Narrative, argument, informational. We may teach these genres as though writing can be contained in just one of these forms in part because that is how the Common Core State Standards segregate writing.
I can’t imagine writing an informational piece without someone’s story to add perspective or a story without information. And I don’t really want to hear or read an argument that does not have some narrative and informational features. I love a story. I am moved by a story. And, I am also moved by a credible source or stunning fact. And, I really appreciate when a writer can take me through the logic of a complex question that can help me relate a bit better to my fellow human beings. Above all, however, good writing has inquiry — a feature that is difficult to identify (and defies measurement). By inquiry, I mean the writing is an act of asking for understanding.
As a middle school writing teacher, I want students to get that writing is not about a standard, points, or a grade; rather, writing is an act of asking for understanding in their lives within and beyond the school. This post, then, is an act of asking for understanding about how we can teach writing as a way of asking, how we can teach a student to write into her life’s arguments.
The Process of Writing into Your Life’s Arguments
When I draw on the standards to inform my practice, we (as a class) decide if we will write first and decide on where we can send the publication later or decide on the publication first and then consider our audience as we write.
When it comes to topics, I really want students to write what they know and write into that knowledge to discover something about themselves and their topics, but that is what writing does anyway. I write to figure things out and rarely know where I am going until I get to the end.
Because we publish our work on the blog, our writing has implications beyond the standards. Students have an audience of close to 200 people, and readers don’t want a formulaic, cliché reading experience. And the writer is in a position to have an impact on readers with her craft. Furthermore, most students will say the best part of reading the publications is learning about their peers.
While I purport to have a writing workshop where students select their topics, I do guide them in trying new forms and purposes to stretch their writing experiences. For argument, then, I wrote a personal argument and supported students in the process of finding the arguments stirring in their own lives and use the writing process to work through the tensions and seek understanding.
I thought I would use images of my class notebook to walk through the process of writing a personal argument. I am a writer in our workshop, so I write alongside students, often inviting them into my inner thoughts as I write. When I need a new topic or have a blog to write, I follow a typical writing process:brainstorm, planning, rhetorical design (sometimes before the brainstorm), drafting the lead, drafting, working through the closing and how I want to leave the reader, and revision, editing, publishing, celebrating. What I will illuminate here is how I do inquiry into my life through the drafting phase (please, excuse the red pen as by December all my extra pens and pencils have been “borrowed; I distinctly remember finding this red pen on the floor).
The captions of these notebook capture what I thought and said aloud as I wrote in front of students. This piece is about my father and our relationship. I share this now because my father passed just a few months after I wrote this piece, and in re-reading it the other day, I was comforted by my own words. I know schooling (the rules, schedules, assemblies, meeting) can be a distraction from energy to hold on to why I teach, but I don’t want to miss out (or have my students miss out) on opportunities to uncover their lives through writing.
Here is my argument- story of writing into my life’s arguments. The irony of the last line is not lost on me:
It was about four years ago. I had not heard from my dad in a while, which was not necessarily unusual, so I called him and asked him to meet me for coffee the next morning. It was just a random Tuesday in the summer, and because I am a teacher and he has been forever unemployed, it was an easy plan. As we walked up to the counter, I anticipated that he would slowly reach into his wallet, and that he would not have enough to treat his daughter to coffee, but he did offer his only dollar to play for his coffee, which was actually not enough. I paid. A year before, we, my ten siblings and I, discovered he was in serious debt and helped him apply for bankruptcy, so by now I had come to terms with this turn in our relationship. Once he supported me, and now it was my turn to support him. That said, I was not prepared for what was about to happen in our “coffee talk.” Conversation is tough with my father; he is a thinker and slow to tell his story, but once he gets going, he can talk about himself for hours. I started simply, “How are you?”
“Fair,” he replied.
“Okay, so,” and here is where I should have stopped, “what would make you better than fair? Happy even?”
He paused, and replied with a sarcastic laugh, “How much time have you got?”
“All the time, Dad,” I really want to know what you make you happy?”
“You know,” he said, “I’d trade any one of you to see one of my inventions driving down the street.” Now, the “invention” he was referring to is one of several vehicles he has designed and pitched to some of the most well-known carmakers, and I know that my dad did not say this to hurt me, but I also know that his words did two things: first, they cut through my heart like a knife, and second, they helped me understand that had to rethink who this man was to me.
When it comes to parents and children, some may argue that you have to love your parents no matter what, that they love you no matter what. These people would argue and truly believe that children should always respect their parents, and they probably learned it from the Commandment, “Honor thy father and mother.” I learned this rule, too, after many years of CCD or the Catholic religion classes I took every Saturday since I could walk. Of course, this commandment has some value; children, as grownups, should help sick parents because the parents cleaned up our vomit and brought us to the doctor and gave us medicine and juice when we were sick. This is the child’s opportunity to reciprocate by providing financial support if necessary because many elderly have fixed incomes; we can drive our parents when their sight or driving skills diminish; and we might even invite our parents to live with us when they can no longer care for themselves (i.e., forgetting their medicine, to bathe, or to even eat). By the way, I have done all these things for my father.
On the other hand, some may argue that parents raise their children to be independent and there may even be some who argue that not all parents are good and thus do not deserve respect from their children. In fact, there are experts who would argue that children should actually distance themselves from an abusive parent to protect themselves. If a parent is hurting the child emotionally, physically, or even financially, psychologist might suggest to a child to break up with that parent. When the child is young, DCFS, the Department of Children and Family Services, would remove the child, but what about an adult child? Who protects him or her? Now, I know that DCFS exists to protect children who cannot protect themselves, but the question still remains, how can an adult child protect themselves when they feel abused (emotionally, physically, or financially) by a parent? Is it ever okay to break up with your parent, and in my case, my dad?
Both sides of this argument are understandable; however, I don’t think it has to be all or nothing. Returning to my story, it was not long after that “coffee talk” that my father began a period of over four years where he was in and out of the hospital because of heart problems. It turns out, however, that his heart issue was very treatable. Just eight months ago, I received an emergency phone call from my father – a day after I brought him home from the hospital – and discovered a scene not unlike those hoarder reality shows; he was, in fact, living in squalor, not taking his meds, and not even eating much; I even learned that he had gone nearly a year without paying his electric bill, which I discovered because he called me to pay the bill that winter. I called my siblings and made a plan to move him in with me until we could figure out what to do. He resisted, in complete denial that there was anything wrong with how he was living. My dad fancied himself “eccentric,” and was very proud that he was building a canoe in his living room. Every step of the way, we uncovered new, hidden debt and a life stuck in the pages of blueprints and car magazines piled floor to ceiling. My father had lost all sense of “normalcy” so much so that I found a pile of teeth that he had pulled out himself because he had so neglected the basic day-to-day hygiene.
It might seem clear to you that my father needed help, and my ten siblings agreed, but it was not clear, and still is not clear, how to help. How do you be a daughter to this father? Instead of “honor” or “distance,” I had to choose something different. I had to see my father as a man whose dreams did not come through and who really was an “eccentric” who had no desire to be “normal.” His identity or who he think he is all tied up in this image of the man who builds a canoe in his living room – for ten years. The last five years, my father’s health got so bad that he could not work on this canoe, and so he was not able to live his “eccentric” life. I think I get this now. I want to help him have the life he wants, and to do that I need to help him stay healthy . Perhaps that means paying his bills from time to time, bringing him meals and checking in on his apartment – even cleaning it. I think in this way I am “honoring” the man who gave me life and who was actually a teacher like me at one point. I think I am also distancing myself from him emotionally as I no longer expect anything in return. He has never said “I love you” because he does not know or understand it, and I think I get that now, too.
My siblings are not of this mind, this mind of accepting the man who is our father. My siblings, nine out of the ten, have actually broken up with my dad. Some have written him letters saying that they will no longer pay for his cell phone or car insurance; others have said that they will not visit him in the hospital anymore because he is being irresponsible. Some have just said, though only to me, that they don’t want to be in his life at all as they share stories about how ungrateful he is or how he lacks compassion or how he has never even acknowledged his grandson. With a family this size, there are histories that I cannot know, and so I accept whatever reason my siblings offer for wanting to break up with my dad. I have my own history, my own memories. I remember when we would drive to the doctor’s office listening to Simon and Garfunkel. I remember our talks about books and teaching, and sometimes, yes sometimes even now, he will tell me a story about “little Sarah,” and I see a glimpse of the father he once was. Thus , while I understand my siblings’ points of view and I get the arguments to “honor” or “distance” from a parent, I also see the possibilities in this larger issue of parent relationships; I see the possibility in re-imagining our relationships with our parents.
In the end, I see my dad as a human being – yes, he is a flawed human being but a man who had dreams, nonetheless. I argue that we can see our parents in a new way, that perhaps we have to see them in a new way as we become adult children. When my father told me that he would trade one of us, his children, for his invention to be realized, I began to mourn the loss of my “father” and have since accepted the fact that I am forever connected to this man, a man whom I still call “Dad.” The father is gone, but the man still is.
“Hi, Dad, how are you?”
“What will make you better than fair?”
“How much time have you got?”
From My Argument to the Students’ Arguments
Below are some students samples. It was clear to me that what I chose to write about had implications beyond the “intended audience” of The Daily Herald opinion page. By writing aloud this argument (this very personal argument), I invited many students to look at the tensions in their own relationships with their parents. Had I written about cell phones or school uniforms, I imagine the personal, ethical arguments you see below may not have emerged. You will see that some students did not get into the conclusion, which is the most complex part of this process. Conferences helped with revisions, but for some students, they just were not ready to “conclude” these issues, so we came back to them later. Some students rendered these essays into poems – a form that allowed the student to push uncertainty into the white spaces of the page.
I hope that students found learning “about ” argument is quite different from uncovering the arguments living within our worlds. Writing is not about an assignment or task but about a process of inquiry.
Student Sample 1: Right or Wrong
Have you ever had to choose between the right or wrong thing? Even when the wrong thing will get you something you need? That’s the decision I had to make when I was in R.E.C class and was told I had to write a letter to the Priest about why I chose my service hours. The problem is that I didn’t get to choose what I volunteered for, my parents made me volunteer for something, Vacation Bible School a little camp where it’s for a week in the summer and we have to guide and chaperone little kids as they eat snacks and make little crafts, that would get them all done at once. I have to tell the Priest why I chose my service hours meaning, why did I choose the ones I chose. Why did doing those specific volunteer work make me happy and want to enjoy them? What impact would it have had on me now and later after I’m confirmed? So should I lie?
On one hand, I’ll get confirmed, meaning that I’ll be an official catholic and a member of the church. I’ll be able to do readings, volunteer to read to the little kids at Literacy to the world; other opportunities I would get if I wasn’t confirmed. On the other hand, if I lie it would make my confirmation void. Also he will ask me questions about my letter. And if my letter is good enough, I might be one of the two who get chosen to stand up and answer questions about their letter in front of the whole church. Every year the priest and the bishop choose two letters that stand out the most and at confirmation they ask question about to the two people who wrote the letters about their letter. So I would have to memorize exactly what I wrote so that he couldn’t tell that I would be lying. And so that I wouldn’t mess up in front of everyone and look stupid.
This is an understandable concern; however, if I don’t lie then I’ll probably not get confirmed. Which means that all those years of going to religious education class, learning about my faith, learning about how brave the saints were, and even being baptized in general would have been for nothing. So, what I think is that lying (saying that I enjoyed my service hours) is the better decision that everyone would be satisfied with. My parents would be happy I got confirmed, I would be happy that it was all over with and that I can move on, and the priest would be relived about not having to confirm me.
Some may say that if I lie in my letter then the confirmation would have not been real since one of the reasons I got it was on a lie, and that it would be a major sin towards the church. But, in actuality my confirmation would be legitimate because when you get confirmed, the Priest sprinkles holy water on you which means that you are now blessed and cleared of any recent sins that you may have committed. Almost like being baptized again, where you are now holy and forgiven; like being born again.
In the end, my overall decision is to say that I enjoyed my service hours even though I didn’t Lying is wrong, especially to a priest, but it is the only choice I have that would make everyone happy because if I say that I didn’t like them, then there’s a chance I may not get confirmed. I’ve never really had to make a choice like this before were in the end the right choice was wrong. But maybe what I’ve decided isn’t the worst thing in the world. All in all, it’s taught me that sometimes we have to say a little white lie to get something done. That sometimes the wrong choice is the right choice.
Sample 2: Should the beliefs of your parents affect your relationship with your dad?
Dads are normally strict aren’t they? Do you believe that you should let your father’s religious beliefs affect your relationship? Since about two years ago I’ve had that question in my mind. My dad teaches about God in his church, and to us his kids. We get to see him every Sunday and we spent about an hour and a half of learning about God. My dad is fun to be around when he’s not thinking about his church, he knows how to enjoy life and I do too. I know he just wants the best for us and is trying to teach us right from wrong. I’m trying to figure out if I should let his beliefs change our relationship.
Many would say that they would accept their father how he is, even if the relationship between them wasn’t the best they could have. Others would argue that the change which their father’s beliefs bring is too much for them. If somebody let their parents thoughts change their relationship, one might say that it’s not right because a child has to step in their parents shoes. They believe that a daughter/son should follow in the parent’s footsteps in this case, the fathers. Nonetheless, a child can’t always fulfill the expectations that their father’s would like them to do. Some kids aren’t able to follow their father’s expectations and don’t end up feeling good about themselves, they want to do other things but believe they are doing wrong by not following in their parents footsteps. Teens/children should be able to think their own thoughts, without their father overreacting and preaching them about them being wrong.
Sample 3: My Dad
Is a job more important than your own kids? My dad didn’t get an education so he never really had a good job. About 2-3 years ago, my dad started working out and being interested in helping people be healthy. He started working out more and became a zumba instructor. A lot of people ended up showing up so he kept giving classes. He makes about 10 dollars per person and usually about 35 people a day. He makes a good amount of money from Monday to Thursday. He buys things to improve the place and usually gives me 100 every 2 weeks or whenever my mom tells him to. Should a parents’ job be more important than your own kids? This is something that most people would answer “no” to, but with my dad I’m not so sure.
When it comes to me, my dad has always said, “You’re the most important thing in my life”. That’s a saying most parents often say; but, when we’re as important as their job, you just don’t know anymore. People would argue and say that they won’t let anything replace their children, and then some do it without noticing.
On a different point of view, some parents may not want to do it, but they may be struggling with things involving money. In that case, it is understandable to want to work extra and improving their job more. They might need the extra money to make a better life for their children.
There’s is a good side to his job and a bad side. On the good side, he makes a lot of money which he can give my mom more child support with. Also, when he comes to visit me and we go to the mall, he can buy me clothes or something. Another good thing about his job is that he’s healthy and the people that go to his classes are healthy. He keeps people entertained and in shape.
The bad side of his job is that he usually always wants to keep improving his job, even if it doesn’t need improvement. Another thing is that he works from Monday to Thursday and is starting to include Fridays too. He is starting to add another program to his class and he needs to buy the equipment for it, leaving him less money. Also, he always ends up talking about his job every time were out together. For example, I start talking about something important like planning for my party and he ends up changing the conversation to something about the classes he gives. However, we talk about everything briefly. He may be trying to make of himself something better, but he doesn’t realize he’s ignoring the people around him.
Sample 4: Me and My Grandma
My grandma always took care of me. Since I was little . We had a good relationship … when I was littler . For example, we would always walk outside at night when it was summer , go to Denny’s at mid-night just to eat a pie we saw on a commercial , and more . We would listen to the radio really loud and wouldn’t care if our neighbors would call the police on us . That was two years ago .
Now it’s different we wouldn’t walk outside no more . We haven’t had Denny’s in a long time and she doesn’t want to go anywhere with me . I remember when she told me she was ashamed of me , that people in Palatine and she would act like she never knew me , if someone would ask she would say she is not related to me . When I heard that my heart dropped. I ran. I choked. I cried. I wish everything was the same like it was before , but I guess that’s life . life changed , people changed , she changed , I changed .
The only time she really yells at me is when she is fighting with my grandpa . She put me through a lot , I wish she knew how I feel but if I tell her we’ll fight . The truth is her enemy . She puts her anger out on me. I could never forget when she told me that she didn’t need me anymore I wish I had a button that’ll erase everything but I can’t , that’s life; that’s us;that’s me and my grandma .
But I wonder , if I should keep trying for my grandma , before it’s to late , and I lose her for good . Or should I just leave ?
On the one hand , she is my grandma , she did take care of me when I was born . She has been there for me . She’s life my second mom . How can I leave my second mom when she does need me, even though she tells me she doesn’t . The only reason she took care of me was my mom was only 17 when she had me ;still, she needed help , and my dad was in jail so my grandma helped us out.
On the other hand , I would stay with her because I’m use to her, she’s like my mom I can’t leave her when she needs me the most . For example , I help her with the dogs , she takes a lot of medicine and many many more . When I help her with the dogs, it helps her , it helps her more . When I give her the medicine she needs , it helps her a lot, too .
However , I don’t want everyone to think my life isn’t easy as people say it is or “ fun “ as everyone thinks it is . It’s just sometimes frustrating. too. My house is not all about fighting though . There are some days where we are all a happy loving family, I want it to be like that everyday day no fighting just love.
Even though, me and my grandma argue I still choose to live with her because I been through a lot with her more than my actual mom . Either way my mom lives 5 minutes away from me , so it’s not like I’m not going to see her; I am I just choose to live with my grandma , she needs me and I need her, too.