Walt Whitman, You Were No Solipsist, and Neither, I Think, Am I

whitmanOr maybe you were. Maybe the reason you wrote so relentlessly, with such repetition, was just a way of reminding yourself that you were not alone.

Maybe this is one solipsist writing to another. I would explain solipsism, but really, what would be the point?

I was introduced to the concept at a developmentally inappropriate age. I researched the idea in junior high. My brother and a friend brought me to a college library. I had never been to a library with more than one floor; this added weight to the already heavy concept.

I was reading your poem to my students, modeling the active reading and noticing I expect of them. I tell them, listen to me think as I read. I invite them into my head.

In the second class, feigning again to read as if I had not just done the same before lunch, I was stopped at this one line:

“The certainty of others, the life, love, sight, hearing of others.”

And I was off on my solipsist rant.

How can it be that all those cars hold people going places I won’t go and coming from others I have not been? Looking out at all of them—this classroom, my mind—I tell them: I find it hard to imagine that each of you goes home at night and, unless you happen to have some work assigned from me, this home, this life, has nothing whatsoever to do with my life, that the four walls around you hold pictures of people I do not know, that the floors are dusted with dead skin cells of which none are mine.

And most of them, Walt, stare back at me as if I’ve lost my mind.

But in these stares I find relief.They don’t just nod their agreement: “We have our own minds and they are not like yours.” Their confusion confuses me; but my confusion at theirs is all the proof I need: I am not a solipsist.

And then one young lady says to the person next to her: he’s crazy, but he does make sense. And this, even now, writing, alone, makes me smile.

Anxious at Night; Creative in the Morning; Rational by Day

I initially dismissed the idea that caffeine killed creativity. I like and need my morning coffee and thought I couldn’t write or function much without it. Plus, I had read that caffeine boosts cognitive health, not that I didn’t know that already because I had anecdotal proof, which is generally enough to convince me of anything I want to believe (such as the belief that caffeine’s effect kicks in with the first smell of coffee).

I know this much is true: coffee helps me focus.

Then I started experiencing nighttime panic attacks, the ones that wake you in the middle of the night out of a perfectly peaceful sleep—with its rapid eye movement and rhythmic breathing—and make it so that no position is adequately comfortable and everything seems wrong with the world. Breathing can also become something of a chore.

I hesitate to call them panic attacks, but this is about how they start: wake up about four, think about something I did or did not do or will have to do or should have done, fail to get into a comfortable sleeping position. That first thing is merely a trigger, because my brain then proceeds to the consequences of the thing or to related things, and from there, any number of things can concern me, from tooth decay to some aspect of being an inadequate son/friend/father/husband/teacher/neighbor.

Morning always offers a different perspective. I used to think that night was merely a metaphor and that morning merely represented a change, an end to whatever trouble or worry. While it does serve that purpose well, I now imagine people sleeplessly tossing and turning in caves, and not because of the poor sleeping conditions.

“weeping may stay for the night,
    but rejoicing comes in the morning”

                                     -King David of Israel

Night has always been hard, for two obvious reasons: loneliness and helplessness. Lying there, it is possible to believe that no one else in the world is awake, that even on the other side of the world, where it is daytime, everyone is enjoying a restful, midday nap. Plus, you can’t force yourself to sleep, and as long as you are worthlessly lying there, there isn’t anything you can do about that to do list or those worries. Except worry.

There is something else going on, I’ve come to realize: my beautiful, un-caffeinated, creative brain is hard at work, untethered by any of the day’s distractions.

Coffee helps to focus. Focus helps with problem solving, rationalizing. And convergent thinking. When I know what I want to write, coffee helps.

But without coffee, my brain is seeing possibilities, making random connections, developing random theories. Divergent thinking.

Even if I’m not writing first thing in the morning, many of my best ideas come then, before coffee and the daily grind steer my focus elsewhere. Of course, because I have less control, that is inevitably when my worst thoughts come as well. So now, when I lie awake at night, fearing the worst, I appreciate the terrible beauty of the human brain, steer my mind toward better things, and look forward to the light and coffee in the morning.

Aye, There’s the Rubric

I am not anti-rubric.

In a perfect world they wouldn’t be needed. However, they have their benefits. And I don’t really have a choice, which means, I need to do it the best I can.

rubricBut even when we’re doing our best, when we try to do everything right, there is still sometimes the need for a little damage control. This is a story of trying to do everything right in a world of cracked mirrors.


Students had about twelve minutes to answer a question about the first chapter of The Scarlet Letter and how it relates to the following chapters. I told them their grade would not be tied to the rubric score, that this would be a chance to help us understand the criteria of the rubric better.

Before I read any of the students’ writing, I wrote a paragraph of my own, setting a timer for twelve minutes.

Then I set the stopwatch to monitor my time as I began reading and typing feedback to the roughly sixty student paragraphs. For every minute I spent on each writing, that would be an hour; my goal was to keep it to about three. I type feedback because I can type faster (and more neatly) than I write. Plus, I think students seem to value it more, and that also means I have a copy of the feedback.

The feedback starts to feels a little formulaic (after so many repetitions), but to do it in a short amount of time and to make it meaningful, I follow this general format:

  • Something positive about the writing
  • A detail from the writing that is specific and shows it is individualized
  • A question or wondering about some revision

Before I gave them my feedback or their score, I gave them my example (without telling them it was mine—many assumed, but others didn’t seem to give it a thought). They read it individually and underlined lines from the rubric. Then they discussed in groups and had to come up with a final score. Each group shared, and we discussed the differences of opinions as well as the difficulties in evaluating with a rubric.


It was generally decided upon that my writing was a six. Out of eight. I had generally fallen short on some in-depth analysis. The group scores had ranged from five to eight, but most had said either six or seven. So there seemed to be some general consensus.

I gave them their writings. They had to assign it a rubric score and provide some feedback about what they did well and what could improve. Once they did that, I took their papers back, gave them my typed comments, and wrote my score on their paper.

Several of the students had agreed with me on their score. Others were just one off, sometimes one higher and sometimes one lower. But a surprising number had scored themselves much higher than I had. When I talked with them (as many as I could in the class period), we looked at their own feedback. Some had written that they had done well and just needed to add more detail from the chapter. This was the opportunity to reinforce the point I’d made earlier: a low score on the rubric isn’t necessarily a long ways from a high score, but may just be missing key elements, such as using details and examples to justify thoughts and opinions.

I was feeling pretty good, particularly when one student said, “Your feedback made me happy. Thank you.”

At least I made someone happy. I try to make the feedback specific and place the responsibility back in the students' hands.

At least I made someone happy. I try to make the feedback specific and place the responsibility back in the students’ hands.


One student, I could tell, was upset by the rubric score.

He had agreed with my feedback and even seemed pleased by it. But when he saw my rubric score, compared with his, his demeanor changed. He is an insightful reader and a hard worker. But this particular writing didn’t score high.

Fortunately, we had a chance to talk. I went through his writing with him to point out the strengths and to discuss what could be improved. I reminded him that there had been little time to write. He was placated mostly, but still troubled.

We talked some more about writing in general and this particular assignment. The main point I tried making clear: I don’t want a rubric to stand between us. He has tremendous potential; I am a guy who can help him become an even better writer.

I don’t doubt that he will do much better. But I worry about what damage has been done. I worry that when he looks at me he will see a scarlet rubric on my chest, that he will forget the helpful feedback and not see me as someone who wants to help.


This was written, primarily, as a chance to process the experience. However, putting myself on display and sharing feedback is more unnerving for me than is sharing my writing. But teachers of writing should write–in ways that make them uncomfortable. So there it is.

Any feedback would be interesting. Rubric scores, however, are optional.

In the Shadow of the Cutwater

We were writers. Our identities were forged by our actions. If anyone was to ask, our response was to be: I am a writer. We could say this in part because we were with others who would respond: we are writers, too.

We sat at a small concrete park with our notebooks on our laps. Across one street, people gathered outside a homeless shelter. The sound of construction across the other street—another building in the revitalization of this downtown area—drowned out the animated conversations of those milling about the park, people who knew the place well enough to know we were not a normal part of it.

We had dedicated four weeks of our summer to reading and writing. We had our own reasons for coming and our own reactions to being there. And when the time was done, we went our separate ways.

Through the weeks there was one true constant: the river was flowing. We spent time writing each morning, some of us by the windows that overlooked the city, the river directly below us, a peaceful and pristine vignette that belied the rockiness and pollution.

restoration-by-artprize-artist-ben-clore

Photo by Ben Clore

In the morning, when the sun was reflecting off the water, the true nature of the river revealed itself. Thousands of glittering ripples, like clamoring paparazzi, spoke of the flow’s forceful and relentless turbulence. But there were other places where the water was smooth, where things looked still. On the lee side of the cutwaters—the rock columns that support the bridge—the river seemed to turn back on itself; it was as if this shadow would provide some escape, as if the force of the water coming back might hold us against the stone pillar.

Here perhaps, if only for a time, the river might just stop.

After the four weeks, we rejoined the flow, as all must. We became part of that river again, the river that flows not with time’s measured pace, but with swirls and eddies that disorient, over and around rocks that batter without mercy.

We lingered in the stillness of our writing community awhile; we had spent more time together than with our own families. For some of us at least, the time and quiet allowed something to find footing in a place some of us never knew existed. To those who have not discovered that place, who have not found its home, we have only three words, which we will share over the noise of construction in a concrete city park.

How Education Can Help You Throw 500 Touchdowns

I’m a middle aged white guy who was always more comfortable on the golf course than the football field. I have hands that are poorly suited for palming a basketball but come in surprisingly handy when getting the last of the Pringles at the bottom of the can. I know some Kanye West lyrics but am more likely to sing Frank Sinatra. I care more about my vocabulary than I do about my wardrobe.

All that is to say, I’m not that cool.I want it now

My passion and purpose is reading and writing, so of course I’m going to say reading and writing are important. I realized several years ago that I would never be able to convince students by telling them this. I could demonstrate it over time, but I was impatient. There wasn’t time; I wanted students to know right away that reading and writing, and that education in general, held value for them–even if they were going to be a professional athlete or movie star.

Students needed to hear those words from people who were cool, from people they wouldn’t expect, from people they would assume were beyond the demands that education demands.

So I wrote some letters to actors, athletes, and musicians. The list included Kanye West, Sean Combs (aka P. Diddy), Jamie Foxx, Will Smith, Mark Wahlberg, and Mary J. Blige. I chose people for a few reasons:

  1. recognition factor
  2. some demonstration or involvement in charity
  3. method of contacting them (not surprisingly, their home mailing addresses weren’t listed)
Slide1

The thoughtful, kind response from Peyton Manning (back when he was still with the Colts).

To date I have received one response: from Peyton Manning. It was thoughtful; it was honest; it was exactly what I was looking for. Manning spoke of the hours of studying he still does. He credits the study habits he developed in school for helping him as an NFL quarterback: the study habits in classes like science and English. That is the message I want students to hear. And they can only hear it from me so often.

Now I want more letters. I want to hear from people who are past their education days; I want to hear what difference education makes, particularly in surprising ways: how, for example, did learning to deal with a difficult teacher help you to deal with a difficult manager, director, or coach?

I’m looking for suggestions. I’m looking for addresses. I’m looking to maybe edit a book of responses.


The Generic Form Letter I Started With:

Dear [NAME]:

I am writing to ask a small favor of you to help inspire my students. Many of them do not see the value of an education, and even those who do view it as a minimal prerequisite to their future success. Most of them see it as an obstacle to their future. This is particularly true for students who dream of being a rapper or professional athlete, which is not an uncommon dream. I am writing to you because my students respect you as [WHAT], and I know [HOW] that you respect the importance of education.

As an English and history teacher, I don’t see it as my job solely to prepare my students as future workers. Nor do I pretend to believe that the basic facts I teach will be essential to them as adults. The facts, I tell them, are an avenue to critical thinking, to a better understanding of themselves and their world. Moreover, education is about learning to interact with people; it is about disciplining yourself to accomplish tasks especially when you don’t want to; it is about developing habits of mind that will guide you in all aspects of your lives.

Of course, I am their teacher. I’m supposed to say things like that. What I am asking for is a letter from you that I can post in my classroom, encouraging them to embrace the challenge of education and recognize its value beyond the traditional workplace. I would like you to explain what difference education has made in your life, even your life as [WHATEVER]. Are there aspects of education that actually directly assist you [WHEREVER]? Looking back, what characteristics of yours were forged through education that have helped you personally? Given your present circumstances, how would you be different without the education you received? Are there any specific educational experiences that made a demonstrable difference?

Thank you in advance for any time and attention you can give to this matter. My goal is to inspire all students to see education as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.


I am looking for collaborators in this venture. I will post a follow up this week to explain.

If you would like to see a copy of the letter or hear how I shared the letter from Peyton Manning with students, feel free to email me using the contact form at the bottom of this page.

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:

Presentation1

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?

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.]

When It Comes to FANBOYS, I’m More of A “But” Man

[This started off as a teaching post. But life has made it something much more.]

Of all the FANBOYS (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So), none is more fundamental to writing, reading, listening, and simply living than “but.” In fact, the hope of humanity and the salvation of our souls might well rest on our understanding and mastering the use of this coordinating conjunction.

You might be thinking, “But surely you are overstating it.” Or you may disagree: “But,” you will say, and then state your counterargument.

Thanks to Jeff Anderson for making these available.

Thanks to Jeff Anderson for making these available.

And I will respond, “Case closed. But I respect and appreciate your adding to the conversation.” #seewhatIdidthere?

But is fundamental. When we write (from brainstorming to revising), when we read or listen, and when we live—which is, I’m fairly convinced, pretty much always—we will be better off if we harness the power of but.

The fact that it also is a humorous homonym is just a little piece of grace to those of us juvenile to appreciate it.

It all starts at the but.

Without but we would have no literature because without conflict, there is no plot and therefore no story. Rick Wormelli, author and educator, offers a strategy for summarizing fiction, called “Somebody… wanted… but … so.” The but here represents the conflicts that arise and prevent characters from getting what they want or living the way they want to.

Here are a couple of summaries, revised to omit any but. Notice how these movies would never have been made, how conflict is necessary.

  • In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen wanted to avoid anyone close to her having to participate in the Hunger Games, so nobody volunteered and nobody had to participate.
  • In Jaws, the people of Amity Island wanted to enjoy some time at the ocean, so they went to the beach and had a lovely day.

Similarly, when I attend professional development and learn about something great I’m supposed to start doing, I want to hear about the challenges I will face, how things are going to go wrong. Because nothing works as well in real life as it does in a meeting room. Give me the but scenario so I can think about how I’ll be adapting it to the variables of my situation.

And when I am listening to a sermon, it usually only becomes a truly meaningful message once it gets to some kind of but. Consider the difference between the two following claims:

  • “God loves you, and…”
  • “God loves you, but…”

Which one piques your curiosity more? Which one is more likely to challenge you to grow?

I had students write argumentative essays last year. I had them practice on the issue of bullying. Not surprisingly, I got essays that sought to argue some version of the following claim: Bullying should be stopped. They wrote that it was mean, that it shouldn’t happen, that bullies should be punished. What they lacked was deeper understanding of the issue’s challenges:

  • But how can we really stop it?
  • But how do we actually define bullying?
  • But what happens to those we label as bullies?

Students who explored those questions and sought to address them would have much greater understanding, would write better essays, would be in a position to change the world. Those who didn’t simply mouthed platitudes.

But that is unfortunately understandable because we live in a world of “talking heads” who occasionally get paid to do just the same thing.

fox news

We can find depth with the but.

The students who wrote those essays struggled to write anything remotely essay-length. They complained they didn’t have anything to say, although it was more true to say they didn’t feel they had anything obvious or meaningful to say. They were merely passing on what they heard or knew to be true. As a teacher, I need to do more to help them think: to see exceptions, to anticipate the conflict of unintended consequences, to understand the need for clarification.

But this condition isn’t limited to eighth graders.

Many of our pundits and politicians need the same thing. Many of us, politically speaking, need it, too. If we as a nation ever hope to progress or solve even some of the relatively easier challenges facing us, we need more of the understanding that comes with but.

No matter how opposed to guns you are, it is at least necessary to spend some time thinking about a question like, “But how can we take guns from those who already legally own them and see them as a constitutional right to their personal protection?”

No matter how opposed to any sort of amnesty for illegal immigrants you are, you should have a reasonable answer for the question, “But how do we logistically and humanely deport all those who are already here and have been for a very long time?”

Two millennia ago, Jesus created quite a stir, in part because He came with the kind of clarification and redefinition that is possible with but. He said things like, “You know you’re not supposed to murder, but if you hate somebody, it’s basically the same thing.” He was also able to address uncomfortable truth: life sucks, but I overcame this life and death.

Politically, religiously, and socially, we are comfortable before the but. We’d rather not confront what comes after the but. We prefer:

  • “I haven’t murdered anybody.”
  • “The law must be followed.”
  • “We must protect the innocent.”

But when we stop there–when we do not understand or seek to be understood–our lives write nothing but pithy, platitude-filled essays.

Please don’t let your two cents all come from your but.

We all know a contrarian, the kind of person who has an issue with every little thing, who sees problems with every possibility, who contradicts every claim. These people are often looking for excuses or maybe a way to get out of a meeting sooner rather than later; they are rarely seeking understanding or solutions.

But is not only oppositional. But is clarification. But is exception. But is truth-seeking, in that it digs deeper in the search for underlying issues and maybe even common ground.

However, but is only the transition: it is up to us what to do with what comes after.

Consider: I have a problem, but it’s not the same as your problem so you don’t know what I’m going through. Or: That’s a possible solution, but nothing is really going to change.

Compared with: I have a problem, but I can still help. I have a problem, but we all struggle and need to help each other. I have a problem, but I still have so much to be thankful for. I have a problem, but at least I understand but.

But should not stop a conversation or stall an issue; but should encourage dialogue and progress towards a more informed solution. But should not divide; but should recognize differences and address them clearly.  As readers and writers, parents and children, teachers and students, citizens and leaders, social and religious beings, we can benefit from that habit of mind.


How I plan on using “Yes But No Questions” to help students think more deeply:

Semicolon Blow: On Using and Teaching an Unnecessary Punctuation

colon blowI’m fond of it really. However, consider how much we teach the semicolon with how little the punctuation mark is needed. Of course, students need to know what it is and at least how it can be used to combine sentences (of course, its use with lists is often overlooked). But maybe we shouldn’t stop there; maybe we should do more to challenge students rhetorically.

The problem with how the semicolon is taught is not only a how problem; it’s a why problem. Instead of stopping at how to use a semicolon to combine sentences, perhaps we should also have students think about why we should.

Ask a student to write a sentence using a semicolon and you might get something like this (followed by the semicolon “formula”):

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You can’t argue with that: it’s is correct. Yay for the student. However, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. Writers don’t focus on writing correct sentences (in fact, sometimes, we write incorrect ones). Writers focus on writing good sentences. So is the example above a good sentence?

That, of course, depends. This sentence represents a specific situation, with a setting and characters, each of whom has some sort of motivation. Different sentence constructions with different ways of combining these two ideas will take on different meanings. I’ve borrowed strategies and terminology from Jeff Anderson and Constance Weaver to develop the following rhetorical analysis of the simple semicolon.

First, look at these examples, combining the two clauses in different ways. How are these different from the first version, and how then are they similar and different?

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Obviously both follow the same pattern. In A, most likely it is two facts with little connecting the two, although it is possible we are celebrating the fact that Tom and Joe both brought something or that they together brought two things (as in, they’re roommates and were only expected to bring one thing). But that’s not what happened at all.

So let’s look at another way of expressing the same sentence. How is this different rhetorically from the previous?

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Again, the pattern has changed from the first two, and there is a different structural order. But the significant change is that we now see the relationship between these two facts. What we now see is that Joe’s bringing pop somehow influenced Tom’s bringing pizza.

So then, how is this next example any different?

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Rhetorically, the semicolon with a conjunction creates more of a pause or highlights the connection between the two ideas more forcefully. So in this last example, I would argue that it most clearly represents what I had in mind: Joe and Tom had a rather heated argument about who could take pop and who would have to get the pizza, so when Joe rushed out and got the pop, this caused Tom to get the pizza, reluctantly. That semicolon and conjunctive adverb best underscore Tom’s plight.

I’m still, though, wondering about that first sentence and when it would be a good example, that simple semicolon formula. Well, semicolons can be good when sentences get really long but you don’t want to start a new one. For many students, this is dangerous territory, the equivalent of a large pair of scissors in the hands of a small child. Instead, a semicolon can be used to connect two sentences when the two ideas are so closely related that no “connector” is needed and a new, almost dramatic affect can be achieved. Consider this alternative scenario, ending with the original sentence:

Tom and Joe agreed to arm wrestle. The winner could get the pop while the loser had to foot the bill for the pizza. They squared off, locking hands in preparation for battle. At first Tom had the upper hand, but then Joe found a hidden reserve of strength and battled back. The two went back and forth for some time until it seemed no one would be able to win.

Tom brought pizza; Joe brought pop.

Here are examples of semicolon use:

Shadrack knew it; Sophia sensed it.     The Glass Sentence, S.E. Grove (23)

We never broke up; we fizzled out.     Team Seven, Marcus Burke (114)

To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.     Winston Churchill

I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!     Mark 9: 24

The keys are mine; the car, tragically, is not.     Paper Towns, John Green (27)

He didn’t kill her; she killed herself.     Mercedes, Stephen King, (292)

And lastly, two examples from We the Animals by Justin Torres, a novel which could provide a study in the use of semicolons. My theory on Torres’s use is that he often has the young, naive narrator leave out any conjunctive connector between two actions, giving the sense that he doesn’t see or understand the connections between the actions, just the actions themselves.

Ma was suckling her fingertip; she had cut herself on the jagged edge of the soup can. (39)

Manny pumped two fake swings; I flinched each time. (110)

 

For further reading or research, read this article, or consider this lesson, or read this piece from the Boston Globe.