Making Every Lesson Count

By Linda Christensen

Photo: David Bacon

When I was a waitress at the Vista Del Mar, Elma Schwartz, the head cook, gave me valuable advice: “Make every trip count.” Pouring coffee? Pick up empty plates as you circle your station. Taking out an order? Take a full load and bus the tables on your way back to the kitchen.

Although I’m no longer serving clam burgers or chicken fried steaks in that diner on Humboldt Bay, I’ve found that Elma’s advice works in the classroom as well. My teaching needs to serve multiple purposes: I help students learn to “talk back” to the world while I teach them how to write essays. I select multicultural novels, practice close reading, and root the lessons in students’ lives through narrative writing prompts.

The “I love” writing prompt that I stole from one of my student’s essays uses Elma’s practical advice. The lesson creates classroom community as students share their passions, and I teach the use of poetic language in prose by examining the use of listing, rhythm, and repetition in an essay. While this lesson doesn’t promote a critical reading of the world, there are times when I like to pause the critique and remind students-and myself-of what’s good, what’s right, what needs to be celebrated in the world.

What Do You Love?

This lesson started by accident. During our college essay-writing unit, Andrew Kafoury, a senior in my Writing for Publication class, wrote a passionate essay to win acceptance into a college known for its theater program. He wrote: “When [the admissions officer] asked me to tell him why I was interested in the College of Santa Fe, I froze up. It must have been the way he was looking at me, doubtful and unimpressed. I sort of mumbled and stumbled on sentences, trying to find 10-letter words to impress him, when I should have told him the simple truth”:

I love acting. I love putting on costumes and becoming creatures I am not. I love my skin sweating as bright lights send heat soaking through my body. I love getting to know my cast, watching the drama behind the drama. I love the quick change, the blackout, the dry ice and stage combat. I love cranky stage managers and quiet co-stars. I love watching ego-stricken actors fall into decline while a new face emerges from the shadows. I love the monster special effects that steal the show, and that oh-so-precious moment when you, the actor, send the audience head over heels with laughter. I love the call sheet with my name on it, and the director who calls to say I’m perfect for the part. I love the shows that I wish would go on forever, and even the ones I can’t stand till they’re over.I love sitting backstage, exhausted from the matinee, and knowing in another two hours I’ll go out there and do it again. I love to play the bad guy, and I love getting that killer role I’ve always wanted. Hell, I love it when they toss a spear in my hand and say, “Go stand in the corner.” I love classical and contemporary, tragedy and comedy, romance and swashbuckling! I live for the moment when I run on stage for curtain call and the applause gets just a little bit louder. I love the smooth feeling of steady memorization, and those intense moments when something unexpected happens, like an actor not showing up two minutes before curtain, so the stage hands have to make a split-second decision because, damn it, man, the show MUST go on.

Photo: David Bacon

After Andrew read his essay to fourth period, I decided the rest of the students should all experiment with an “I love . . .” piece to potentially add to their college essays. It was just too much of a teachable moment to waste. Some ended up in my students’ college essays-like my daughter, Gretchen Hereford’s, below-while others turned into prose poetry.

I admit it: I love Outdoor School. I love the rain, the mud, and the mushrooms growing in the dark womb of the forest. I love the skits. I love the silly name games. I love the stories, the songs, and the hand gestures students share. I love the cabins and the smell of fir trees. I love the sound of a student’s voice when she answers a question right. I love explaining why there are no pinecones in a fir forest. I love being a person someone looks up to. I love the sound of laughter. I love slipping and falling in mud. I love breathing in fresh air, and I love getting away from car exhaust. I love Outdoor School.

Since Andrew’s initial reading a number of years ago, I have used his prompt again and again. Sometimes students write about their own passions. Other times they use the topics to write from the points of view of historical or literary characters because the prompt forces them to recall specific details from the texts. What does Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God love? Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web? How about Emma Goldman? Bayard Rustin?

Elementary through high school teachers in the Portland Writing Project use variations of this piece with their students. Some elementary teachers use this prompt to get students to write from the perspectives of ants, spiders, bears, or thunderstorms. (Some early elementary teachers use Eloise Green-field’s poem “Honey, I Love” to prompt their students’ writing. The pattern in Greenfield’s poem works great with younger students.)

Putting Clothes on the Ghost

One huge problem that crops up in student papers is the lack of specific details. They love in abstract-their mothers, fathers, best friends-who are “always there for them.” Their papers are bland because they don’t provide enough details to create images in the reader’s mind. I can discuss abstract nouns until the cows come home, but Andrew’s piece shows students how to put clothes on those ghost nouns and make them dance.

Before we read Andrew’s piece together, I give each student two highlighters. I ask the students to highlight repeating words or phrases in one color and what Andrew loves in another color. Students note the way Andrew repeats the words “I love.” Then we list what he loves. I try to get students to see that one of the strengths of Andrew’s piece is his use of specific details and language about theater-the black ice, stage combat, memorization, audience, stage, drama, comedy, tragedy. He is an insider in this world, and he is giving us a guided tour.

Then I ask students to write lists of what they love. They love skateboarding, chocolate, singing in the church choir, Saturday mornings, and summer vacation. They love snow days and hot chocolate. They love summer days playing basketball at Irving Park, fishing for steelhead in the Willamette, and eating Grandma’s sweet potato pie. After they make the lists, I encourage them to share a few items out loud, so students who are stuck can get more ideas. But this spontaneous sharing also leads us to discover new insights about each other.

Photo: David Bacon

Once they have shared, students each choose one item from their list and brainstorm specific evidence. I encourage them to be wild, to write like a bicyclist riding on a tight rope-fast and furious-to put it all in, to dare to be outrageous. I also tell them to be specific, like Andrew. I want them to name the park, name the bait, the boat, and the gas station. What is the language of their love?

Writing Prose Like a Poet

Once students have a large stash of language, reasons, and phrases, I point out that writers use the list, the rush of repetitions, the sharp, specific nouns, the cumulative sentence in many forms of writing-from essay to fiction to poetry.

I share a few examples from my favorite writers. Notice how Tom Robbins in his delightful essay “Why I Live in Northwest Washington” uses a list, repetition, and lively language soaked in the Northwest:

I’m here for the weather.

Well, yes, I’m also here for the volcanoes and the salmon, and the exciting possibility that at any moment the volcanoes could erupt and pre-poach the salmon. I’m here for the rust and the mildew, for webbed feet and twin peaks, spotted owls and obscene clams. . . . blackberries and public art. . . . for the ritual of the potlatch and the espresso cart, for bridges that pratfall into the drink and ferries that keep ramming the dock.

I’m here because the Wobblies used to be here, and sometimes in Pioneer Square you can still find bright-eyed old anarchists singing their moldering ballads of camaraderie and revolt. . . . I’m here for the forests (what’s left of them), for the world’s best bookstores and movie theaters; for the informality, anonymity, general lack of hidebound tradition, and the fact that here and nowhere else grunge rubs shoulders in the half-mean streets with a pervasive yet subtle mysticism. The shore of Puget Sound is where electric guitars cut their teeth, and old haiku go to die.

Charlotte’s Web has an unforgettable description where a sheep explains to Templeton the rat how a county fair is a “rat’s paradise”:

Everybody spills food at a fair. A rat can creep out late at night and have a feast. In the horse barn you will find oats that the trotters and pacers have spilled. In the trampled grass of the infield you will find old discarded lunchboxes containing the foul remains of peanut butter sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, cracker crumbs, bits of donuts, and particles of cheese. In the hard-packed dirt of the midway, after the glaring lights are out and the people have gone home to bed, you will find a veritable treasure of popcorn fragments, frozen custard dribblings, candied apples abandoned by tired children, sugar fluff crystals, salted almonds, popsicles, partially gnawed ice cream cones, and the wooden sticks of lollypops.

Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief takes listing and cumulative sentences to a new art form. For a follow-up homework assignment, I send students out to find lists in books, song lyrics, magazines, or newspaper articles.

I return to Andrew’s piece to study sentence structure. I read the piece out loud again and ask student to listen to the rhythm of the lines. How does he make that happen? We count the words. We take note of how he shifts between long and short sentences, the way he uses items in a series to move the sentence: “I love the quick change, the blackout, the dry ice, and stage combat.” I point out the way he sometimes balances the sentence over the word and : “I love cranky stage managers and quiet co-stars.” Other times he pairs a series of two items and creates another list: “I love classical and contemporary, tragedy and comedy, romance and swashbuckling!” Students take Andrew’s piece as a case study of why and how to vary sentence structure to alter pacing.

Over the years I’ve discovered that grammar and language books have their place as references, but to learn how to use language effectively, students need to pay attention to how writers like Andrew, E. B. White, and Tom Robbins pull them into their pieces. Students also need to experiment with their own writing, to get playful, to practice making words sing. After students play around with the words and phrases on their lists, we share our pieces out loud, pausing to laugh and to point out what we love about each other’s writing.

Elma’s mantra about making every trip count lives on in my work today. When we have so much to teach, we can’t afford to deliver lessons one item at a time. My students at Jefferson High School didn’t have the time or patience for repetitious language and sentence drills. The work of becoming writers requires a playful attention to detail while writing a piece that matters in a room where experimenting is honored.

Linda Christensen ( is language arts coordinator for Portland Public Schools and a Rethinking Schools editor. She is author of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word.