Archive for the ‘Help for High School’ Category

The Rhetorical Imagination

The Rhetorical Imagination

I was in 6th grade, living in southern California. One November evening, I crossed the street to my daily playmate’s home for dinner. Melinda’s mother served hamburgers. I asked for a glass of milk. Mr. Thaler said I could not have one. I asked why. He replied that their family “kept kosher” and could not mix meat and dairy products during a meal.

I did not relent. His comment made no sense to me. After all, I didn’t keep kosher. My family expected us to drink milk every night for healthy teeth. “But I’m not Jewish. I can have milk with my hamburger.”

Mrs. Thaler joined in, “Dairy and meat can’t even be on the same table, Julie. It’s not about what you can eat or not eat. It’s about our home. Our home is a kosher home and so milk and meat cannot be at the same meal.”

I sat stunned—momentarily ejected from the room. My mind raced.

Wait—that means the Thalers never have cheeseburgers. Will Melinda be able to eat at my house? What is “kosher” and why is it so important to them? This is unfair! This rule makes no sense! I want milk!

I was used to having what I wanted when I wanted it. This whole idea that I had to adjust my meal habits to theirs for a reason I didn’t even hold felt wrong and annoying. I stuck with the one value from home that did apply: politeness. I finished my meal and thanked them.

But what else happened that day? My world tilted. An invitation to expand had been extended to me.

At age 11, the world I knew was defined by my parents, care givers, teachers, and religious leaders.

All children learn without instruction what constitutes “normal” for them—what can be taken for granted, what we deserve, how we’ve been wronged, who is out to get us, and who is on our side.

As we grow up—our circle widens and we encounter for the first time: “the other.” We determine whether or not we will include or vilify this alternative way of living and seeing the world.

The experience of expansion has a name and it is valuable to becoming an educated person. I call it “The rhetorical imagination.”

The rhetorical imagination is the experience of
encountering, examining, and holding multiple viewpoints
simultaneously, dispassionately.

The rhetorical imagination is a tool we use to grow academically. We open ourselves to the perspective presenting itself and begin with the assumption that there is an internal coherence and logic to a viewpoint, even if that coherence and logic make us uncomfortable. Even if inconvenient.

This capacity requires us to suspend our own judgments and to momentarily shift into the seat of the other to see the world through different eyes. Those eyes may be more or less religious, more or less tolerant, more or less educated, more or less political, more or less financially secure, more or less experienced, more or less skilled…

Even “objectively” wrong views (the belief that the world is flat, for instance) believed by individuals are rooted in some kind of interior logic (after all, in our own heads, what we think is true makes sense to us or we couldn’t think the thoughts!). The task of an academic is to wade into those views (our own and those of others), to suspend judgment in order to identify how that person has arrived at that conclusion and what that conclusion offers the one who holds the viewpoint.

Famously, centuries of misinformation have been sustained by a lack of tools to measure what we did not know, or by political and/or religious empires that stood to gain from an uneducated constituency. It was stunning, for instance, to visit Prague last spring to see the Astronomical Clock which measured the time by putting the earth in the center of the clock face. Each day, citizens would walk by this clock to tell time. How could a person in the 1400s have any hope of understanding the true nature of the universe with that out-sized misinformation mounted and gilded (measuring the minutes and hours every day with planet earth dead center in the solar system) towering over them? Of course the earth was the center of the universe! There it was, on display, all day every day!

What a blow it would be to imagine that the earth was not in the center! For that new interpretation to gain footing, the challengers of the status quo had to be willing to unseat the power of centuries old beliefs.

The capacity to inquire, to be curious, to willingly suspend one’s own point of view in favor of opening to someone else’s is at the heart of the academic enterprise. It’s the discipline of higher education in particular! The research conducted in any field must begin with inquiry and suspending one’s own preconceived ideas in order to be open to new and different conclusions and solutions.

The development of a rhetorical imagination is critical to good academic writing: the essay, research paper, and beyond. So often parents and teacher obsess about formatting and citations. They are worried the student won’t know how to look up books with a card catalog and the Dewey decimal system, or how to write a “Works Cited.”

Those are easily taught. What is far more difficult is deliberately opening to a wide variety of viewpoints. It takes courage and curiosity. It requires a willingness to overturn assumptions, to be changed by what is read.

In fact, I’d say that the heart of the academic enterprise is the drive to be startled into insight!

The rhetorical imagination—the capacity to consider a wide variety of perspectives and possibilities—is the vehicle to take us there.

Pushing ourselves and our kids
out of our cozy comfort zones of thought
is our educational obligation and opportunity.


Designed for 8th to 10th graders, Kidswrite Intermediate introduces students to rhetorical thinking plus musicality in language, metaphor and analogy, paraphrasing and more! For high school students we offer our Expository Essay: Rhetorical Critique and Analysis online class.

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Five Keys to Working with Teens

5 Keys to Working with Teens

1. Teens need risk and adventure in learning and life.

(TRANSLATION: you will be uncomfortable—that’s how you know they are taking risks or having adventures.)

2. Teens want to prove to themselves that they will be able to be adults one day.

(TRANSLATION: they will shock you with their opinions, choices, and occasional belligerence—it’s not personal.)

3. Teens want to be bailed out when they mess up.

(TRANSLATION: they still need their mommies and daddies to kiss their bruises, aka the bent fender, or the speeding ticket, or the missed deadline.)

4. Teens need conversation partners, not independence in learning.

(TRANSLATION: yes, they can work on daily tasks alone, but for meaningful education, they need an invested parent or adult who will talk to them about books, ideas, history, philosophy, politics, religion, and more. That person is you.)

5. Teens deserve hugs, LOTS of food, a twenty dollar bill slipped into their hand once in a while “just cuz” when they go out, and your curiosity about their music, games, and passions.

(TRANSLATION: learn what says “I love you” to a teen, and then do that A LOT no matter how messy the room gets, no matter how hard-headed they seem, no matter how inconsistently they love you back.)

You got this!


The Enchanted Education for Teens

The Top 10 Things to Have Done by the End of High School

The Top 10 Things to Have Done by the End of High School

I’ve been asked: “If you had to boil it down to a Top Ten List, what would you say every child should have studied before they leave home?”

I accepted the challenge and compiled a list that will help you pull back from the panic of trying to teach every single classical work of literature while covering the entire scope of Western Civilization from the dawn of time until present, as you consider each scientific breakthrough, three languages (one dead), and all composition formats.

Stop the madness! It’s possible to have a sense of satisfaction and completion even if you leave a few dangling metaphors and several centuries of war and peace un-explored.

The list:

  1. Share the joy of reading with your kids.
  2. Help them be critical thinkers.
  3. Teach them math and science (and history!)
  4. Nurture their writing skills.
  5. Introduce them to a foreign language.
  6. Give them the opportunity to chase at least one affinity.
  7. Make sure they encounter different people and places.
  8. Encourage them to perform in some way for an audience.
  9. Help them find friends.
  10. Most importantly, be their advocate.

Watch the broadcast below to learn more and see that the Top Ten are within your reach!

Need more help for high school?

Brave Writer and the College Admission Essay

College Admission Essay
Brave Writer Instructor and Minister of Magic, Nancy Graham writes:

I’ve been teaching Brave Writer’s College Admission Essay class for three years now and I love watching the essays come into focus. Students often start with no ideas or a vague sense of the story they want to tell about themselves, and they leave with a piece that traces a time in their life when they were transformed in some way. What seems at first like a purely functional piece of prose—“Let me into your college!”—becomes a moving document of insight and self-reflection. Whether the writer has undertaken her education at home or in a school, this essay is an opportunity to reflect on her life so far—what she values and what she has learned.

Every couple of months we’ll feature an essay, beginning with Cassie’s meditation on how a county fair became a family heirloom. Cassie took our Fall 2014 College Admissions Essay class.

County Fair Heirlooms

By Cassie W.
Knox College, class of 2019

Stepping into the cinder block clubhouse near the first gate of the Prince William County Fair, I’m greeted with both a wave of nostalgia and friendly hellos. The old ladies—dressed in sweatpants and gingham aprons—step out from behind plastic folding tables heavy with aluminum warming dishes full of mashed potatoes, gravy, chicken, and lima beans. They smile at me and squeeze my arm and tell me how much I’ve grown up since last year, and I smile and say that it’s good to see them and I’m glad to be back. It’s been like this for as long as I can remember.

This year, my green volunteer t-shirt is sticking to my back, and my bangs are plastered to my forehead. I’ve been working in the Home Arts building for the past five hours—a tin-roofed barn where the exhibitions are held. I fill out paperwork, help with judging, and hang the exhibits—amateur photos of babies and animals, now decorated with blue, red, and white ribbons that flutter in the breeze of electric fans. Although it’s hard, hot, and tedious, I take more pride in my job than in any other work.

I grab a paper plate from the stack on the table and pile it with the creamy mashed potatoes, dousing the miniature potato mountain with gravy, and dipping the spoon into the mess of soft lima beans and melted butter for an extra helping.

Sure, I love the cotton candy, soft-serve ice cream and funnel cake of the carnival as much as anyone, but it’s the homemade food cooked up by the remaining members of the Ladies’ Auxiliary Fair Club that I love best. It’s the same sort of food my grandmother would make for me as a kid, which makes sense, seeing as she used to cook in the clubhouse kitchens. She worked hard for the fair for most of her life, like my grandfather, who helped found the fair over sixty years ago when he came back from World War II. I never knew my grandfather, but I have childhood memories of my grandma walking me around the fairground, smiling and waving at me while I rode the merry-go-round or the bumper cars, scolding me when I got lost in the crowd.

Grandma died the spring I turned fourteen, but for this week in August, when I spend every day at the fair, her legacy—and that of my grandfather—is palpable. The fair has always been deeply woven into the history of my mother’s side of the family, and we joke that the clubhouse is like more like Thanksgiving in August.

Every day, I walk the midway. I’m usually alone. There’s no one to scold me when I get lost in the crowd, so I let myself get lost: I ride the rides, the bare backs of my legs sticking to the vinyl seats. I scratch the oily heads of sheep and let cows lick my hands, pose proudly for pictures by my award-winning cookies or decorated potatoes, eat ice cream, and watch acrobats perform in the little circus ring behind the chicken barn. I strut at the fair, and my personality shifts: I am proud of every aspect of the place. A deep pride in my family, yes, but also a personal pride. I feel like the fair is mine, and I always have. It is something that has been handed down to me, like a gift.

I don’t have many heirlooms from my my maternal grandparents—my grandmother’s hand-stitched quilt, a set of china plates. I will treasure these things. But I also have the fair, the community, and the memories of humid summers, oily sunscreen, and my grandmother’s wrinkled hands that come with it.


Brave Writer’s 10 Tips for Writing Your College Essay

Ten Tips for Writing Your College Essay

10 Tips for Writing Your College Essay

By Nancy Graham

1. Know what it’s for.

Your college application essay is a way for people you’ve never met to get some sense of who you are—what drives your intellect, what matters to you, what you love most in this world, what you’re doing when you are most engaged and most at ease, and what it will be like to study and socialize with you on campus. The essay that will fit the bill is the one that shares an experience that feels important to you.

2. Read other essays.

Reading other essays will trigger ideas about your own. You’ll get a feel for what kind of story can be told in a few hundred words and how some writers have made the form their own. My favorite site for sample essays is Johns Hopkins University’s “Essays That Worked.” Of course, there’s no need to confine yourself to college essays for inspiration! Check out The Best American Essays series (affiliate link—thank you for supporting Brave Writer!) or spend a weekend with James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Zadie Smith, Annie Dillard, Ralph Waldo Emerson, or your favorite essayist.

3. Make lists.

Before you choose a prompt, try making a few lists.

Some useful lists:

  • everything in your room,
  • your favorite objects,
  • the moments in your life when you felt like giving up.

Or make lists in answer to these questions:

  • What experiences have made me who I am?
  • What do I love?
  • Why do I want to delve into it more by going to college?

Once you’re ready to work with prompts, use them to make more lists. Let your list making lead you into a story you want to tell.

4. Think of your essay as a story.

Once you have a sense of what you’d like to write about, freewrite in 10- to 20-minute bursts. Think of your memories as short stories that build.

  • What obstacles arose and how did you overcome them?
  • What were the twists and turns in the story?
  • What surprised you?

These can be subtle rather than big and dramatic, but they’re important because they show how you changed: how you succeeded in solving a problem, how you matured, how you transformed a difficulty into a learning experience. This will dictate the shape of your essay.

Luxuriate in the freewriting phase. Give yourself a week or two of successive freewriting to find your strongest material. The furthest thing from your mind during this phase should be your word count. You may generate thousands of words to find the nugget that will be your 650-word essay.

5. Give us the detes!

Details, details, details! Details is the word I type most often in our College Admission Essay class. Sensory details allow the reader to picture you in your life. The reader can’t do that if you only share abstract ideas. As you freewrite, connect to your five physical senses and ask yourself what sights, sounds, textures, tastes, and smells you can remember. Be as particular as you can—“I worked hard” is a start. More specific: “I rose in the dark and ran ten miles by sun-up.”

6. Remember that there are many paths to a good essay.

If you choose a story with meaning for you, and you relate it with sensory details, you will be on the road to sharing some aspect of yourself that will have relevance for the admissions committee.

Some elements that shine in successful essays:

  • your character traits (your winning sense of humor, your curiosity or perseverance, your enthusiasm),
  • a sense of why you have picked the school you are applying to,
  • a picture of you living your life and following your interests,
  • a discovery about what is true for you,
  • an offering—what you intend to bring to the college community.

7. What’s the big idea?

After you’ve done loads of freewriting and expanding (adding more sensory details and bits of dialogue), see if you can boil your topic down to one sentence. How about one word? Let it guide you as you continue drafting.

8. Grab a friend or family member and spill!

As you draft and revise, if you need a boost, take along a notebook and pen and pour your heart out to someone else about why your topic matters to you. Reminisce, tell stories from your life related to your topic. When you go back to drafting, think of your essay as a gift to yourself, a capstone for the early part of your life. Make it count for you.

9. Hook and release your fish—um—reader.

Your opening should pull the reader in by arousing our curiosity or cutting in on action that will sweep us along. A good opener surprises or provokes.

Your conclusion should be just that—your conclusion. It couldn’t conclude anyone else’s essay. It leaves the reader with your sense of possibility and expansion, or the feeling that a shift has taken place in you. Resist the temptation to generalize in your conclusion. Anyone can write, “Whatever happens I never give up, because being persistent is the key to making my dreams come true.” Stay specific, even while placing your experiences in a wider context. Release your readers with a clear picture of you in their minds.

10. Buff it till it shines.

  • Check the shape of your essay. Does your story include obstacles that you overcome, or move through changes that lead you to a discovery?
  • Check your word count and if you need to, cut. Reread and take out repetitive phrases. See where you can condense words. You want to pack as much into your word count as you can, and you can do this in small ways (“return” is one word, “go back” is two), medium ways (“I was totally and completely foamed ing from my ears”), and big ones (do you really need that whole paragraph about how never giving up is important, when the story about how you shaved seconds off your racing times until you finally won the national meet demonstrates that to the reader?).
  • Run the spell check in your computer as well as the one in your brain. Use a dictionary.
  • Find the mot juste—just the right word for what you are trying to say.
  • Attend to your punctuation.
  • Make sure your sentences are complete and clear.
  • Think about adding a title. If you have leftover words in your count and you want to, a title can be a way to add meaning to an essay by giving the reader a little something extra to think about.

Let your essay sit a few days and read it again before uploading: you may catch something new.

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