ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
I teach Advanced Placement Language & Composition at Millard West, a large, homogenous suburban high school. Of the roughly 2,300 students enrolled, fewer than 0.2% identify as English Language Learners and only 9% receive free-and-reduced lunch services. Even in our white-flight, affluent district (where district-wide only 3% of students identify as ELL and 23% of students receive reduced-cost meals) my high school is the “white-flightiest” of the four. 96% of West’s students graduate and 85% of them go on to college. AP Language & Composition is among the most popular AP courses in the building: roughly 150-200 (a quarter to a third) of the junior class—and a handful of seniors—enrolls. In order to be eligible for enrollment students must have passed (D or better) Honors English classes in the 9th and 10th grade, or finished the standard English pathway in grades 9 – 11.
I would like to believe my natural charm and studied pedagogical approach account for the class’s popularity. This might have something to do with enrollment, but the reality is that many of my students inhabit a world filled with myriad fears: competing for spots at elite universities and in honors programs at regional schools, scrabbling for scholarship dollars, earning as many dual-enrollment credits as possible to avoid paying college tuition for a full four years, and struggling to get A’s in their AP classes so they can earn weighted GPA’s in the 4.9’s.
For a handful of my students, AP Lang represents the only AP class on their transcript; they know the skills they learn in the course will benefit them regardless of their college major. Some hope to score high enough on the Advanced Placement exam to have schools waive 3 English credits when they enroll in college. Some want to learn to “write better” so their scholarship and application essays move a few submissions higher in the reviewers’ rankings. However, for most the course is one of six or seven AP classes filling their transcripts and many of these classes are tied to dual enrollment credit through the University of Nebraska, Omaha. The vast majority of my students are academically ready—or more ready than I was—for college-level work, but they still need high school-level encouragement and support. The number of students who despair when their first essays fall below an A on the rubric (for most students, below a B) increases every year. I don’t “grade” the first essay—I simply score it using the standards I use for their final essays—a pedagogical approach I find useful: here’s where you are as a writer; here’s where you need to be; let’s get there together. Unfortunately, for many students in my class, the shock of not being naturally good at English—or a school in general—and finding they have a lot to learn creates enough emotional distress that I budget a full day near the beginning of each term to soothe and encourage students who—though bright, engaged, and hard-working—fear they will never be good enough. Granted, my students’ fears arise from the psychological, rather than the basic, layers of Maslow’s hierarchy—but because my students struggle with a sense of belonging and a sense of esteem, teaching the personal essay presents classroom challenges.
Millard West High School operates on a 4 x 4 block schedule, with a full 18-week fall and 18-week spring term. Classes meet every day. Though some classes run for only 9 weeks and students’ schedules change a bit at the mid-term—students enrolled in 18-week classes remain in the same section for the duration of the course. This schedule offers some advantages—each class is roughly 90 minutes long, so we have time for instruction, practice, and feedback. We can have lengthy and involved class discussions. I can schedule writing workshops where writers in groups of four have 20 minutes a piece to focus on each member’s writing. And, as a teacher, I have only 3 classes a day—unlike the 5 or 6 most teachers on a traditional schedule must handle. However, 4 x 4 block poses real problems as well. The first is having enough time for reading student work and providing meaningful feedback. If I have three full writing sections (I teach Creative Writing too), I have 60 – 90 students who need instruction and guidance on assignments that are due in a matter of days, not weeks. The second is the lack of alignment between my district’s calendar—which runs from the second week of August to Memorial Day—and the Advanced Placement National Exam, which routinely schedules exams the first and second weeks of May. This means, for students enrolled in AP Language & Composition—all the instruction, practice, and feedback on the Rhet/Comp elements of the course need to be finished by the middle of April.
When I first started teaching Advanced Placement Language and Composition, I began with personal essays. We spent about three weeks on narrative writing, then broadened out to more diverse personal and familiar essays. Most of my district’s English curriculum in Honors 9 and 10 and English 9 – 11 focuses on literature study. English 11 has a mandatory “research paper” that requires citation—but for most classes this a perfunctory exhibition. English 11 and Honors 10 do a bit of argumentative writing organized around the ACT writing prompt—but my building’s English curriculum is a reading/literature-focused one. Originally, I thought that by focusing on narrative and personal essays (which draw more directly on literary approaches than arguments) I could help bridge the way between fiction and nonfiction by exploring diction and syntax, tone, and language elements before including more specifically argumentative moves. This approach struggled. My academically and intellectually ambitious, but insecure and anxious students, held back from one another—both in their willingness to write about what mattered to them and in their willingness to engage in constructive workshops. This approach also pushed critical skills necessary for success on the AP national exam into a narrow window for students enrolled in the spring term.
So, after taking more Rhet/Comp courses myself, and getting involved with the National Writing Project, the Nebraska Writing Project, and developing an appreciation for place-based argument, I reorganized the course. Because my students have the least experience with, and exposure to, Rhet/Comp-style reading and writing, I take them through a full semester of conventional essay writing: editorials, arguments of position, and arguments of action. This approach helps my students engage in writing and with one another. Place-based arguments such as proposing the district ban plastic water bottles, or caffeinated beverages, or install EV charging stations in the parking lots gives students permission to reveal what they care about and makes them more open to receiving feedback and discussing their writing projects because the writers want to persuade a clear audience about a real issue. After spending nine weeks exploring traditional arguments, the same roster of students returns and we transition into working on more personal writing: narratives, philosophies, and cultural criticisms and observations. That is why, in the third week of the second semester of AP Language and Composition, we explore Jason Sheehan’s “There’s No Such Thing As Too Much Barbecue.”
Sheehan’s essay appeared in the reboot of the This I Believe Project, which originated in 1951 when broadcaster Edward R. Murrow invited Americans, famous and unknown, to read four- to five-minute essays about their personal philosophies. This I Believe and NPR revisited the format in the late 2000’s. NPR aired the essays during their morning and afternoon drive-time news broadcast programs: Morning Edition and All Things Considered. The format—a ~500 word essay the writer can read aloud in three to five minutes—presents a significant and worthy writing challenge. Using only affirmatives (a This I Believe essay may discuss a writer’s journey from one belief system to another but it may not attack or criticize others’ beliefs) the writer must find a way to share a fundamental and meaningful belief using concrete examples and personal anecdotes. I introduce my students to a half-dozen or so of these essays and encourage them to browse the This I Believe on NPR website to find more. Students can find essays by celebrities like Tony Hawk, Muhammad Ali, and Wayne Coyne; and notable writers and thinkers like Amy Tan, Luis Urrea, and Margaret Mead. The essays aired on NPR—whether by professional writers or amateurs—offer a lot of ways “in” to a personal essay. The This I Believe project’s own website: thisibeleive.org, offers even more essays, many of them written by student writers. Most provide a number of “point and name” opportunities to help teach writers how to find their voices, from Sarah Adams’s “Be Cool to the Pizza Dude” (which offers a clear organizational model rooted in individual micro-essays) to Jamaica Richter’s “There’s More to Life Than My Life” (which includes epiphany and non-linear narrative.) Most This I Believe essays also revolve around trauma, reconciliation, and pain. Prior to teaching Sheehan’s essay, I offer my students Frank Miller’s “That Old Piece of Cloth,” Azir Nafisi’s “Mysterious Connections that Tie Us Together,” and Jon Carroll’s “Failure is a Good Thing.” My students confront the horror of 9-11, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the reality and necessity of failure. These essays all follow a full 9-weeks of my students exploring what is “wrong” with the world they inhabit and making arguments to improve it. Though the discussions we have about these essays—and the responsibility we have to engage at or local level to help build the society we want to live in—energize us, I admit that most of the content of my course is a bit of a downer.
I choose Sheehan’s essay about barbecue because his use of allusions, examples, and concrete language let me discuss word choice. I choose his essay because the musicality of his parallel structures, purposeful violations of grammar conventions, and rhythmic and phonic devices let me point out voice and style. I teach Sheehan’s essay about a belief in barbecue because it completes the top-row requirements for the personal essay assignment in my class and it provides students with an accessible model they might emulate in their own writing. But, these reasons also apply to the other handful of essays I offer my students.
The real reason I teach “There is No Such Thing As Too Much Barbecue” is because of its impossible optimism, that it—despite Sheehan’s introductory assertion he will avoid writing about serious topics like “world peace or the search for meaning in an increasingly distracted world or anything...grave and serious”—manages to address a significant belief in fewer than 600 words. His essay violates the expectations of the form while fulfilling the spirit of the genre.
I live 45 minutes away from the high school where I teach—and every day in the late 2000s, as I listed to Morning Edition on the way to work and All Things Considered on the way home, Jay Allison would interrupt a news broadcast inevitably full of stories about political corruption, environmental disaster, financial instability, international conflict, and refugee resettlement with a curated personal essay that arose from these tragedies and this suffering. I enjoyed the intimacy of the writers’ language and the way personal essays provoked thought about larger contexts, but I found myself more often on the verge of tears than on the verge of laughter at the end of the five-minute segment.
I tuned in to NPR on my way to work on the Friday morning before the Memorial Day Holiday in 2008 or 2009. Due to unusual snow-fall in January and March of the previous winter and spring, the school year had been extended past Memorial Day and into early June. Though a holiday weekend loomed ahead of me and the bulk of my courses had met their necessary milestones, I still had a few days of instruction remaining before the final projects in my writing classes (final essays, portfolios, end-of-term reflection letters, etc.) came in. I had a lot of grading on my plate and my students and I were a bit surly about the extended school year. That morning NPR rebroadcast “There’s No Such Thing…” (originally aired the Monday of Memorial Day: May 29, 2006) and my mood brightened.
Sheehan’s essay is a celebration—not only of barbecue—but of the human condition. He understands his audience expects a story of trauma, of overcoming, of wrestling with personal demons or hostile family dynamics. He promises us an essay without anything that “serious.” His essay is rooted in affirmation, a continuously positive relationship with food and the people who make it. His essay does what Sheehan argues good barbecue does: “[exist] without gimmickry, without...infernal swindles and capering.” He writes concretely about abstractions, he writes minutely about big ideas, he writes sincerely about what matters most to him. And if we can teach our students to write essays that speak their truths in similar ways, we will have cultivated excellent writers. If we teach our students to think about the world and their relationship with it the way Sheehan does, we will have cultivated good human beings. If we take the time to realize that some of our most important beliefs arise from joy—not pain—we will all be better off.