Posted in Teaching

Advice From a Teacher, Part 2: The Spiral

On Wednesday, I told my seventh graders we’d be starting our expository writing unit, and they groaned accordingly. I then proceeded to pretend that they were whining for no reason and that writing expository essays wasn’t really that bad and might actually be kind of fun.

On Thursday, I put an outline of the expository essay structure on the screen* and my students did not whine. They simply gazed back at me with glassy-eyed stares. That’s when I realized three things:

  1. They had all seen this outline before.
  2. They obviously needed to see this outline again because their benchmark expository essays first semester were terrible.
  3. I had to find a way to make them not hate me for teaching them expository writing or they would never learn expository writing.

So, I dropped the act.

* I don’t actually have a screen for my projector. In November, while I was out of the classroom to grade the students’ benchmark expository essays, my sweet little substitute accidentally broke my screen when it got stuck while she was teaching and she tried to unstick it. For about a week, I didn’t have a screen at all. Then, when I remembered that I work in education and probably wouldn’t be getting a new screen anytime soon, I improvised. My “screen” is a bed sheet.

Exhibit A

I told my students that I knew they had heard all this before. They nodded. I told them I knew they’d written expository essays before. They nodded again. I told them I didn’t want them to think that I thought I was telling them something new and exciting that they’d never heard before. I said, “I know you’ve learned expository writing before. You’ve also written personal narratives before and read short stories before and analyzed poems before.” (More nodding.) I said, “If it feels like you do the same thing in Language Arts every year, it’s because you do.”

They seemed sort of shocked at this, like they didn’t know I knew it or at least never expected me to admit it. That’s when I told them that Language Arts is different than their other classes. “It’s not linear,” I said, making things up on the spot and trying to sound intelligent. I explained how math is linear. “You have to learn how to add and subtract before you learn how to multiply and divide. Everything builds on everything else, and eventually you’re doing complex equations, and you have to know how to add and subtract to do them, but you’re not still being taught how to add and subtract.” I talked about how in science, you study different topics each year. “But Language Arts isn’t like that,” I said. “Language Arts is a spiral.” I talked about how reading and writing are skills you learn over and over again, only with new material. I said, “The skills may not change, but the complexity does. You’re still reading short stories, but they’re longer, more advanced short stories. You’re still analyzing poetry, but it’s higher level poetry. You’re still writing narratives and essays, but they should be higher quality, more mature narratives and essays.”

Then I drew this elaborate diagram to illustrate what I meant and projected it on my sheet.

Exhibit B

The kids** actually seemed to listen to what I was saying. They seemed to get it. And for the rest of the period, as we took notes (again) on thesis statements and body paragraphs and conclusions and color-coded an example of an expository essay, no one groaned or whined or said, “We’ve done this before.” They were quiet and attentive and on task and maybe, just maybe, seeing the lesson in a new way. It was nice.

** When I say “the kids” I’m lumping all 129 of my students together, but in reality, I teach ELA five times a day to classes that range in size from 16 to 31, and no class is ever exactly the same. Here’s how this little teachable moment actually broke down:

  • 1st period: I had no epiphanies first period and made no grand speeches about the spiral of Language Arts. First period is always known as my “guinea pig class.” It’s where I test out my lesson and see if it works. This year it’s even worse than usual because my conference periods are 2nd and 3rd, so I can totally revamp things if necessary before more students come in, and I often do. I often console myself by reminding myself that there are only 16 students in my first period, so if the lesson doesn’t go well, I’m only damaging 8% of my students, but then I remind myself that I really should try to give them a kick-butt lesson someday to make up for it, or at least some candy.
  • 4th period: I had the epiphany about the repetitive nature of ELA and improvised a short speech about the spiral but used no visuals.
  • 5th period: I gave a decent speech about the spiral and actually drew a small spiral on the board.
  • 7th period: I gave a good speech and illustrated it with the elaborate and impressive diagram you saw above.
  • 8th period: I drew the same illustration as above but more neatly and with a purple marker, while giving a moving speech about the spiral that ended with me saying, “So, Language Arts doesn’t change, but—I’m about to blow your minds—you change,” and the students let out a collective “whoa” of appreciation.***

*** I’m not kidding.

Then on Friday, we took a break from expository writing to start our nonfiction book clubs, and my classes were all ridiculously loud and squirrely and unfocused, and I ended up threatening, “If I have to tell you to get quiet again, you’re doing book clubs by yourself!” which makes no sense. But I blame the _______________ [Choose your adjective: excitement/horror/bewilderment] of Trump’s presidential inauguration for that. ****

**** In case my actual teaching advice got lost in the writing of this post, here it is:

  1. Be honest with your students. They will respect you for it.
  2. Once in a while, try to wow your guinea pig class with a great lesson. Or, failing that, give them candy.
  3. In a pinch, bed sheets can be used as projection screens. Also, broken desk arms can be used as crowbars, but that’s a whole different story.


Exhibit C