Class Topic : “The Enigma of the Smile”
Schedule : 60 minutes, Saturdays, March – September 2018
Readings : A Brief History of the Smile by Angus Trumble ; Teeth by Raina Telgemeier ; “Blood, Sweat, and Teeth” by Elizabeth Bird ; “More to a Smile than Lips and Teeth,” The New York Times ; excerpts from White Teeth by Zadie Smith ; articles from Scientific American
Assignments : weekly annotation practice ; weekly 1-page essay responses ; final 3,500-word essay
In her own words, 15-year-old Laila was a passionate reader, but was “not exactly obsessed with writing.” She had once loved writing in middle school, when she’d created a graphic novel, a blog, and several plays. But somewhere around 8th grade, she had lost her joy for words.
“I just hate writing essays in school,” Laila told me. “So, please, can we do anything but write essays?”
Hmm, a challenge! It was my secret mission to help Laila develop her (ahem, essay) writing skills. But she didn’t want to write a pile of formulaic 5-paragraph essays… and frankly, I didn’t want her to. I wanted to help her strengthen her SDL (self-directed learning) skills, rediscover her excitement for writing, and prepare her for college-level writing and critical thinking.
TOPIC AND CURRICULUM
Laila and I quickly discovered a fantastic topic for our writing class. When we chatted about social media and selfies, Laila mentioned her fascination with smiling. She was deeply interested in the meanings of the human smile: Why do we humans smile? Just how many types of smiles are there? How and why have smiling behaviors changed over time? Clearly, the topic was tickling Laila’s critical thinking muscles.
Working together, Laila and I created a customized curriculum of texts ranging from nonfiction to memoir, psychology to art history. Every week, Laila deftly annotated and kept a journal reflecting on each reading.
LAILA’S WRITING BREAKTHROUGH
After 2 months of reading and writing study, I challenged Laila to write a few pages on everything she’d learned about the smile — and she was eager to do it! After we did exercises on developing a strong thesis, Laila outlined and composed a marvelous 3,500-word essay arguing her own interpretation of “21st-century smiles.” This was not a 5-paragraph, fill-in-the-blanks essay — it was a lively, structured piece of writing with a clear point of view, strong cited evidence, and engaging language — the kind of essay she’d need to write in college.
Laila discovered how to be a powerhouse writer and thinker. She “got obsessed” with annotation, figured out “what critical thinking actually means,” and embraced the challenges and excitement of writing a strong essay. “I feel like I actually love writing again,” she wrote me in an email last year. “Whenever I read novels or essays where somebody smiles, I think back to our class, and how much more there is to explore… but haha, I actually know how to do it now!”
Laila, I’m so proud of you for recommitting to your writing, and working so hard to develop a stunning set of skills for honors-level and AP courses!