The diamante final exam: a lesson worth remembering

I taught middle school early in my career, at the beginning of the movement to “mainstream” students receiving special education services, moving them from a self-contained classroom environment into the general classroom population.

Jeff was a sixth grader in one of the classes I team-taught with the Special Ed department chair.  Try as we might, we couldn’t get Jeff to participate in class assignments.  We couldn’t get him to pick up a pencil, much less the curriculum-required blue or black ink pen.

We couldn’t get him to dictate a story or a response to a question.  We tried modification after modification, parent conferences, team conferences.

We worked hard to get a computer so that he could use a word processor. Even bribery (yes, it’s in the teacher bag-o’-tricks).  Nothing.

He wasn’t a bad student, or a bad kid. He just didn’t want to do anything – seemingly because we wanted him to.  We sensed he was probably fairly bright, but we were locked into a “Do it. / I Won’t” cycle that had probably been a pattern for him for years. (Apparently there had been a BIG power struggle – not just for Jeff but also for many of his peers  — with their fifth grade teacher over writing in cursive. )

We could tell by watching him that he was taking things in and had some thoughts about it all.  He just was not going to share and we couldn’t find a way to make it worth his while to do so.

I  experienced many moments of feeling like an abject failure, and if it hadn’t been for the highly skilled, seasoned professional with whom I worked, I might have arrived at that conclusion early on and given up on both Jeff and  on myself.

Although she felt the same frustration, my co-teacher had been through many similar challenges, so we didn’t give up on him. We did come to accept that we weren’t going to get much, if anything from him, but still we tried, hoping that some day something would click, even if we weren’t there when it happened.

Traditional diamante template from www.readwritethink.org

The final unit of the year included figurative writing and formulaic poetry forms.  There had also been a year-long cross-curricular initiative in learning the eight basic parts of speech.

I combined these in one “take home” element of the final exam:  students were to prepare a self-descriptive “diamante,”  a form poem so named for its diamond shape.

For assessment purposes, the final exam diamante differed from the traditional form in that it had to include a metaphor, a simile, three verbs, and a summarizing statement of fact, all describing the writer.  To achieve the diamond shape, the diamante began with the writer’s first name on line one and ended with the writer’s last name on the final line.

Exam day came, and Jeff showed up without a pen or pencil, much less a diamante.  He sat through the entire session with the Scantron (“the bubble sheet”) in front of him.  I don’t recall whether he even bothered to write his name.

He turned in a sheet with a few random bubbles filled in, left the room, and that was the end of our time together.  There wasn’t much for my co-teacher and me to do or say about it. That was that.

Then, at the end of the day, I found a crumpled up piece of paper tossed on my desk at the back of the room.  I opened it to find this diamante, which I have kept ever since in a little frame on whatever desk where I find myself.

Although I’ve altered the names for privacy’s sake, it is written in ink and was signed…in cursive. . . by someone who taught me a lesson worth remembering:

You never really know what’s going on with a person and people will surprise you in the nicest ways.

diamante-final-exam

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Diamante links:

Read. Write. Think. (An interactive diamante generator).

University of Oregon

Wikipedia

A traditional diamante begins and ends with nouns that are opposites.  The poem can be used in two ways, either comparing and contrasting two different subjects, or naming synonyms and antonyms for another subject.

The subject is named in one word in the first line. The second line consists of two adjectives describing the subject, and the third line contains three verbs ending in the suffix -ing which are related to the subject. A fourth line then has four nouns, again related to the subject, but only the first two words are related the first subject. The other two words describe the opposite subject the lines then are put in reverse, leading to and relating to either a second subject or a synonym for the first.

                              Noun
                       Adjective-Adjective
                         Verb-Verb-Verb
                      Noun-Noun/Noun-Noun
                         Verb-Verb-Verb
                       Adjective-Adjective
                              Noun

If a nickel were had by me. . . .

yoda english class

It makes little sense that  I remember her fondly. She was cranky and dour. The thunder of her condescendingly didactic reprimands belied her tiny, withering frame. Very early in our acquaintance, I came to appreciate that she was justified in the less flattering traits. They are the reasons I smile when she comes to mind.

I wasn’t in the habit of giving my professors nicknames, but for whatever reason, in no way intentionally connected to a former First Lady, the name Lady Bird occurred to me and I couldn’t make it stop occurring.  Her husband then was Mr. Bird.

When she couldn’t hear what we were saying, it was Mr. Bird’s fault because he’d forgotten to change the battery in her hearing aid. You got the sense that, unless his hearing were similarly uncharged,  Mr. Bird would be getting an earful when class was over.

Mr. Bird was already retired, while she had to eek out one last lousy semester due to changes in the university’s retirement system. As much as she had loved her work, she didn’t want to be slogging through Chaucer with another group of unappreciative 20-somethings any more than most of us wanted to be there. She had things she wanted to do in life. We were suffocating her.

Having grown up with a vision-impaired parent, I understood her crankiness born of  her inability to be as fully engaged as she would have liked.

Having things I wanted to do in life, I understood her impatience with having to eek  out one last lousy semester.

One day she stood at the front of the class and recited the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English. Recited, not read.

I followed along in the text and as best I could tell, she nailed it.  She had every right to be condescendingly didactic. Boy, did she know her Chaucer.

She amused me, fascinated me, and terrified me. These days, I couldn’t recite more than the first line  from the Prologue (something to do with April showers), but the best and worst thing Lady Bird did was to leave an imprint in my consciousness about passive voice.  Whenever I see or hear it, I think of Lady Bird and I wish I had a nickel.

When she returned our first set of papers, she was livid. Livid, I tell you.

In total disgust, she complained at a volume that indicated Mr. Bird had shirked his battery-changing duties yet again,  “If I had a nickel for every time you people used passive voice, I could retire today.”

I was amused. And terrified. And fascinated.

What on earth was passive voice? Was I guilty? What was so bad about it that this diminutive, otherwise harmless academic would be so enraged by it? In those days, you had to find a grammar book or go to the library to figure this out.  Times were tough.

I scoured my paper. No comments about passive voice.  Did that mean I wasn’t guilty, or had she just grown tired of writing about it by the time she got to my dribble?

And so it went with the next set of papers. Same complaint.

. . .If I had a nickel for every time you people used the passive voice, I could retire today.

A professor’s pension

If I was one of the passive aggressors, I was starting to feel a bit guilty about not paying up, thereby keeping this woman from enjoying her golden years. If I wasn’t one of them, I was starting to get indignant with them on her behalf.

She never told us what passive voice was. I don’t know whether that was  because she considered that the responsibility of composition teachers, who had very clearly failed us, or if she just didn’t hear us asking.  Her job was to teach us medieval English literature and to get through this last lousy semester.

I don’t know how many papers we wrote, but every time she handed them back, we got the nickel speech.  Eventually it was more amusing than terrifying.

At the end of the semester, I bought a decorative jar and we filled it with nickels to present to her with a cake and some flowers.  Lady Bird spent that last class telling us about her plans, which sounded more like work to me, but work that she was passionate about.

I like to think that when we wished her well and thanked her for the semester, she heard every word.

My twain of thought is loosely bound

I guess it’s time to mark this down.

Nathaniel Hawthorne nudged Jimmy Buffett out of my head this morning and as much as I admire Hawthorne, I find this unacceptable. Hawthorne is for fall, the time of year that I used to (try to) teach The Scarlet Letter. This is Mr. Buffett’s time of year.

For the past few days, the Live From Anguilla cd’s have been in rotation while I drive and think over a lot of things, including choosing the answer to one of those 20 questions that are going around.  I’ve been putting a lot of thought into  what year and place I’d like to go to. One of the top contenders has something to do with a timeless beach in Hispaniola.

It’s not that Buffett isn’t literary.  Maybe Twain and Lewis Carroll crept into my dreams and Hawthorne was striking back.

Whatever the reason, the first thing in my head this morning was a phrase he notoriously penned to a publisher. Frustrated at the lack of his own literary success, Hawthorne complained about the “d****d mob of scribbling women” rising to fame and fortune writing the domestic fiction that was wildly popular in mid-19th century America.

I spent a semester in college studying Hawthorne and the women writers of his time, examining whether Hawthorne’s quote was the rant of a misogynist or just a frustrated writer watching the free market respond to something other than his highly disciplined, carefully crafted work.   It was a whole semester and I came away with many thoughts. I could go on ad nauseam (and you know that’s true), but I won’t.

More to the point is why this was the first thought on my mind this morning, especially given that I fell asleep watching The Hangover.

(Please don’t judge. It was on regular cable and I need to renew my passport. If renewal involves any sort of citizenship test, I want to be as up to speed as possible on American culture and I think I was the only US citizen over the age of 10 who had not seen it. If the test includes anything Kardashian, I will not be crossing international borders anytime soon.These are the things that I worry about. )

Relieved to find the bathroom free of tigers, I set about my morning with the thought of the d****d mob still in my head.  It may help or it may distract you to know that I tried many variations of “ScribblingWoman” when I set up my blog user name and all were taken.  Apparently, there are a lot of us. [The Phrase I Didn't Write would go here.]

Holy cow!  THAT right there is the overriding point that I’d need to muddle us all through for the next thing I say to make sense.

[The Phrase I Didn't Write] is what keeps me from being one of the  popular bloggers. It’s the kind of phrase that haunts me. It’s the kind of phrase that dashed my high school BFF Billy’s dreams of vicariously donning the homecoming tiara. It’s the money line, the kind  that you would laugh at. The kind that would bond us as hip modern women and the men who dig them.  The line that I know goes there but something keeps me from going there.

I’m sorry, Billy.

It’s that something that I came to the keyboard to write about, but I’ve gone on enough for now and the time has come for me to hit the road.  I’ve lost an hour of steel drum reverie this weekend and the work week looms ahead.  Maybe I’ll come back to it in The Phrase I Didn’t Write, Part II. 

Or maybe not.  You just never know with me.