Starburst and Hot Sauce

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When I was at DCPS, the observers always warned me in post-conferences about being “too dynamic.”  My job, they said, was merely to facilitate the students’ own discoveries.  No matter how successful the class was on testing or other measures, I always found myself being admonished about keeping my input to ten minutes or less.  At my new school, there are no stop watches in the room, no IMPACT enforcers, and we tend to flow where the learning takes us.

I post my objectives and agenda for each day, and I require my tenth graders to write them down in the composition book I also mandate.  After a brief review of the plan for the day, we go to work.  At the start of a unit, there is usually some direct instruction, followed by class and/or group work tied to the goal I promised we would achieve.  “There will be no excuses,” I tell them.  “On this freedom train, everybody rides.”  Then, I might play a few bars from “Express” by B.T. Express.  As the sound of the locomotive taking off pours from the overhead speakers, a few students invariably dance.  Then I gently stop the music and begin.

“Literature, the things we read and the things we write, is not an accident, anymore than a painting is a series of arbitrary strokes.  You see this drawing here,” I say, pointing to a brightly colored sketch of an elephant lumbering on the Serengeti.  “Notice how the artist uses shading and color to create dimension.  He or she has taken a flat piece of paper and created the illusion of space and place.  That is no accident.  How many of you can draw?” I ask.

As a few hands raise, I call on students to share some secrets of how artists create perspective. or horizon lines. or make a body seem round.  After a few minutes, I return to the subject at hand.  “Writers of fiction have skills too.  They start with a blank sheet of paper, the same as all of us.  Then they reach into their bag of tricks–remember diction is the choice of words–and slowly create a world full of characters and situations that seem as real as that elephant.  What sort of things can writers do?” I ask.

The answers come slow at first, but then gain power as I record the answers on the board.

“They paint pictures,” one girl begins.

“How?”

“With words.”

“I know that, but how do they decide which words to choose, or how to arrange them?  Take a minute and write a few sentences to capture what you did this morning before school. And I want you to think about diction.  Give the reader something he or she can imagine.”

Using equity sticks, I call on students to share what they have written.  One “scatters water” on a tired face; another pees angrily into the toilet.  “I’m up already,” gurgles yet another to her mother’s “crazy” voice.  We are in agreement; words matter.

“One technique writers have been using for hundreds of years is figurative language.  You’ve probably heard of it before in middle school.  But I don’t just want you to recognize it in the things we read.  I want you to use it in the things you write.

See, writers use figurative language, language you can’t take literally, especially to describe a feeling or an emotion we can’t really see by linking it to something we can.  Suppose I was a Martian who just landed on Earth, and I wanted to learn English.  How would you explain what “happiness” is?” I ask.

The young man in the front with a smile to rival Las Vegas shines his pearlies for all to see.  We laugh.  “Now put what he just did into words?” I ask a shy young lady on the side.

“Happiness is a smile.”

“Yes,” I say.  “We call that a metaphor.  But I have a problem with it.  How many of you have heard something like that before?”

As many hands raise, I move to the point I want to make.  “Saying ‘happiness is a smile” is like drawing a simple box and calling it art.  There is nothing special about it.  There is no surprise.  You see, writers use figurative language to give the reader a nice surprise.  Remember the first time you had a Starburst?”  As the students nod, I ask them to call out their favorite flavor.

“Strawberry.  “Cherry.”  “Banana.”  “Watermelon.”  “Lemon.”

“See,” I continue,”the thing I remember is not expecting too much the first time I had one.  It was just a tiny square with a little color.  Nothing special, right?  But then I bit into it, and all this flavor crashed into my mouth.  I was surprised.  I was delighted.”

The students laugh, and I regret not having brought a bag for them to sample.  “Saying ‘happiness is a smile” is weak because we have heard it too many times before.  It’s a cliché.  It’s like a piece of gum you have been chewing for eight days.  There’s no juice left, no surprise.  So, who can surprise us?  What is happiness?”

“My grandma’s cookies.”  “New sneakers.”  “Cold water on a hot day.”  “Clean money.”

“Great,” I say.  “Figurative language allows a writer to define something abstract in concrete terms.  It helps the reader understand what the writer is trying to show us.  When you write, I want you to consider using it.  But you have to be careful.  You don’t want to use too much.  How many of you like hot sauce?”

As hands raise, I ask, “What do you like to put it on?”

“Greens.”  “Eggs.”  “Pancakes.”

“Pancakes,” I repeat.  “Are you crazy?  Pig feet, yes.  But pancakes?”  When the laughter subsides, I give an assignment: define friendship.

“This week, we will discuss specific types of figurative language–metaphor, simile, personification, hyperbole, idiom, and imagery for starters.  But, for now, I just want you to explain friendship using concrete examples the reader would not expect.  Don’t tell me friendship is ‘when two people like each other,’ or anything like that.  Surprise us.  Come up with a new way to define it.  Friendship is when you don’t mind sharing your last Pop Tart; something different is what I am looking for.”

As the students tackle the assignment and chat eagerly among themselves, I move towards my desk and write on the board behind it in large letters:  Starburst and hot sauce–a little goes a long, long way.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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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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