AP Literature, gardening, and marshmallow fluff

Only two weeks into the new semester and I’ve created anxiety in my AP English Literature classes.* I’ve told them that I’m going to be ruthless, and I’m keeping my promise by deleting words, phrases, and even sentences from their essays. “Cut the fluff,” I tell them, “and give me substance.”

Delineating between the two, however, is the challenge. They send me emails of angst, unsure of what is marshmallow and what is meat. They confuse the two, and I delete and rewrite to show them what’s what. Some sweetly email me thanks for my editing. Others greet me in the morning with a crusty glare and the words, “I thought it was good, but apparently not . . .”

I love these kids. I love their anxiety, their frantic messages, their pleas for help, their apologies for mistakes, their worry that they won’t be ready for the AP Exam or college, which I tell them I’m prepping them for.

I love them because they’re demonstrating desire to improve. They want to be better, they want to do the right (write) thing, they want me to highlight their sentences and share them on the board with everyone else as a good example.

And when one of them says something insightful about a poem or a character, and I write it on the board and say, “Ooh, I hadn’t considered that,” they beam: they got it right. They surprised the teacher.

Already more than once I’ve been able to say honestly to the classes, “Oh, good job, guys–you’re getting it! You’re so smart, I love it.”

And oh, how they glow.

Then I grade their essays and show them how half their words could be deleted to make the paper twice as effective. And the glow fades a little, but I’m not worried.

It really is all about gardening: they dig deep and plant new ideas, and weed and water–and a fair amount of manure is involved–and they worry and fret that nothing may come from all of their effort.

But already I see budding that they don’t yet recognize–my cruel pruning has its purpose–and in a few months these teenagers will bloom. Oh, how they’ll bloom.

I love spring.

Zweedy words

From Book 4, The Falcon in the Barn, available in paperback and Kindle.

*And why I haven’t had time to post here. There’s a lot of prep–I’m putting all my lessons on a website for when kids are absent or need reminders–and it’s a lot of grading. Whatever I make them do, I have to grade. (Who came up with this system?! It’s a punishing cycle for all of us.)

Thank a mentor today–they probably don’t realize how they’ve inspired you!

Today I sent an email to my old AP Biology teacher, Doyle Norton, who I found again four years ago. I graduated from high school in the 1980s, but Mr. Norton has influenced me as a teacher, even now. He was creative, hilarious, yet so intent about us learning the content. I was thrilled to pass the AP Biology test! Four years ago I wrote him and told him how much he meant to me. He wrote back the greatest, most enthusiastic email–typical for Mr. Norton!

Today, as I started planning for my third year of teaching AP English in a few weeks, I thought of Doyle Norton again and sent him a follow-up email. I realized I’d never told him I was an AP teacher now, too, and I thanked him profusely for his teaching style which I try to emulate (even though biology and English aren’t exactly interchangeable). I’m awaiting his response (I sure hope he’s still kicking around–he’d be in his seventies) but it felt great to say, “I’m now getting to pretend to be you!”

PICT0007

Doyle Norton, circa 1986, on a biology trip to southern California

It’s an immense responsibility to share your vision of the world with the rising generation. That vision needs to be shared carefully, honestly, fairly, and beautifully. I’m still working on that, and will for the rest of my life.

Today with the Light the World initiative is the suggestion to thank a mentor for their influence. Try it. You’ll make everyone’s day–especially your own!

control world students see