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

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 links:

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

University of Oregon


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.


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.

He was NotElvis.

From time to time I mention my father, “NotElvis,” often because he’s not around to defend himself.  In an earlier version of Le Cahier, I wrote the story behind the name “NotElvis,” and occasionally I mention it in passing.

Recently I came across some pictures that go with the story and a cassette tape that I can’t manage to convert to an audio file. That story is a post unto itself. 

My father was a teenager during the Elvis Presley years. As was the case for many boys his age, Elvis-mania was good for him in that the girls thought he looked just like Elvis.  I know this because years later one of the parent chaperones on our class trip to Montreal was a mom who had been one of my dad’s great admirers in high school.  She made such a fuss over how much all the girls loved Dad because he looked just like Elvis.

I’d seen his yearbook. He was nice looking, but all this gushing was embarrassing. To me he was Dad. He was not Elvis.

He was also not Elvis, despite the large sunglasses he wore most of the time. They were to protect his eyes and cover his face, both of which had been severely burned in a chemical explosion before he was even thirty years old. He wasn’t expected to live, and in fact for a while was thought not to have survived. If he knew you well enough to think you were open to it, he would tell you that story.

He was in the hospital the first time for months. The first record album I owned was one of the many gifts from Dad while he was away. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized they didn’t come from him. Mary Wells Greatest Hits was really a gift from one of the many nurses who’d developed a crush on NotElvis and sent us kids things to let us know that he was thinking of us.

After he was home, friends that had always been around, baseball buddies, car buddies, buddies of all sorts, stopped coming around.   He’d always had a guitar around, but now it was his best friend.  We lived next to the church and on Sunday mornings while others were on their way to worship, he was sitting in the kitchen playing gospel tunes, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, and even some Elvis, as well as some songs he wrote on his own.  That was church for him, and that’s where my love of acoustic music comes from.

When he did go out in public, he wore those sunglasses to protect his eyes which no longer had lashes and brows and to cover a face that had been through multiple skin grafts. He managed to make his way around pretty well.  I always walked on his left and just ahead of him, telling him when we’d be stepping up or down, with his head held high and his hand on my shoulder feeling his way.

So he was pretty good at blending in and held off on a cane for a long time. Many people couldn’t tell he was visually impaired.  But some could. One of the many quirks of human nature is that too many people think a person who can’t see also can’t hear. Frequently, whether they realized he couldn’t see or they didn’t, people would quip, “Does he think he’s Elvis or something?”  

He was blind. He was not deaf. And he was not Elvis.

He didn’t say anything about this and I didn’t know that the comparisons to Elvis registered with him, until one day when I was living far away with a family of my own and I opened the mailbox to a videotape that Dad had put together, apparently with the help of a friend whose cat played a starring role.

I put the tape in the player and saw a sleeping cat stretched across a bed, with Dad playing and singing “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” in the background.  The end shot was of Dad….in an Elvis costume, with the headline “Not Elvis.” 

He taught me to laugh. He taught me to sing. He’s the reason my storytelling goes on and on and on. He taught me to smile even when I didn’t feel like it because my problems weren’t the world’s problems.  He was smart and funny and kind-hearted, creative and wise and strong. He was my father and he was NotElvis.