Things Your English Teacher Taught You
April 27, 2010 2:28 PM   Subscribe

What is the best thing your high school English teacher taught you?

I'm closing in on my first year teaching 9th grade English. I've got several weeks left, still, and I'd like to make the most of them (and also plan a kick-ass curriculum next year).

What do you remember as the best thing about your high school English class? It could be a book, an explicit lesson, an implicit lesson, a style of teaching, an activity-- anything. What do you still remember to this day?

Thanks for helping make me a better teacher.
posted by airguitar2 to Education (104 answers total) 72 users marked this as a favorite
how to research and document a paper. I couldn't believe when i got to college and my roommate was clueless about how to properly cite sources. times have changes as to where sources come from but i would think you still need to know how to acknowledge where your info originated.

in our local schools, i am amazed how little sentance structure is taught in honors classes. Never underestimate the power of good grammar and punctuation.
posted by domino at 2:36 PM on April 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

Beyond the ability to put pen to paper and write a complete sentence (mefi comment history notwithstanding), two things come to mind:

I broke my leg during my sophomore year and had to drop my PE class that quarter, so they stuck me (for study hall, basically) in drama/theater class that was already underway. They were studying Hamlet, and I dropped whatever I was doing, borrowed a book and followed along. It was pure magic, because the drama teacher brought all of the stage sensibilities to what might have otherwise been a fairly dry reading of the text, plot and character. Shakespeare seemed hard enough to grapple with just as text, but with the added dimension of the stagecraft necessary to pull it off, it came completely alive.

In a different class, we had to memorize the opening lines to The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, and to this day (20+ years later), I still remember most of it. It came in handy last year when I decided to approach the Tales again (as an adult) and waded through the Riverside edition. It took some getting used to, but was probably not nearly as alien as it otherwise might have been.
posted by jquinby at 2:37 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

You've only got a few weeks left. I can't say that there was some specific thing that went on in a specific class. Rather, it was stuff that occurred over the course of the year. Namely:

Having to write an 800-1000 word paper every two weeks. The focus on composition was highly important for the rest of my academic career.

Pointing out the consistent themes in literature involving the leader being isolated from reality due to having no one who could or was willing to honestly tell him what was going on.

9 Stories by JD Salinger, specifically "Teddy" (which occurs in a universe in which purely rational thinking isn't helpful) and "The Laughing Man" (may be a little hard for 9th graders to understand, emotionally, though).
posted by deanc at 2:40 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I explicitly remember one of my high school English teachers, Ms. S, because I had always gotten "As" in English before then... and she gave me my first Bs.

But she was fantastic because she truly pushed us--it was an advanced class, I think it was AP English, but I don't remember now. Whereas other teachers would let errors slide by, she not only got on our cases about content and critical thinking, but technical areas like punctuation and spelling. Some of my first returned assignments had so many red marks that I was aghast. But her class was one of sharp challenge and encouragement for me. She was strict, but still humorous; her particular style made compliments all the more valuable, it seemed.

I remember vividly one assignment that was introduced to us with the idiom "Brevity is the soul of wit." Our assignment was to read a classic (mine was Tale of Two Cities) and write a complete one-page essay summarizing not only key plot points but our own critical analysis of the work.

It was the most challenging writing exercise I had ever done, even through college, because I knew she would pick apart everything in content and observe every comma. And I earned an A.

Ms. S, wherever you are, thanks to you, I'm particularly confident in my language skills as they are now. You rock.
posted by Ky at 2:40 PM on April 27, 2010 [7 favorites]

How to write a simple essay with an introductory paragraph summarizing the material, a paragraph for each main point and a closing paragraph summarizing the conclusions.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:41 PM on April 27, 2010 [5 favorites]

This isn't something you can do fully in the last few weeks of the year, but for every essay in 10th grade English our teacher graded a draft, handed it back, and had us write a second draft; we also had conferences on most of the papers (both teacher-student and in-class peer reviews). Until that year I wrote fine from a stylistic and technical perspective but had pretty much no clue how to write an academic paper. It was definitely a transformative class.
posted by phoenixy at 2:41 PM on April 27, 2010

(P.S.: You can ignore whatever errors are in my post up there because I didn't proofread. :P)
posted by Ky at 2:41 PM on April 27, 2010

Many (all?) of the really emotionally powerful words in English are the four letter *Germanic ones like HATE, LOVE, KILL, etc.

*I never actually verified if those words are actually of Germanic origin.
posted by qwip at 2:42 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wish I had a "Dead Poets' Society" type moment to describe to you, but I don't.

I guess a thesis statement is the most important thing my teacher ever taught me. For whatever reason, the logical idea the you should explain the point of your paper was the hardest thing I ever had to learn.
posted by Think_Long at 2:42 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

An in-depth understanding of Macbeth and Shakespeare in general, which has served me well my entire life.

Oh, and conflict is key to narrative.
posted by four panels at 2:43 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

The most important message I received from any teacher was that it was OKAY TO LIKE READING FOR FUN. That may sound silly or quaint but I was one of the few students who always had extra reading material with me and a couple of my teachers clued into that and encouraged the hobby/habit.

I wasn't particularly fond of the English classes but I loved 4/5 of my lit classes in high school. (Disliking the fifth class was all because we didn't actually have discussions about what was read and the teacher relied entirely on busy work like spelling lists.) The English classes were all pretty dry and kept to doing exercises in the book for the most part. You can really only diagram so many sentences before wanting to poke someone's eyes out. I enjoyed the exercises where we had to write something (book reports, short stories, etc)

I always found it really helpful when I felt like a teacher was paying attention to what I liked and what I wanted to do more so than sticking strictly to the curriculum. I know that's nearly impossible at this point because they jam so many kids in a class and have such a set curriculum. However, sometimes it makes all the difference in the world to a person when you notice their needs/wants in a classroom setting.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 2:44 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

The difference between your and you're.
The difference between there, their, and they're.
Apostrophe S is mostly used to indicate possession. (Sometime's I see sentence's like this and it drives me nut's!) Exception? Its.
posted by Aleen at 2:47 PM on April 27, 2010 [5 favorites]

My senior year we read a lot of a standard curriculum in order to prepare for the AP test. I was already an advanced reader, and was beside myself when we got handed another text from a dead European author. My teacher took me aside and slipped me The Other a Gothic horror novel that was off curriculum. I devoured that twisted and dark book and to this day value that she taught me that there's nothing wrong with not liking "what you're supposed to like." She made me realize that Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights aren't for everyone, and that _there's nothing wrong with that_.

I also couldn't imagine paying the whole $69 to take the AP test, because at the time it was a fortune to me. She pulled me aside, gave me the confidence to sign up for the test, and promised me that in the long run, $69 was a value compared to the cost of those credits in tuition in college. I really wouldn't have taken the test otherwise, but man, after having to drop some courses my freshman year, having those credits to pad were a life saver. So I am in debt to her for that.
posted by librarianamy at 2:52 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Definitely teaching good grammar/essay writing--not many teachers tend to even teach this stuff any more (at least in Canada) and it drives me insane how illiterate people coming out of the public school system can be, especially once they *somehow* make it into university and expect their prof's/fellow students to teach them basic grammar and spelling.

Also, one unfortunate thing English teachers (both high school and university) have taught me is that although they say my thoughts on literature/poetry cannot be "wrong" as long as I have evidence to back it up, in reality that doesn't seem to hold; they expected me to regurgitate their own thoughts on the works we studied, despite my having a valid opinion and evidence.* Please don't be that English teacher.

*[In fairness, perhaps they knew more about the piece than I did, having studied the author/piece in depth for their dissertation, but most students/readers have to make an interpretation based on their own judgement and evidence and not in-depth knowledge of the life and writings of Edgar Allen Poe.]
posted by 1000monkeys at 2:57 PM on April 27, 2010

How to write a standard 5 paragraph essay with a thesis, supporting paragraphs and conclusion.
posted by interplanetjanet at 2:57 PM on April 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

That I had value as a person despite my horrible grades.
posted by aMeta4 at 3:01 PM on April 27, 2010 [6 favorites]

I had some amazing English teachers who doubtlessly influenced my three university degrees in English. But honestly? The best and most important thing?

posted by meerkatty at 3:02 PM on April 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

nthing how to write a standard 5-paragraph essay:

1. Tell me what you're gonna tell me
2. Tell me
3. Tell me what you told me

I was amazed at how much that simple structure helped me in college for longer papers.
posted by chiefthe at 3:05 PM on April 27, 2010 [5 favorites]

I had two teachers in particular who made me a better writer.

One, Dr S, assigned papers of ~600 words pretty regularly. I'd always get them back covered in red ink, but still with a good grade. He would rewrite entire sentences if doing so would cut one needless word. I credit him with creating my internal copyeditor.

Another, Dr D, taught a small summer-school class where we plowed through cornerstone works of fiction (Crime and Punishment, Tale of Two Cities, Portrait of the Artist, etc). The nightly readings were a handful, but what really sticks with me is that every student had to write a paper on the latest reading, every week. These were on staggered schedules, so he'd be receiving one or two papers every day. Dr D would make copies of the one or two papers he received the day before (omitting identifying marks) and distribute them to the whole class to critique on the spot. Let me tell you, sitting there while your classmates demolish your essay whips you into shape but quick.
posted by adamrice at 3:05 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

The best way to become a better writer is to write every single day. Write about serious things; write about waking up and discovering you're a circus monkey, but every day, write.
posted by dzaz at 3:06 PM on April 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I had one teacher who gave us two grades on all our written assignments - one for creativity, plus a technical mark for spelling, grammar, sentence structure, etc. I think separating those two things helped a lot of students by acknowledging skills in one area while still holding them acountable in the other.

I also had another teacher who spat nails at anyone who said "anyways." My mother was the same. I still get a twitch in my eye when I hear it.

All my teachers taught spelling, grammar, and sentence structure and I love them all for it.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 3:08 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

How to mechanically churn through a reasonable-quality paper on something you really, really don't want to write about and don't care about. So many English teachers preach the gospel of "writing as innate talent" and "writing is fun!" But the fact is a lot of writing you will do in college will be on topics you don't care about, and being able, as an adult, to write a coherent summary of a meeting, of legislation, of a dispute between neighbors, etc., will serve you enormously well in work and in life. And much of clear writing isn't talent; it's taught. ("Good" writing may be something else, but clear writing can be taught.)

Cranking out papers at 4 a.m. for a required survey course in a college course I hated, I blessed that teacher to the skies. Ditto when I started writing legal briefs.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:09 PM on April 27, 2010

The Elements of Style.
posted by domnit at 3:12 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

What do you remember as the best thing about your high school English class?

Shakespeare invented everything you see around you.

Or rather, the ideas and concepts found in Shakespeare's plays are so ingrained into English storytelling tradition, that you can't really separate the two. Everything you see and read and hear is inflected by Shakespeare in some way. Star-crossed love? Yeah, that's Romeo and Juliet. Paranoia and obsession? Othello and Macbeth. Men and women can't get along? Take your pick -- Much Ado About Nothing, Taming of the Shrew, etc, etc.

It influences in ways you don't expect. You got an action movie? Cool. Does the hero have a wise-cracking buddy that the audience loves? Yeah, that guy. You know the one. He takes too many risks and dies tragically early in the movie, and that drives the hero toward action. Yeah, that buddy ... he's Mercutio.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:13 PM on April 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

How to write a coherent 5 paragraph essay on a short deadline. My senior AP English class consisted largely of training to be able to do this in about 20 minutes. You quickly learn to write in a way that's efficient and clear.

My favorite set of books were social commentary/yellow journalism books and in one year (freshbeing), we read A Tale of Two Cities, How Green was My Valley, The Jungle, and The Grapes of Wrath. I hated Dickens, but loved the rest.

My second favorite was a senior year assignment to become an "expert" on a particular author. I pretty much had E. M. Forster foisted upon and was quite happy in the end, reading Howard's End, A Passage to India, and A Room with a View.

My favorite assignment that I did was a plot summary of Oedipus Rex and Antigone. I was already accepted to a college and so I chose to summarize each play as a limerick. My teacher gave me a classic "we are not amused" look over her glasses, but finally accepted them as being fairly accurate for getting an entire Greek tragedy down to 5 lines in anapestic meter.
posted by plinth at 3:14 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry, but I don't agree with anyone above that is talking about how to write a properly formatted essay. I have never had to write an essay in my adult life. Do research? Yeah, I can get on board with that.

These things all date back to Mrs. Sparks:

- That no matter who you are if you cannot write complete *and* concise sentences people will assume you're an idiot or a blowhard. Perhaps both.

- That no matter who you are if you cannot properly use/differentiate between groups of homonyms people will assume you're an idiot.
posted by FlamingBore at 3:15 PM on April 27, 2010

I was told that taking one college course on the Bible as literature and one on the Greek myths would be of incalculable value in understanding literature and life. I took this advice and it has served me very well. Thank you, Mr. K.
posted by Morrigan at 3:20 PM on April 27, 2010

We had journals we were supposed to write in every day. Just one page. He checked them every month, meaning I was writing about 25 entries on the last day. He saw me scribbling madly one day and I confessed my MO. He said something like "Being able to barf out pages of somewhat readable text in short order is one of the most important skills you can have in college." He was right and I was glad for having had the practice.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 3:20 PM on April 27, 2010 [17 favorites]

I loved learning about the Green World, going through King Lear with a fine-toothed comb, looking for clues to paint a better picture of the emotions which the language made seem so distant and alien. And then comparing it to Kurosawa's Ran.
posted by mdonley at 3:26 PM on April 27, 2010

I have so many memories of my 10th grade English teacher still, and this was 10 years ago already! The thing that he managed to get right, better than any of my other teachers was that he made everything fun and accessible to EVERYONE. People were excited to show up for class everyday. When we read Lord of the Flies - group discussions were organized and lead by whoever had the conch shell (which he brought in). When we did a unit on Bible stories (I went to public - not parochial - school, this was a joint History-English Humanities Unit), we analyzed what we'd read by putting the characters in the stories "on trial" (students were picked to act as the characters and then as the council for either side, our teacher was the judge).

My senior year teacher was also excellent and I appreciate so much of what I learned from that class because she was unafraid of pushing the boundaries of the curriculum. We were required to read "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Macbeth" that year, but she also fit in time for Jamaica Kincaid, "Hedda Gabler" and "The Things They Carried". I don't know how flexible your supervisor/local Board of Ed would be, but being able to push the limits of what was allowed in the school - from the differences in style, tone and plot that we were exposed to, as opposed to the usual "books by dead white guys" - has always endeared me to the memories of that class. Not to mention, exposed me to literature that I fell in love with.
posted by dayspteh at 3:28 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My high school English teacher had everyone in the class memorize poems throughout the semester, and then we were graded on being able to recite them from memory. The activity was cumulative so, at Grading #1 we had only to recite the first poem, at Grading #2, the first and second poems, and so on. If we messed it up, we had to make another appointment to try again. Nobody got off the hook.

It was a pain at the time, but also sort of cool to just be able to randomly bust out a poem. I've forgotten most of them, but can still recite Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 from memory. I look aback on the class fondly.
posted by three bear minimum at 3:30 PM on April 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

My 11th grade American lit teacher was far and away my favorite English teacher in high school. She was the seed of my deep and abiding love for Walt Whitman. She also introduced me to Neal Stephenson's works, and she once shocked the class by quoting Harold and Kumar, just to give you an idea of her coolness. I thought she did a great job of mixing up class activities, to give us a variety of ways to experience and respond to literature - oral presentations where students would teach the rest of the class about some aspect of American history relevant to the text we were reading, reading a book and then comparing film and drama interpretations of it, creating our own works in the style of what we were reading, etc - in addition to requiring a number of formal essays. But I felt like my writing skills really grew in her class because she used a method similar to what phoenixy described. She would set a hard due date for a full draft of a paper, and when she graded it she would absolutely tear it up, in all departments - grammar, diction, logic, content. You'd get your paper back with more red ink on it than your own black text. But then you had a chance to revise it, and she was available to talk about your paper as much as you wanted before turning it in again. And the grade on that second draft is what went into the gradebook. I thought this was a brilliant method for handling a class of AP/IB juniors, all college-bound and grade-obsessed to varying degrees. By 11th grade on the honors track, nearly all of us were competent writers, especially in terms of mechanics of a basic essay, but we weren't really good writers yet. The chance to revise our work freed us to take chances, to stretch for more complex ideas and deeper treatment of our topic, knowing that we might not get it perfectly right on the first try, but also that it wouldn't burn us if we didn't.
posted by sigmagalator at 3:30 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: From Mrs. Hayden: The best way to be a good writer is to read good writing.
posted by jgirl at 3:31 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

OK, the English class was journalism but the Best Thing she taught me was: "Just because it's in print doesn't mean it came down from god." (Yeah, pre-internet, but more true now than ever.) Meaning, think about what you read and where it came from before you accept it.
- Who wrote it?
- Do they know what they're talking about?
- What are their biases? Even writers who are SINCERELY TRYING to be unbiased will find their writing colored by their experiences and beliefs. What they put in, how they state it, what they leave out...
Not sure this is "English" as much as it is critical reading/research/thinking... but absolutely one of the most important things I ever learned in any high school class.
posted by evilmomlady at 3:35 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

1) Strong verbs transform sentences. Replace to be, have, walk, said, etc wherever you can (but try to avoid sounding like you have a thesaurus in your pocket).
2) Passive voice kills sentences. (This I had to relearn once I started doing more science writing)
posted by dino might at 3:40 PM on April 27, 2010

Speaking of English and drama: mine once had us pick a scene from a play we read during a particular quarter, and then we all had to dress up and act out small scenes but in styles that were completely different from the original style... i.e. a bunch of guys dressed up in suits and pretended to be big businessmen for King Lear...or there were the 3 chicks who dressed like total streetwalkers and affected Marisa Tomei's 'cousin vinny' accent for the witches from Macbeth.

Yeah, there was no removal of the Pritchard scale from our poetry textbooks, either, but that teacher really made English class something everyone looked forward to.
posted by bitterkitten at 3:45 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

A few things, which may or may not have been mentioned yet:

1. How to properly write a research paper--things like how to properly cite sources, when to use direct quotes vs. paraphrasing, etc. It might be boring material, but it is certainly important; it's unbelievable to me how many undergrads still don't know how to do this.

2. How to appreciate Shakespeare. I really enjoyed going through his plays line-by-line, with my teacher explaining the hidden meanings and jokes behind what the lines.

3. Public speaking. My 9th grade English teacher had us do a short presentation about ourselves in the first couple weeks of school, and she videotaped it. We then watched the tapes so we could see ourselves present and how to fix it.
posted by deansfurniture5 at 3:46 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

An implicit lesson: if you drink gin at work, everyone will know. Stick to coffee brandy.

An explicit lesson: being smart doesn't matter if you cannot express your ideas.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 3:58 PM on April 27, 2010

Best answer: One lesson I will never forget: one of my high school English teachers drawing a matrix on the whiteboard - affect (noun); affect (verb); effect (noun); effect (verb) - and then discussing it with examples.
posted by candyland at 3:59 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cite your sources or you will fail. (But, because you're in high school, you'll be given a chance to add your sources after-the-fact if you forget to put them in when you first submit the story. Add them and re-submit the paper, or you will fail.)
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:01 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Some various memories of activities I found valuable:

- My tenth grade English teacher had us write a passage in the style of the author we had just read. It was either from the point of view of another character in the book, or we were to fill in a scene that happened "off stage" of the novel itself, but incorporate some certain ideas the author uses. I hated The Scarlet Letter and even Hawthorne's writing style, for example, but that assignment was actually somewhat fun. It involved some creativity and being able to analyze and use what we'd just read. It taught me that reading stuff I didn't like wasn't an entire waste, that you can always get something out of it.

- The same teacher would assign reading each night, but we'd also have to answer three to five questions about it. These were not basic "reading check" kinds of questions about what happened, or what the characters' names are, or whatever. They were substantive questions about the meaning of what took place; things like, "Why do you think Character X reacted the way he did to Character Y?" or "What does the author mean by this metaphor, or this turn of phrase?" or "Do you agree with the author that Big Thing About Life is True? Why or why not?" It was a mix of things with definitive answers (to make sure we understood what the author was saying) and open-ended questions (to make us think about what point the author was trying to make).

The main purpose of these questions was to guide our reading, and for a lot of books that are heavy on symbolism or metaphors, or else books that just have convoluted or vague writing, the questions were helpful because they were a hint that you missed something important. It makes you stop and focus on something difficult that you'd normally be inclined to gloss over. "Ugh, that metaphor? It makes no sense. Okay, well, let's take this apart then..." Sometimes the question would give us a little hint; for example, if there was some weird symbolism with colors or animals or something, the question might say "think about Greek mythology" and suddenly you realize, oh, this line about a bull is actually comparing this character to Zeus, which means... oh, now these next couple lines make more sense. And the next time you see an animal mentioned and it seems non-literal and confusing, you might remember to think about Greek mythology, or Christianity, or whatever else is a relevant influence on the text.

You can simply assign reading, and kids might even do it, but it doesn't guarantee that they'll get anything out of it. This helps encourage them not only to do the reading so they get credit for having done the questions, but it makes sure that they understand the reading on more than a plot level, or at least know what to ask about in discussion the next day. We always read and answered a little bit at a time, and discussed what we'd just read before we moved on to the next set of reading and questions. That way, no one would have to read the next part if they were still confused about the previous part. It taught us how to read, how to think about reading, and how to attempt our own analysis.

We got mostly a completion grade for the questions. They were not graded strictly; in the event that someone had made an honest effort to read the selection -- they were able to answer the other questions, or take a stab at answering the question that confused them -- it wouldn't be a big problem if they couldn't answer one of the questions. The questions as a whole were nearly daily assignments, and they were not weighted heavily as a whole, so not being able to do the reading once or twice would not tank your grade. Making a habit of it would hurt you, though, and honestly you were destined to do poorly on the tests if you didn't take the questions seriously.

- My eleventh grade English teacher finally hammered home grammar for me, and everything that came afterward -- especially college -- was a lot easier. Bad grammar can make otherwise intelligent people come across as idiots, plus it lends extra credence to anything someone might write, so it's worth fixing.

How did she do this? Two main things come to mind:

1. She gave us two grades on every paper: one for content, one for grammar. This means people would get grades like 85/15. Please do not be afraid of giving them very low grades on grammar, or anything else for that matter; for one thing, the blow will be somewhat diluted just by merit of their getting twice as many grades as they'd normally get for one paper, but also because they won't take it seriously unless their grades are docked seriously. Most people got freaked out when their first paper was returned and made damn sure they figured out grammar quickly. Every time papers were returned, she would spend ten minutes or so going over the most common grammar mistakes. Often these mistakes would have to be gone over again after the next paper. She offered to help students who had more trouble than could be dealt with during class time, but only some took her up on it. For most, it sinks in eventually.

2. She would sometimes give us an assignment where we could not use any form of the verb "to be." It forces one to use more creative verbs, which packs more meaning and nuance into a sentence. It's completely unrealistic to always write without using some form of "to be," but as an exercise it's invaluable. It's also something no one in their right mind would ever do without an English teacher forcing it upon them, so force it upon them.
posted by Nattie at 4:02 PM on April 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

That I had a strong voice and that my writing was good because of it. She was the first person to tell me that - which kind of led me to figuring out why some people in the world are really great writers and others not so much. It also led me to take seriously a career involving writing in some capacity.

Basically, tell kids when they're good. Kids don't have enough life experience yet to accurately judge their own work. And a little boost of confidence never hurt. If somethings really good, say it.
posted by jay.eye.elle.elle. at 4:04 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

One of the most important things I learned in high school English was that it sometimes didn't matter how well you argued for a interpretation, you were wrong unless you picked the side the teacher agreed with (thanks a lot Ms. ____ and Ms. _____ for being the worst teachers I've ever had).

On the positive side, one of my teachers allowed a few of us to choose our own book to review because we had already read what was assigned. It was nice to have that little bit of control.
posted by hydrobatidae at 4:05 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I just remembered: that same teacher would also have us write papers without using passive voice. Just like the "to be" exercise it's not practical 100% of the time, but it's valuable to assign that periodically throughout the year.
posted by Nattie at 4:10 PM on April 27, 2010

My 9th grade English class was fairly unusual. We diagrammed sentences and read Shakespeare and Dickens and so on, but it was the non-Englishy stuff that really stuck with me. We did a huge unit on filmmaking, and one of our class projects was to adapt and film one of Poe's short stories. We watched Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast and compared it to the Disney version; we discussed Joseph Campbell's influence on Star Wars and the archetypes found in it. I remember writing a paper comparing the cinematography of Citizen Kane to the composition of an Edward Hopper painting. We studied Freud and Jung and the collective unconscious, and learned about how everything is about sex. We had a student teacher who helpfully pointed out that most lectures include at least some useless drivel, and that sometimes writers write BS (which stands for, um, Bold Suggestions). Our final exam was about an episode of Star Trek. And the whole time, our teacher held us to very high standards, and got disappointed when our essays were boilerplate and uninspired, and promised to fail the ones with more than two spelling errors.

In retrospect, I'm not sure how she got away with all of that, especially in a public school. But it was easily the best class I've ever had.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:19 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was in love with my English teacher when I was thirteen. Not in an inappropriate or disturbing way - she was something of a faded beauty who had survived two or three husbands (all suicides, we supposed) - but I knew I was her favourite and I think she knew that she was mine. She gave me a copy of Father and Son, and was absolutely brutal when marking my essays and original compositions. I remember one particular comment which has stayed with me for the last quarter century:- '(An interesting effort, or something like that) marred by a sentimental ending which you have not proved.'

My writing remains sentimental. It's just the way I'm wired. But this comment did two things for me. It made me believe that someone cared enough about what I had written that they could appraise (or in this case disparage) it honestly. Which is tough, but also flattering. So, firstly, I'd say be honest, be harsh, even with your pupils. They can take it. If it's shit, tell them. In more decorous terms. The second thing my teacher's comment did for me was to raise my expectations, not just of my own writing, but of everything I read. Did I believe it? Did it prove itself? You'd have thought I would have got over it by now, but in fact this attitude has ossified. Nowadays I don't get to talk about whether something's shit or unproven or not. That's the job of critics, rather than critical thinkers. Not that I'm either, really. But I still like my fictions to be believable, and my criticism to be more than smoke.

Jean Page, her name was. Beautiful and inspiring.
posted by tigrefacile at 4:25 PM on April 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

Not a high school English teacher, but I had an anthropology professor who used to assign a ten-page paper, grade it, and make his students re-write it in five pages. Then in two-and-a-half. Then in one. That is a skill I use all the time.

My favorite high school English teacher was a lot like Ky's (and did the two-grades thing like Nattie's, too). She spent the first couple weeks of school figuring out each student's strengths and weaknesses, and the rest of the year pushing us to improve on both. There was no teaching to the lowest common denominator in her class: for each paper she had two or three options, and would assign each of us the topic tailored to challenge our weak points and use our strengths. She believed fully that everyone is capable of improvement, and made us believe we achieve the things she demanded of us.

For what it's worth, she remained a good friend after I graduated. She died five years ago and I still think of her often, wishing I could ask her advice or tell her things she'd be proud of. Here's to you, TQ.
posted by hippugeek at 4:39 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Do a unit on classifying and identifying logical fallacies: Taxonomy of Logical Fallacies

Teach them the elements of critical thought: Print this out
posted by yoyoceramic at 5:01 PM on April 27, 2010 [8 favorites]

^This is what I wish I had learned in High School. I didn't learn this until Junior year in college.
posted by yoyoceramic at 5:01 PM on April 27, 2010

My English teacher in high school taught us to recite "Jabberwocky" from memory in a dramatic way. I still remember it and, much later, my benchmark for that poem helped me get over my fear of speaking in public and has made me (I hope) more interesting to listen to.

About 20 years later, she taught me to say "Thank you." She did a really nice thing for me my senior year in H.S. by creating a special award and presenting it at the year-end school assembly. I skipped that day and missed her speech, but I finally did thank her for it and for the award. She was gracious about accepting my very, very belated gratitude.

Now, she's teaching me to be a good friend an neighbor. We hang out when I go home to visit. She gave me a ride to the bus stop 25 miles away when I had to come see my dad in the nursing home. She loans me things, reads my draft novels and I keep her updated on my accomplisments and frustrations.

I'm a better human being because of her.
posted by rw at 5:27 PM on April 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

Mz. Gault taught me that it is 100% OK to be your own weird-ass self no matter what everyone else thinks. During the "naked" bit in Romeo & Juliet, she'd hold up a sign taped to a broom stick that said "There is no peace unto the wicked." She also told me to quit using an ampersand to mean "and" in my writing and encouraged me to read books that were not in the course and well ahead of a 9th grade level.

I guess as far as how that might help you -- I guess if you see kids who could become bored and distracted by the assignments, encourage them to go beyond the basics?
posted by motsque at 5:30 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Every Friday we wrote "20 minute essays" on a topic. Sometimes they were topics related to current events, sometimes they were related to things we were learning in other classes, sometimes it was "open".

This was invaluable in learning how to express our ideas coherently - planning and writing something in 20 minutes is harder than you might think. It was invaluable in undergrad, and even more invaluable in law school.

I also agree about the non-englishy stuff - we also did the film comparisons (I think I watched three versions of Hamlet). Also, how to work in teams (we got assigned teams and as a final had to create a parody film (I think)).
posted by dpx.mfx at 5:36 PM on April 27, 2010

How to properly use a semicolon. I suppose someone must have tried to teach me earlier, but it didn't sink in until freshman year in HS. Bless you, Mr. Deines.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 5:44 PM on April 27, 2010

Best answer: That when people actively listen to you, question, encourage, support, and challenge your ideas as expressed... your words tend to become infinitely more creative, thoughtful, and powerful for it.

(and you get the incredible Boost of feeling worthy of that listening)
posted by ldthomps at 5:46 PM on April 27, 2010

Mrs. Manahan, of the whiskey voice and Coke-bottle glasses, wore her kilt like armor. She was certain of herself--that New England prep school confidence, I always thought--and certain of the value of *everything* she imparted to us. There was no arguing with her. If you gave her a reason, valid or not, why your homework wasn't done, she would give a broad smile and say "Ignorance is no excuse" as she marked a big red "F" next to your name in her roll-call book. She was not our friend and (unlike the ninth-grade English teacher who led Spirit Club) never functioned as an advisor.

She was our editor and was clear about her expectations: Good work, no excuses. I imagine her marking papers, pen in one hand, burned-down cigarette in the other, shaking her head over a sentence fragment or the overuse of dashes. She took our work seriously and expected us to do so as well.

At the time, I couldn't appreciate any of this but in retrospect I know that I loved her for compelling me to do my work well. To be on time. To take care with my words.

Good night, Mrs. Manahan--wherever you are.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:48 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ms. Ferguson pointed out "up-speak" to us as freshman, and I carry this lesson with me around on a daily basis. Sound like you know what you're talking about when you say it; don't say it like a question. This has helped me immensely when I defend myself during graduate critiques. I could go on and on about the great things instilled in me by Ms. Ferguson, but not up-speaking has made my career as an artist a lot better.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 6:06 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

The five-paragraph expository essay and its perfection. I had the same teacher for three of my four years at (name of academy) Academy: Honors 9 & 10 and AP 12. I got a seemingly unbroken series of C-'s -- a grade I had seen many times before, but never on a piece of my own writing -- until one day early in my sophomore year, the paper came back with a lot less red ink, and a large, lower case A.

No coincidence, I served a lot of detentions for uniform violations. As discipline problems went, uniform demerits were trivial but had to be enforced. I'd go to Mrs. (Name of Genius Here)'s classroom at 3:30 and be greeted with a smile and a suggestion to sit down and get comfortable.

She'd go to her cupboard - an enormous oak wardrobe - and produce a stapled sheaf of paper. Some days it was the work of Robert Frost: "After Apple Picking," "Mending Wall" or "The Road Not Taken." Other days it was one of many excellent five-paragraph expository essays, preserved from her finest past students. One more than one occasion it was "The Bricklayer," a hairy old tall tale that was in those days propagated by fax. Once I was done copying the target document ("Ah, Bartleby. Ah, Humanity."), I could go. Usually, I just went back upstairs, where I was co-editor of the newspaper and lit mag, to slave over the latest issue.

My greatest reward came senior year when, more than once, she asked my permission to preserve my paper for her cupboard. Now, a generation of wayward girls and boys, with ties unknotted and socks crushed to the ankles, is reading and copying the words I wrote.

Maybe they don't hate it too much. Thanks, Mrs. (Name of Genius Here).
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:16 PM on April 27, 2010

Well, my husband thinks I learned how to argue in college philosophy courses, but really I learned how to read, write and think in Mrs. Lanter's English classes. We didn't just read things, we dissected them. We analyzed them on every level. And then wrote about it, using quotes directly from the text to support our claims. (E.G. "In this passage, character X shows his true nature by blah blah blah..."). So yeah, now in a marital disagreement I can analyze claims and give quotes and examples. Luckily he puts up with it.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 6:19 PM on April 27, 2010

One of my high school English teachers focused a lot on Latin roots and, by extension, being able to make our ways through thorny vocabularied passages, Latinate or non-.
posted by CutaneousRabbit at 6:36 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

My English teacher taught us that no students belonged in "truck driver English," and that all of us could read and love Shakespeare, write clearly, and live whole lives in books. Some of us who were headed in the wrong direction before this class made U-turns and wound up in very different, wonderful places than where we began. RIP, Mr. B.
posted by Elsie at 6:47 PM on April 27, 2010

my high school english teacher made us write an essay per night. gave us a topic. 2 pages. never gave anyone over a b-. except when something was exceptional. then it got a b. b+ was for stellar performance. i can write when i need to, at the drop of a hat. the most valuable thing i ever took from high school english.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 6:49 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

This was middle school but I shall never forget it—the difference between "me" and "I".
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 7:20 PM on April 27, 2010

Put "it's" in the grave.

Like so:


Not sure if that comes out. She drew it on the blackboard, with grass done in green chalk and flowers by the headstone. The point being that the simplest way to avoid getting confused over "its" and "it's" in formal writing (the "possessive it's" being an extremely common mistake, and an easy way to make a bad impression on a sniffy reader) is simply to put "it's" in the grave and leave it there.

Actually, this story doesn't really do justice to what a lovely, thoughtful, and slightly loopy teacher Mrs Barooah was (and possibly still is, though she might be retired by now). But it's the first thing that came to mind.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 7:22 PM on April 27, 2010

Best answer: My 11th grade English teacher was named Mr. Canary. He was brilliant and I hold him personally responsible for how wonderfully things have turned out in my life.

In suburban NJ in the mid 80's, English class was English class - something out of Dante. My parents were getting divorced, and I was pretty much completely checked out of school. I was still suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder from having spent a year diagramming sentences in the 8th grade. School held little interest for me, and English class even less. And then I met Mr. Canary. He wore green sweaters or sweater vests on Fridays, no matter what. "To commemorate 'The Incredible Hulk'", he said. He read Macbeth with us, insisting that he had the role of Lady Macbeth, which he performed standing on a desk. He pushed and prodded and forced even the most distant of us to engage. He could've been the prototype for John Keating in Dead Poet's Society. He was dynamic, passionate, and funny. He was unlike any other teacher that I ever had and one of the few I ever trusted.

Towards the end of that year, I went to him to ask him about which schools I should consider applying to. "The University of Chicago," he said, "It's the teacher of teachers."

I had no idea why he told me this. I had no interested in becoming a teacher. I had never heard of the University of Chicago - this was right before "The Closing of the American Mind" was published - and for me, Chicago was a million miles away. My father, a physician, had pretty much drilled into me that I was going to be pre-med at some East coast school that he approved. Mr. Canary didn't think that made a difference.

I applied up and down the East coast and was summarily rejected everywhere. The best school that took me was The University of Chicago. Little did I know how lucky I was. I arrived there, took one look around, and was hooked. I spent 4 years studying philosophy and learning how to think. I constantly felt like the dumbest person on campus, which made me stick with it even more. I graduated and felt free enough to explore the world for a few years, and then buckled down and ground out 8 years in medical school and graduate school. To pay my way through grad school I found a part-time teaching gig at a local college in Chicago and taught two classes a semester for 3 years. Best. Job. Ever. What I learned by being a teacher turned me into exactly the type of doctor that I wanted to be -- one that lived up to the Latin root of the word -- and during residency and fellowship and beyond, the best that I was as a physician was when I was explaining to parents exactly what made their kids sick, and how we were going to make them better. The nurses always told me that when I gave my long talks to newly diagnosed cancer patients, that it was like I was teaching science.

As I was finishing up my fellowship, nearly 25 years and 3 degrees after Mr. Canary's class, it was clear to me that had I not been pointed towards the University of Chicago, and not been suffused with the notion of being a teacher, there's no way I'd have gotten as far as I had. And so I made it a mission to track him down. It took me a few months - he had long since left the high school where I taught - but I found him. And one morning, for no reason other than to tell him what happened to me, and to thank him, I called him. I managed to get the whole story out in about 5 minutes. I told him that what he taught me, for those few months in 1985, and the road that he pointed me towards, took me to career based on life-long learning, teaching, and helping others. I told him that every time I wore my trademark sweater vests clinic, I couldn't help but think of him. And I told him that I was proud to consider myself a teacher, and that I had him to thank. While I wish I could've thanked him face-to-face, I realize that that would've served me more than him, and that by telling him over the phone, with nothing for me to gain for it other than just knowing that I got to tell him, was exactly how it should be.

You want to be the best teacher you can be? If you teach something because you love it, all you have to do is let your kids see that. Share your passion with them -- expect nothing in return, of course -- and maybe one or two or five or ten will get hooked. Find the ones that you connect with and give them an idea bigger than they can handle. Maybe you'll get one that carries it with them throughout his or her life. I try to do it, even now, when I teach, and when people ask me where I learned it from, I point them back, proudly, to Mr. Canary.
posted by scblackman at 7:47 PM on April 27, 2010 [14 favorites]

Eschew obfuscation.
posted by newmoistness at 7:47 PM on April 27, 2010

Eschew egregious obfuscation and gratuitous sesquipedalianism.
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:38 PM on April 27, 2010

I slept through 12th grade English, and my teacher knew it. He didn't push me, and I didn't cause any problems in class. He knew that I knew the material because I aced all the tests, but I half-assed my homework assignments if I bothered to do them at all, and I didn't pay attention in class, so my report cards showed Cs from him, and that was just fine with me. Towards the end of the year, for our big book report project, I procrastinated as long as I could before producing what I considered to be a damn fine book report. I put the finishing touches on it in computer class, ten minutes before it was due, and handed it in when I walked in the door. A little bit later I discovered that I had chosen a book the class had already discussed, and in fact they had critiqued a sample report on the very same book in preparation for the assignment. Oops.

The day came when the book reports had been graded and were returned to us. I didn't get mine back. At that point in my teenage years I was pretty heavily invested in not appearing to give a damn about anything, so I didn't ask about it. I just figured I'd earned an F and that was that. Then the bell rang and he announced that anyone who didn't get their book report should check the bulletin board on their way out. I checked, and mine was tacked up there with an A+ and a note saying it was one of the best book reports he'd ever had the pleasure of reading.

I never thanked him for that, or even discussed it with him at all. I'm pretty sure he was nearing retirement and wasn't so much trying to teach me a specific lesson as he was just wanting to get through one of his last years as a teacher with a minimum of hassle. But the lesson I learned from him, which has stayed to me to this day, is a little bit about fairness, respect, patience, and the importance of keeping an open mind, but it's mostly that you don't have to be a jerk to someone just because they deserve it.
posted by Balonious Assault at 8:40 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

A good paper is like a bikini: long enough to cover all the important parts but short enough to keep things interesting.

I pass the same advice along to my students these days.
posted by mllrstvn at 9:18 PM on April 27, 2010

Outside of my senior English class, I was working on the school musical, which happened to have a song we were forced to modify to "Eat Your Freaking Cornflakes", at least on an official basis. There was a healthy proportion of swear words in the script , all of which were duly modified.

In English, one of the leads from the musical stood to give her analysis of some book or another. Possibly Shakespeare, possibly not. She used the word "fuck" in describing the motivation of one of the characters, and stopped short in embarrassment over having uttered the forbidden word in class. The teacher looked thrilled, and urged her to continue -- she had been so inspired that she had forgotten what she was saying. This is the only time I can recall a teacher looking excited in English -- at that moment, I felt that something magical had happened. Class was exciting, and we were being treated like adults, and we didn't have to avoid words that people thought we shouldn't use.

The last performance of the play, we did "Eat Your Fucking Cornflakes", as it was written.
posted by yohko at 10:00 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

In 9th grade, I learned that teachers are human beings and sometimes they don't live up to their own talents. My teacher wanted to be in administration, and my 9th grade year was the last year they forced her to suffer through teaching. Unfortunately for us, that meant a very boring, middle of the road year where nothing interesting happened because she refused to jeopardize that leap to administration. I'll never forget how disappointed I was, because I could see that she was a good teacher, but she just refused to be one that year. I went on to see other teachers and professors have bad years and watched as some let it affect their teaching and some rose above it; when you're having your bad year, please remember your students and try to pull it off.

In 10th grade, I learned basic grammar of the English language (I'd already spent four years learning grammar of the Spanish language). Mrs. Basmagy was also in her final year of teaching, though she was retiring, not skedaddling into administration. She gave me a D on that first test. A D! Of course, no one had taught me English grammar since 3rd grade, so that D was an accurate assessment of my abilities. I learned the nearly lost art of diagramming sentences from Mrs. Basmagy, and it served me well in my college career. When you're plotting out your lesson plans, please leave time for grammar among all the cool writing exercises and fascinating character analyses. Grammar is boring, but your class may be the last chance students (even honors students) have to learn the fundamentals of the English language.

In 11th grade, I learned how to read extraordinarily rapidly with comprehension intact. Mr. Copeland was a former journalist, speed was his drug (not that kind of speed) and I can't tell you how much I hated his class. We would spend one week, sometimes two, on a major work (The Scarlet Letter, Hamlet, etc) and that didn't leave enough time to delve into anything beyond the essentials. Cramming for the AP Test was the alpha and omega of Mr Copeland's English class. When you're being pushed by your administration to cram things in or take things out because of testing, please try to salvage what you can out of it. Your students will learn to appreciate any time you can give them to really dig into a work--speed reading is essential, but it's a skill that can wait for college.

In 12th grade, Mr Paul taught me that the world does not revolve around school, and that it's ok to have a life outside of homework. Mr Paul designed board games with his brother, would win my vote for Teacher Most Likely to Get Lit with His Students, and showed us the movie version of King Lear instead of insisting that we read it the whole way through. In short, he showed us how to have a life (a very valuable thing for a bunch of AP/IB, over-scheduled Type A's). Your students might need you to put them on the path to believing in their abilities, and they might need you to tell them it's all right to pause a bit on that path and take a deep breath. You'll learn which students need which sort of inspiration, but please do consider both sorts!

You won't be able to cover everything everyone's mentioned above (much less in the time left in the school year), but I hope that you think about some of these ideas for next year and figure out which ones fit your personal style and professional goals. A good English teacher can save a life.
posted by librarylis at 10:47 PM on April 27, 2010

I wish I had some positive memories like the ones on display here. What I primarily remember about 11th grade English was that my teacher, an awful woman, insisted that all hand-written work be turned in on wide-ruled (non-college) paper, double spaced, front side only, in black ink. As you might imagine, I went through an enormous quantity of paper in that class. It was like trying to write a book on a pad of 2x2 inch Post-It notes. Okay, so I also remember the Godzilla 1985 movie poster she hung on the classroom wall as decoration but that's only because I stared at it almost constantly for 50 min a day, every week day, for an entire academic year to avoid having to see Mrs. Crankyprune (or whatever her name was).

12th grade English was at 7:30am. All I remember is the serene view of the trees out the window as I struggled to stay awake.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 11:09 PM on April 27, 2010

2. She would sometimes give us an assignment where we could not use any form of the verb "to be." It forces one to use more creative verbs, which packs more meaning and nuance into a sentence. It's completely unrealistic to always write without using some form of "to be," but as an exercise it's invaluable. It's also something no one in their right mind would ever do without an English teacher forcing it upon them, so force it upon them.

My 9th grade English teacher did this too. You don't realize how dependent you are on is/are/was/were until you have to write something without using those words at all.

I have to say my 11th grade AP English teacher was the best high school English teacher I had. She had a reputation for being the toughest grader in the department, and she certainly lived up to it, but she gave excellent, constructive feedback. I wish I remembered more specifics about things we did, but I do know I learned more about writing in that class than any I took before or since.
posted by SisterHavana at 11:25 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

My 12th grade AP English teacher (she was also my Art History teacher) taught me to be confident in expressing my own opinions. So many times I would think/write/say things that were different from what my classmates thought, and she taught me that not only was it okay to do that, she made sure that I knew that she celebrated and appreciated that. She also would not take "I don't know" as an answer, she would say "I'll come back to you" and actually mean it.

I owe a lot of who I am today to this teacher.
posted by so much modern time at 11:44 PM on April 27, 2010

How to do a summary of an article or longer piece of writing.

This was part of the O Levels back when it was still GCE and we went through a gruelling series of attempts, feedback, attempts etc till we could effectively summarize almost anything within approximately a page or so of handwriting.

That was taught to me back in 1981-82 and that skill has helped me throughout - from writing blog posts to book reviews to abstracts for long papers.
posted by infini at 11:50 PM on April 27, 2010


MLA Format

Literature can be interesting. See our assignment to read One Hundred Years of Solitude, Ender's Game, etc.

The importance of a great introduction and a worthwhile conclusion to any essay/paper. The importance of stating a fairly direct thesis at the end of your introduction.
posted by Night_owl at 11:52 PM on April 27, 2010

Final version = initial version - 10%.

Fewer words is better.

The object of a prepositional phrase is not the subject of a sentence. Useful for subject-verb agreement.
posted by kid A at 12:03 AM on April 28, 2010

My 9th grade English teacher thought we all had horrible handwriting (this was right before they started requiring that all papers be typed/printed) and decided to treat us like we were in elementary school again.

We spent at least a week working on our handwriting, both normal and cursive. I can't remember a single book we read that year, but I do remember the sheets of aaaaa, bbbbb . . .

Years and years later I get compliments on my handwriting all the time, and people make me address letters and write stuff for them.
posted by weskit at 12:07 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

My 10th grade english teacher promised us at one point that if we all read the assigned text (Far From the Madding Crowd) within the first 3 weeks of term, then at the start of the 4th week, he would stand on the table and do his Enraged Baboon impression for the whole class. It was a remarkably effective way to make us all read the book, and he was good to his word, he performed the baboon impression and it was awesome.

The best thing that he actually taught me though, was that the set texts were not picked to be long and boring, and in fact were fantastic books. Far From the Madding Crowd is one of my favourite books to this day. I also love reading Shakespeare because of the same teacher. I remember him saying to the class at one point, 'Can't you see how fantastic this writing is, it's just brilliant!'

So be passionate about the texts, and do whatever you can to get across that even though they have to read the books, they should want to do so anyway.
posted by iwillcatchthebird at 12:36 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I never took high school English (high school didn't agree with me, I didn't go much) but in my thirties I took English Comp I, II and III at community college. In III, I had to write a ten-page paper, using X number of sources, properly cited. Over the course of several one-on-one meetings with my instructor she critiqued and counseled me on the process, sending me off to make revisions as the paper came along.

That experience taught me so much about writing and research and has served me well in all the other classes I've taken since. I don't know if they do that sort of thing in high school but I think they should, at least in the AP classes. It was one of the most valuable educational experiences I ever had.

Also, at the end of the class I received an 'A' on the paper. She didn't gift grades at all, so I was pretty pleased with myself. She then told me to "go forth and do great things", as if she believed I could. I've never forgotten that. A small bit of praise from a stern teacher can go a long way.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 1:56 AM on April 28, 2010

Point, quotation, explanation.
posted by jonnyploy at 2:27 AM on April 28, 2010

My English teacher in my final year of high school had us thinking about some of the most fundamental aspects of Western philosophy, going right back to the days of Ancient Greece and Rome. We also spent classes in free conversation discussing liberal thought, religion, the existence of God, and the Enlightenment. One thing that really stuck out was being taught the concepts of argumentum ad hominum and argumentum ad populum. It's helped me point out the fallacies in many people's arguments ever since.

I seriously think my habit of questioning the status quo stems from those days.

Oh, I should also say that I was not in the brightest class either. One of the lower classes in fact. So to get us thinking like that was a real achievement on his part.
posted by thesailor at 4:49 AM on April 28, 2010

One of my English teachers in high school taught me by example that there are crazy people out there who will use their meager power over you to make themselves feel better it they have had a bad day.

Also that some people will make you to incredibly stupid busy work when they have no idea what you should be learning next.
posted by koolkat at 5:23 AM on April 28, 2010

One of my teachers included a debate component for the purpose of teaching argumentation. During my debate, I learned that you can be on the completely, objectively wrong side of an issue (as I was) can be conscious of it yourself (as I was)...and your opponent can be destroying you with facts against which you have no defense (as mine was)

...but if your act is more entertaining, the audience will side with you.

Knowing this, from personal experience, has relieved a great deal of frustration for me in my politically-aware adulthood.
posted by AugieAugustus at 5:52 AM on April 28, 2010

My 9th grade AP English teacher wrote notes with her right hand and erased them with her left -- you had to really pay attention to keep up. We covered more in that year than I did in the following three.

My high school drama teacher taught me how to debate, how to research the position of the other side and how to dismantle an opponent's argument before they began. He also made me sing in front of the entire classroom, wherein I learned that I could not *actually* die of stage fright.

My first college English professor taught me a simple memory device for writing an essay paper: think of it like the Parthenon. You've got your base, your floor, your introduction. Then you've got at least three columns, supporting arguments. Then there's your roof, which gets to a point that's held up by your columns and your floor. My high school English teachers had used the same structure but without an architectural analogy. It has served me well.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:18 AM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Something I learnt from my history teacher rather than my english teacher, but that I think could apply here, is to create a quick plan before writing an essay in an exam even if its just a few bullet points on a line. I was taught this when I was 12 and it still came in useful when I was in University.
posted by Laura_J at 6:24 AM on April 28, 2010

My 8th grade teacher used to play us records and we'd then discuss and interpret the lyrics as a class. I clearly remember him playing us She's Leaving Home from Sgt Pepper and we went through the song line by line talking about what the girl might have been feeling, her relationship with her parents, etc. I loved it.
posted by gfrobe at 6:50 AM on April 28, 2010

I don't know if it's possible to do this with high school kids, but my favorite English professor always ended her courses with a special project to serve as the final. At the end of the semester, she would set aside 2-3 weeks for us to peer-edit and improve our final papers, then work together to have them published as a volume. Everyone would have a job, from Editor-in-Chief, to section editors, to technical staff, to art staff. The class would work with a small printer to have the book published. It's just as much work, if not more, than a final, and the end result is so very satisfying.
posted by litnerd at 6:58 AM on April 28, 2010

Mr. Eaton made us get up in front of the class every single week and present. He'd have us do a short assignment, then go up and read it to the class. No one was spared. It helped a lot of us develop confidence in public speaking.

Ms. Jeffrey had us choose a song and read it the class as prose. We also had to present our analysis of the lyrics. That was a cool assignment.

Mr. Daley - what can I say about him? He was unforgettable. Because he made us write every single day, because he taught us to question our initial reactions to what we read, and also because he paid attention. Once I handed in a paper that I thought was pretty good. He didn't grade it. He handed it back and said, "You can do much better than this.". He gave me a few tips and allowed me to completely rewrite the paper. It came back with the comment "Now THIS is good!". I still have that paper.

I loved my English teachers, and I love this question. Thank you!
posted by yawper at 9:21 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Compared to many of the responses here, my "best thing" is pretty weak.

I was (and am) a perfectionist, and I hated hated hated writing essays for English class. Dr. Rickabaugh taught me something really simple that worked wonders -- write a first draft, in pencil, on a yellow legal pad, double-spaced. Essentially, "make your first draft totally unlike a finished product, so you have the freedom to change it."

That was the 1980s, before everyone and their pets did their work on computers. To this day, I still prefer to think, scribble, and outline on paper before trying to really write.
posted by flexiblefine at 9:56 AM on April 28, 2010

Best answer: I remember the ones with big hearts.
posted by pracowity at 10:49 AM on April 28, 2010

That one can function as a responsible adult and contributive member of society while being a complete pothead.
posted by chugg at 2:07 PM on April 28, 2010

During my first week of graduate school, one of the professors told the group of new students that some people write like Mozart (do most of the processing in their heads so that what comes out on the paper is close to a finished product) and some people write like Beethoven (lots of drafts, lots of revision on paper, big physical mess to get to a finished product). She acknowledged that MOST writing classes are structured for Beethovens.

I'm a Mozart.

I'd always gotten good grades but had always been forced to work in the Beethoven style, and the fact that FINALLY, the way I thought and worked was being validated, was a huge deal for me. That was honestly the best thing I got out of graduate school.

As for high school English teachers--the best thing I got from one of mine was "never use the word 'there' because it leads to automatic passive voice." To this day, every time I see someone write "There are two things . . ." or "there is a reason . . . " my hackles automatically go up. I'll make occasional exceptions for emphasis or style, but most of the time, it's a heck of a good rule.

My mother the English professor also taught me that "this" should be used as an article, not as a pronoun (i.e., "this leads to . . . "--what is "this?"). Again--great help with clarity and flow.
posted by dlugoczaj at 2:41 PM on April 28, 2010 [6 favorites]

My public, U.S. high school required every student to memorize a 5-8 minute piece every year to recite in front of the class. The best were chosen for an all-school assembly. We could pick the pieces from almost anything - a book, a speech, a poem (no song lyrics). One year, we also had to do about 10 shorter pieces throughout the year. It was a challenge to memorize and to present. But I still remember parts of them and they made me more confident about public speaking. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may....
posted by Sukey Says at 6:17 PM on April 28, 2010

How to read Hemmingway. Admittedly, this was my senior year of high school, but up until then, I had tried to read Hemmingway's works and ended up putting them down due to lack of interest. We read The Sun Also Rises and I fell in love. We went through the first two pages of the book word for word, looking at the meaning in every word. And I got it.

That class also did Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe and Equus. I still remember it ten years on.
posted by Hactar at 7:38 PM on April 28, 2010

Best answer: The best thing my English teacher ever did was have the class examine the use of language in the media.

I happened to be in his class during the first Gulf War, and we spent a few lessons looking at stories about the war from different news sources -- local Canadian sources, British newspapers, a couple of different American newspapers. We looked at what they chose to emphasize, how and why different news sources chose different words for the same things, tried to discern what the biases of each source were.

Up to that point, any education we'd received about journalism had consisted of talking about the inverted pyramid, and 'who, what, when, where, why' and how journalism is all about objectivity. To then have a teacher stand up and point out that journalism, even at its most 'just the facts, ma'am' is never without bias was a powerful lesson -- and one that I think is even more important now than it was 20 years ago.

Plus, it was modern and relevant, so more students were really engaged by it than were engaged by reading Shakespeare or All Quiet on the Western Front.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:24 AM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mrs. Angott taught me how to read—whow to do New Criticism style close readings. She taught a world literature class and the AP English class. They were almost the same classes, except, subject to her approval and advise, we got to pick our books for AP English.

She would spend a few minutes of each class reading out loud from our current book, interjecting commentary like "notice the how the color purple is mentioned whenever Franklin encounters the unknown" or "of course you realize that Bob is a foil for the primary protagonist."

We wrote 6-10 page papers every week. The next week she read out interesting and instructive passages from student papers (right or wrong, and she was never afraid to say "...and you all see why paulg is WRONG here? No? I'll tell you.")

Passion and intellectual rigor are the keys. I will never forget Barb Angott.
posted by paulg at 6:56 AM on April 29, 2010

Best answer: I learned the most simple and effective way to write a standard essay: State, example, explain.

State: The Toronto Maple Leafs are the worst team in hockey.

Example: Just this year, they finished with the second worst record in the NHL, and they haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1967.

Explain: In all those years, there has been a wealth of other winners, and the record of futility both past and present has been unmatched by any other team. This makes them the worst.

This technique has served me well on everything from high school essays to law school exams. It's amazing to find people who still have issues writing an essay with 'flow'...
posted by evadery at 8:38 AM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

That protagonists aren't always supposed to be sympathetic or the author's megaphone on a soap box.
posted by The Whelk at 9:39 AM on April 29, 2010

Response by poster: These are all wonderful! I highlighted a few that especially stood out to me, but I plan on printing this thread out and using it for class planning. Thanks so much.
posted by airguitar2 at 5:28 PM on April 29, 2010

Freshman year, we had to write a different five-paragraph essay every week, and it was invaluable in teaching us how to structure our writing. Also, it just got us used to the idea of writing in a more formal register as a normal part of life.
posted by exceptinsects at 6:13 AM on April 30, 2010

Another thought: My boss always tells young workers here that the way to be able write well (reports, case notes, submissions, etc) is to read a newspaper every day. You will then become familiar with clear, concise writing, grammar, sentence structure, spelling, vocabulary, the works. (And you might learn a thing or two about what's going on in the world, too!)
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:55 AM on April 30, 2010

Mrs. Ewing's Sure-Fire Tips to Unlocking the Mysteries of Poetry:

1. What does the title reveal about the poem?

2. Read the poem using the punctuation; do not read line by line:
a) How many lines does the poem have? How many stanzas?
b) How does the punctuation help the reader understand the poem?
c) Why is the poem divided into stanzas as it is?

3. Does the poem rhyme? If so, what is its rhyme scheme? Are there any examples of alliteration? Does the poem have meter?

4. What words in the poem are unfamiliar to you? What do they mean in the poem?

5. What figurative language does the poet use--similes, metaphors, or personification? What kind of imagery does the poet use? What kinds of feelings does the poet expect from the reader with the use of these figures and imagery?

6. Try to rephrase any difficult phrases in the poem into your own words.

7. Who is the speaker in the poem?

8. Is there any repetition in the poem? Why does the poet use it?

9. What theme might the poet be trying to express in the poem?

(Yes, I have held onto this particular handout since 10th grade. The day it fell into my hands was the day poetry stopped being intimidating.)
posted by almostmanda at 8:28 PM on May 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

We were reading The Grapes of Wrath aloud in class, taking turns at the lectern. At first, everyone took a turn, but as the weeks went on, Mrs. Glasscock stopped asking the ones who were bad at at, or who obviously didn't want to (often the same people). Eventually, but with many chapters left to go, there was just me. Every day we'd come to class, I'd go to the front, and I'd just read to everyone for the whole period.

I learned how to keep an audience's attention, I learned to love reading aloud, and I learned that I don't like The Grapes of Wrath.
posted by ocherdraco at 11:14 PM on May 3, 2010

There were a few weeks left of school my senior year after my AP English exam. We didn't have to go to class anymore, but my teacher offered to have optional classes where we would analyze romance novels. "It doesn't matter which one you pick," he said, "if you get a Harlequin one they all have pretty much the same plot." Everybody else was just glad to be done with class and didn't do it; I showed up, realized I was the only one, and lost my nerve to hang out with one of the smartest, nicest teachers I've ever had. But that throwaway offer taught me to look at all books critically, that even pulp fiction has value, and that you should always read. He was also my first introduction to feminism, and looking back on it I think that extra unit would have been so illuminating. Not having the courage to walk in that door the last day is one of my big regrets.

My eleventh grade English teacher made us write essays, essays, essays every week. I absolutely loathed them at the time; I thanked her just about every week in college for it. There were two major lessons she taught me; the first was how to revise a paper. We sat in groups of 5-6 with different colored pencils, and each person read the papers for one specific thing: content, organization, grammar/spelling, evidence, sentence structure, and diction. I might be misremembering some of those categories, but those last two I remember very clearly. The idea that sentence structure and diction mattered, even in stupid two-page eleventh grade papers written the night before, will always stick with me. I've never had peer edits as informative as the ones from that class.
posted by lilac girl at 11:08 PM on May 24, 2010

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