Writing the Journey

Apr 28, 2013
Posted by: Matt

There can be a profound experience as we come to better understand our parents.  Poems like “Those Winter Sundays” or “Papa’s Waltz” help us see how perspectives can change with experience—how understanding can become clearer.  In “Drunken Rooster Days” (TBTW 2012; p.1-2), Yan Zhang is seeking to understand “the golden days…the days [she] could not understand” that her father often spoke about.  The stories he told seemed other-wordly and didn’t match the experiences Yan, herself, knew as a teen growing up in Omaha, Nebraska.  His was a world where chickens were too expensive to eat and cats were tied to fence posts so they wouldn’t roam free.  His was a world of small houses and dirt floors, where goat dung was gathered to fuel fires, and students had to build their own “desks” out of mud in the teacher’s front yard.  But, those “golden days” became vividly clear when she visited her father’s childhood home.  As she watched the tears come to her father’s eyes as he stood in his old home, Yan had a moment of clarity.  It is a experience that is so profound that Yan crafts a memoir in “Drunken Rooster Days” that purposely brings the reader to that moment.

I was drawn to this piece because my students often struggle with seeing a piece of writing as a journey from beginning to end. But, like any journey you take, you cannot start without knowing the destination.  “Drunken Rooster Days” is a great piece of writing; Yan knew from the very beginning how she was going to end her memoir.  Everything in the piece is leading to that final, emotional moment—that realization that Yan comes to and we, as readers, become aware and relive with her.  It has a profound impact.  I, like many teachers, often start my writing instruction focused on constructing creative introductions and strong claims.  While this is profitable, I must try to get my students to think about how they will also end a piece of writing.

“Drunken Rooster Days” helps us to focus on the ending.  If students take a closer look at the text, though, they will see that Yan was giving us hints even at the beginning of the piece.  As her father stands in what remains of his childhood home, the “golden sunlight pours through the narrow window and makes dusty particles from the floor dance in the air.”  This idea of something being golden echoes the “golden days” mentioned earlier in the text.  We too as readers wonder how the description of life for Yan’s father could be called golden, yet we too “now understood” as Yan put it.  This is a universal memory built into all of us no matter our cultural experiences.  Home can be a powerful, emotionally charged memory.

Students should be encouraged to see that their writing can be just as powerful—that the conclusion they lead readers to can have an impact.  This requires that students do two things.  First, planning is key.  To use the metaphor of a journey, students must know first where they are starting, and, just as importantly, they must know where they will end.  It is even valuable to take the time to help them craft the final golden line(s) they will use.  Then, they must look for ways to connect those two points.  This will help shape the content.  As a class works with “Drunken Rooster Days,” the students should deconstruct the text.  We as readers didn’t see the theme of golden days until we got to the end, but the writer had that planned all along.  Tracing that back through the text after reading it can provide a profitable discussion concerning the writing process.  Another good example that illustrates this is the persuasive essay “The World Is Not Flat” (TBTW 2012; p.200-203)  Here the writer, Joel Wilner, begins his essay poking fun at the infamous ramblings of Miss Teen South Carolina when asked a geography question.  In his final paragraph, though, we come to realize that Miss South Carolina stands as a warning.  We are all dangerously close of becoming as ignorant if we fail to recognize how much we have devalued a sense of geographical awareness.

In the comments below, I invite you to share how you help students shape the conclusions in their writing, how you get students to see the whole structure of their essay, how you help students write paragraphs that are not isolated from each other, and how you help students create that flow of ideas—that arch—that journey—that leads us, as readers, to the powerful conclusion they have in store for us.


Matt, I enjoyed reading your

Submitted by Tricia on Sun, 2013-04-28 13:16.

Matt, I enjoyed reading your piece.  A main highliight for me was the way that you juxtaposed the content of the story--the literal journey that the author takes towards understanding her father with the figurative journey that students must take to make their writing reflect its own journey, its own development and, in so doing, students take their own journey, again, through a story in their lives.  

In terms of your request for comments: The way that I have helped students to craft conclusions is to have them begin with the main body of their piece.  We start out with the traditional process of beginning the writing process (brainstorming, outlining etc.) so that they can think about what they actually want to say it, and how they want to say.  My reasoning is that students can introduce and conclude their writing, only after they discover what it is they actually want to say.  After that, I have them move from the main writing to writing the conclusion.  I have them think about questions like, what do you want to leave the reader thinking? What are you still thinking about? After taking the reading on the journey of your writing, where do you want the reader to end up?  Once this part is completed, then I have students think about, and craft their introductions.  To me, the introduction is the icing on the cake; the words that the writer wants to use to paint the broadstrokes for the reader before they actually delve into the writing.

These were some thoughts that I had.  I hope they were helpful.



Cross post?

Submitted by tbaker on Sun, 2013-04-28 13:30.

I love your point about supporting students to write toward an ending. I worked with teachers in a k-5 school once who were trying to align their writing curriculum. One of the first things we noticed was that EVERYONE taught introductions/leads, but almost no one taught conclusions. And no one wanted to give up their favorite ways to teach introductions in order to take on teaching conclusions. Teaching endings, it seemed, was both more difficult and less fun. I hope others will share ideas about teaching students how to write conclusions, and how to plan writing toward a conclusion.
I also want to say, though, that I thought your introduction, in which you talked about the theme, seeing our parents with new clarity, was lovely and referenced two pieces of literature that I love. I wonder if this might actually be the content for another post in the inspirations channel? I'd love to hear what you or your students do with reading and writing around this theme.