Rethinking Writing Instruction

Monthly archive for March 2016

Letter from a teacher in Singapore

Dear John,

I’m a high school English teacher from Singapore. I read your post about using concrete nouns in writing in The Atlantic. It sounds like a great idea, but I’m a bit at a loss as to how to actually teach students to do that. Could you give some examples of what writing with concrete nouns actually looks like?

Laura O.


Dear Laura–

It has been proven that teaching grammar alone (parts of speech, etc) does nothing to improve writing. My friends in the research business tell me that.

But embedding grammar inside lessons on communicating really works. If students are learning to write clearly and want to write clearly, basic grammar ideas can be taught and will be assimilated.

My course teaches a few very useful grammar and stylistic distinctions, always within the context of readable writing. I have trimmed the course so that it covers the smallest number of grammar ideas that will do the trick. Keeping things simple is the key to self-control; writing is about self-control on the page; therefore, to achieve simplicity, I keep the number of entities to be learned tiny.

(Before going further, I want to credit the late and brilliant Rudolf Flesch, who penetrated and fully explained what constituted readability in The Art of Readable Writing. About half of my method is a direct steal from him, and the other half is a logical extension of his ideas.)

My course requires the mastery of five aspects of style, five variables. Mastery of these five variables (you could call them writing sub-skills) gives students total control over what they write and the ability to be vivid and clear at will. Reduced to brief rules of thumb they are:

1. Concrete nouns
2. Active verbs
3. Dramatic or human focus
4. Short sentences on average
5. Short words chosen over long

The College Writing Guide explains these rules with a lot of detail and gives exercises to be used in class and as homework.

In the course I cover the five rules in depth, taking about eight weeks for the five rules-skills-variables. Verbs are a complex grammar idea, so I spend four weeks (12 class meetings) on them. When they reach week 9 of the course, students are required to perform all five skills at once. That is, they must write short essays that have concrete objects, people and active verbs in them. They must use short sentences on average, and they must use shorter words rather than long ones. (Another requirement not listed above is conciseness—no fluff is permitted.)

To get to your question, the way to get students to write with objects is to add that requirement to any assignment you already use. Write [X number of] words on (1) a person you love or hate or admire, (2) a book you want me to read, (3) the definition of home or friendship, (4) a happy memory you think of often. Within that word count, maintain a proportion of one concrete object for every 20 total words.

This kind of assignment does a lot. It calls student attention to objects by requiring that they be included, activates his memory and imagination, and tells the student to take responsibility for monitoring the concreteness of his own writing by inspecting the ratio of objects to all words.

And it produces good, visual writing.

The other four skills are handled in much the same way, using specific assignments with ratios as targets. You’ll find more in the textbook.


John G. Maguire

“I don’t have any good ideas.”

Instructors often hear this question. Which is more important, the ideas or the words? Or sometimes, Which comes first, the ideas or the words? How do you answer that question?

The conventional idea is that you get some good ideas, and then you write them down in good clear language.  The ideas precede the writing. Seems obvious.

As most writing teachers know, it’s a partial truth. Ideas sort of precede the writing of them, but they also sort of don’t precede the writing of them. Maybe you can get a wisp of an idea before you write, but you can’t call it an idea until something is written.

That’s why experienced instructors usually teach an inversion of ideas-before-words.

Write some things down in good clear language.
Then you will see what your ideas are.

The instructor says: So here’s what comes first: the words. You throw some words down on paper and make some sentences. You play with them and boil them down until you get one really good sentence. You look at it and you say to yourself, “Those words capture something real.” Then you start expanding.You cannot get a good idea before you start writing.

I’m not alone in stressing the importance of words, of course, but I have bet the ranch on it in my Writing 1 course. I am so sure that getting the words right comes first that we don’t even think about ideas for the first eight weeks of Writing 1. We just produce good, clear sentences in massive amounts. We learn good clear language as a defined topic and a performance skill.

Again: We learn the production of clear language as a performance skill.

College writers are tongue-tied and produce embarrassing writing because most have an immature and confused style and don’t know how to change it. If  a student’s style is awkward and confused, his or her ideas are going to look awkward and confused. He will look at what he wrote and say, “I don’t have any good ideas,” when in fact he can’t see what his ideas are, because his style is so bad.

It’s best to teach students the readable style and force them to practice until it’s second nature. When they can write in the plain style, the ideas that once seemed obscure or stupid will now solidify and shine on the page.

Student samples

For extraordinary claims, extraordinary evidence is needed.  I attach here nine student paragraphs and papers that show what students do from the earlier weeks of the course to the later. These are mostly papers from the top part of the curve, with a few exceptions for comparison. Even the D paper here, however, shows the student trying to use concrete nouns. With one exception, noted, these are first drafts–exactly what the students handed in. The last three papers use forecast sentences, which I italicized for easier visibility.You are welcome to paste these papers into a Word doc to get a closer look.


“Home” (Week 2-3)

Anytime someone asks me where I grew up, I always need to stop for a second to think.  The fact is, in the family of a United Methodist minister, you don’t stay in one place for very long.   The scenario varied from a white-sided house with a beautiful maple tree in the suburbs, to areas of Pennsylvania where the deer outnumbered the people.  I became used to everything from cargo trains coming through my backyard every night to tractor trailers flying down an interstate in front yard every day.  Each town belonged to the Western Pennsylvania conference of our church.  And now that I live in Boston, the question suddenly becomes much easier to answer.  I picture the US Steel building towering over the Allegheny Valley, or the beautiful fountain at Point State Park where the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers meet.  I remember the Steelers license plate on my front bumper.  My answer these days is simply Pittsburgh.  ♣  (Jim Baur. B+)

“Where I grew up” (Week 2)

Trinidad and Tobago, the land of my birth, located on the southern hemisphere that last island on a chain of islands in the Caribbean. I grew up on the smaller of the two islands called Tobago. Tobago is seven miles wide and twenty-eight miles long, with a population of forty-nine thousand people surrounded by crystal clear waters, white sand, and beautiful people.

I spend the better part of my life in a town situated in the center of the island called Whim. I attended Whim Anglican School that stud precisely two hundred yards from my home, the school had about one hundred and fifty pupils, twenty percent of which where my relatives, as a result of both my grand parents having ten kids, Lynda and Edward Phillips for my mother, and Elvy and Edward Beckles for my father leaving me with twenty aunts and uncles, and over fifty first and second cousin to grow up with.

We all played games on family outings, such as cricket a game played by twenty-two players eleven on each team using a small red ball the seize of a base ball, two bats, and two wicket, we also played rugby, a very physical game played with a oval ball, kicking, throwing, and running it to score. Growing in a big family had its rewards and I would not change that for anything. ♣ (Wendell Beckles. Graded D for obvious fragments & run-ons.)

“No title” (Week 3)

I grew up in an agrarian village on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda.  My grandfather owned 250 acres of farm land. We inhabited the land together with a large extended family of close relatives. I never had a lonely day for I always had someone playing with me. We maintained a close family bond by praying and working together on the family farm

As an agrarian community, life mainly revolved around the two seasons of Uganda.  I hated the rainy season for it involved the hard physical labor of manually digging heavy – moist soil. We woke up at dawn and gathered at grandfather’s house to pray. Thereafter, we headed to the farm carrying, shovels, hoes, and rakes. All day long, we created mounds for sweet potatoes and cassava. We dug holes for the seeds and stems. When the sunny season arrived, my heart always leaped with joy for the fruits of our labor had ripened. Armed with baskets, machetes or sickles we harvested the crops. We shared what we harvested equally among the families. ♣  (Eleanor Makumbi. Concrete nouns and people language. A-)

 “No title” (Weeks 4-5)

Admiration is the act of regarding with approval and pleasure; there is only one person in my life that I really admire, and he is my grandfather. He has been the admiration from the beginning of my life until now, and that will never change.

My grandfather has done endless things that prove his determination and his courage including events that happened when I wasn’t even alive yet. He immigrated from Italy over 50 years ago during World War II. Suddenly, he and his family had to leave their farm full of cows, pigs, and chickens. They fled to hide in caves with a couple hundred people for weeks. Without knowing one word of English, and with a $20-dollar bill in his pocket, he came to America on a boat across the ocean. It was very courageous of him to go through that and to want a better life for his family. My grandfather strived to live the American Dream, with pairs of scissors, combs, and hair dryers, as he eventually became a successful barber. I remember watching him with my bright blue eyes as he stood over the chair to cut someone’s hair, while I snatched a lollipop that was supposed to be for his customers! He would work day after day, sweeping up the hair and collecting tips, in bills and coins, while he achieved his goal. Over the years, he has continued to save money, and that has motivated me to do the same. He doesn’t live in a fancy house, he owns an old Lincoln, and he loves to grow tomatoes and cucumbers in his garden. I approve of his unmaterialistic nature to not flaunt his money, but instead save for himself and his family. My grandfather has become very successful, and I have learned from him to be able to follow in his footsteps for the rest of my life. I admire him for his hard work and determination even when he struggled while coming to America. ♣ (Sarah diTullio Writing about an abstract word using concrete nouns. Graded B+ because title missing.)

“Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam (Lyrics from a Mormon Children’s song)” ( Week 7)

On February 5, 1988 I entered the Mormon household of Matt and Becky Hagen. From that point on, every Sunday, I would dress in a white button up shirt and tie to attend church with my family. The Mormon community, though not the sole influence in my childhood, played a huge role in framing the personality I have today. Being a member of the church from the beginning of my life left me with no shadow of doubt about its truth. Everything the Bishop said on Sunday entered my mind as fact. The purpose of life sat clearly in my young mind.

When I looked at my future as a child, my life’s events lay out before me organized and obvious. After finishing college, I would go on a mission for the church to preach the lords words. The Bishop would ask God where in the world I should go, and then send me away for two years. I would pack my bible, book of Mormon, black suits and ties, kiss my parents goodbye, and set off. While on my mission, spreading the Mormon religion would hold my complete attention. The thought of a relationship with a woman, let alone marrying one, could never cross my mind. Staying at all times with my missionary partner, we would focus on the people around us until we’d baptized as many of them as we could. Once back from my mission, I would search for a suitable Mormon girl to marry. We would be married in the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City Utah, a ceremony only Baptized Mormons could attend. My new wife and I would then proceed to have as many children as possible. Mormons believe souls wait in heaven for there chance at life on earth. My wife and I would raise our children as good Mormons to continue in the path we had followed.

With my future so well planned, little worry entered my mind concerning my decisions in life. Every action I completed coincided with the larger scheme designed by the Mormon Church. As long as I followed the rules set forth by my parents and the church, heaven would wait and reward me with eternal salvation. The world existed in a simple folio around me; everything having a proper explanation. God had created people in his own image, not a long period of evolution from earlier creatures. Right and wrong existed, right being described as all the actions that would land you ultimately in heaven with God. I had a framework or “foundation” to base my life and every decision upon. I had a crutch. I had organized ignorance.

When I turned eight years old my father slowly stopped attending church on Sunday with the rest of the family. At first he gave believable excuses to my mother and members of our church for his absence. He was building our house in the mountains of Utah, and even Mormons could understand his time constraints. Yet the vacant seat on the church bench by our family lingered on. My father’s real reason for not attending church services came from his growing loss of faith in the Mormon religion. He had read a book called “No Man Knows my History” which described to him a record of the Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s life. The author of the book believed that Joseph Smith had been skilled in the art of deception, convincing hundreds to follow his teachings. The book said Smith’s church was nothing more than a carefully designed fraud to escalate Smith to power and prestige. My father, having based his life on the church for so long, now saw things from a new perspective.

I remember, near the end, standing at the end of my driveway with my mother watching my father talk to the Bishop. Because my father never went to church, the Bishop had come out to our house to see him.  Though at the time I didn’t realize it, this moment marked the beginning of my new life. My mother stood beside me uncertain as we watched my father and the Bishop argue. She too had read the book “No Man Knows My History” at the request of my father. Her life, like the rest of my families, would never be the same.

My mother agreed to leave the church with my father and the rest of the family on one condition. My dad would have to sell the house he had just finished building, and we all would move to Maine. Utah is the center for Mormon activity; we had no life left there now. So we packed up our clothes, bunk-beds, and furniture in a U-Haul truck and prepared for departure. My father planned to stay behind and sell the house while my mother, me, and my brothers and sisters started our new life in Maine. My mother insisted no one in the Church know our intentions until we had left the State. My dad bought all of us plane tickets and watched us take of from the airport. That same day he brought our papers of separation to the church.

I received a birthday card from my father when I turned nine years old. He had sold the house and would be coming to Maine to join us soon. My mother and the six of us were living in a small apartment while we waited for him. It still hadn’t really hit me that we had left the church. I knew I trusted my parents more than anything else in the world, and wherever they lead I would follow. Still, things began to change. My life of going to school, watching the TV, playing with toy cars, and sleeping in my bedroom with three brothers supplied plenty of distractions from church thought. Yet, there grew a feeling inside of me almost like crumbling.

The structure I had lived my life by for all of my young life slowly began to disintegrate. I no longer had a clear picture of what it was my future looked like. The world no longer existed before me in a linear folio I could follow to the finish. Indeed I know no longer knew where the finish was, or if it even existed. My parents, though providing as steady a life style as they could, struggled with the same issues. Right no longer stood apparent from wrong. Faith seemed suddenly like a clever way to avoid confronting something you didn’t understand. I stuffed my bible and book of Mormon on the top shelf of my closet and proceeded to confront this new world of uncertainty. ♣  (Dan Hagen. There is no forecast sentence, and no tag structure. Student was assigned to write about a setback or failure. Graded A-.)

“Going Home” (Week 8)

I burst from the front doors of Berklee and immediately stop and blink. At 5:15 p.m., the sunlight is a brutal contrast to the dimly lit halls of the school behind me. My eyes begin to focus, and the world slowly regains form. Chaos reigns on Massachusetts Avenue. Scores of musicians linger at this end of the block, and several non-Berklee pedestrians have to elbow their way past. Beyond the sidewalk, a disgruntled cab driver blasts his horn in frustration: rush hour is in full bloom.

I turn to my right and start to head up Mass. Ave., following my carefully planned route back home. The wide sidewalk here allows for easy maneuvering around slower paced walkers, and I quickly approach the Boylston Street intersection. A young-looking guy skids towards me on a bicycle and asks if I’ve read the Scriptures lately. Fortunately, the light is green, so I avoid the question and jog across the street.

This part of Mass Ave. passes over eight lanes of Mass Pike tollway. Several pedestrians quickly cover their ears as a construction drill below grinds away at broken pavement. I pass the four green ‘T’ stop doors, and a welcome rush of cold air gushes from inside the subway station. Tower Records stands just ahead, and several dozen people sit on the building’s window ledges waiting for the bus. An older man, probably in his seventies, stands up when two teenagers with multi-colored hair and nose rings crowd his perch. Two women eating ice cream discuss bathing suit sizes.

Suddenly a very tall man wearing brand-new Nike shoes blocks my path and asks for some spare change. I try to mumble “sorry” and walk around him, but the human traffic in this area is too congested to make an easy getaway. The panhandler persists, and I silently curse myself for getting caught off guard. I reach into my right pocket, grab a handful of change, gum wrappers, lint and God knows what else, and dump it in his cup. He praises me in the name of the Lord and moves on.

At Newbury Street I turn right. The sidewalk here is wider, so one can more easily weave in and out of the crowds of people. The concrete, patio-like area between Tower Records and JP Licks Ice Cream is always an interesting spot. Today a group of guys with mohawks, chains and tattoos licks ice cream cones near the back wall, while a long-haired woman wearing tie-dyed clothing sells beads at the edge. Further down the block another panhandler sings, dances, and shakes his change cup. He’s loud enough almost to drown out the Roy Orbison tune blaring from a nearby apartment. Even so, no one pays attention to him.

Many intriguing shops line the south side of Newbury Street, including Starbuck’s Coffee, Patagonia Shoes, and Jean Pierre David Hair Salon. Just before I reach Newbury Comics, I cross the street to avoid the pesky Dianetics surveyors who hunt for prey outside the Boston Architectural Center. Sonsie Café, the artsy attraction on the North side of the street, employs a rather ragged-looking artist to stand in the outdoor section and paint. Today he’s painting a colorful nude version of the two women dining closest to the sidewalk. They don’t suspect a thing.

In order to avoid an annoyingly far-reaching sprinkling system, I cross Gloucester Avenue before turning left towards Commonwealth Avenue. Gloucester Avenue is a quiet side street lined with lofty old three-flats interrupted only by Public Alley #442, Several of the trees that stand between the parking meters have not been maintained very well: their low drooping branches force passersby to duck. At the end of the block, a rusty old Boston Herald newspaper machine displays today’s headline: NY JET EXPLODES.

Lofty elm trees stand in front of the stony red buildings that line the southern side of Commonwealth Avenue., and one must walk nearer to the street to avoid several dog-walkers and stroller-pushers. To the left, a 100-foot wide park area divides the east and westbound lanes; Winston Churchill himself has declared this mall one of the world’s most beautiful. Today, several dozen roller-bladers skate through the middle path, and the continuous line of shady trees protects them from the glaring sun.

I live at 270 Commonwealth Avenue, a short walk from Gloucester Avenue. Several guitarists stand near the front door, with the gig bags slung over their shoulders. They look like long-haired soldiers casually guarding a musical fortress, and we exchange typical musician “hey-man” greetings. My eight-and-a-half-minute journey ends as I begin to search in my right pocket for my suspiciously absent keys. ♣  (Jason Patera. Assignment to narrate a walk using active verbs in the present tense. First draft, as handed in. A.)

“Two Sisters: A Comparison” (Week 11)

While cleaning out the attic, I stumbled upon a dusty old family album. I brushed off the dust on and sat on a nearby chair eager to delve into the pages of history. With each photograph that I viewed, memories of olden days filled my mind. Each frozen moment had become a picturesque diary of my family life in Uganda. I came across a Polaroid photograph of me at age six. In the photograph, I’m smiling from ear to ear while holding a cookie in my hand. I’m posing with my aunt Beatrice in a kitchen. Suddenly, I’m nostalgic as I remember how I met my amazing aunt Beatrice, how she reminded me of my mother Esther, and how she became my favorite aunt.

The year was 1991. The photograph was taken by my uncle Roy during my two-week April school vacation. At that time, my mother Esther was 41 yrs old. She worked as a secretary in Kampala. She woke up early everyday day and headed to the city. I seldom saw her during week days. When she worked long hours, she returned when I had already slept. I looked forward to the weekends when we would have family time. My mother’s younger sister Auntie Beatrice and her husband visited my family. I’m sure I had met her before, but at 6 yrs old, I felt like I was meeting Auntie Bea for the first time.

That morning, I awoke to the smell of freshly baked banana bread and ginger cookies. The scent permeated my nostrils and incited hunger within my belly. I quickly climbed down the bunk bed (which I shared with my sister Maggie) in search for the food. My little feet followed the delicious smell straight into the kitchen. She hummed a familiar tune as she sliced the banana bread. “Mommy, are you not going working today?” I asked while looking at the big round clock on the kitchen wall. The time was 9:30 am. She turned around with a smile on her face. “Oh hi sweetheart, your mommy went to work. Come over and give your Auntie Bea a big hug.”

I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. When I regained my focus, Auntie Bea stood there with arms wide open waiting for a hug.  I turned my back on her and sprinted to the bathroom to wash my face. I thought Perhaps I was dreaming. Upon my return, I stood at the kitchen door and confirmed that indeed this was not my mother Esther. “Do you want a cookie?”  She asked. I shyly nodded my head up and down and walked over to get the treat.

Within a few minutes, my uncle Roy also came into the kitchen in search for the good smelling food. He grabbed a ginger cookie from the table and took a bite. “Hmm…. my wife is a good cooker!” He exclaimed. Auntie Beatrice chuckled. “Since when did I turn into a machine? I believe the word is cook.” she remarked. “Oh no honey, only a machine can reproduce the same recipe numerous times without any deviation. You manage to do so every time.” I watched as they both burst into laughter. “Why don’t you and Ellie take a pose; I’ll go grab my camera.” Uncle Roy walked out of the kitchen in search for the camera.

Auntie Bea looked like my mother Esther. At the time, she was 2yrs younger than my mother. From her high cheek bones to her warm smile, she could pass for my mother’s twin. If I closed my eyes, her voice sounded as deep my mother’s voice. When she was excited, her voice became high pitched. Her youthful skin glowed.

Like my mother, she stood tall and was medium built in stature. She styled her hair natural in a short afro. Her loop yellow earrings and bangles complimented her fringed white t-shirt and yellow long skirt. To me, she looked fashionable. She had a bubbly personality and a cheerful disposition. She talked about everything and anything. At night time, she added character to her bed time stories as she galloped liked a horse or leaped like a frog in imitation to the animals. It seemed to me that in her world, only sunny days existed.

Auntie Bea quickly became my favorite aunt.  In had met my paternal aunts and I loved them, but I couldn’t resist Auntie Bea’s charm.  She worked as a nursery school teacher. Lucky for her when school went on vacation she also got to rest. She lived with her husband and two children 100 miles away in her home of town Bussia. I wished my cousins had come, but they wanted to spend time with grandma instead.

Auntie Bea loved arts and crafts. Together we crocheted doilies and made purses out of dried plantain bark. She also showed me how to make my own doll out of the same plantain bark. The doll I made looked nothing like a Barbie doll, but it was my pride and joy. I enjoyed her cooking. She loved to bake with the brick oven. She made pies, cookies and quiche, doughnuts, fried dough and pineapple fried rice. Of all the savory dishes she made I favored her triangular beef samusas.

During that vacation, on the weekends, my mother joined my siblings and I while we played net ball in the back yard. I loved it when Auntie Bea played the game. I watched as both sisters, who played net ball in their school days, competitively dunked the ball through the net. Auntie Bea talked about wining, but my mother ultimately won the game. They reminded me of little competition matches I had with my younger sister Maggie.

After that vacation, Auntie Bea went on and increased her family with two more children. Soon she became preoccupied and didn’t visit as often. She still teaches in a local school and doubles as business woman selling clothes. My mother eventually quit her office job and became a fulltime mother. I enjoyed spending time with her as I matured.

Today, as I reminisce over days gone by, I’m thankful for all the values these two sisters instilled in me. I love cooking thanks to Auntie Bea. I’m strong and courageous thanks to my mother Esther.  Over the years, they both have undergone physical changes. They barely look twins any more. Auntie Bea now looks much older than my mother Esther who resides with me in the U.S. The constant hot African sun has aged Auntie Bea’s skin. However, their personalities have not changed. My mother was and still is a woman of few words.  When I chat with my amazing Auntie Bea, via Skype, she talks endlessly. When I blow her kisses and wave my hands, she knows it’s time to part. ♣  (E. Makumbi. Graded A. Note forecast sentence at end of first paragraph in italics.)

“A Tale Of Two Apples” (Week 12)

If the City of New York is considered the Big Apple, then the City of Lowell, Massachusetts is the Little Apple.  If you hold up a post card of New York City, you’ll notice the steel and glass skyscrapers or the famous Statue of Liberty towering against the horizon. On the other hand, on a common City of Lowell post card, you’ll see the Lowell trolley with a train conductor dressed in historical garments, or a picture the Lowell Mill Girls taming the gigantic textile looms. I’ve lived in both cities. Both the Big Apple and Little Apple seem different, but they have much in common. Perhaps the most interesting is this: they are both melting pots.

The City of New York lies along the Hudson River on the eastern coast of the U.S. It’s densely populated with over 8 million people.  History books show that the city was founded in 1624, and once served as the capital of America from 1785-1790. Today it can be considered as the capital of the world, for it hosts the United Nations head quarters. If you pass by the magnificent silver U.N building, you will notice the vast array of national flags that gracefully sway in the wind’s direction.  The city is comprised of five different boroughs of which people have come from all corners of the earth to inhabit, therefore creating a melting pot of diverse nationalities. The ethnic groups dominate particular boroughs and have created their own little communities.

When I stayed in New York, I observed these communities when I took the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan. I sat on the uncomfortable plastic benches inside the underground train, I noticed a pattern as we passed through the different zones of the city. At the beginning of the trip, the train was jam packed with African Americans and a few Hispanics. As we moved towards downtown, I witnessed as the train’s main population changed to Orthodox Jews. They fascinated me with their hats and their long curly beards. At one stop a lot of Asians walked in. By the time I reached Manhattan, white people made up most the of the train’s population.

The Big Apple is a major tourist destination.  It’s so congested that many prefer to ride the buses or the subway. Limited parking space creates stress for many car owners. Many drivers temporarily double park on the street in frustration. The traffic jams often. The impatient New York drivers will not stop if they have the green light. As a pedestrian, you dare not cross the streets unless permitted by a walk sign. Many tourists hypnotized by the city’s splendor, swarm the street kiosks to get their hands on the “I love NY” T-shirts.  They flock to downtown Manhattan to visit museums, or to glimpse a famous celebrity. Some delight in getting their comical caricatures done by street artists. Despite the crowding, on a nice summer day, if you walked through Times Square, a place surrounded by well lit skyscrapers, you might not notice the evening dusk unless you jerk your head up, look past the bright buildings, and into the sky.

Little Apple Lowell is a dwarf city by comparison. Less congested, and smaller in size, Lowell’s population is over 100 thousand people. Like New York City, Lowell also lies the eastern coast of the U.S. it is built along the Merrimack River. Incorporated in 1826, the city of Lowell became the largest industrial city in the country. By 1850, people called it the cradle of the industrial revolution. Reading through the city of Lowell website, I took pride in the fact that Lowell was the first city to use telephones. Steam engines and textile mills enriched the economy of the young city. The Merrimack River provided power for the various factories.

Today in Lowell, if you walk down the cobblestone streets, you can still see remnants of a once glorious era. The historical brown brick buildings with long chimneys have remained unchanged over the years. The canals that weave through the downtown area breathe nature into the humble city. Unlike New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, Lowell has no mammoth bridges. Only simple bridges connect the neighborhoods. During rush hours, the small city gets jam packed with traffic however, green light or not, most drivers will courteously stop and allow pedestrians to cross.

Historically, Lowell has attracted many immigrants. Over time, the city has blossomed into a mini melting pot.  Lowell’s population is richly comprised of Hispanic, African, Asian and European heritages. Strolling through the city, you can get a whiff the tasty foods prepared in the many ethnic restaurants. They all offer distinct dishes that attract tourism especially during the summer folk festival. During these festivities, major streets of the city get shut down as families often visit with their young kids. They flock to the downtown area to browse through the various ethnic kiosks to get a taste of Lowell. Many businesses showcase their goods and services. Parents bring their children to street artists to get their faces painted or perhaps just to get a Dog shaped balloon from a clown.

I live and prefer to live in the Little Apple. I love the way I can easily drive through the streets of Lowell. When I visit family in New York City, I must to use the subway trains. I find most Lowellians courteous but most Newyorkers act rude. I don’t blame them because their behavior is a product of their own congested city. As to be expected in urban areas, crime rates are always high. I find the streets of Lowell safer than those of New York City.

Although Both the Big Apple and the Little Apple appear as opposites, they both hold historic significance in their contribution to the growth of the United States. One city once served as the capital of America, the other reigned as the industrial cradle.  Both cities are built along rivers, and they take pride in their unique architectures. New York City gleams with it’s futuristic glass and aluminum buildings. Lowell is eager to take you back in time onboard the trolley train that weaves through the city’s brown brick buildings. Despite the differences, New York City and Lowell stand together in unity as melting pots. ♣  (E. Makumbi. First revision. Fully organized paper with forecast sentence and tags. Graded A.)

“Returning a Videotape in January” (Week 12)

 I walked down Chestnut Hill Avenue towards downtown Athol, through the snow, just as I had so many times before. I was headed for Ralph Longg’s Marketplace, a small restaurant and gift shop, to meet my good friend Sean. I pictured Sean sitting across the table from me telling me how much he hated the consequences of another long, hard winter. Meanwhile the snow began to seep through the holes in my four year old Nike sneakers. As usual, I had forgotten my boots. The cold, wet snow sent a shiver down my spine and my teeth began to chatter violently. I began to recall the events of certain winter day in January of 2002.

I grabbed the videotape off the kitchen table and stuffed it into my oversized jacket pocket. My five-dollar-per-week allowance wouldn’t be enough to pay another late fee. Due to the blizzard, Music Forum Video would be closing at six o’clock p.m. instead of eight. It was about 4:15. I pulled my hat down over my ears as best as I could and stepped out into the whitewash.

I marched down Chestnut Hill Avenue, fighting the wind and snow all the way. The snow wasn’t too dense, but the wind bit my face hard. Tree branches crashed down to the ground, finally giving way to the weight of the snow. The one mile hike was no fun, but it was better than having to beg my mother for money.

I walked down the middle of the road, knowing I had picked the wrong time to wear my brand new Nike sneakers. The sidewalks were buried by at least two feet of snow, and there wasn’t a car on the road. I stopped and wondered if the video store would close earlier if the storm got worse. However, the storm didn’t seem to be getting worse, so I trudged on.

Eventually the snow seemed to be coming down just a little bit harder. I reached the halfway point, a small convenience store called Kyle’s Korner. All of a sudden a giant gust of wind came, I lost my balance, and I fell down backwards. I got up. The snow was coming down much harder now. I turned around and looked back towards my house. I was sure the video store would close before I got there. I turned back around and headed downtown. I’d just drop the movie in the after hours video return slot.

I came to a Christmas tree someone had dumped on the side of the road. Most of the tree was buried in the snow, but a few branches were sticking out. I tore a handful of needles off it and rubbed them together in my right hand. I smelled my hand. It smelled like a Balsam, one of the kinds of Christmas trees my father sells every year. He maintains a cycle of about 700 trees that he grows on his own property, and he also buys cut, wrapped trees from a tree farm in Vermont.

Now it snowed harder and harder with every step I took. I couldn’t see ten feet in front of me, but I struggled on. I finally reached the Music Forum. A tiny sign in the window read, “Closed due to blizzard.” I didn’t see a video return slot. I took my bare hands out of my pockets and dug through the snow that was piled up against the door. I thought maybe the slot was buried. My cold, snowy hand squeezed into a very tight fist when I realized there was no slot. I desperately kicked the door and pounded on it with my freezing hands, but there was no response. I looked through the window to see the clock. It read 5:05. I kicked the door one last time and headed back home, my face and hands freezing and my blood boiling.

I got to Ralph Longg’s, went in, and sat down with Sean. There was already a mug of hot chocolate with whipped cream waiting for me. We talked about all the stuff we’d done over the years during winter. We remembered hiding behind the hedges in my front yard trying to hit the passing cars with snowballs. Shoveling was always a pain in the ass, and it seemed like everyone in our neighborhood except his family and mine got their driveways plowed. The two of us used to go sledding, but Sean never came skiing with my family. Sometimes we went to a nearby frozen pond to play a little hockey. Sean used to always fall and hurt himself. Sean doesn’t really like winter that much.

Winter in New England: fun, or annoying? Personally I love winter. When the snow falls, I ski! However, I can understand the people who hate it, especially when I forget to wear my boots. ♣  (Ethan Stone. Essay with forecast sentence in italics. Topic: “The season you love or hate.” First draft. Graded A-.)











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