The Theory of Omission

In his essay “Writing by Omission,” John McPhee (2015) quotes Ernest Hemingway who, in his 1932 nonfiction book Death in the Afternoon, describes his theory of omission : “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

In a 1966 interview with George Plimpton in the New York Times Book Review, Truman Capote also endorses this theory, while reflecting on his non-fiction masterpiece, In Cold Blood. “I suppose if I used just 20 percent of all the material I put together over those years of interviewing, I’d still have a book two thousand pages long! I’d say 80 percent of the research I did I have never used.”

When I assign a non-fiction text,  I like to challenge students to infer, from what they read in an essay, what the author didn’t use. Inferring what a writer left out is a great exercise to illuminate the power of a writer’s choices. This exercise is also a great way to start a discussion about choice:  how do you know what to cut out and what to leave in?

In this exercise, I want students to examine and make a guess about the part of the iceberg that isn’t visible. Make some guesses about the 80 % that never made it into the essay.  What was left out? Why do you think it was left out? What facts, research, stories, or studies must have been known by the author but doesn’t appear on the page?

I use an essay like Tom Philpott’s “How Factory Farms Play Chicken with Antibiotics,” about the use of antibiotics in the poultry industry.  In its original form, published in Mother Jones magazine, the essay is accompanied by 10 pictures, 4 bold-faced blurbs, three infographics and one video clip. There are 54 paragraphs and around 4700 words.

Philpott introduces Bruce Stewart-Brown, Perdue’s vice president for food safety, who serves as sort of an informational guide for the whole essay. Speaking in first person, Philpott starts us in a scene: “The massive metal double doors open and I’m hit with a whoosh of warm air. Inside the hatchery, enormous racks are stacked floor to ceiling with brown eggs.”

As students read, I ask them to keep a running list of ideas, information, facts, figures, studies, research, etc., that the writer must have known, but has clearly left out. Students demonstrate what they think was left out through collecting textual evidence, and they make some guesses about why the author omitted it.

In this essay, Philpott breezily moves back and forth between narrative, information, and argumentation.   Students immediately notice that he has omitted the USDA guidelines for poultry production, much of the history of poultry farming, and the relationship Philpott has with Stewart-Brown.

The next conversation we have is why. Why does he leave these elements out?

“He doesn’t need it,” Leslie said. “He’s paring it down to the essentials.”

“The essentials of what? The story?” I ask.

“He doesn’t need it for the story he’s telling,” she said. “He’s only putting in stuff for his reasons.”

“His reasons?”

“His purpose, what he’s trying to tell the reader about,” she concluded.

This activity goes a long way to show students that not every ingredient they’ve laid out on the kitchen table of their research has to go into the soup of their argument; only those ingredients that’s going to make the dish delicious and nutritious, only those elements that support purpose.

This activity has two benefits:  it illustrates the power of choice and it also illustrates Hemingway’s theory of omission.  The most powerful essays are the ones that feature the dignity of the iceberg.

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New Teacher Series/ Question 11: What are the best strategies for teaching vocabulary?

Broadening a student’s vocabulary is important and critical to her academic success.  Having a comprehensive vocabulary increases a student’s ability to read with clarity and to communicate both orally and through writing with precision.  Students who are competent and independent readers often absorb much of their vocabulary from reading, but direct instruction augments that word pool even more. However, vocabulary instruction needs to be embedded and experienced multiple times for students to actually learn and use the words.  By introducing words once, then quizzing kids over the list and moving on, the skill developed is memorization and test taking, not literacy and word acquisition. Vocabulary unrelated to an actual personal, social, cultural, or literary context doesn’t stick in the brain.

Good teachers use a variety of strategies to teach vocabulary in concert with one another. Here are 15 Vocabulary Strategies in 15 Minutes   You will also find teachers using word walls, word journals, word maps, keyword methods, flash cards, vocab Bingo, Pictionary or Jeopardy.  Some strategies involve using the vocabulary words to write songs, short stories, or poetry. One of my favorite vocabulary trends was a call and response script – I can’t even remember the patter now – but it called for kids to clap, rap, and spell out the words and define them orally with me sing-songing and beating on my podium too.  It was fun, but I was still only asking kids to define and memorize words in isolation

About five years ago, I noticed several kids in one class were using some of the words from our vocabulary list during discussion.  I discovered these words not only were on their vocabulary list, but they had appeared somewhere in their reading that year, and—this seemed to be the key— they were words I used all the time.  The one I remember specifically was “truncated.” I love that word. I still use it all the time.  I realized that students were using it in their Socratic discussions and debates in class.

Why? Because they saw it and heard it more than once.  I used it all the time; they saw it in their reading; they knew what it meant, how to pronounce it, and how and when it should be used.  They had assimilated it into their lexicon.

From then on, I began to teach fewer words, but teach them more deeply.  I created a context for the words and allowed students to make connections with the words through discussion, reading, semantic maps, games, or even drawing visual interpretations of the words. I also read Bob Marzano’s great book Teaching Basic and Advanced Vocabulary  which provided me with many great strategies.  You will figure out what strategy scratches your vocabulary itch, but here are three broad conceptual stances that I suggest you develop:

  • Use a rich vocabulary yourself. Just as you must be a reader and writer to teach English Language Arts as a practitioner, you must also have a robust vocabulary and use it.  When you are leading a discussion, when you are describing something in the reading, when you are conferencing, or even lecturing on a concept, use precise, exact language.  You don’t want to use $50 words for the sake of using them; you want to use the specific and accurate word because you are articulate and have a range of rich, complex words to choose from. Develop your ability to speak with depth, nuance, and sophistication.   Describing something as “small” sometimes isn’t sufficient; sometimes that small thing is actually trifling or trivial or insignificant or inconsequential or negligible or nugatory (what an insanely fabulous word!) or infinitesimal.
  • Tap into the emotional shading of words. When you teach vocabulary, suck the marrow out of those words.  Ask kids what emotional baggage a word like “hysterical” channels.  Ask kids to chart the words on a positive to negative cultural continuum.  Ask kids how different generations might perceive a word.  The dictionary definition is flat and static, but the connotative meaning of the word is rich and varied and often dependent on culture, regional geography, and social class. Turn kids on to both the social- and psycho-linguistic power of words.
  • Be a language freak. Create a culture of language in your classroom.  In the words of my colleague Bob Howard when he calls on kids to analyze art in his Art History class, “Remember, we use big words in here! Big, huge, glorious words!”   Point out especially dizzying words in the reading.  Share new words with your students that they won’t be assessed on, just words you have discovered and fallen in love with.   Have a Word of the Day calendar and use it.  Assign this as a job to a kid.  Start your day off with language, maybe challenge kids to use that word throughout the day.    Show kids how to use the online OED

New Teacher Series/ Question 9: What are the best strategies for novels?

In the landscape of English-Language Arts, there are different camps for how to best teach the novel, so as with anything, you should read widely about strategies and find the ones that work for you and your students. While I’m a great believer in the power and beauty of classic literature, I believe reading should be a joy and a pleasure, and for some students, particularly what teachers call “reluctant” readers, the classics can be torture.  They become just one more irrelevant thing foisted on them by teachers.

Kids who don’t read well may not like to read because they haven’t mastered the skills to tap into the wonderment and magic of a novel. Maybe they didn’t have positive early literacy experiences; maybe they can decode the words but can’t comprehend the meaning; maybe they were forced to read boring texts and associate reading with suffering and agony. The list goes on and on.  But I firmly agree with J. K. Rowling, who said, “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t met the right book yet.”

Outside of an AP curriculum, where choices tend toward classic lit, I am a proponent of both the canon and the contemporary – whatever gets a kid to become a crazy-mad reader – comic books, graphic novels, genre fiction, poetry, whatever.  Reading is a skill, like writing, that improves with practice. The more a student reads, the better she becomes at reading.  The better she becomes at reading, the more she will enjoy the experience and become more proficient.  But the first step is hooking the kid, and that hook should be baited with a juicy bite. As he grows as a reader, his tastes and abilities may change.  There’s room for all levels and likes at the table of literacy.  But how do you get kids to willingly join you?

Here are a few tips to get started.

  • Read whole novels, not just excerpts. Teaching students how to analyze and read closely through the use of excised novel passages of no more than 750 words, about the length of a reading passage on the ACT, has become a trend. This practice is not teaching reading; it’s teaching the skim/scan/chunk method of test prep, and it should only be used in addition to reading whole novels.  This practice is like asking kids to appreciate a seven-course dining experience, but only giving them the soup.
  • Teach reading and analytical skills explicitly.   Using To Kill a Mockingbird to study social justice or civil rights is a defensible lesson, but developing reading and critical thinking skills is the primary objective.  Any novel can be used as the text by which students learn to analyze theme, characters, diction, syntax, and structure. Teaching a novel isn’t teaching content alone, but as a corrolary enticement to reading skill and practice.  Questioning, reacting, inferring, predicting, and analyzing are reading skills students will need whether they’re reading Jude the Obscure or  Unwind. 
  • Create a culture of reading in your classroom. Be excited about reading yourself. Constantly share with your students what you’re currently reading.  Share articles, blog posts, videos about popular writers and popular books with your students.  Talk about characters as if they were real people. Model what literacy looks like.  Have a classroom library, and create many opportunities for them to visit your school’s library.  Start an after-school book club. Demonstrate for them that proficiency in reading is powerful personally and politically.
  • Become proficient at Lit Circles and Socratic Seminar. The heart of both of these approaches is discussion.  When you, as a practiced reader, read something that sits your head on fire, you naturally want to share, talk about it with someone else, analyze the whys and hows.  Using Lit Circles and Socratic Seminars in your classroom gives students an outlet and a forming ground for discussing the themes, motivations, and conflicts in the text. The dialogue and debates that both of these practices generate mimic the conversations of practiced and sophisticated thinkers and readers.  I’ve used these two practices to great effect in my regular English classes with texts, both classic and contemporary.
  • Be a literary matchmaker. Know where your students’ interests lie, and then make recommendations to kids of books you think they will like. If students gravitate naturally toward Young Adult lit, use those texts to teach the skills they will need to develop and strength in order to read more complex texts in the future. I loved teaching the classics, but the language can be arcane, the syntax cumbersome, and the subject matter foreign to a reluctant reader.  Bait the hook with their choice of novels, then reel them in with deeper, denser, more challenging reading as they develop their abilities.  Help them create the text-to-self connections that make reading relevant and real to them.

 

 

The Body Project

In 1855, American poet Walt Whitman self-published his poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, celebrating the human spirit, the body, nature, the shape of democracy, friendship, and love.  Among the twelve poems in the first edition, Whitman included “I Sing the Body Electric,” a multi-part poem of lists that revels in the body as a sacred vessel of the soul.  The snippets of narratives and images in his poem exist almost as organs and systems within the human body.

For this activity, I asked students to brainstorm some language related to their bodies.  They came up with the typical list:  heart, liver, lungs, spleen, blood, bones, bowels, nodes, cells, matter, muscle, tendon, nails, hair, eyes, nose, skin.

Then we brainstormed about language related to their souls. They came up with:  morality, personality, imagination, maturity, emotions, divine/eternal, vision, curiosity, beliefs, values, ego/id/superego, intelligence, reason, memories, language.

My purpose for the brainstorm was to identify how the duality of our bodies mimics the duality of poetry.  A poem about mackerel is not about mackerel. We are not the total of our glands; we are divine.  A poem is not just a collection of artfully arranged words; it’s a prayer, a lesson, a song about being human.

Secondly, I asked students to pair up and help each other draw the frames of their bodies on a large piece of newsprint.

Once secured on the page, the frame served as a vessel within which students transcribed their own celebration of body and soul, the linkage of the flesh and the spirit, the earthly and the divine.

Written without any drafting or pre-writing, analysis or weighing of poetic or rhetorical postures, these poems emerged over the course of three days of spontaneous writing.  The pieces synthesize song lyrics, spiritual texts, political manifestos, bumper sticker slogans, lines of poetry, battle cries, and original poetic texts.

My goals were: 1) I wanted to introduce them to Walt Whitman’s poem; 2) I wanted them to write spontaneously without regard to analysis, prewriting, drafting, etc. and 3) I wanted them to celebrate their body/soul connection with writing. Here are a few of them:

 

The pieces were a success, so we stuck them on the wall in the center hallway at our school, and I used them for a gallery walk for other classes.

 

Thoughts from our Blogging Unit II: A New Year’s Wish for Compassion

As I mentioned in my previous post, my students finished the year with a unit on blogging.  It was a great opportunity to teach argumentation and the rhetorical situation. During this political season, I had no dearth of subject matter.

Maybe because I’ve been hip deep in contentious subjects for six weeks, I have been drawn to stories of harmony and humanity.  During my morning commute, two stories from NPR caught my ear.

One was about a Tennessee solider named Roddie Edmond who was being awarded posthumously Israel’s “Righteous Among the Nations,” the highest honor for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II. According to the story, it was the first time a US solider has been given this award. NPR’s Emily Harris interviewed Edmond’s son, Chris Edmonds, for the story.

Edmonds, a master sergeant from Knoxville, was the highest ranking American solider in his Nazi POW camp, and when the guards demanded all Jews in the camp step forward to be identified, Edmonds ordered every US solider to step forward.

“They cannot all be Jews,” the German commander said, according to the Yad Vashem Remembrance Center.

“We are all Jews,” Edmonds replied.

According to the story Chris Edmonds relates, the commander was furious.

“He turned blood-red, pulled his Luger out, pressed it into the forehead of my dad, and said, ‘I’ll give you one more chance. Have the Jewish men step forward or I will shoot you on the spot.’ They said my dad paused, and said, ‘If you shoot, you’ll have to shoot us all.’ ”

The second story was about John Graziano, one of the first elementary-age children diagnosed with HIV in the United States.  During a visit on NPR’s StoryCorps, Tom Graziano, John’s adoptive father, spoke with John’s elementary school principal, Paul Nilsen, about the events of 1986.  When John’s diagnosis came to light, Nilsen was adamant about John staying at his school. “We’re gonna treat him no different than we’d treat any other child in the room,” said Nilsen.  John’s classmates were equally magnanimous. In the story, Nilson recalls, “If anybody asked the kids in the room who had AIDS, each of them would reply: “I have AIDS.”

These two stories were on the air during the first week of December, two weeks before Michael Moore’s open letter to Donald Trump and subsequent social media movement #WeAreAllMuslims, but I had the same reaction as Moore to the divisive, inhuman rhetoric that has seemingly dominated current political conversations.

I am saddened by the hate and bigotry on display in our culture.  I call on all teachers, regardless of subject or grade level, to teach kids to think critically, to recognize bias, to recognize emotional manipulation and fear mongering as a weak argumentative stance, and to research claims made on social media for credibility.

Every lesson, at its core, should be grounded in recognizing our own humanity in others and striving to engender compassion, consideration, and empathy in all students.

We could take a lesson from Roddie Edmonds and the second-grade classroom of John Graziano. Yes, we are all Jews. We all have AIDS, and we are all Muslims. But unfortunately, we are also all Donald Trump and Kanye West. We are Obama and Osama, Jesus and Judas, Atticus Finch and Bob Ewell.

As Atticus says, addressing his young daughter, Scout: “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

 

 

 

Thoughts from Our Blogging Unit I: A New Year’s Wish for Balance

Recently my freshman/sophomore writing class finished a unit on blogging. Students created their blogging personas, created a Sway page, which is a new storytelling app through Office, and dispatched four posts on any topic they chose.   Many of our conversations leading up to the summative project centered around how each blog post was, in essence, a mini-argument. All blogs, at their most elemental, say:  This is the way the world works or this is the way I see the world working.

To get students thinking critically about current events, I wrote an essential question on the board every morning: Does a political candidate’s religion matter? Are news outlets biased? Should drug addicts be forced into rehab?  Why is Donald Trump so popular? Students would then scribble down their thoughts for five minutes, after which they would each read a short article about the topic from The New York Times’ fantastic resource Room for Debate, a topical collection of short articles from all sides of each   issue.  After reading, students broke out into small groups to unpack their articles for five minutes, then we finally reconvened for a group discussion. The whole process took about 40 minutes of a 90-minute instructional block.

One morning, in particular, we had an interesting conversation about helicopter parents.

Ruby suggested there was a historical aspect to it: Depression era parents grew up with nothing, so they showered their children with wealth and prosperity.  Those children became the Baby Boomers who were self-centered and narcissistic. They gave birth to children who were largely unparented.  Those children are now having kids of their own, and because of their childhood rootlessness, they were hypervigilant about child rearing, hence the helicoptering.

“Is every generation in rebellion with the previous one?”  David asked.

Nathan commented that it was just the pendulum swing of history.

“Maybe if the pendulum continues to swing eventually the swings will become milder and milder until the pendulum stops and we have the perfect parent,”   Michael suggested.

I said, “That sounds like a utopian wish. Is a perfect society possible?”

“No,” Avery said, “we’re all still human.”

Almost every day during this unit, I walked away from my morning class thinking, “I wish politicians could hear these smart, balanced kids.”

What I, and anyone else paying attention to our world this year, have noticed is an extreme polarization of ideology and rhetoric.  It’s been an extremely easy year to teach rhetorical fallacies because almost every day, from the left and the right, there are dozens of examples.

But, at the end of the day, like Avery said, we are all still human, and thereby flawed, perhaps unable to become milder and milder, and ultimately “perfect.”

However, my wish for my students, this year and every year, is that they strive toward that balance and harmony.  I wish my students, instead of clinging to that wildly swinging ideological plumb, would retain their measured, smart, level-headedness.  My New Year’s wish is that they continue to value and develop common sense, hope, balanced thinking, and compassion toward others.

And, in keeping with the blogging unit, I hope they find their voice and speak that into existence.

Happy New Year.

My Opening Day Lecture

Good morning. Welcome to SCAPA Literary Arts at Lafayette.

Get out your notebooks.   We are going to do some writing.  Put today’s date on the upper right hand margin.  Get in the habit of doing that when you write.  It grounds your thought in time. It answers that eternal question: when did I write this?

Before we do some writing, I want to say a few things. First, I want to welcome you to my class. I want you to know that I’m glad you are here.  My sole responsibility in this classroom is to help you become the writer you want to be.

In that vein, I expect you to write and read every day.  I expect you to struggle with ideas, words, and images.  I expect you to rejoice when you have a break through, and I expect you to persevere when you’re stuck.  I expect you to write before you think. I expect you to revise before you submit.

I encourage risk and failure. I disdain complacency and sloth. Through constant self-reflection, I want you to discover the lies you tell yourself, lies that most likely affect every part of your life.  Then being honest and devoted to love, find a way to squander that negativity.

I expect you to be respectful of others. And that means don’t touch or take anything that does not belong to you.   That also means that what is read and written in this class, stays in this class until the author sees fit to publish it to the world. That story is not yours to tell, to profit from socially, to use to hurt or exploit the owner of that story.

Even though becoming better writers is our only goal, you will achieve others along the way—you will be a better communicator and collaborator for having been a member of a community of writers. You will become a better reader of others’ writing, and because of that, you will become a better reader of your own writing.  You will discover new stories, authors, poems and poets, new writing forms.  And you will form a lasting trust and relationship with your growing self through reflection.

You will never master writing.  There will always be more to learn.  In this room, you are a part of something that is greater than yourself – a grand enterprise, the life-long pursuit of being a writer and a human.  You will learn how to do both better through constant effort.

Room 303 is a special place with a power that is built from within by you.  The degree to which you take this journey of a being a writer seriously will be the degree to which this room becomes a spark plug, a launching pad, and also a cloister, a refuge, a warm home.  I expect you to clean up every day, to put away your laptop, to rinse and put up your coffee mug if you drink coffee, and to look around your desk to make sure you haven’t left anything on your desk or on the floor around your desk at the end of class.

You are going to write more than you have ever written before, but you will be a better thinker, a better reader, and a better writer when you walk out of here next May. Writing well—both logically and beautifully— is our only goal.

Are you ready?

Okay.

What was your first memory?