9: The How, Not the What, of Assigned Books

Signal: South Grand Prairie High School 1990 Yearbook

Signal: South Grand Prairie High School 1990 Yearbook

Recently, I said to my sister Wendy, “I should teach a Shakespeare class.”

“I thought you already did.”

“Nah – the closest was when I was student teaching MacBeth to high school seniors. I spent most of that unit acting out the scenes because they couldn’t get Shakespeare’s language.” I started pantomiming Lady MacBeth’s madness scene. “‘Out, damned spot!’”

Wendy stared at me. “I’ve never read MacBeth.”

“Really? You didn’t get that in high school?”

She shook her head.

“Oh. What about Hamlet? No? Julius Caesar?” My face became incredulous because we went to the same high school.

“I really don’t remember reading Shakespeare.”

“Well – what about Romeo and Juliet?”

Wendy squinted, thinking. “I think so – but I might be thinking of the movie.” She shrugged. “I don’t really remember what I read in high school.”

“Except for A Tale of Two Cities,” I reminded her. I had helped out Wendy with her homework over that Dickens novel way back when. I read it out loud and explained what I thought was going on, even though none of my English teachers ever assigned that book to me.

She made a face. “Ugh. That – that I remember.”


Although Wendy and I went to the same high school – South Grand Prairie High School – we had vastly different experiences. What kept Wendy going in high school was marching and concert band, which was a continuation of her band experience in middle school. What kept me going were –

“Books?” Wendy guessed.

“Nah,” I replied. “My Honors teachers.”

“Yeah, you were a nerd.”

In regards to the random crapshoot that is public schools, I’ve been very lucky.

Thanks to a perceptive elementary school teacher in Guam, I was tested for Gifted and Talented (when I didn’t know it) and carried that label all the way to Texas. From then on, fifth to twelfth grade, if an Honors option existed for a class, the school counselors automatically stuck me there. The advantage that I got were teachers who assumed that I was college-bound – even at the age of eleven — and were determined to prepare me for that destiny.

In middle school, as I read books (that is, The Chronicles of Narnia) that I already liked before they were assigned to me and learned from Mrs. Campbell and Mrs. Bearden who fueled my dreams of being a novelist someday, I didn’t notice how my classes were any different from anyone else’s.

High school, however, made me notice. Honors teachers assigned readings that my teenaged self would never voluntarily choose. However, because of the competitive nature of Honors classes and my own “Do good in school or else” parents, I read them. I read them all. Looking back – good God – it was a lot.

In my freshman Honors English, from 1986 to 1987, Mr. Witherspoon was my teacher. He was an odd, thin man with even more thinning blond hair, a wry smile, and a surprisingly expressive voice that reminded me of Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes. His class was a trial-by-fire as I read short stories by Frank Stockton’s “The Lady, or the Tiger?”, Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace,” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Ambitious Guest.”

I read novels by William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. I read the nonfiction book Hiroshima by John Hersey, which recorded first-hand survivor accounts of the first atom bomb over Japan. I read excerpts from Homer’s The Odyssey, often consulting Edith Hamilton’s Mythology when I had no idea who these people or what these places were. By the time I read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (and saw that same Franco Zeffirelli movie that Wendy likely saw in her English class, with Mr. Witherspoon skipping the R-rated parts of the film), I felt wiped out.

In sophomore Honors English, 1987-1988, Mrs. Chilcott was my teacher. She was a woman who spent a lot of time on her up-do hair, dramatic makeup, and stylish outfits; she always appeared FABULOUS before us sophomores. However, she was also no-nonsense in her teaching. In her class, I read long works like Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, J. D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf.

For junior Honors English, 1988-1989, Mrs. Sneed was my teacher. She was a slim, short-ish woman with long, blond hair, a quick Texas accent, and a perky personality. In Texas public schools, junior English was and still is an American Literature class, so I read a lot of American authors: Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

Senior-level English is usually a British Literature course. For my final year at SGPHS, 1989-1990, however, Mrs. Peel, the high school counselor, put me in a dual-credit college English class as my senior English class. Luckily, Mrs. Longorio, a fifty-ish woman with dark, greying frizzy hair, owl-like glasses, and a smile that always seemed to be laughing, already had a Master’s degree. No one in my class had to trek over to Mountain View College in Dallas to take English 101 and English 102.

My reading assignments that year were the most diverse of all of my high school English classes. Over the course of a year I read, among other things, Plato’s Apology of Socrates, Martin Luther’s “Freedom of a Christian,” Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” D. H. Lawrence’s “Rocking Horse Winner,” A. E. Housman’s poetry, Homer’s The Iliad, Vergil’s The Aenied, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Alan Patton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, and Shakespeare’s two tragedies: Hamlet and MacBeth.

Meanwhile, Mr. Summers, who was my Honors World History teacher in my junior year and the sponsor for the Academic Decathlon team during my the fall of my senior year, made all of us on the AD team read William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Mrs. Shivers, the AP Government teacher in the following spring semester, gave me and my classmates pocket copies of the US Constitution, requiring us to memorize as much of it as we could.

Reading everything assigned in my senior year likely explains why my memories of that time are spotty, at best. As I said – good God, it was a lot to read. Still, I discovered that I could slog through an intimidating amount of pages, like a marathoner pacing herself, as long as I didn’t procrastinate too much.

Surprisingly, I never became a fan of the readings that my teachers assigned. In fact, I only remember what I read back in high school because I kept my class folders from those English classes (which sometimes comes in handy when I find myself teaching this stuff). Looking back, I only developed an appreciation for epic poetry (Odyssey, Iliad, Aenied, Beowulf) and Shakespeare once I had to read them again in college. Even then, adult appreciation is nothing like childlike fandom.

Considering that if these specific Honors English teachers hadn’t forced us to read these specific readings, I likely wouldn’t have read these works in the first place. After all, my personal reading material of choice at the time was Douglas Adams novels, Doctor Who magazines, and Tom Clancy techno-military thrillers, with a little bit of Catholic apologetics and Robert Fulghum thrown in at the end (more on those two later). Assigned readings did expand my literary world.

However, the readings themselves were not the most important aspect in these classes. If I had gone to another school or had different teachers, I likely would’ve read different things. No, what was important in my Honors classes was not the books themselves but how to read those challenging works, which my teachers taught me.

There’s a fancy term among education folks called “scaffolding.” When students are new to a concept or skill, a teacher provides lots of support, like question lists, templates, guidelines, and completed work samples, to his or her students. The less students know, the more these supports – or “scaffolds” – the teacher provides. When students become more familiar and competent with the new concept or skill, then the more they have organically assimilated those teacher-supplied scaffolds within themselves.

Then one day, the teacher no longer has to provide external supports to his or her students. The students have fully assimilated those supports and made them theirs. Now the teacher can move to a harder concept or skill, and the scaffolding cycle begins anew, sort of like an upward spiral of higher-level student learning and teaching.

In other words, the teacher knows he or she is done when the student doesn’t need him or her anymore. What I didn’t know when I was a student, but have realized now that I’ve been a teacher for a while, is that my Honors English high school teachers were scaffolding me in becoming a college-ready thinker, reader, speaker, and writer.

It all started with Mr. Witherspoon. Mr. Witherspoon gave me and my classmates literary and analytical terms that we had to define, grammar charts to memorize, and reading comprehension and analysis checklists to complete. We had prewriting outlines with required elements that we needed to follow EXACTLY. We had drafts that we had to label essay items like “thesis” and “topic sentence.” Every paragraph required at least five sentences in it, and every formal essay required at least five paragraphs.

When analyzing a work for an essay, my classmates and I needed to have one – and only one – quote from the work per body paragraph and document the quote correctly by putting the page number, per class guidelines. (Mr. Witherspoon didn’t require a bibliography page, and, as fourteen-year old writers, most of us didn’t know what that was anyway.) We had to participate in in-class peer review, in which two classmates had to read a fellow classmate’s draft and comment following a peer review checklist.

Afterwards, we had to write and submit a paragraph-length response to Mr. Witherspoon’s grading comments of our essays. Mr. Witherspoon always read out loud the essay that earned the highest grade (without telling us the author’s name), and he made us discuss why that essay did so well as a sort of post-mortem.

“Oh my God,” one of my classmates said out loud when he realized the level of work required for the essay assignments.

“Yessss,” Mr. Witherspoon chuckled.

Mr. Witherspoon made us do all of those steps for every single essay we wrote in his class, imprinting these scaffolds until they became habit. By late spring 1987, I – and probably everyone else in that class — could write essays the Witherspoon way in our sleep.

Mrs. Chilcott refined what Mr. Witherspoon did. Like Mr. Witherspoon’s essays, all of Mrs. Chilcott’s essays were literary analyses of the assigned readings, with quotes pulled from the readings as examples. Her scaffolding consisted of a handout of transition words that we had to memorize and a handout of a flow chart looking idea map of the five-paragraph essay. In her class, she required at least three elements or examples per body paragraph. Our outlines needed to be in sentence form so that it read like a rough draft minus Introduction and Conclusion paragraphs.

Finally, Mrs. Chilcott gave us guidelines about Chicago Manual of Style, the one that required superscript numbers, footnotes, and a bibliography page, because she required us to document any readings used in our essays in correct CMS. Since most of us had never seen Chicago Manual of Style (myself included), we were grateful for this scaffolding. (I later consulted Mrs. Chilcott’s CMS guidelines when writing my two massive research papers for Mr. Summer’s Honors World History class in fall 1988 and spring 1989.)

Mrs. Sneed gave a further refinement of Mrs. Chilcott. She added a fourth element or example to each body paragraph in her idea map handout, which served as our primary scaffold. Just like Mr. Witherspoon, Mrs. Sneed required us to write literary analyses with quoted material in the body paragraphs and documented by putting the page number in parentheses but no required bibliography page. Back then, I never questioned Mr. Witherspoon and Mrs. Sneed’s non-requirement of a bibliography page for our formal essays at the time. Since only one source was ever used for each paper, they perhaps saw it as unnecessary. Or perhaps they didn’t want to overwhelm us, being young writers. However, I wish they did require bibliographies, like Mrs. Chilcott, so that I would’ve developed the habit earlier instead of later. I thought of that when I sweated over banging out a somewhat competent-looking bibliography for my high school research papers on a temperamental typewriter.

Speaking of banging out things on a machine, Mrs. Sneed wanted our final drafts typed, with a cover page, and she provided us a sample final draft as our guide. Typing my essays on my dad’s IBM Selectric typewriter for Mrs. Sneed’s class was the only form of in-school “typing class” I ever got. Unlike my first experience with typing (my second attempt at a novel, back in middle school), I typed at a decent speed without looking at the keys, using all of the fingers of both hands, by the middle of fall 1988.

Typing competency came in handy when I typed those aforementioned World History research papers. Due December 1988, my Henry VIII paper was nineteen pages long with ten sources and eighty endnotes. My Lady Jane Grey paper – due April 1989 — was fifteen pages long with twelve sources and 114 endnotes. Having horribly procrastinated for these research projects, I typed out all of those pages, from handwritten drafts on loose-leaf paper, in the wee hours of the late night/early morning as Led Zeppelin wailed and screamed from my Walkman’s earphones and kept me awake.

Thank you, Mrs. Sneed!

By the time my classmates and I arrived at Mrs. Longorio’s class in our senior year (we had become a cohort by this time, having had the same teachers over and over again), Mrs. Longorio didn’t have to re-teach any concept or skill covered from the previous three years. Instead, she let us breathe a little, having us keep a “Writer’s Notebook” on loose-leaf paper. While she supplied the journal questions (her scaffolding), we could be free in our answers, as long as our responses were relevant to the questions and at least half a page long per question.

Fall 1989 was English 101. In that class, we wrote expository and self-expressive essays, so our “Writer’s Notebook” served as brainstorming for a fair number of our essays, which tended to be eight to ten paragraphs long. Spring 1990 was English 102, and our essays were more analytical and persuasive, culminating in a research paper, so our “Writer’s Notebook” became more socially conscious and issues-based. At times that “Writer’s Notebook” was the closest to a diary that I had of my senior year, and sometimes I wrote some personal stuff in there. But knowing that only Mrs. Longorio read it, I knew my private thoughts were in safe hands. (They were.)

The only real new concept Mrs. Longorio taught was the Modern Language Association style of documenting sources (aka MLA Style). The day she handed out guidelines from the MLA stylebook, one of my classmates looked on it in horror and blurted out, “Mrs. Longorio, what’s this?”

“It’s the Modern Language Association of Style.”

“But where’re the footnotes?”

“You don’t use footnotes.” She pointed to a page on the handout. “See, you use parentheses.”

“Where are the ibids?” another classmate asked.

“There are no ibids.”

“But –” started yet another classmate.

“Don’t worry! MLA is actually much simpler than Chicago.”

I raised my hand.


“But, Mrs. Longorio, we already KNOW how to do Chicago Manual of Style,” I pointed out.

She replied, her eyes twinkling in her owl glasses, “And now you’ll learn how to do MLA, too.” She smiled. “Believe me, you’ll be using MLA in college.”

While I appreciated Mrs. Longorio’s guidelines from the MLA stylebook, which included a sample research paper as further scaffolding, I really wasn’t comfortable with MLA Style until well into college. It would take writing my English major papers for me to internalize Mrs. Longorio’s MLA scaffolding. Truth be told, I didn’t really master MLA Style until I wrote my dissertation for my PhD, just in time to teach it to my own students.

MLA Style notwithstanding, by the time the University of Dallas accepted me in its undergraduate English program, I had so internalized my high school English teachers’ scaffolding that I could apply it to anything. My critical reading, thinking, and writing skills not only secured me a space in the UD class of 1994 but also scholarship money that funded not only my classes but a study-abroad program in Rome, Italy, which included extended trips to Greece and – as seen in the previous chapter – England.

But besides that, all of that internalized scaffolding ensured that I knew how to learn like the educated adult I became. That result wasn’t just by reading bunches of books and memorizing tons of facts. It was by learning from my teachers. My teachers taught me how to seek out pieces of information, question them, evaluate them, choose the good from the bad, and apply my conclusions to whatever issue or problem was at hand. They taught me on how to be an effective teacher to myself.

In other words, Mr. Witherspoon, Mrs. Chilcott, Mrs. Sneed, and Mrs. Longorio’s goal in assigning all of that insane amount of readings wasn’t to make die-hard Literature lovers or future English teachers (although, in my case, both became true – but that’s beside the point). Their goal was to make me and my fellow classmates college-ready so that, once out of college, we were capable, curious, and creative citizens in a world full of constant, unpredictable change.

For the world at the end of my high school career was changing. After all, the fall of the Berlin Wall happened in late 1989. The thawing of the Cold War heated up when the class of 1990 graduated. My classmates and I were GenXers and our teachers were Baby Boomers. We two generations lived our lives under the shadow of the Cold War, with its always-looming threat of nuclear war. Back then, who could’ve predicted that the end of the Cold War would happen in our lifetimes? Who could’ve predicted what would happen later?


Sometimes a student of mine would complain about a particular reading assignment, asking me, “Why do I have to read this? When will I ever use this in the real world?”

I’d just smile and answer, “Trust me. You will. I’ll show you how.” And if that complaining student happens to be particularly religious (after all, I teach in Texas), I would sometimes quote Luke 6:40, “No disciple is superior to the teacher, but when fully trained, every disciple will be like his teacher.”

By the way — I still haven’t decided if I want to teach a Shakespeare class in the future. But if I do, I’ll make sure my students have plenty of scaffolding.

This entry was posted in Academic Research, AVOCATIONS, Creative Writing, EDUCATION, History & Currents Events, Learning, LQ POV, Public School Reform, Reading, Teaching, The Writing Life and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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