Category Archives: Writing

Thoughts on Templates and Models

I’m feeling this at both the university level and the high school level, this request for a template and/or a model for the work. I’ll take on the university question another day. Today’ll be about high school.

I try to provide models, as much as I can, knowing that the best versions break the rules. For example, I wanted to try and give a George Saunders piece about a Donald Barthelme story to the kids. It was brilliant, mostly because it broke all of the annoying rules you try to teach in order to ensure kids don’t make basic mistakes. Models can produce disengagement — how will I ever get to that level — and they can produce mimicry where I end up reading a much reduced, BudLite version.

When I can, I offer hall-of-fame versions from previous classes, but as an unrepentant tinkerer, I change the assignments every year, making this difficult to do. Sometimes it’s helpful to read the work from previous students that is like the current assignment, sometimes it is not.

I try to provide templates but that creates other issues as you get the same paper over and over again. Or kids see the template and stop thinking about stuff; they just use it as a checklist. And it eliminates the issue of form, which is a powerful one to grapple with and part of the writing process; what is the best form for what you’re trying to say? The basic five-paragraph essay usually isn’t it.

There’s another issue, though, that I was trying to solve with templates this quarter, that of the student who sits there, unsure what to do next, without consulting any of the work they’ve already done. In the olden days, I can remember sitting there with a pile of index cards and a legal pad full of notes, and that’d be the material I’d use to write my papers. (I can also remember the analog version of another issue that computers cannot solve — having no notes to draw upon because I hadn’t done the work.) Too often students start writing and forget about all of the work they’ve done before the final project begins. Too often students start writing and forget all about the collective work we’ve done. I say it constantly: all the work we’ve done up to this point should have filled your toolbox and given you everything you need to write the paper. But it’s one thing when you have a pile of analog notes to draw upon; it’s another when it’s a mix of files, Canvas links, discussion board posts, and some of those analog notes.

In the world of AI, I also know I need to have the entire writing process visible. One colleague recommended Draftback, which is awesome, and does allow the writing process to be seen as a video. And unlike some of my colleagues, who ask students to put their final version into a separate document, I want to see it all in one place.

What I tried this quarter was to pile all of the big project documents into one template so that as they were writing, they could sweep up and down through a single file to look at those pieces.

Kids hated it. Hated it. Hated. It.

It’s too much.
I can’t find my work.
I don’t know where to put my work. I don’t work this way.
I want a fresh document. (I said keep inserting page breaks until everything is moved all the way down the document, but that didn’t help.)

I am thinking of the following replacements:

One, having kids submit a screenshot of several moments when they are writing, where they have three or four tabs open with the work they’re drawing from. That way I could impress upon them the need to use their previous bits as starting points. And even faking this — crap the bald man wanted us to submit a screenshot, let me open five tabs of my work — would underscore the need to use their work.

Two, having kids submit a process document at the end, where they link to the three or four bits of homework and/or classwork that were the biggest help. I envision a hyperlink with two sentences describing how this piece was helpful; maybe I could make it part of the works cited page. I could also use it as a way for them to measure their own process work — which documents proved to be the most helpful and which documents were worthless. This would give me a sense of what activities I need to replace. If I look at the entire group, too, I would get a sense of which wells everyone was drawing their water from. (This document could be something I do alongside or in place of the old “tell the story of the benchmark” process piece…)

Plan for next time: have the works cited document include a section that includes the four to five classwork or homework activities they drew upon most for their paper.


Didn’t write yesterday because it was Thursday, shit day, and the day that Interims were due, and the day that I teach all day, and the day I didn’t even think about University stuff even though I’m woefully behind, and the day that I picked up our van whose repairs cost $1,800 I know we don’t  have, and the day that I picked up the vegetables, and the day that I prepared dinner (pasta bar), and the day that I looked at my kitchen floor and thought shit I need to scrub that, and the day that I felt like I couldn’t look at a screen for another moment, and the day that I thought that my stomach was going to explode, and the day that my podcasting students left me completely inspired with their awesome work, and the day that I almost said multiple inappropriate things in English 3 last period because I was so exhausted by the time that zoom call began, and the day that my advisory all seemed to want to be there, and the day that I didn’t exercise for the second day in a row, and the day that I began by arguing with Lisa, and the day that I somehow didn’t manage to eat lunch until 4PM, and the day where a new clock arrived for my workspace, which is great because I hate looking at my phone and it was another day where I realized that my eyes are so bad that I don’t like looking at my watch so I’m glad I have a big old clock, and the day that I brought the tools up from the basement to sink a screw so I could hang the clock in the right space and the day that I was too tired to do so, and the day that the contractor next door apologized for not cleaning out the alley sooner, which is great except that his shit has been there for a month, and I won’t say anything because they’re expecting their first baby and they don’t need the additional stress, and the day where I didn’t read a book, not one page, not one paragraph, the day where I fell into bed and fell immediately asleep as my boy also decided he was too tired and went to bed without watching the entire Bears game, the day that the internet was full of memes about the Vice President and the fly, the day that once again people wrung their hands because women get interrupted when they speak, the day that I admired just how cool Kamala Harris is, the day I admired just how cool my daughter is, the day that I realized I don’t have a plan for tomorrow, which is why I’m writing about the day instead of opening that document, the day that I worked through three pages of a new composition book because I needed to, because it was another day where each class got its own page, and there I was, starting a new composition book, the day where I got frustrated about almost everything, the day where I sat down and played my guitar at night, the day where I thought about the day, the day, the day, the day… 

Life of the mind

Cool piece from the New Yorker, here.

This paragraph is awesome:

But humanism is exactly why, in my view, a classroom with human bodies in it, struggling over the meaning of a short story, works. Because the literary arts are not the same as the study of economics or astrophysics. The literary arts are about emotions and human consciousness, and so the instruction can’t be converted into data points. The literary arts are more about a human in the room feeling something, expressing it, and the other humans listening, and, ideally, feeling similarly. Such is the invention of compassion. Our instruction is not only about dispensing information; it is also about bearing witness, grappling with the complexities of another.

If you replace “short story” with history or urban studies, this paragraph still holds.


OED has the first occurrence in 1666:

1666: G. Harvey Morbus Anglicus i. 2   Some [diseases] do more generally haunt a Country..whence such diseases are termed Endemick or Pandemick.

Later today I have to poke around and find the extended article that someone has written about the evolution of this word.

Draft of Facing History Essay

As a teacher, you should be doing most of the stuff you ask your students to do. Here’s my first attempt at this essay.


“Let us not forget, after all, that there is always a moment when the moral choice is made. Often because of one story or one book or one person, we are able to make a different choice, a choice for humanity, for life.”
Please write an essay responding to Wiesel’s quote in 500 words or less. What story, book, or person has influenced your thinking about ethical decision making? What has it taught you about how you can participate as a caring, thoughtful citizen in the world around you?

When I was in eleventh and twelfth grade I took four classes with Jean St. Pierre. Her reading list, her wisdom, her assignments are all the basis of what I do in the classroom today. One book stays with me and I give it as a gift on a regular basis: Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague. Set in an imaginary city in Algeria, the book describes the arrival of a disease and how the town folks responded to this threat. What I remember from this book is the growing sense that the world was collapsing and the desperation that develops when all is going horribly wrong. There were some folks who kept a kind of quiet grace in trying to meet their daily needs and to persist in trying to help the whole community survive. And there were others who crumbled.

I know this sounds remarkably unhelpful. And I wonder too about how this sad, sad book might be a source for a moral stance, one that’s lasted me the thirty-one years since I walked away from Bulfinch Hall. The first thing I’ve taken from it, particularly as I walk into my classroom each morning, is that part of a moral life is getting up and facing the work. We say it in our school, maybe too much, that the work is the work. What we mean is that you’ve got to keep at it, each day, that sometimes it’s glorious and fun and sometimes it’s just grinding through. We don’t live under Nazi Occupation nor have the rats begun to die on us a they did in Oran, but we are experiencing the impact of American poverty every day. The realities my students face, the injustices large and small, the world bound by policy and history, which, combined with their own adolescent choices, makes it hard to keep going sometimes. But I’m there and I’ll be there, and my presence makes a difference.

The second notion I’ve taken from this book, for better or worse, is to keep trying. To keep the daily ritual of struggle up no matter what. To keep addressing the problems in front of you, no matter how little impact you may think you’re having. To keep the small rituals of decency and kindness alive no matter what’s happening. To remember that the world is pretty much collapsing around you and all you have left are the actions you can take. You might live far from Oran and the terrors of the Plague; maybe you’re one of the lucky Americans who can live, work, and die without ever really having to see how poverty or injustice are woven into the fabric of American life. But Camus urges us to face this reality because, well, eventually it’s coming for us all.

I haven’t reread this book in ten years or so and maybe I’m totally wrong in my recollections. Maybe I’m giving to Camus what’s really due to Jean St. Pierre. Maybe those days of quiet deliberation in a seminar room were what forged this moral stance. Either way, I’ll be up in the morning, walking to school with a half-smile on my face, ready to try and remake our part of the world.

Goal reached

I ask my students to keep a document to keep track of their work. We call it a tracker.

I have a tracker, too, for this manuscript I’ve been working on. I don’t have a title yet. When I started it I was reading Judy Blume with Kara, so the terrible working title was “Are you there, God? It’s me, the trying-to-remain idealistic teacher.” Dreadful. Awful.

Here’s the first entry from my tracker:

Write it as a book proposal?
Why not?

This morning, 7:29 AM, first draft complete!

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