One of my favorite things about teaching junior high is blowing their minds. One of my fave parts of the week is Fridays before the test, when we do Mental Floss. Middle schoolers: they can’t hit the curveball.

Like this:

“When the day after tomorrow is yesterday, this day will be as far from Friday as this day was from Friday when the day before yesterday was tomorrow. What day is it?”

All I asked was, “What day is it?” All the rest is obfuscation. But they always try to figure it out.

“OK, so. Day after tomorrow is Sunday, so yesterday is Thursday…wait…How can it be yesterday?”

And etc.

This class is also the first time some of them contemplate the whole time travel paradox thing.

“So if Stevo here is feeling all sporty,  joyriding in his stolen car back in the past, and accidentally runs over his mom before she’s his mom…”

“Ewww. Why would he do that?”

“He didn’t know it was her. And speed kills. Anyway, now what would happen? If she never had him…”

“He’d just disappear!” Most triumphant.

“So how did he travel back in time to hit her? If he was never born in the first place, how did he travel back and do it?”

“Wait. What? Wait…” And the eyes glaze over.

We do lots of paradoxes during “A Sound of Thunder.” The “I am lying” one gets ’em every time.

This week’s torture came in the form of a writing exercise.

“How many of you have started to realize that if your essay is a little different or a little livelier or more unusual than the average duck’s essay, you tend to get a higher grade?”

Almost all the hands go up. But that doesn’t mean a thing. Most of the hands would have gone up if I had asked how of them had been to the moon. I just use that as a way of telling them to JAZZ THINGS UP A BIT!

“You do realize that if I’m reading 150 of these things, and I’m on number 97, and everybody is pretty much sounding the same, and then I come across yours, and your  new angle on things makes me think, “Hey, this guy is thinking,” of course the grade is going to be nudged higher…not exactly on purpose always, but that’s just how it is in reality. You know what I mean?”

So we work a lot on sentence variety and varied intros and some showboat techniques that their high school AP teachers will probably grind out of them, but make their writing a whole lot more fun to read. And it makes them more inclined to write.

I used to use this exercise very early in the year, sometimes on the first or second day. But some of them, in their noob naiveté, thought that I intended for them to write ALL their essays this way, and got really frustrated.


I haven’t used this one in a while since then.

One of the biggest issues in their writing is often their repeated use of boring, non-action verbs. I refer to these as verbs you can’t draw a picture of.

“What does is-ing look like? Go? What does go look like?”

They all start pantomiming walking and running and flying and etc.

“That ain’t going. That’s flying or running or whatever it is that Barney is doing with his fingers over there. That’s my point; verbs like that don’t add any action to your essay. You don’t go to the store. You slither or walk or ride or strut or cruise. So I’m going to take those boring verbs away from you, and force you to think outside the box, as they say.”

“I’m going to grade this assignment on only three criteria.
One: Did you write about one topic? I do not care what that topic is–cheese, your mom, the economy–as long as you stick to one topic.
Two: Did you get to the bottom of the piece of paper? This part is the old grade-by-ruler approach. If you fill the page, you get full credit (assuming you meet the third criterion ), you write half a pag, you get half credit and etc.
Three: This is the hard part. Did you use any of the following words?
any form of the word be (am, is are, was, were),
any form of the word go (went, gone, going),
any form of the word have (has, had, having),
any form of the word get (got, getting, gotten),
any form of the word do (did, done, etc.).

I will subtract one point for each of those words I find.”

OMG. I swear I could see the gears turning and the eyes bulging.

“Butbutbutbut…what’s left?”

“My brain hurts just thinking about it.”

Tomorrow: The Aftermath.

BTW: The kid from the last post thought brusque was pronounced “brewski.” He thought it was kind of strange that I would assign such a word (Ah, another faithful DARE grad), but then he looked it up and “got confused.” No way? Really?