Details Make the Reader See

I am teaching four courses this school year.  I apparently oversold myself during my interviews.  I have seniors and sophomores.  It has been an adjustment getting used to classes which meet daily for forty-five minutes.  For the first two weeks, the bell invariably caught me in mid-sentence.  As a testament to their conduct, the students remained seated until I completed my thought.

I have pulled the students into my world with the old stories I told and retold at my old school.  They already know my refrain, “I’m from Shipley Terrace.”  They all smile when I tell them about how I met my wife while “doing the DC dance.”  I demonstrate my moves on the dance floor all those years ago, and they invariably ask me to “do the DC dance” when we pass one another in the cafeteria.

I have learned almost all the names.  Senior English focuses on world literature, while sophomores concentrate on literary analysis.  I again begin the year with short stories I enjoy.  Seniors read “Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter” by Chitra B. Divakaruni, while sophomores explored Edward P. Jones’ “The First Day,” and Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.”  My first writing assignments lean more on autobiographical musings, as they tend to relax the students before we tackle more formalized structures.  Everyone likes to write about themselves.  “You are an authority on you,” I remind them.

Whether reading or writing, I also emphasize the importance of details in writing, especially fiction.  On the first day, in all classes, I hand my students a blank sheet of white paper.  I tell them that every writer begins at the same place they do–with an empty slate.  Onto it flow words carefully selected to lure the reader in.  I tell them about diction and syntax and the impact both have on understanding.  I point to the many books in my class library and then at one of the paintings I hung on the wall.  “Just as the artist uses techniques to create a multi-dimensional representation on a flat surface, so too do writers.  This year,” I continue,”we will study and master those techniques.”

“Details make the reader see,” I repeat over and over again as we read.  “The tighter you weave the image, the more warmth it will provide.”  “Like a blanket,” one boy asks.  “Yes, like a blanket.”

Seniors are doing a descriptive writing assignment on “the oldest thing you own.” Sophomores are describing their childhoods.  In both classes, students must engage all five senses and tell a story.  “I am the lazy reader with many things to do.  Why should I take time out of my hectic day to read your words. The ultimate purpose of writing is to be understood.  Make me understand.  Details make the reader see.”

They seem to believe me.  The first writings are crisp and laced with the figurative language flourishes we also studied in the first few weeks.  Many proclaim their pieces to the “best writing they are ever done,” and, while revisions are still in order, I appreciate their enthusiasm.

“Don’t you ever sit down,” one student asks one afternoon, and I realize that I do not.  I am in constant motion, gesticulating or moving around desks I have arranged in groups of four.  The apple-cinnamon incense slowing rising from my Glade plug-in gives my classroom the scent of home, and I like that.  Bright posters pop off the white walls, and the yellow mums I bought are still alive.  I love my room, and the multi-colored  lamp the previous teacher left behind gives just the right glow to the space.  Students seem genuinely eager to enter.  And one student told me, “I look forward to your class all day.”

Of course, they could all just be angling for a better grade.  But they will soon learn I am tough grader not easily influenced by niceties.  Besides, I already like them all.  I tell them I am privileged to be their teacher.  Then I tell them how lucky they are to have me.  That last part is always good for a laugh.




About Mark E.P. Roberts

teachermandc is Mark E.P. Roberts, a middle-aged, high school English teacher entering his ninth year of instructing young minds. This blog is an attempt to capture the challenge of teaching and the essence of learning. At a time when DC has become the epicenter of educational theory, this blog will keep its preferred focus on students in an somewhat typical DC high school. I have taught in both public and private schools. To date, 95% of my students are of color. All names have been changed, and complaints about in-house politics will be avoided. Hope you enjoy.
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