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Published in Print: March 1, 2003, as Bottle Rocketry

Bottle Rocketry

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A skeptical writing teacher gains newfound appreciation for projects that tap creativity—and creative thinking.

Last year, the Washington Post ran an editorial protesting the movement among high school teachers to make homework fun. Instead of writing a book report, students could design a book jacket. In lieu of writing an essay on the Constitution, they could create a collage symbolizing their feelings about that venerable document. Wonderful suggestions, if you're a student who hates to write; terrifying if you're a college English teacher.

In my four years as a writing and literature teacher at two community colleges in Southern California, I taught students who didn't know what a paragraph was. I taught students who couldn't find a topic sentence in the aforementioned paragraph even if it bit them on the behind. And I taught students who got through high school without writing a single essay.

"What did you do when it came time to write a history paper?" I asked a World War II buff who was scowling over his just-graded first essay, marked with a reluctant purple "D."

"My high school teacher let us make simulated atom bombs and explode them over cities we built out of sugar cubes to demonstrate the atrocities of war," the young man replied. "Why can't we do something like that for this class?"

I find myself with one foot in each swamp of the murky essay-writing debate. These days, I teach English and history for an alternative, distance-learning high school. I appreciate the individualized attention we give to each student, but I admit to some concern. Although we offer a traditional curriculum, teachers are encouraged to analyze the "learning style" of each student. We're supposed to determine whether they are auditory, oral, or tactile and to accommodate this as needed. For some students, this means alternate assignments that don't involve writing. I struggle with how to make these projects more meaningful than blowing up baking-soda-and-vinegar bottle rockets over sugar cubes. But who can possibly judge the concept of "meaningful," other than the students themselves?

One of my high school students asked if she could choreograph a ballet instead of writing an analytical essay on Pride and Prejudice. I saw, watching her dance on videotape, that she understood the complex relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy. Does such a character analysis have to be put down on paper to make it valid?

A freshman, Amanda, wrote me the following email after September 11, 2001: "Dear Ms. Hart, I know ancient Greece is important to world history, but I'm interested in what's going on with the world today. I want to make a board game that helps people understand the U.S.-Middle East conflict."

The original lesson for which Amanda suggested this substitution asks students to write an analysis of how ancient Greek democracy shaped American government. She wanted to make a board game. I agreed— reluctantly.

Three weeks later, I received a videotape in the mail, with a yellow sticky note attached. "Dear Ms. Hart," it began. "Thank you for letting me do this project. I learned a lot. Sincerely, Amanda."

I put the tape into the VCR. My jaw dropped lower and lower as I watched. Amanda had created a board game in the shape of Afghanistan, complete with the Helmand Valley and the Hindu Kush. The game stood in the middle of a table. Around it sat Amanda and her four younger siblings. The gist of the game was that each player had to answer a question on a card before he or she was allowed to advance a piece around the game board to a final square labeled "World Peace." Here are some of the questions Amanda printed on the cards: "What is a burqua? Explain the controversy surrounding it." "Why does U.S. pop culture offend Muslims?" "Why was Saddam Hussein initially America's friend, and why is he now our enemy?"

I probably should have asked her to write an essay explaining what she'd learned. But I didn't have the heart.

Amanda's siblings appeared to be between the ages of 6 and 12. Granted, her 1st grader brother had difficulty with most of the questions he drew, even after one sister demonstrated a burqua with the plaid tablecloth. But listening to his siblings explain the answers to him, I realized something. These children, thanks to Amanda's pursuit of what she considered a relevant topic in world history, understood current events better than most adults I know.

I probably should have asked Amanda to write an essay explaining what she'd learned about the Middle East from creating her board game. But I didn't have the heart. She'd already sent me an eloquent essay on Mesopotamian culture. I knew she could write. Asking her to analyze her board game would have been redundant and insulting.

Mariaemma Willis and Victoria Kindle-Hodson, authors of the book Discover Your Child's Learning Style, argue that "trying to fit every child into the same mold often leads to underachieving students." Well, sure, asking 30 college freshmen to write an essay analyzing Toni Morrison's Beloved will certainly set a few up for failure, or at least for a reluctant purple "D." Still, the essay is not obsolete, nor will it be, at least during my lifetime and the lifetime of my students. Even if they never again write an essay after moving the tassel on their graduation caps from right to left, it's still an important skill. The essay asks writers to determine a truth and to support an argument both with facts and with the strength of their convictions. Written or oral, this ability is crucial.

Before teachers go tossing out the essay altogether in favor of more pleasurable art projects, perhaps we should look at what we're expecting of the form. The moment we forbid students to use a first- person point of view in a piece of writing, we take away what distinguishes those 30 essays on Beloved from each other.

This is not to say that students should fill their analyses with confessional anecdotes à la Jerry Springer, as manyof mine have done in rough drafts. And any teacher worth her salt knows that the first step in nurturing students' strength of conviction is to banish the insidious phrases "I think" and "I know" from their writing. But if we don't allow some creativity and some parallel between the subjectat hand and a student's own life, the essay is in dangerof becoming irrelevant, even meaningless.

Teachers love extremes. We applaud Anna Karenina's early demise under a train as epic literature. We recall with passion the disastrous events leading up to World War II. And many of us, in colleges as well as in high schools, embrace the anti-essay argument as the noblest response to the concept of the student as individual.

But like the essay, the Greek epigram "moderation in all things" has remained with us for centuries, with good reason. We need to rethink the genre and make it as appealing as those projects students see as "more fun."

Offered a balance between essays and alternative projects, students feel empowered.

"School is not supposed to be fun." I can already hear my critics' voices, raised in a cacophony of protest. To this I say, "Why not?" It is possible to have a good time while learning. The trick is to teach responsibly, knowing when to allow a student to go off and make a board game and when to insist on writing.

Offered a balance between essays and alternative projects, students feel empowered. They become more involved— and much more positive—creators of their own education. As long as they prove that they can defend their opinions in an eloquent piece of writing, I say students can make all the baking soda bottle rockets their hearts desire.

Vol. 14, Issue 6, Pages 45-46

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