Tag Archives: essay

Week 38 – Can the Training Wheels Miss the Bike?


We were on our last week of school.  Tuesday was our last day of regular classes.  Wednesday students watch the Upper School Performance (which was wonderful) and had two Humanities classes.  We finished up our last essay which students presented as a speech. The 6th had a math class, but then, that’s it.  Thursday was a half day and that was all about cleaning up, gathering up, signing year books, and saying good-bye.  We also finished watching most of The Holy Grail, skipping Castle Anthrax.

The speech writing used the same pattern as any other expository writing.  Brainstorming, outlining, writing, and for some of the faster students, a chance to revise.  The main difference was that I wouldn’t help them.

One student was not about to be put off.  She kept asking me to check her work.  Now this is a student who was writing her 14th essay for me.  I knew, really knew, that she didn’t really need my help. I had her previous 13 papers in her portfolio in the back room.  Every time she asked for help I referred her to her Tools folder, or the rubric, or the book, or a classmate.  Still, she kept asking questions that I knew she knew the answer to.

I finally stopped her and asked if she knew how hard it was for me not to help her?  Everybody thinks that the teacher is there to guide and help students, but the teacher is also there to help students do it themselves.  Once the how-to-do-it-ive-ness has been established, the teacher needs to step back and let the students do it.  I think they had noticed by now, as it was the end of the year, that I am both nosy and bossy.  I find it very, very difficult not to look over their shoulders and point out places where they could be doing it the way I would be doing it, even when there is no guarantee that their way isn’t better.  It is why I make myself sit at my desk and often knit or write blog entries until one of them needs help.

The student looked at me and said, “So, you are kind of like training wheels?”  Yes.  I am the human equivalent of training wheels.  My job is to make myself superfluous.  Then I asked her if she ever considered that the training wheels might miss the bike.

There was a moment of reflective silence in the room.


Week 36 – A Pop Essay to Make You Foam at the Mouth


As the year is winding down, I’ve been wanting to assess my students on the writing process when left totally up to them.  I also wanted to know what they took from the movie “A Knight’s Tale” that we watched in class as part of our unit on the middle ages.  (We watched a safer, denuded, and cleaned up “airplane” version.)   So when they came back from recess, I said, “Okay, Pop Essay!  Get out binder paper and your notes.”


Using your notes and the True/False list you made while viewing the A Knight’s Tale, outline and write a first draft of an expository essay.  You have one class period only.

 Here is your prompt:  How historically accurate is the movie “A Knight’s Tale”?  Describe the most important moments that are accurate and explain why, and then describe the most interesting  moments that are inaccurate and explain why.  What conclusions can you draw about our popular notion of the middle ages based on the film?

Do your outline here.


The students never batted an eye.  They all got out paper and their notes, and we looked at the prompt.

We took a minute to “deconstruct” the prompt.  First I asked them where we would find our thesis statement.  We underlined the first question.  I explained that they would need to turn it into a statement, but clearly I need to go over it again because one student used the question as it was written.

Then we numbered the jobs that the prompt was asking to be answered.   We put a 1 at “describe” and drew an arrow to what we were to describe and circled it: the important moments.  Then we put a 1a at the word “why” to remind us to give examples and reasons.  Then we put a 2 at the second “describe” drew a circle around the words “interesting moments” and drew a squiggly line under the word “interesting” to make it clear that “important” and “interesting” are two different concepts.  Then we put a 2a at the word, “why”.

Then we looked at the last sentence, and students were relieved to see the word “conclusions”. They accurately connected the word to a conclusion paragraph.  You don’t need to do it that way, but it does make a nice way to wrap up your thoughts.

Then I introduced the idea of the magic number 3.  They need two sets of moments.  Emphasis on the plural.  I told them that it is always useful to pick three ideas to support their thesis.  This meant that with a topic sentence they would be looking at about seven sentences for their body paragraphs.  Each moment must be supported.  The three moments plus three examples plus one topic sentence equals about seven sentences.  That gave them an idea of the length of the paper.

I wanted them to give me strong outlines, and so I told them that they needed to make the outline specific enough that if they didn’t finish the paper, I could still give them credit based on what they were planning to say as shown in their outline.  One the other hand, I warned them that they didn’t want to make the outline so specific that they didn’t have time to write it.  Only one didn’t get to write.  But his outline is amazing.  (We’ll work on it.)  Some finished early.  I told them that in this case, they need to check that they were on topic, then do as much revision as possible before the essays are picked up.  They needed to think about legibility, grammar and mechanics, idea and content, organization, word choice, and voice.

It takes time to master timed writing. They should not beat themselves up because they didn’t finish, but to consider why they hadn’t.

Instead of posting several essays, I thought I could get more student’s work up if I cherry picked some paragraphs and moments that I found to be most interesting.

Here are some openings:

The movie “A Knight’s Tale” focuses on medieval times.  But is the movie accurate to history?  In this paper:  What is accurate?  What is inaccurate? and why?

How accurate is the movie “A Knight’s Tale”? This movie is about a squire, the helper of a knight, named William, and how he changed his stars.  Which means that he went from squire to knight.

Is “A Knight’s Tale” historically inaccurate? Or is it both?  Let us find out.

And some 1st body paragraphs:

This will be the accurate section of my paper.  Training daily is a huge part of a knight’s  life.  That is how they have lots of power to hold these huge swords (not always big swords, but heavy).  Courtly love is love in the nobility.  One of the rules is when you speak to your lover, you will foam at the mouth.  The Black Prince is a real character.  His real name is Prince Edward.  He is famous for his victories.  He does help other kings and, yes, he does tournaments.  There is still many more. 

First of all, this movie had a lot of accuracies, some unexpected.  There was, in fact, daily training for all knights.  William wasn’t doing a lot of extra training. All the rules of jousting and the stuff that happened (including getting hurt) did happen.  This is important because it was actually unwarped despite how silly it sometimes seemed.  William also followed the rules of courtly love.  That is very important because to some people could see that it would be crazy how one would follow and constantly think about another.

Now I will describe a few accurate parts.  Most of the dances were accurate, but not all of them were.  This was important because William got closer to the girl he liked.  Only widows having men’s job (blacksmithing) was accurate.  William needed a good blacksmith.  People were hanged.  Roland uses this to show William what could happen to him.

First, I will discuss the accuracies of this movie. First on accuracies is Knights.  Knights had to have people pay them taxes so they can go to a tournament.  Also, in Europe, if you are not of noble birth, you cannot be a knight.  Next is Ulric von Lichtenstein.  Ulric was an actual character from history who was a knight.  Next is apprentices.  Most children were apprenticed around the age of 7.

And some 2nd body paragraphs (I didn’t give the whole paragraphs for some of these because there was a lot of repetition.)

This next paragraph is about how inaccurate it is.  They filled the lances with pasta.  The makers did that so they could have an effect.  The blacksmith put a Nike symbol on the armor.  First, they didn’t have Nike, and second the blacksmiths did not put a symbol on armor (as far as we know).  They did not know what people looked like back then.  For example, the Black Prince, we don’t know what he looks like.

Now I will explain three false moments.  One of them is that David Bowie did not exist then.  He was born very recently.  The outfits for women were very inaccurate. They looked like “Star Wars” clothes!  The lances broke.  They wouldn’t have been able to afford so many.

Next,  the inaccurate moments.  They had no trial for criminals.  When William got arrested, he went straight to public humiliation.  They also filled the lances with linguini.  I would not expect to see that in the middle ages, but it did add pop to the jousting.  Finally, the women used hair dye.  We know that women would dress their hair elaborately, but did not color their hair. 

Finally, roses were pink and white, not deep red.

They did not eat turkey legs.

First, in the middle ages, there was no hair dye and women would have worn their hair up and covered.  I know this because we have watched many middle ages documentaries and they said exactly that.

And for some conclusions:

Not thinking historically, this movie was funny and exciting.  If we had not learned about the middle ages, everyone in the class would think that the middle ages wasn’t all that bad.  They also would think most knights were mostly too snobby and proud to congratulate anyone else.  If everyone had thought these things, they would be totally wrong.

I learned that some movies are accurate and some aren’t.  Example, this one was more accurate.  I learned and saw some of the rules of courtly love. Like when the two lovers, William and Jocelyn, are talking and William is tripping over his words and you can hear him.

I am very pleased with the results.  The students’ voices come out loud and clear while strongly reflecting what we learned in class.  They also had little problem transferring the writing process to a quick essay test.  So, yay, yay, and yay.

So, here’s to Heath Ledger (god rest his soul), people having fun with History, and whoever created the essay.  Add them all up, and you get statements like “when you speak to your lover, you foam at the mouth.”


Week 34 – Against All Odds: A 5th Grade Essay


Here is the final paper that I will post from this essay prompt.

This is a 5th grade paper. In it this young writer reviews the novel Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. His thesis is basic which is to tell his reader about the book and his opinion of it. As of yet, he comes to no profound understandings, but he gets it right and pulls out the important concepts in an order that is clear and helpful to his reader.

Against All Odds 1
Against All Odds 2
Against All Odds 3

I show you this paper because it is an example of a student turning a corner. He isn’t burning through the boring yet, but he is starting to make it his own. For example, his organizational structure improves with every paper. The ideas he pulls out are strong, interesting ones, and he is taking some risks with word choice which are brave.

I have to admit that this is a novel I have never enjoyed. However, after reading his paper, I revisited the story and through his eyes, I found a new appreciation for it. He changed my mind, and that is the mark of powerful writing.

Week 34 – The Underground Hero: A 6th Grade Essay


Another review essay, this one is on the novel Dodger by Terry Pratchett. Pratchett is a great favorite in my classroom. I’m thrilled about this because even his youth fiction is complicated and requires real concentration from his readers.

This writer immediately picks up on the perverse nature of what it means to be a “hero”. Believable heroes are never fully convinced that he (or she) really is one. This writer highlights the premise that a real hero is often the product of a moment.

The Underground Hero 1
The Underground Hero 2a
The Underground Hero 3
The Underground Hero 4
I have to say that I really love this paper. The writer understands what is important in the novel and presents it clearly and with such strong word choice. Also, I’m pleased with how he is moving his organizational structure to accommodate his readers. Finally, it is unusual for me to agree so completely with one of my writers, but as I read his paper, I found myself saying, “Yup, yup, yup,” and nodding along as I read. I watched him struggle with this paper, but the end product is so definitely worth it.

Week 34 – The Sly Creation: A 6th Grade Essay


Here is the offering of a student who read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  This student gets right to the point of the book, i.e., what does it mean to be human?  It’s a grand philosophical question, and one that, clearly, our students can grapple with in middle school.

The Sly Creation 1
The Sly Creation 2
The Sly Creation 3
The Sly Creation 4

To some extent he runs out of steam when he gets to his conclusion paragraph, but this only slightly diminishes the power of his thesis.

I feel that this student really turned a corner with this paper. It seems to me that he has “burned through the boring” of essay writing and is making the writing his own. He has become a writer of non-fiction in his own right.

Week 34 – My Students are Brilliant


So there.

I just finished grading my students’ Humanities papers.  I can’t believe the work they’ve done.  Their papers are thoughtful, insightful, and mostly grammatical.  They have each grown along a trajectory that is uniquely their own.  After I hand their papers back, I will put several final drafts up with their permission.

We only have 21 work days left until the end of the year (not that I’m counting), but I feel that I’ve been especially blessed to have such solid group of students when I’m in my last year of (teaching) middle school.

And I think it really is.  I signed up for the first class of the doctoral degree.  It starts a month after school lets out.  When I was on campus turning in paperwork and asking lots of ridiculous questions, I couldn’t help being giddy.  I love teaching, and I love my students, but I know that where I really want to be is on a college campus as either a student or a professor or both.

I know that being a classroom teacher is what has motivated me to move forward with this decision.  It’s yahoots like the ones I have now, and the ones I’ve had before who make me face up to this “life-long learner” business.  I want to know more, and I want to help others know more.  I owe a pretty big debt of gratitude to the years and years of students, parents, and co-workers who have made me understand the importance of being honest to yourself.  And honestly, I’m ready to move on.

But before I do, I’d like to officially thank my students.  You’ve made me most of who I am today.

Thank you.

Week 33 – Sacred Triangles


Trinities are amazingly important to us because they embody such truths.  But there is one trinity that is ultimately important in my professional life as a teacher.  It is the trinity of teacher, student, parent.  This was brought home to me recently when I read this article:

School suspensions: Does racial bias feed the school-to-prison pipeline? – CSMonitor.com.

In it, students of color are shown to be disproportionately punished.  The punishments are pushing these students out of learning environments, dooming them to failure and many of them to prison.

I was reading it when my students came back from PE.  A student asked me why  my eyes were bugging out of my head as I read.  He said, “You look really angry.”  He was right.  I was angry.  So, I read them the first few paragraphs.  Then, they were angry.  They asked me if I had ever seen racial bias in the schools I’ve taught at.  Unfortunately, yes, I’ve seen it.

The part that the reporter, , misses is the part that parents play in the trinity of education.  Let me state, right now, that I am not in the business of shaming parents.  This is not a diatribe about how awful parents are, nor is this meant to make any parent feel guilty*.  On the other hand, I am not absolving parents of their responsibilities, I’m just trying to lay out what I see.  And what I see is that students whose parents are unable to come advocate for them are more likely to be singled out and more likely to be punished harshly.

Not all parents are the same.  Parents of all students are very, very complicated.  But I think the parents of minority students have it pretty bad.  Let’s list the issues I’ve personally seen.  They often work.  If the parents are at work during school hours, they find it difficult to take time off to fight with the district office about the needs of their children because, let’s be honest, to get a school to give up some of its funds is a fight.  Next, many minority parents have had their own horrible experiences with public schools.  I’ve seen mothers, white-knuckled, cautiously approach me because they were worried enough about their children to fight down their own memories of school.  One told me once that she had been beaten by a teacher because she forgot and spoke Spanish in the classroom.  Horrific.  Then, there can be a language barrier.  First- and sometimes second-generation parents struggle to make themselves understood to the school, and they don’t have time to learn the language because they are, what was that again?  Oh yeah, working.  And then there is illness.  Addiction, abuse, and depression all take a major toll on the energy parents have.  And then you must talk about poverty.  There’s a lot of it out there.  The reasons why it makes it hard for parents to advocate for their students are legion.   Parents struggling with the above have to trust that the school is able to handle the children they put in their care.

What I’ve seen is that the child who lives with his first-generation immigrant grandmother, under a bridge, is more likely to be reprimanded by teachers than that student whose parent is joked about in the teachers’ lounge as a helicopter parent.  (For those of you who don’t know, a helicopter parent is a term for a parent who is over-protective of their child to the point that they are actually doing harm.)  Teachers make intelligent gamblers.  If you can shut a situation down by coming down on a kid whose parents are not likely to come in and rip you a new orifice, you probably will.  Furthermore, if you have a kid who is making the classroom a living nightmare, and you can get that kid out of your classroom by declaring him or her defiant, would you?  I’ve seen teachers walk a classroom literally smiling on the kids who spoke perfect English and snapping at the kids who did not speak English well.  All the while, all the kids were having the same behaviors.

So, I guess this is a call for action on the part of the schools.  We need to behave as if every parent is going to be down our throats, fighting, and fighting hard for their children.  (This is a starting point.  What we really want is a working relationship with all parents.  But let’s just start here.)  More importantly, we need to teach our teachers how to have competent classroom management.  Guess how many classes I took in my Masters’ program on classroom management?   Zero.  Zip.  Zilch.  Fortunately, I was working at a school that was proactive on that front.  I also had professors in my certification program who slipped it into the curricula.  But I do know that being able to keep all students on task is more important than John Dewey, bless him.  Guess which one I need every day. of. my. life.?

The trinity must stand, even when one leg of it is imaginary.  Teachers must behave as if every student in their care has an advocate checking on how they are being treated.  Even if you know their only advocate is you.  To make it harder, educators must decide that there is no principal’s office to use as an escape route, and that keeping the students in the classroom is the best option unless a child is violent.  And unfortunately, since most education programs are light on classroom management training, teachers are going to have to demand help from their administrators to get them the training that helps them to make the classroom a place where only learning is happening.  Further, teachers need to recognize when they make the easy choice: unduly punishing the kid who is already vulnerable.  That’s called bullying.  It will come back to haunt us.  It already has.  20 years of “zero-tolerance” is just giving us a new industry.  Prisons.


* If you would like to feel guilty, or at least have a laugh at the expense of the entire academic world, please feel free to check out my humor blog: Dun Lernen Academy.  If you laugh, let people know.  If you don’t laugh, I didn’t write it, I know nothing about it, and may the writer (whoever she may be) rot in a watery grave.  Peace out.