Writing With Brownies In A Box
If you ever want to have real fun, start talking about the 'correct' way to teach writing with any group of teachers. For serious fireworks, try it with AP History folks after you've all had a drink or two. Better you stick with safer, less provocative topics like abortion, religion, or the validity of comic books and superhero movies as cultural touchstones.
There are many good ways to write a decent argumentative (historical) essay, but even more ways to write a bad one. If there were only one 'right' way, we'd all teach it that way, students would all write them that way, and they'd all get 5's on their AP exams and A's on our semester tests. Wouldn't that be swell?
But it's not that straightforward. There are too many different types of prompts about too many different subjects, and often a wide range of possible approaches to even the most straightforward of the lot. Writing in the Histories (or the 'social sciences,' if you prefer) is a booger because really, you can't boil it down to a set of steps or rules likely to apply in every situation for every prompt. On the other hand, many students need structure and some modeling in order to begin learning a new skill - especially one as potentially intimidating as outlining a historical essay.
Here are some ways to approach historical writing - in this case, the 'Argumentative Essay'. If you're uncomfortable with so much structure and worried about students thinking they must eternally cram whatever they have to say into the same Jello mold, you're absolutely right to worry. On the other hand, if you genuinely believe that with little guidance and armed with sufficient content knowledged, students need only be pointed the right direction and set free to wax convincing, you're - what's the word? oh, yes - delusional.
Just kidding. You may simply be overly idealistic. After all, you DID become a teacher.
So let's talk about making brownies.
Few baked items in this mortal life are as tasty or straightforward as brownies. They're one of the first things you learn to make as a child if you're lucky enough to have an Easy-Bake Oven, or a mom. They're just right for any social event which requires something nicer than store-bought cookies, but less labor-intensive than, say, homemade pie.
For anyone who bakes regularly, you don't really even need to get overly hung up on specific instructions - if you can remember four or five basic ingredients, and know what 'brownies' are, you can make them at will. Heck, you can vary them endlessly with only minor adjustments - add walnuts, for example, or icing. OMG - mint!
Unfortunately, not all of us are born with this skill, nor have we had occasion to develop it. When I try to just kinda... 'bake', it rarely turns out well.
Thanks to Adam Smith and a little greed, however, there are solutions:
What hath God baked?
Let's zoom in on those instructions on the back of the box. Notice...
They don't MERELY tell me I'll need two eggs. Just in case that's a bit vague or unclear, THEY'VE INCLUDED A DRAWING OF TWO EGGS. Measurements for water and vegetable oil are similarly illustrated. When it's time to preheat the oven, there's a picture of the dial on the correct temperature. And when it's done, both a VISUAL and TEXT warning that when something's been in the oven for 20 minutes at 350° IT WILL BE HOT.
That's how little they assume I'll figure out on my own.
Is it insulting? Perhaps? Entirely necessary? Maybe not. But I can make brownies this way. Every Almost every time. They're not original, amazing, or demonstrative of deeper baking - but they're consistently pretty decent. That's because I've followed instructions proven to work with the contents of most boxes like this one.
Sometimes I even add those walnuts I mentioned - WITHOUT EVEN ASKING PERMISSION. I'm a wild man in the kitchen, it seems. Gordon Ramsey, kiss my icing!
But... there IS one tiny little shortcoming to this system:
Sometimes I'm asked to make something other than brownies. Sometimes I'd prefer muffins, or cake, or even bagels. I can pour brownie mix into my muffin pan, and the results may be edible, but they're not muffins. I can shape them like bagels or make several and pour it all into a cake pan, but the results are definitely not bagels or cake. I even tried adding candles and extra candy sprinkles.
It was just gross.
And yet, many of the same principles and ingredients I use to make brownies - even from a box - are in play when making muffins or other baked goods. The more things I learn to bake, the easier it is to vary them based on circumstances, need, or even my personal preferences. Ideally, then, even as I'm first learning to follow the steps demanded by Betty Crocker and her short-sighted, restrictive ilk, I notice certain patterns and common practices and the roles of various ingredients.
If I'm in a really good school kitchen, maybe someone who's proficient at baking explains along the way why you add salt to chocolate chip cookies but not chocolate chip muffins, or prompts me to speculate why different temperatures would be required at different altitudes.
Eventually I can move from instructions on the box to recipes for which I gather the ingredients myself. Over time, who knows? Maybe I can go all crazy and try something on my own, based on what I've learned. If it works, great! If not, I'll evaluate what went wrong - ask for help if necessary - and try again with adjustments.
If my goal is a gig in the kitchen at Merritt's, my ability to follow the directions on the brownie box won't cut it. If serious baking is in my future, I'm going to have to do better.
But when I'm 12, or just not that into baking, there's no shame in structure. In fact, any confectionery chef who discovers I'm using the box and throws a horrified fit because that's NOT how one CULINATES, just comes across as a snob and a bit of an ass. On the other hand, the cakemaster who lends a hand, begins offering insights and tips and helps me build my skills and understanding, well...
I think I just let a tiny bit of my middle school teacher defensiveness show through on that segment of the analogy. My bad.
As I lead my darlings through the basics of writing a historical (argumentative) thesis, we speak of 'defaults' and 'tools'. Because I actually communicate with the English Department, I can refer regularly to what my students have been told in that OTHER writing class, and explain which parts are similar and which are different - and why. (It's like we're all wanting the same overall success for our kids - is that even allowed?) We discuss how Calibri 11 with one inch margins and 8.5" x 11" paper with 'portrait' orientation works as a 'default' pretty well for so many different situations, but how easy they are to change as necessary - and how that's like the structure we're going to use for writing.
They're tools, not rules. Structure, not stricture. Sometimes fences set us free, baby. Kites soar highest when someone's holding the string. Fly-iy-iy, Freebird... (guitar solo).
You practice various plays the way they're drawn up, but come game time the 'right' place is to wherever the ball happens to be - NOT where the whiteboard says it was supposed to go. You march and play based on the tempo the Drum Major is actually directing and line up with your actual lines rather than the hashtags on the field. You catch the girl underneath wherever her flip takes her - you don't let her hit the mat while your arms are locked in the exact spot they were in practice only a few hours ago. You write to the prompt you have, not the prompt you wish you'd been given.
None of which invalidates running the drills or practicing with the marked locations. It's all about scaffolding and tools and learning and getting better - just like everything else in school is supposed to be. Zone of Proximal Development, baby - keep the harness on until they can do the flip without breaking their neck. Er... metaphorically speaking. It's not so very difficult to make sure they understand the goal is for the harnesses, the limits which help give you structure, to come off. Soon.
Write, Forrest! Write!
I realize I get carried away on this one, but the important thing is to recognize that young writers need structure just to move forward. At the same time, we must continuously insist that structure is temporary, and not the goal. The goal is whatever's required by the prompt - brownies, muffins, cake, or lasagna.
Now we need to talk about what exactly we mean by 'Historical Argument'...
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