Since they’ve been in middle school, the kids I’ve taught have complained about having to follow the rules of rhetorical writing— particularly the rule about not using the first person.
Of course, they “know” why. Their English teachers all along have adhered to the formal writing conventions (abbreviated by us as FWC and used as shorthand on their essays to point out such slips as the use of contractions, or the appearance of digits instead of words for numbers under 100, and yes, ironically, for the use of abbreviations). “I” isn’t appropriate, we tell them, because this is formal writing. (And yes, they get plenty of chances to write narratives and stories and other sorts of essays where a more casual tone is perfectly appropriate.)
Like they would understand what we meant. I used to make an analogy with dress: You wouldn’t wear a sundress to a funeral or a leotard to the prom, I’d say. But times have changed, and I’ve seen worse at both venues. So the old analogies no longer hold. In my later years in the classroom, I had to find a new way to make the point that the more distance between the writer and the audience, the weightier the writing occasion, the more formal the style. Your college professor—or the reader of a scientific article—isn’t your best buddy, I’d say. Don’t call him by his first name and don’t inject yourself into the conversation.
In talking over the content and the intent of the Academic English 12 course we have always called (rightly or wrongly) College Composition, my colleague in the English Department at my former high school revealed that her students were making the same complaints mine always had: Why can’t we use “I”? These students aren’t middle schoolers. They’re, in fact, old enough (some would say, beyond old enough) to think seriously about levels of diction. I described the lesson I had developed towards the end of my time in the classroom to address this topic, and she invited me to try it out with her students.
I was so excited to be back at the front of the room that I showed up 24 hours early.
We had planned the lesson together. She’d locate a copy of the children’s story The Three Little Pigs and read it aloud to the students. The lesson depended upon their all recalling the plot line.
I started the class by reminding the students of the various conventions they observe in life:
- Going up the staircase: Up on the right, down on the left
- Setting the table: Glasses are placed on the right, above the knife
- Driving: Passing on the right on the road (in the USA)
- Airline boarding: By zone—unless it’s Southwest and then it’s by number
- Attire: Hats off inside–except on Spirit Days
When I asked why we have conventions, one boy’s hand shot up: “To make things go smoother!” So right. So that everyone knows what to do. So that everyone is on the same wave length. Various kinds of writing follow certain conventions, too, I reminded them, and they remembered: FWC.
My colleague stepped in then and read The Three Little Pigs aloud, just as a teacher would in elementary school. In this particular version, the first two pigs were eaten—a violent rendition, the kids exclaimed—but reading it aloud was critical, and the pigs demise made for humor later on.
Then we divided the class into six groups and handed each group a card. We did do a little staging, as teachers often do to be sure a lesson goes well. One student we knew to have a particularly droll sense of humor we placed in the Facebook group—we knew he would write in that style without inhibition. Another we put in the Twitter group because he knew its conventions. Finally, we placed a particular girl—one I’d had in 9th grade—in the “scholarly” group because we knew she’d take the assignment seriously. We wanted the kids to enjoy the activity, but we also wanted them to take the lesson where we were headed.
The directions to the six groups all involved summarizing the story of The Three Little Pigs:
- Retell the story as a plot summary for a formal writing assignment (for say, Academic English 12).
- Retell the story as an email to Grandma from an elementary student.
- Retell the story as a student in the hallway would tell it to prep another student who hadn’t read the assignment before class.
- Retell the story as a series of text messages between the pigs and the wolf. Be sure to write as if these were real text messages.
- Retell the story as it would unfold on Facebook, starting with a status update by one of the pigs…be sure to write the way people write on Facebook!
- Retell the story as a “Tweet”: no more than 140 characters.
The students composed their answers on their computers and sent them electronically to their teacher, who compiled them and projected the collection onto the ENO board. One student from each group read the group’s submission aloud. The class had no trouble identifying the style of each rendition. I was especially impressed when one boy said of the conversation in the hallway, “That sounds like a speech, not a written account.”
Here’s what they wrote, just as they wrote it:
1. Plot summary for the English teacher:
2 Slices of Bacon and Wolf Stew
In the Story “The Three Little pigs” there are three young pigs trying to build themselves each their own home. The first little pig buys straw to build his humble abode. However, a hungry wolf comes along and blows his house in. That poor little pig did not survive. The second pig buys twigs to construct his home out of. Sadly, that same wolf finds him as well, and the second pig does not make it either. The third pig uses his intelligence and buys bricks to design a sturdy home for himself. When the wolf comes he is unable to blow in his house. The wolf then attempts to climb down the chimney into the house. However the little pig using his clever wits out smarts the wolf by placing a pot of boiling water in the chimney. The third little pigs goes on to live happily ever after.
N.B.: The class suggested that a revision opportunity should be offered to this group.
2. Letter to Grandma:
How are you doing? Third grade is going good. Mrs. Ruiz red The 3 Little Pigs today. I did not like the story. There were 3 bruther pigs. The first bruther made a hous. His hous was made out of straw. Then there was a wolf. The wolf wanted to get in the hous but the pig said no. The wolf blew his straw hous down and ate the pig. I was sad. : (. Then the second bruther made a hous. He made his hous out of sticks. The wolf wanted to come inside but the pig said no. So the wolf blew the hous over and ate the other bruther. I was really really sad GramGram : (. Then there was 1 mor bruther. He made his hous out of briks. His hous was really realy strong. The wolf wanted in but the pig said no. The wolf tried blowing it over and going thru the roof but the pig catched the wolf and he died. I was really really happy!!!!i cant really blame the wolf tho i like bacon two.
Your favorite grand dauter
3. Cramming in the hallway:
Ok so there was 3 pigs. They left their mom’s house because they needed to make their own lives. Then each pig build their own house out of straw, twigs, and bricks. A hungry wolf blew down the first two houses of straw and twigs then ate the pigs. When he came to the last house, the wolf couldn’t blow down the house of bricks. He went down the chimney in order to eat the last pig. He landed in a pot of boiling water and died. The last pig lived happily ever after.
Wolf: Hey what’s up my lil round friend?
Pig: Shut up I hate everything about you, fool.
Wolf: Ok now I’m kind of ticked off. I’m blowing your house to the ground like a little bubble. So get out.
Pig: Haha you must be trippin’ bro. I’m not gonna move.
Wolf: You are obviously oblivious to the situation at hand, my friend.
Pig: Aye bro, idk what u trying to say… u r stupid.
Wolf: (blow) Now you’re the fool.
Pig: OMG you eating me hurts so bad.
Wolf: Hey man, how’s it goin?
Pig: Wut do u want?
Wolf: Man, I’m just trying to have a conversation
Pig: Nah, I’m not about that life
Wolf: Are you about this life? (blows house down and eats pig)
Pig: Stop, man!
Wolf: Aye pork chop, let me in dat house
Pig: I ain’t eva goin, not by the hurrrr on my chiny chiny chin
Wolf: nu uh, ill blow dat young house down (tries to blow house down)
Pig: I told you I aint eva goin. Man I’m too nice.
Wolf: Commin in hot! (goes down chimney)
Pig: You a gonna. (traps wolf in pot
Pig 1: “OMG, h8 my mom soooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much right now. I cant believe she thinks she can tell me what to do. Like if you love jesus ❤ #worst #life #ever #hashtag”
It’s the Word: “Aww bb whats wrong :C”
Pig 2: “Mom totes just dumped us on the streets, like wtf”
Merchant: “Hey, I can offer some stuff for you guys to build your own houses. Sound good?”
Wolf: “dont bother with these pigs, they are too wimpy to build there own houses. XP”
Pig 1: “thats not what ur mom said last night. #BURN”
Wolf: “Its go time! Lets fight!”
Pig 2: “Well take u on any time”
Pig 3: “I’ll take 300 tons of brick for my house, please.”
Wolf: “LOL JUST ATE UR BROS. UR NEXT #Bacon #porkchopped”
Pig 3: “Dude…….come at me bro.”
Pig 3: “Talk about a sick burn.”
Three little pigs are down to one and the big bad wolf is cooking in the pot #yolo #sad #funny #nomnomnom @3lilpigs @BIGbadWOLF
When the laughter subsided, it didn’t take but a minute for the students to draw the conclusions we hoped for.
“So what’s the point?” I asked. “What made the difference? I can think of at least three things.”
“The audience!” several shouted out immediately.
“The tone!” said another, meaning the tone of the medium itself. I agreed with her: Facebook has a certain tone, and you wouldn’t take that tone with your grandmother or your English teacher.
And finally, with a little pantomiming—my two hands moving farther apart as I ticked through the list from Twitter to the English teacher summary—psychological distance. They got it. Your teacher is an authority—and the grader, they reminded me—and you better not presume to be her buddy.
I rode high on that lesson for a week. And so did my colleague. She reported—a week later—that the kids really had understood the message.
We’re going to do it again next semester, reversing roles this time.
I can’t wait. I’ll probably show up 24 hours early once again.