Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Writing Alongside

One thing I did not do enough as a Cross Country Coach, but which my runners always appreciated, was actually running the work-out with the team.  My final season of coaching, I did this consistently and I found it motivated my runners and it meant less groans when they found out their work-out for the day.

There's an element of this that can be brought into teaching, too.

My AP students are busy right now.  A number of them were away from school yesterday for a long Honor Choir rehearsal, and even more will be away from school tomorrow for the Kanto Plains Choir Festival.  The class charity festival is next Thursday and Spring sports have just started.  Not to mention, for many of them, English is not the only AP that they are taking.  With 24 students taking the AP English test, we've divided into three different groups that meet for weekly prep sessions at different times during the week.  As I waited for my Wednesday lunch group today, I felt a pang of guilt--it was 19˚C outside, the sun was shining, and here I was asking them to come inside during their lunch break and spend 50 minutes writing a practice essay.

The kids filed into the classroom one-by-one, good-natured, but looking distinctly beleaguered.  After a minute or two of small-talk, I introduced their practice essay prompt for the session and made a split-second decision:
"I'm going to write this essay, too!"
"Who would do something like that?" one boy asked incredulously.
"Me.  I feel like writing."

So as my students settled down to their task, I, too, put pencil to page and wrote a rhetorical analysis essay on how Mark Twain conveys his attitude in an excerpt from his classic "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses."  As I collected the essays at the end of the session, I told the students I would type up my essay and send it out as a sample.

I was not happy with the conclusion, I told them, but felt as though I'd held to and supported my thesis fairly well.  In the end, joining them on this timed essay served a three-fold purpose:
1) It enabled me to model what (I hope) a decent rhetorical analysis essay should look like.
2) It demonstrated my love for writing.
3) It showed the students that I was willing to join them in the trenches.  Hopefully, it communicated a desire to empathize with them.

It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, but one I felt good about.  Just for fun (for better or for worse), here is my analysis essay on Twain's criticism of Fenimore Cooper:


Styles change. What's popular now may not be popular in 50 years, 10 years, or even next week. So it was that Romantic author James Fenimore Cooper, with his copious descriptions, epic tone and cast of noble savages fell under Mark Twain’s keen eye. In this excerpt, Twain conveys a critical, satirical attitude, logically dismantling Cooper’s style with detailed examples, pointed cause-effect, and characteristic sarcasm.

Twain wastes no time in getting to the heart of the matter: “IF Cooper had been an observer…” While Twain maintains that Cooper “saw nearly all things as through a glass eye”, Twain proves himself to be far more observant as he brings detailed examples into his analysis. In particular, Twain points out Cooper’s inconsistency in describing the stream in “Deerslayer”. Twain has numbers at the ready: initially, Cooper describes the stream as 50 feet at its origin, but later reduces that measurement to 20 feet. Twain then goes on to speculate on the dimensions of Cooper’s ark, based on the description of a “modern canal boat.” 16 feet wide and more than 100 feet long, Twain assumes, and therefore conjures a ridiculous picture in the readers’ minds of a boat far too big for the stream it’s in.

These details and examples set up for a brilliant cause-effect. Twain supposes that Cooper “shrunk” the stream to accommodate the Indians who were waiting on a limb across the river to drop stealthily onto the 90 ft-long “house” portion of the boat. Given the dimensions, Twain establishes, the leap ought not to have been a problem: the house-boat is a wide, 16x90ft slow-moving target! The effect should not have been in question—each Indian should have made the leap easily. However, Twain points out that not only did all six Indians MISS the boat, all but one fell into the water (which, Twain reminds, accounted for less than two feet on either side).

Twain brings up all of these facts in his trademark sarcastic tone, asking mocking rhetorical questions: “Did the Indians notice that there was going to be a tight squeeze there?”; “Now then, what did the six Indians do?” Then, he fields his own questions with barely contained glee (“He was almost always in error about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them!”) and hyperbole (“It would take you 30 years to guess and even then you would have to give it up, I believe.”) He concludes with stinging anaphora as he describes the successive failures to land on the boat: “Then No. 2…,” “Then No. 3…” The cumulative effect of these strategies is that an epic moment from Cooper’s work now looks unrealistic and silly.

The times, they had changed. Out was the romantic literature of Cooper’s day and in was the clear, concise, realistic work of Twain and his fellows. Though both Cooper’s and Twain’s works have endured, one cannot help but admire Twain’s witty determination to dismantle the old set and introduce a new scene in the great drama of American literature.

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