If Tolkien says teaching is “depressing” …

After reading an article posted by a colleague from another content area, deriding the work high school English teachers do to teach writing and prompting me to give up Facebook, I found a pretty little hole in the ground.

In a letter to a friend, which was recently discovered, JRR Tolkien describes teaching as “exhausting and depressing.”

In fact, he was inspired by terrible student papers to write The Hobbit. In another letter to WH Auden, he explains that as he graded a set of student essays,

On the blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why.

How depressing, is right. Student writing as a hole in the ground?

I’ve been there before, a place in which writing teachers ask themselves, “Have you listened to anything I’ve said?”

And this is the question that I’ve been asking myself constantly: how can I ensure students are listening? But moreover, how can I ensure students see the benefit of what I’m saying and work hard to practice these skills in their writing?

How, indeed.

Here are three basic ways I hope to elevate my students’ writing this year:

  1. incorporating figurative language to describe concepts in their essays
  2. elevating the level of vocabulary in their writing
  3. varying sentence and paragraph structure (as to avoid this opening sentence: “In JRR Tolkien’s novel …”

Here are three new ways I might tackle these issues:

  1. Use bell ringers and quick writes to practice using figurative language, by giving them a metaphor triangle including only two sides: maybe the characteristics of a character, setting, action, etc. in what we have read, and the author’s meaning, requiring the student to fill in the characteristics of something to be compared, in order to achieve that meaning.
  2. Create a word wall with “Words we Love” and ask students to add their new words to the wall, as they encounter them (I haven’t quite decided another way to hold students accountable without stripping the joy of learning and experimenting with new words).
  3. Use bell ringers to revise previous student essays. I kept several student essays from last year, which I intend to use as opportunities to discuss what writers do well and what they should improve upon, in a non-threatening way before asking students to share their own writing.