Too Much Fun In the Library

In Breakthroughs: Classroom Discoveries About Teaching, Peter Trenouth, a high school English teacher writes about an activity he used with his students to strengthen their descriptive writing.  He had found that his students’ writing assignments were often “mired in hollow thought or stilted prose”.  Even “creative” assignments would come back “weak, either mechanistic or formless.”  He discovered that getting his students to write descriptive papers often solved this problem.  However, I appreciate how he asks why students should learn to write more descriptively, other than saying its to meet state standards or testing requirements.  He developed an answer:  descriptive writing should be “anchored in experiences” if they are to have meaning.  Meaning does not stand by itself and when we experience the sights, sounds, textures, and odors of life, and we describe them with language, we give meaning to life.

So, after giving his students plenty of models and in class exercises, he had his students take a field trip within the school building, making lists of anything and everything that came to mind as they walked around.  I especially liked how he had them make lists without evaluating what came to mind.  Later, he had his students write descriptively of what they saw and found that each one placed significance on different things.  However, what made their writing powerful was that they owned what was significant to them and conveyed it through their writing.

I thought I’d try this activity, sitting here in the Undergraduate Library.  I’m sitting by the window, looking out into the inner courtyard, where there is a a tall tree within a round plant nursery.

Sunlight

Shadows

Wind blowing the leaves gently

Birds flying overhead

Quiet order

Chairs are all neatly pushed into the tables.

Everything seems to be in the right place; nothing is out of place.

Water stains on the ceiling

3 copy machines from where I’m sitting

Colors are neutral:  navy blue and gray chairs, ivory white tables, black computer screens, brown couches, silver window panes, sheer brown blinds

See-through meeting rooms with flat-screen TVs placed on the walls

Spare, minimalistic, plain, and functional.

Dim lights mingled with the sun shining in from the courtyard windows.

This is making me feel really peaceful right now.

Quiet thinking, reflecting.

It’s quiet, but busy in the intellectual realm.

The external order brings internal order.

This is why people come to libraries to study or get work done.

Later, Peter had his students develop these details into sentences.  So, here goes my attempt:

I see why people come to the library to study.  In front of me, there are rows of neatly arranged blue and gray chairs, pushed into the functional ivory tables.  Everything in this part of the library is quietly ordered, maintaining the simplicity and serenity of the atmosphere.  Nothing is out of place, not even the colors.  There is no clutter and everything seems to have been placed here for a purpose, after careful deliberation and thought, including three copy machines within 10 feet of each other.  The quietness of the library silences outside noises so that I can concentrate on my thoughts and organise and make sense out of them.

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8 Responses to “Too Much Fun In the Library”

  1. scottfilkins Says:

    Thanks for bringing my attention to this post in writing group. I knew I’d want to go back and explore the whole thing. I’m not familiar with that title, so I’m going to want to check that out. More to the point, I love it when people talk about discovering a new approach, and then write their way through the whole thing for us all to see. Seeing your list and then the writing it prompted is so valuable, I think. Thank you!

  2. Thanks, Scott! I think this is the part I love about teaching – finding a new approach and trying it out with my students (or myself). I really like this book – there are a lot of new approaches embedded in approaches we might have already been using. I like how we get a little time to write and try them out at the UIWP. Wish we had more time to write.

  3. I also really like the way that you not only wrote about the approach you discovered in your book, but tried it out and shared your work. My close friend is an art teacher. When she assigns her students a project she always works through it herself. I try to do this with writing and it has really made a difference to my teaching.
    I would like to read Breakthroughs in the future – so many books, so little time!

  4. I really like the way this turned out. It’s an interesting approach to writing for any subject.

    This is really useful for me since the approach, intermediate steps and final product all appear in the same entry.

    Thanks, Esther!

  5. Esther,

    Thanks for sharing your reflections on this part of Breakthroughs. I also liked the way that you used the technique yourself to demonstrate it.

    It’s also interesting to see that you focused on one part of the book and got so much out of it. Sometimes, we feel obligated to go through an entire book and in our haste to cover everything, we end up getting less that is actually useful out of this. I can imagine that you will use this approach with students when you next have the chance.

  6. I also really liked that you tried the approach out. It seems like a wonderful way to get students to slow down and pay attention to the world around them. I noticed in my own students’ writing the lack of description – they would tell me what happened and be done with it. It can be very hard to convince them that it is important to “show not tell” in their writing.

    I’m really interested in this book. Were most of the stories this useful and interesting? If so I may look into reading this one for the next book group!

  7. Me too! This listing and then detailing is a great approach. The potential for movement is great too. Now I want to read that book.
    More importantly, I want to tell you how much I enjoyed your writing process video. It is a work of art and thoughtfulness. I love the connections you made with food and food preparation. This class is making us see so many similarities in life. You truly are an artist as well as a writer. Thanks for sharing that part of you.

    • Patty, in case I don’t get to talk to you in person about this, I wanted to mention that one of the teachers in my book used your “embedded sentences” approach in his classroom. He called his “skeleton sentences” which needed flesh, skin, and muscle. He also tried it the opposite way: taking flaccid writing and having his students pick out the skeleton sentences and re-writing their pieces from there. It’s on page 209, “Skeletons Out of the Closet: The Case of the Missing 162 Percent.”

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