Generating Questions That Lead to Claims: 24 Hours with a Camera Crew

My students don’t remember an entertainment landscape that didn’t include around-the-clock reality shows.  More than 750 reality shows aired on cable television in 2015, 350 of which were brand new. From talent contests to quirky families to dating hopefuls, reality shows appear to be scripted, but in fact, they aren’t written until all the footage has been shot. During the editing process, the director and editors look for patterns, storylines, opportunities for tension and arcs as they create the narrative.  All scenes that don’t support the narrative end up being cut away, which is one way I often explain writing revision to students.

For the purpose of generating writing ideas, last week I asked students to pretend they had a camera crew following them around for 24 hours. Students recorded everything they did for the previous 24 hour days by jotting down a word, a clause or a phrase.  Instead of writing just “work” or “school” or “homework,” I asked that students write a short description of what they were actually doing as if a camera crew was shooting footage.  What was the scene? Who was in the scene? What were they doing?  

The key to this activity is to ask students to look at their own life as if it were a reality show, looking for questions, patterns, significant moments, and meaning.   Watching as an audience or an outside observer allowed students to create distance and objectivity. I also asked students to use a third person pronoun to refer to themselves instead of using “I” and always write “the subject, ” as in “the subject made a tuna fish sandwich.”  Once students compiled this list, we pretended to be producers looking at 24-hours of footage for a controlling question or a claim that could be proven or challenged by the reality of this footage. 

In the documentary film “Sherman’s March,” filmmaker Ross McElwee’s burning question at the beginning of his quest was:   how did Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s military approach during the final months of the Civil War effect the South today?  But right before McElwee embarked on a road trip to follow Sherman’s footsteps, his girlfriend dumped him, and the march took on a very different pursuit, namely as Vincent Canby’s 1986 New York Times review states:   “Is romantic love possible in an age of supermarkets, fast food, nuclear arms and the sort of lightweight camera and sound equipment that allows anybody to film his own life?”

In Elizabeth Barrett’s 2000 Appalshop documentary “Stranger with a Camera,” she states her controlling questions in a voice over throughout the story of Kentuckian Hobert Ison and filmmaker Hugh O’Connor: How is a camera like a gun? Can filmmakers show poverty without shaming the people they portray? What are the responsibilities of any of us who take images of other people and put them to our own uses? What is the difference between how people see their own place and how others represent it?

After students recorded their 24-hour camera footage, I asked them to look over their scenes and extract a broad controlling question. This question could render a multitude of great starting points for informational and argumentative texts.  Wording their claim or counter claim in the form of a question helps students see the subject from various angles.  A question requires students to assume a pursuant stance in order to answer it. Documentary film makers often call this a controlling question.  It’s the question that clarifies and focuses the shooting, production, and arrangement of the film. Here are some of the questions my students extracted from their 24-hours of “footage.”

How does one’s differing forms of entertainment influence their completion of everyday tasks? Can reading and music have a positive effect on procrastination and completion of school work? Do certain daily activities affect the quality of sleep?
How sleep deprived are high school students? Does high school wear down students? Is there really a life outside school for students?
Can being antisocial be crippling?

 

How does one balance dreams and reality and what is the price of trying? Does engaging with passion breed discontent for other things?
Are teens not reading books anymore? Are teens depressed? Are students riddled with anxiety?
Does a church community benefit a student’s overall day? Does politics have to lack good humor across party lines? Are messy people good at anything?
Why do we sometimes avoid things that make us happy? Can someone be social, yet not? Why is fiction such a great escape?
When does obsessive become too obsessive?

 

Can a person have a relationship with God without being religious? Can someone talk like a prick and walk like a good friend?
Is sloth bad? How does participating in a sport affect a high schooler’s life? Are stereotypes about teenagers accurate?
How can you balance school with everything else you want to do? Can a busy high school student still be content and relaxed? How does one withstand the mind-numbing grind that is high school?
Are teens too attracted to technology and their phones? Are we expecting too much from students? Why do some try to replace human interactions with non-living things?

Notice there’s a disproportionate number of questions dealing with fatigue, expectations, procrastination, technology, introversion, and social anxiety, all topics that weigh heavily on teens today.  I did this activity on the first day back from Winter Break, so we were all dying a little inside which explains the dark undertones of these questions. However, these questions make great starting places for both argumentative and informational texts, writing that is pulled directly from their lives.

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Why Do We Divide Writing into Modes?

 

When I was in high school, we used a textbook that divided writing instruction into different rhetorical modes:  description, exemplification, narration, process, comparison and contrast, classification, definition, cause and effect and argumentation.  While newer textbooks are now organized thematically —Jim Burke’s high school reader Uncharted Territory (2017) is a good example, organized topically by education, freedom, identity, and relationships—we often still draw those instructional lines when teaching argumentative, informative, and narrative texts as if each mode had different aims.

We English teachers love classifications because they help us process information.  I am guilty of divvying up writing skills and processes into isolated categories, and I’ve often sacrificed authentic student writing, creating expository boundaries where none existed, for neat and tidy curriculum units.

But real writing resists all that – good writing is especially resistant to classification. It’s good because it’s clear, artful, and has achieved its purpose, not because it has followed a pre-determined form or met the properties of a specific mode. In any given text, the three modes delineated by the Common Core—argumentative, informative and narrative—are blended to the point that the reader isn’t struck by disparate text forms but the gestalt of the whole essay. How would one characterize Oliver Sack’s A Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat or Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Heinretta Lacks?  These are texts which tell a story to enlighten the reader using data and scientific research surrounding a critical argument that serves as the heart of the work. Is Skloot’s book a narrative? Yes. Is it an argument? Yes. Is it an informational text? Yes.

As Andrea Lunsford attests in her book, Everything is An Argument, I would assert that Everything is a Narrative and Everything is Informative, and all of it is born from the writer’s creativity and critical thought. When strict distinctions exist between argumentative, informative and narrative writing, students begin to think of modal boundaries as inescapable territories beyond which their writing must not pass, even though the authors of the Common Core do concede that “skilled writers many times use a blend of these three text types to accomplish their purposes.”

“For all a rhetorician’s rules/Teach nothing but to name his tools.” – Samuel Butler

Writers determine their product by their own need and urgency to communicate and their (perhaps) vague awareness (at the outset) of their rhetorical situation.  On the occasion of publishing his first novel (after working as an award-winning short story writer for his entire career), George Saunders wrote an essay for The Guardian about his process of writing his novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. He says it’s a mistaken notion to think a writer has something to express and then he just expresses it.  “We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same. The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.”

Saunders’ claim – that the expression of an idea doesn’t become fully clarified until one begins to actually write and its birth is shrouded in mystery and pain – doesn’t apply only to fiction writers or writers working at a certain level of sophistication. As a writer myself for forty years and a teacher of student writers for nearly a quarter century, let me testify:   all writers struggle similarly and mightily.

All writers, at every level, attempting any expression, enter into an exasperating and blind process. It is only after the writing is finished that it’s seen as following a similar pattern represented within a certain house of discourse. Once I left my high school English classroom,  I never once thought of those modes because I never again found writing situations so nicely diced up.

 

First Week Lesson: Demographic Grouping

During the first week of school, my goal is two-fold:  I want my students to see self-discovery through writing as their main goal, and I want to build a community based on story.  I use activities that encourage students to meet each other through the details of their lives. These stories and details eventually serve as the fodder for personal essays, arguments, and informational texts they will write later in the year. 

Demographic grouping is one activity which asks kids to group themselves by various identities and meet the other people in the room who share that characteristic.  The key to this activity — for both community building and self-discovery– is to ask kids who find themselves in a demographic group to argue for or against their own inclusion based on their life experience, hence stories. When they find themselves in a circle of Capricorns, for example, they need to tell stories and trot out evidence as they share the details of who they are or who they think they are.

For a 90-minute block class, I use three demographics: Myers-Briggs, Western astrological signs, and birth order.  I want students to share stories about what it’s like to be a part of these subsets of the larger population, and I want them to challenge or confirm their placement in these groups.  Do they agree or disagree with their “label?” What stories in their lives support or negate this assessment of who they are? Do the definitions fit?

The first demographic congress we convene is around the 16 personality types founded in Carl Jung’s theories on psychological types as listed on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.  Students take a 10-15 minute quiz which will then place them in one of the sixteen possible combination of four paired personality traits: 1) Introversion or Extraversion; 2) Intuition or Sensing; 3) Thinking or Feeling; 4) Judging or Perceiving.  Based on their answers to the personality quiz, students will be given a four-letter personality, such as INFJ.  

Before class starts, I post the 16  individual personality types around the room along with a brief explanation of each type.  Once students have their types, they migrate around the room and find their Myers-Briggs compadres.  For fifteen minutes, I ask them to trade stories that confirm, negate, or qualify the personality type by which they’ve been labeled.  

In addition to being a fun, engaging activity which generates numerous narrative opportunities, I also get to see where my dreamers, my leaders, my risk takers, and my nurturers are. 

After that,  students divide themselves by their zodiac sign.  The Western astrological signs are based on which month of the year you were born. According to astrologists, planetary formations at the time of birth can determine a person’s individual character.  I’m surprised every year by how many students do not know their zodiac sign.  

Before class, I print off a generic description of each of the 12 signs and post these around the room.  Students migrate to the mini-poster that bears the symbol for their sign and join the others in the room who were born under the same sign.  As they did with the Myers-Briggs grouping, students spend about 15-minutes reading the descriptions of their sign (they especially love to read the section about relationship compatibility) and share stories in these groups as to how they are alike or unlike their sign. This is a great activity because it immediately creates kinship among disparate students in the class based on their birth month.

The last grouping I do is birth order.  All the first born, middle, youngest or only children get together in groups. I will have printed off descriptions of the characteristic of that particular birth order, and the groups discuss whether they agree or disagree with the definition of their particular rank.  Birth order is a great nugget of teacher information for me as well.  I know first and only born kids are often my natural leaders, and when I select group leaders for inquiry sessions later in the year, this information will come in handy.

Once we’ve circled through three demographic groups, I ask students to return to their seat and write a reflection of the activity, such as what surprised you about the descriptions? Did you strongly agree or disagree with any of the demographic groupings in which you found yourself? What was the best story you told today? What was the best story you heard today?