Writing to Understand: Kobe Bryant and Facebook Venting

In the National Writing Project, we talked about purposes for writing. As a writer, my purposes for writing are clear, varied, and plentiful. As a teacher, I know students struggle to see authentic purposes for writing or to embrace the purposes that have been standardized by school and state standards.

I’ve read essays by upperclassmen that didn’t really start until the bottom of page two: they had written for a time around the topic but only got to what they really wanted to say about the topic until they had written about it. Of course, when I pointed that out they didn’t want to get rid of that writing; doing so, in their minds, would render all that work a waste. Leaving these unnecessary words was simpler than the alternative. I call this “thinking on paper” and it isn’t bad–but it isn’t what students think it is, a finalized draft.

As an English teacher and a writer, I can claim the benefits of writing, including the personal benefits, but students (wisely) consider the source: of course I would say that. Even a genius like Flannery O’Connor can’t convince them.

“I write to discover what I know.”

-Flannery O’Connor

As writers, we reiterate the show don’t tell mantra. It is better, then, for me to show them “writing to understand,” and to do so in an authentic and engaging manner.


On April 12, 2013, this happened:

Later that night, Kobe posted this on Facebook:

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The moment I read this, I was fascinated by what was happening here: Kobe was coming to terms with an experience by writing about it. I also knew I would usurp Kobe’s “street cred” to help me prove my point: sometimes we can write our way into a deeper, clearer understanding.

The more I read it, however, the more I saw potential in the writing. There is opportunity here for close reading, looking for transition, for claims; there is opportunity for peer review and feedback, suggesting how Kobe could revise this to fit a more traditional essay form.

I also remembered some other writings that could be drawn in for further comparison and analysis:

If Kobe's venting was a positive example, Dan Gilbert offers one that, well, could have been kept to himself.

If Kobe’s venting was a positive example, Dan Gilbert offers one that, well, could have been kept to himself.

This writing serves a different purpose, but would serve as an interesting, refined comparison.

This writing serves a different purpose, but would serve as an interesting, refined comparison.

 

 

 

Students need to accept that some words are more for ourselves, that sometimes we write for no other purpose than coming to grips with something. This past Mother’s Day, I went to a restaurant with my wife and children, my father, and my father-in-law. There is a story there, but what I wrote that morning was more about me coming to an understanding; it wasn’t to share (even though it was on Facebook), and it wasn’t to prove anything to anyone. When I sat to write, I had no idea where it was going.

If students can get to that point, they will be happier as people and more successful as students. But they need to be taught.

If you like what you read here, please let me know. Comment, share, and follow the blog. I have a short PowerPoint and some guiding questions, as well as an annotated copy and clean copy of Kobe’s Facebook post.  If you would like these resources or have any questions or suggestions, click here.

 

 


Additional Reading

College Readiness: Writing to Learn  The difference between reflexivity and reflectivity in writing.

The Loop Writing Process Activity that could be adapted for all types of writing assignments.

Capacity Building Series: Writing to Learn (PDF) Activities and suggestions for all content areas.

Low-Stakes Writing Exercises: 3 Tips to Get Started Teaching Channel article with videos demonstrating writing to learn.

 

 

 

The Two People in Every Room, Even If It Is Only You

This is my theory: There are always two types of people in the room, and each of them needs to hear the opposite message.

This is more likely to be true as the number of people in the room increases. However, it can be true when there is as few as one: because sometimes we need to hear contradictory words of wisdom to keep us sane and balanced.

Here are some examples of the two types of people who might be in the room:

The one over here needs to be reminded not to worry so much what other people think. Confidence, after all, not insecurity, is an attractive and desirable trait.

But the one over here needs to be reminded that he shouldn’t pick his nose in public or start clapping spontaneously in the grocery store.

This person should also be reminded not to wear a Dos Equis shirt with cut off sleeves when he's taking a selfie in the broken bathroom mirror.

This person should also be reminded not to wear a Dos Equis shirt with cut off sleeves when he’s taking a selfie in the broken bathroom mirror.

There is someone who needs to hear something like, “Chin up, things are going to be okay”; then there is someone else who should be reminded that, if you don’t change something soon, you’re screwed. There’s a student writer who needs to be told, “Just keep writing, without worrying about how things sound”; but that is terrible advice to the one who has already filled several pages and could be reminded to stop and think every once in a while before turning in a “finished draft.” There is some hurting soul who needs the reminders of grace and forgiveness; and just down the row is some smug ass in need of a little verbal slapping to straighten things out.

Exercise is healthy. You’re getting obsessed.

Write more. Write less.

Clean your house. Put down that rag before you wipe down that counter for a fourteenth time today.

Think before you act. Enough already, Hamlet: be, or don’t be, but do something.

It’s not your fault. You could have done things differently.

I try to remember the two people in every room, that my wisdom may be folly for some, that my praise to one may be condemnation to another. But more often, the two people in the room are simply the two sides of myself: the one who needs encouragement, reassurance, kindness, and a mother to spoil him; and the other who needs reprimand, discipline, orders, and someone to tell him that sleeveless shirts are only, barely, okay for working out (thanks, Kristen!).

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Who are the two people you find yourself talking to? What are the contradictory words of wisdom you need to hear?

In the Beginning was the Word. Then Came Punctuation.

Maybe before the fall of humankind, there was not punctuation. Whatever the case, it is here now. As readers we need to learn to notice punctuation. First of all, it can change meaning.

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For most people punctuation is just one of the reasons people don’t like writing. Our worries about commas and such sap the joy out of self-expression, maybe because we had an English teacher who made us feel inadequate, or maybe because we’re just insecure and don’t want to risk making mistakes.

I wrote in the last post about critical reading and punctuation. Reading punctuation along with the words can enhance the reading, can even add meaning. In that post I used an example from fiction, and now I will demonstrate what I mean with a nonfiction piece of text. In the following lines, taken from the book of John, here is Jesus, reassuring his disciples:

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.*

I am fond of long, drawn-out sentences. If I read this from a student, I might first think they have a god-complex, but then I would think about some sentence-combining activities I could suggest.

However, this example is a good reminder that sometimes shorter is far and fundamentally better. Consider this revision:

In this world you will have trouble, but take heart because I have overcome the world.

Nothing changed but the punctuation and adding the word because to connect the last two sentences. It still ends on a hopeful note. All the same information is there.

But what has changed?

  1. The comma after trouble lets us skim on through, while the period in the original forced us to stop and linger just a bit. And isn’t that the way with trouble? The greater the trouble, the longer the pause on that stupid little dot.
  2. Let me be clear: I am not a fan of exclamation points! I apologize for raising my voice. However, after stopping a bit on that comma, this exclamation doesn’t feel like shouting; instead, it is exactly the emphasis we need in times of trouble.
  3. Combining the last two sentences with because is the one revision I did see in other versions. It makes sense because there is clear cause and effect and connecting them makes the implicit connection explicit. Here’s though why I like the original. Putting because before “I have overcome the world” makes it a subordinate or dependent clause. In other words, it is no longer a standalone thought: it now depends on the words take heart. I think Jesus meant it as a complete thought, not dependent on anyone’s feelings or worries, which is why it works best as its own sentence, why three separate sentences work best: these aren’t unrelated or disconnected ideas in any way, but they are separate.

Words have power, meaning. We read words. But if we learn to read the punctuation as well, the words can have even more power, more meaning.

*John 16: 33, New International Version. Of the several versions I looked into, only one punctuated the sentences differently.

Using. Punctuation; to Help Teach Close and Critical Reading

The Common Core State Standards don’t specifically address the analysis of an author’s grammatical choices, and this is an oversight that shouldn’t be overlooked by teachers.

The language standards do mention things like the use of punctuation for effect and recognizing sentence fragments. But writers learn by reading examples and then writing using these as models, something clearly and usefully shown by Jeff Anderson and others.

However, whether it was intended or not, analyzing an author’s grammatical choices should be an inferred skill embedded within the Craft and Structure standards for Reading Literature and Informational texts. From 6th to 12th grade, these standards are largely progressive and involve looking at (.4) the meanings of words, (.5) the structure of part of the text and its impact, and (.6) the development of an author’s point of view.

I can demonstrate with the following, the beginning of Stephen Vincent Benet’s essay “We Aren’t Superstitious.”

“Usually, our little superstitious rituals and propitiations don’t hurt our daily lives. Usually.”

If you’re reading carefully, the word “propitiations” probably tripped you up a bit. But what stood out, was that last adverb on its own little island. Applying the three CCSS from above, we could say the following:

  • The connotation of the word just became much more ominous (.4),
  • Structurally isolating the word creates suspense (.5),
  • And it definitely begins to sharpen the author’s point of view (.6).

If teachers model the kind of analysis I suggest and model here myself, they will help students be more critical readers and more intentional writers.


I am so angry. And so happy to see him. (We Were Liars, E. Lockhart, page 68)

we were liarsWhen I came across those lines, I stopped. The period simply should not be there. A comma might be all right, but the period creates a rather awkward fragment. It’s disruptive; it’s get my attention. The questions is, why does the author want to get my attention? Why does she get me thinking about a period? What does she want me to notice?

She could have written: I am so angry and so happy to see him. What difference does that make to you?

She could also have written: I am so angry to see him. Yet I am also so happy to see him. What difference does that make?

Think for a moment what she is saying here (with or without the  punctuation). She is describing Cady’s feelings at seeing Gat. Angry and happy: these are not emotions we normally link. In fact, they’re nearly opposites. Cady is confused, mixed up. Regardless, though, how opposing the two words are, if they are neatly paired in a simple sentence, as in the first rewrite, the eyes could gloss right over, never noticing the disparity in Cady’s feelings.

If they are separated into two separate sentences, like in the second rewrite, it is more obvious, but also more orderly. We might feel as if an explanation is coming. But there isn’t, because these aren’t separate thoughts; these are the mixed up emotions of a very confused girl. And beyond that, this highlights one of the themes of the novel: opposing forces, disparities. What’s shown on the outside versus what’s felt on the inside. Love and hate. Remembering and forgetting.

Was I aware of this before that one period? Yes. But stopping at the period made sure that I did.

[I will follow up with an example from a nonfiction text: one of the gospels.]