but it is also completely and utterly necessary to embrace the future. In this day and age it is critical for all teachers to help students be equipped with the skills they need in order to be both digitally literate and good digital citizens. I believe American financier Bernard Baruch said it best, “The ability to express an idea is well nigh as important as the idea itself.”

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I took this picture solely in order for you to print out this wonderful quote and tape it to your refrigerator because why not?

bell hooks: Lowercase in Name, Not Life

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Quote by bell hooks, photo by me via Canva.

The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is— it’s to imagine what’s possible.” this quote from bell hooks is unsurprising considering she is a woman who always imagines what is possible in the realms of education, gender, and culture. She imagines more, she imagines better through her teaching and her writing. For her, it is truly about the art. This is why her pen name is written in lowercase letters; she wants her work to be about the substance, not her. For a number of decades hooks has been a driving force in the classroom and on paper, firmly situating herself as an influential player in the contemporary history of writing.

Some may disagree, but I believe that her most important contribution to writing as a whole is that of her pedagogy as is demonstrated in her book, Teaching to Transgress. hooks identifies herself as an advocate for holistic education. In other words, she truly cares for her students and wants them to grow both in and out of her classroom. As she once wrote “Progressive, holistic education, “engaged pedagogy” is more demanding than conventional critical or feminist pedagogy. For, unlike these two teaching practices, it emphasizes well-being. That means that teachers must be actively involved and committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.” This concept of hers is essential to teaching writing simply because it goes beyond writing itself. She has been calling on educators to be the best people they can be so that they might have the ability to help others become the best people they can be through the experience of taking part in an education that is freeing, rather than constrictive.

Along with her pedagogy, hooks has made invaluable contributions to writing through her feminist theory. Though it was not published until 1981, hooks wrote her first book on feminist theory, Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism while she was still an undergraduate student at Stanford University. Her commentaries on the marginalization of black women, sexism and racism of black women, and the disregard for issues of race and class within feminism have remained relevant nearly four decades later. As she stated here, “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.” She has never been one to shy away from criticism, and her fearlessness in the face of controversy works to show the timeless strength she possesses. Her outspokenness only demonstrates her passion for revolutionizing feminism in the world through written word.

Going hand in hand with her feminist theory is hooks’ thirst for validity of the African American culture. Born Gloria Jean Watkins to a custodian and a stay-at-home mother, hooks experienced segregation first hand as a child. However, she embodies the American Dream in the sense that she views her experience as an empowering one rather than an oppressive one. Using her past as a motivator, over the years she has tirelessly written and spoken on behalf of black women rights. In order to make change, she utilizes one of the greatest skills from her education— the power of communication.

bell hooks: lowercase in name, not in life. She is a woman who has humbled herself in her writing in order to express her pride in education, feminism, and African American culture. Above all, she has found a way to take those beliefs and imagine better, for herself and every life her teaching and writing has touched.

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The force that is bell hooks. Photo CC by Montikamoss via Wikimedia Commons.

Adams Sherman Hill, an Open Letter to Students of English

To Students of English,

I am sure that each of you are confident in your ability to write. Whether you are partial to Latin, mathematics, English, or all of these subjects be that you are still in grammar or high school, most have an assurance in English— in their own ability to communicate by way of written language. Since you were young, one might assume you have been taught with the intent to achieve mastery in the craft. After all, despite the floundering of certain scholars to produce works with even modest grammatical correctness, it can be noted that every subject requires, at some level, great knowledge of proper writing. However, it is clear that these assumptions are flawed.

Two centuries past the difficulty with education prior to University was a lack of teaching English at all. If the subject was given two hours of instruction within one week it was considered as taking up more time than what should have been allotted. It appears at present, though an ample amount of English is being taught, that the issue now lies within the content of the teaching. At stages in your schooling when, perhaps, the teacher should have had a tighter reign as to what you all were writing and how you were writing it he or she instead opted for a rather liberal amount of student freedom. In addition, educators of the English language have chosen to eschew such sound authors as Macaulay, Thackeray, or Dickens for others who seem to be more preoccupied with “risk taking” in their writing as opposed to a strong focus on the very mechanics that make writing what it is. As a result, the large majority of students are seriously lacking both a command of grammar, punctuation, and, in some instances, spelling as well as an under appreciation for fine literature.

I find it necessary to take the time to remind each of you of the weight your mother tongue holds. One concept that is the same now as it was then is of the general perspective that literacy is an easy skill to grasp and maintain. To my disdain, many educators and students alike seem to be under the false impression that once literacy has been acquired, it no longer needs to be honed. This could not be farther from the truth. I want each of you to dispel this skepticism, along with your own personal misconceptions, and recognize that grammar, punctuation, and spelling should not merely be afterthoughts, but rather muscles that remain continually flexed. Without these firm foundations, you yourself will not be grounded in any aspect of your native language.

It was for these reasons that, in 1874, my University, Harvard, integrated a portion of English composition into the previously established entrance exam. I was, in effect, let down in an immense way when I discovered that nearly half of the students who partook in the exam also failed. I later determined that of those that failed, some did so due to an utter ignorance of the content and some did so due to an utter ignorance of English conventions. I want neither of these severe mistakes to be made by you. I am aware that now the conduct of Universities is vastly different in both the way students are admitted and in the curriculum itself. I can accept these changes to an extent, but I will continue to speak on behalf of not only what is taught in the primary, secondary, and post-secondary settings in regards to English, but also the amount. As I once wrote, “More work is done in the schools; greater proficiency.”

It seems fair to conclude that, if the past is any indication, despite the present shortcomings, both English education and her students will strive to make significant improvements in the coming decades. Although learning from the past has a negative connotation when speaking in general, in this particular situation learning from the past will provide you the greatest hope for your future. Retreating to the very basics upon which written language relies will enable you to again reengage with the one study worth the utmost pursuance throughout your education and beyond. Do not, as was evident with those who were not successful with the inaugural English composition Harvard exam, start an English reform purely for yourself. Rather, set upon the ideals I have outlined in your— and all of the students to come— interest.

Adams Sherman Hill, Harvard University

February 2016

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Adams Sherman Hill. Photo by Bryan A. Garner via Twitter.

A Super Niche Post, Just for You!

I’m about 852.6% positive no one who reads through The Joyous Life of Jess lived during the 1800s (if I am wrong, 117+ year old person you are a rock star!) so this post will hopefully provide you with some enlightening information. As aforementioned, I am currently enrolled in a course entitled “The Theory and Principles of Teaching Writing.” Naturally, this is why my past two posts have centered upon concepts of writing and rhetoric. This week is no different. Taking another big bite out of the history, I’ve been conducting research these past few days on what rhetoric and teaching writing looked like in 19th century America (no small task, let me tell you). Without further ado, here is a super niche post, just for you. 🙂

On this blog, I am a fan of fancy words that can be thrown around at parties to impress others. During the course of my research I learned two new words that are not only fun to say, but are critical to understanding rhetoric in 19th century America. According to the web article, Nineteenth Century Rhetoric, “. . . research into the theoretical foundations of nineteenth-century rhetoric points to three overt influences: ‘firm classical foundations,’ belletristic interests in ‘criticism and literary taste,’ and epistemological approaches to rhetoric as a ‘science’ closely related to the study of the mental faculties.”

Let’s break this down. First (before the two fancy words), the reference of firm classical foundations in this case refers specifically to the rhetorical theories of Cicero. This fellow WordPress blog does an excellent job outlining Cicero’s five canons of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. The 19th century went back to its roots for the foundation, but as the previously stated article writes, “Even the most persistent critics of the ‘dispersed’ state of nineteenth-century rhetoric conclude that nineteenth-century rhetoric extended traditional praxis beyond oratory and public speaking to include the arts of prose composition and critical analysis.” Although 19th century rhetoric was defined by its staunch support of past rhetoric ideals, it was a distinct time of growth in the sense that the focus of rhetoric was no longer just public speaking, but also the written word as well.

Okay, now we can get down and nerdy. The word “belletristic” according to Dictionary.com refers to literature that is regarded as fine art, especially having a purely aesthetic function. What this means in the context of the 19th century is that rhetoric no longer had to be used purely for the purpose of persuading on a large scale, but rather it could be used to make sense of that which is pleasurable. The 19th century set the stage for rhetoric and literature as it has become popularized today, used for both scholarly endeavors as well as (my personal preference) entertaining ones.

Finally, the definition of “epistemological” is relating to the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion. Whereas rhetoric of the past had been more of an activity, something that could be bettered with practice, the 19th century saw rhetoric as something that instead was determined by intelligence. They reached this conclusion by taking Cicero’s canons and combining it with the psychology determined by epistemological study. It was a movement that eventually gave rise to great thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, who ultimately challenged everything the 19th century (and past centuries, for that matter) defined as rhetoric.

Once I gathered the information that defined 19th century rhetoric, it only felt natural to look into what teaching writing consisted of during that time as well. The two go hand in hand. What I found is that what defined rhetoric also defined the concepts of teaching writing. One major player behind the foundation of schooling in 19th century America is “The Scottish Commonsense Philosophy.” This philosophy in layman’s terms was all about thinking of the mind as an “anatomy” that consisted of multiple faculties that cataloged the ways in which individuals experienced the world. As is stated by the article “Psychology and the Teaching of Writing” by William F. Woods, at the time this psychology gained widespread acceptance by educators and the public alike.

The Scottish Commonsense Philosophy led to schooling being taught as a discipline. With English in particular, spelling and grammar students were expected to take up rote memorization of rules and practices. This directly affected the way writing was taught, as well. Instead of giving students the freedom to write in their own voices, “written exercises asked them to imitate sentences which contained the principles of grammar.” This led to importance being placed upon correct conventions, as opposed to the ideas behind the writing.

This would prove to be somewhat detrimental, as was demonstrated in a man named Adams Sherman Hill. In 1879, Adams Sherman Hill was named the assistant professor of rhetoric at Harvard, as is stated in my professor’s history of writing. During his time at Harvard, Hill worked hard to keep writing focused upon correct conventions. Although he truly cared about the subject of English and fought to have English composition taught more at every level in University, when it came to the writing of potential students the importance was placed upon the likes of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. After seeing that half of the incoming freshman class failed the newly instated writing portion of the entrance exam due to “utter ignorance of punctuation and spelling” he wrote an essay directed towards to primary, grammar, and high school educators and administrators. He titled it, “An Answer to the Cry for More English” and within he urged for English to be taught more properly in schools before the public took to criticizing the colleges for not teaching English enough. While one can certainly admire his goals, it unfortunately led to a more shallow view of English. Hill’s focus was on the surface, not always on the ideas that the writing conveyed. Years later, rhetoric scholar Sharon Crowley took aim at Hill’s view on rhetoric by saying his stance and the Harvard written exam served no purpose other than alienating English speakers from their written language by creating an exam that is extremely difficult to pass with the only goal being to create more classes that could then attempt to pick up the pieces of the destruction of rhetoric left in its wake. While I do not necessarily completely agree with Crowley or with Hill, in the 21st century, educators and students alike are still feeling the aftermath of these past ways of thinking.

On this fine Friday, I hope that you learned all that you never knew you wanted to learn about rhetoric and the teaching of writing in 19th century America. It was a time defined by firm characteristics of the past, as well as unsound philosophies of its present. The result was a cookie-cutter way of writing that this country is still in the process of breaking the mold from. That being said, it is important to understand history so that we can learn from it. Without having known about rhetoric and teaching writing in the 19th century, I would not have had a definite guide of what I do and don’t want my students’ rhetoric and my teaching of writing to look like a few years from now. So in that case, thank you to all those 117+ year olds who defined writing as they knew it so that we could eventually keep making it better. I have now shared all that I know to be true in this super niche post, just for you. 😉

Recent Tendrils and Mighty Roots

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Here is an aesthetically pleasing picture of writing to accompany my post on writing. Photo CC by OuadiO via Flickr.

For the vast majority of literate people, learning of the written word began small. It probably started with sounds, using rounded mouths to form gurgling syllables. Then it moved onto speech, being able to say specific letters and words. After that came the writing itself, but it was tackled in baby steps. Scribbles, then letters, then words, then sentences, then paragraphs, then essays. After that, a transference occurs. Once a person has “learned” how to build a proper paper, their learning is considered complete. It is then up to the person what they choose to use writing for, and many choose to utilize writing when it is a necessity. This could manifest to complete duties in the workplace, accomplish organization at home, or (unfortunately, not as often) as an outlet. These recent tendrils of the uses of writing are not far removed from the mighty roots of the origins of writing.

Once writing was acquired by people in the Ancient Near East, their uses of it stayed mostly consistent. As mentioned in my post Let’s Make Writing Accessible during the early centuries of writing, the scribes were the only ones who were trained in its art. As a result, they had a monopoly, so to speak, on the written word. This meant that they had the most say as to what writing was used for.

According to an in-progress work on this history of writing by one of my professor’s, the uses of writing could be generally categorized in two ways. The first is propaganda. Perhaps as early as 4000 BC, images and symbols were used to perpetuate a sense of order and lift up the rulers and gods. Today, this is most definitely still relevant. While the term propaganda has become somewhat taboo in modern society, written and spoken media still has great sway on public opinion of people in leadership positions. Although (as was demonstrated in this past presidential election) the media is an incredible force, the power still ultimately resides in the people, and people can come together to defy great odds.

The second use of writing is administrative, which makes sense. Where there are people there are needs, and if those needs are going to be met it is necessary to have organization. In the Ancient East, the kingdom was responsible for fulfilling the needs of its people. The scribes were charged with the task of keeping this bureaucracy in order, outlining what the kingdom brought in and what it dispensed and what it was left with. This website, History World agrees with the idea that writing was used to keep tallies. It states that in early millenniums, writing was used for such things as tracking animals, conducting trade, accounting, and creating early documents that signified ownership. It goes without saying that writing is of the utmost importance in all economies today. However, it is too bad that writing had to help develop taxes along the way. 🙂

I don’t remember my first sounds, my first words, or even my first writings but that is fine because I am aware of what writing means to me today and I am appreciative of its paramount origins. Propaganda might seem eerie and bookkeeping might seem dull, but without them both who knows where the written word would be in 2017. I use writing to express my ideas, but if it is used to complete tasks that is completely okay. No matter what anyone uses it for the fact that it is being used is wonderful. Each time a person takes it upon themselves to take advantage of the written word, a new shoot is created, a new tendril burrows its way out from the mighty roots of writing’s illustrious history. To me, that is beautiful.

Let’s Make Writing Accessible

The friends and family God has given me in life are a bunch that (for the most part) dislike reading, and definitely dislike writing. My father was a business education major, my mother was an accounting major, my younger brother doesn’t care much for school in general but REALLY does not enjoy English class (boo hiss), and my best friend would much rather work on cars and drive big machines than write. It’s funny, both to them and myself, that I ended up choosing the career path that I did as an English educator.

I always thought that our differences were due largely in part to the way our minds were wired, and I still do. I’m not completely removed from their logical ideologies, but I consider myself more of an abstract thinker. Whereas my loved ones are more grounded in concrete concepts I often find myself taking a step back and looking at the big picture. However, after being exposed to a brief history of writing this past week, I’ve begun to rethink exactly why those close to me have such a distaste for writing like they do.

I know it might seem like a stretch. What on Earth does the history of writing have to do with personal preference? As it turns out, quite a lot. My Theory and Principles of Teaching Writing professor provided those in his class with a compelling history beginning well before Christ’s time taking part in the hypostatic union, expanding my mind on a subject that as far as I was concerned never really had a solid beginning. Reading it has led me to this conclusion; writing has never been truly accessible for everyone.

This might seem obvious at first. Many people are aware of how priests in the Middle Ages abused their power of being literate by specifically not letting anyone else learn how to read, write, or speak Latin. What many people don’t know is how often similar scenarios have occurred throughout history, well before and well after the Middle Ages. One of the most fascinating truths I learned from this history on writing in regards to this is how one of the first authors ever was actually a woman named Enheduanna. I’d be willing to bet a generous sum of money ($20, in college student speak) that not many outside of those firmly entrenched in writing academia had ever heard her name before this post, which is sad. Enheduanna is the first of a long line of people that have been excluded from learning something that should be a right, literacy.

That is precisely how she relates back to my own friends and family. Although personality and interests certainly play a role, one of the major reasons most people don’t enjoy writing is because it has never been made accessible to them. From the scribes allegedly keeping the first alphabet under wraps in order to preserve their high status in society, to slave owners forbidding slaves to learn how to read and write in an attempt to keep them powerless, to teachers who only teach how to write properly instead of exploring the craft, writing has been kept from the public both intentionally and unintentionally for ages.

As a result, my biggest take away from learning more about the history of writing is that I want to do everything in my power to make sure that I do not keep writing from any of my future students. For my parents, my brother, my best friend, and all those in history who did not have the privilege to explore such a wonderful medium in a way that was meaningful to them, I will do my best to make writing accessible in my classroom by making it a personal experience for each student. I desire nothing more than for all to believe in their own written word, and use it to share their unique ideas with a world that might otherwise try to silence them.

I Would Never Hurt an Elephant (but I Would Gently Lead It Away from My Classroom)

I love animals. I love them all, including elephants. Unfortunately, the title of this blog post does not actually have to do with real elephants, but rather the metaphorical phrase of “an elephant” being in the room. Particularly, in the classroom. I might only be 19, but as someone who has known they wanted to become an educator for quite some time I have been able to recognize the fact that the American education system is imperfect (to say the least). With this understanding, I have also been able to observe how educators react to this fact. What I have noticed is that most don’t react at all. They would rather leave the elephants in the room than help them. This phenomena is addressed in the article, 9 Elephants in the (Class)Room that Should “Unsettle” Us by Will Richardson.

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This elephant looks like it is smiling. 😀 Probably because it is free to roam around outside instead of being cooped up in a classroom… or maybe it just found some good mud to bathe in. Photo CC by John Hilliard via Flickr.

I think it is important to quote how Richardson begins his article. He writes, “At a recent morning workshop for school leaders at a fairly small New England public school district, about an hour into a conversation focused on what they believed about how kids learn best, an assistant superintendent somewhat surprisingly said aloud what many in the room were no doubt feeling. “When I really try to square what I believe about how kids learn and what we practice in our classrooms, it unsettles me,” she said. “And it frustrates me.” As it should.” There is a disconnect in education. Many teachers know what learning looks like, and it is not what they see in the classroom. Richardson addresses nine of the issues that attribute to the disconnect in this article.

The first point of his that resonated with me was number five, “[Educators] know that grades, not learning, are the outcomes that students and parents are most interested in.” I can attest to this problem, because it is something I struggle with greatly. I have never not had a 4.0 GPA, I was co-valedictorian of my high school class, and I have been on the president’s list every semester of college thus far. These are all well and good accomplishments, but what is the point? I might earn A’s, but often I find it is at the risk of truly understanding material. This is because there isn’t enough time to both earn a good grade and fully take in, digest, and learn the subject at hand. It is so much more important for students to actually learn than to “learn” what will be measured on a test. This article by a sophomore in high school named Emily Mitchum also discusses the harm grading has done to education, and it echoes many of my sentiments. My belief is that the only way to fix this is to eradicate grades. You might initially think I’m crazy for saying that, but it is possible and has been done already. Alternative schools like Northstar are a testament to developing high-functioning learners without the use of grades or tests. It is my hope to one day see public education adopt a similar approach.

The second point that caught my eye was number four, “[Educators] know that [they’re] not assessing the things that really matter for future success.” Students learn how to solve for x, what a preposition is, and when World War I ended… but why don’t we teach them dispositions? Why don’t we prepare them to be patient, to be kind, to become a healthy citizen in this world? Why can’t we explicitly help them to hone their creative skills, to be curious, to thrive amongst diversity? To me, and many others, it makes no sense. I know there are excellent teachers in this world that are attempting to overcome the oppression of rigid structuring to help their students explore these questions, but until all teachers do it will not be enough. The only way to remedy this difficult elephant will be to overhaul the education system as we know it. Call me crazy again, but I hope I live to see this day.

The elephants are there, and everyone knows it, so why don’t we do something about it? Let’s grab some big leashes and get those gentle guys out of here. We can take them to a savanna, bring them some water to drink, some vegetation to eat, and let them trumpet their trunks in glee. The only thing we can’t do is let them stay in the classroom. It will be difficult, it will be arduous, but a change is possible. All of my fellow (future) educators, I challenge you to not let those elephants stay unacknowledged. We can be the ones to make a difference for future students, producing generations who love to learn instead of those who hate school. Together we can make it happen.