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Rethinking It

April 14, 2019 - 4 minute read

person in black adidas cap sitting on bench writing on notebook

Thousands of students have sat in my high school English classes the past 20 years. All grades, 9-12, and ages perhaps from 14 to 20 have helped me shape how I encourage the young and intimidated student to write not with proficiency, but write with clarity and description—where writing with proficiency eventually becomes mastery–but not without years and years of practice, and well beyond the students’ high school careers. This later point I continuously make clear to students throughout their writing experiences.

When I ask a newly arriving freshman class of students to write creatively at the beginning of the term so that I can gauge their writing levels, I pretty much allow them full-reign on what they want to say (write) and how long they want to write. I do however, provide the students with topics to discuss such as: Describe your scariest moment; Tell of a time you were dishonest or lied and how you eventually felt about the deception; or, If I were a millionaire, I would....

The set-up
Typically, I would have up to five options for students to consider. However, I do allow the more creative students to offer an alternative topic to me for approval. The rules in doing the expository descriptive piece is simple: The work is done in MS Word, 12 size font, Times New Roman and double spaced. (This is sort of a preparation for the next four years of high school and college readiness). The writing piece must be submitted through the Google classroom portal, and finally, the piece is due at the end of the class period…finished of not!

Phase I—Now the fun part
I will peruse all the submissions and make marginal comments. I’m not looking for perfection, but rather creativity and fluidity of the work. In other words, does the story flow in a concise manner, closely associated with chronology, and I’m also looking for various forms of descriptive words. After giving myself a couple of days to review and comment on all the submissions, I ask students to review my comments and make necessary corrections. When the students have completed that step, usually in one class period or often less, I begin phase two of their creative writing journeys.

Phase II—The approach
“It,” as applied by nearly all writers, including myself, is an over-used nominative, possessive or objective word to describe something. Therefore, in order to assist my students with being more descriptive and concise in their writing, and to encourage them to write with more creatively, I have the students highlight all the “it” words in their paper by using the Control F function and write “it” into the subject-line to locate all the “it” words. Once highlighted, students are instructed to replace those “it” words with more descriptive language/sentences. For example, the simple sentence: It was too cold today to play outside. Now replaced with: The clouds were dark and the weather was too cold to play outside. By eliminating the “it” noun, and replacing the word with more descriptive writing, the student has successfully showed more creativity and just as important, cognitive abilities in their writing approach. Thus, greater capacity to create and explore new imaginative words, phrases, and sentences.

As simple as this example is for most advanced writers, to a young freshman student, who is highly impressionable and pretty much traumatized by entering the new culture of high school, many students will struggle building the capacity and descriptive thoughts or phrases or this assignment. A gentle approach with many examples may have to be front-loaded (scaffolded) by the instructor. Further, most of the original papers submitted will be laced with many “it” words for students to test themselves. This could be a bit frustrating at first, especially for those with writing challenges, such as students with IEPs, and or second language learners. However, since the process of eliminating the word “it” is a rule I use in all my writing assignments with all my classes, by the time the term has ended, most students will have successfully and consciously abolished using “it” unnecessarily and or too frequently.

Wrapping "it" up
Descriptive writing has always been a stumbling block for students who have never been challenged to write with more description in their primary years of education. In my high school days as a student, a good friend, Tom Hoffarth, (currently a freelance writer/contributor to OC Register; Los Angeles Daily News; and The Daily Breeze), was the editor of our school newspaper, The Cougar. I spoke to Tom at an alumni function years ago and asked him how he became such a good and creative writer so early in his high school days. He simply replied, Mr. Allen. Mr. Richard Allen was our English teacher, our school’s journalism teacher and my freshman baseball coach. I now wonder if I subconsciously acquired the “it” strategy from Mr. Allen?

As a final note, I do not tell students to eliminate the word “it” from their vocabulary. Instead, I offer to them an option that pays dividends with their writing processes, writing careers, and the huge bonus, when they write in other subject matters such as science, or social science, they become subconsciously aware of the “it” phenomenon and may chose to colorfully write their other course work with more descriptive flare.

Michael P. Collins was born and raised in a Lutheran home of Inglewood, California, with two older sisters and two younger brothers. He is married with two step-adult children. Michael attended Hawthorne high school, El Camino College, CSU Dominguez Hills, CSU Northridge and Concordia University Irvine. He has been an English teacher, ESL teacher, AVID teacher and school administrator.

Mr. Collins’ educational degrees include a BA in English Literature (CSUDH), MA in School Administration (CSUN) and MA in Curriculum and Instruction, and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership—both from Concordia University Irvine. He is currently working seeking a new and adventurous career in higher education, where he can work within teacher education programs to better the craft of teaching.

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