Say What?

As school gets underway, one writing strategy you can use to helping you and your students get to know one another is a writing task that I affectionately called, “Say What?” I nearly always used this writing assignment during the first two to three weeks of school, because it gave me a glimpse into students’ personalities, and sometimes even their lives.

Over the course of my teaching career, I often stressed the power of words to students. I immediately told them that the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is completely false, and they brainstormed ways in which words matter. It always surprised me to see how many of them referred to cyberbullying, especially on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets. Several of them mentioned how serious it is to make threats, while others mentioned what can happen if someone yells, “FIRE!” in a crowded space (lots of them mention a movie theater, and I don’t know why that seemed to make its way into our conversations year after year). Eventually, they mentioned political leaders and their famous quotations, typically ranging from Hitler to Dr. King to JFK, which was a perfect segue into the writing activity itself.

“Say What?” involves the teacher choosing several quotations and asking students to select the one that best represents them. In an informal essay, students explain why they chose the quotation and how it represents them. I stressed the importance of explanation and description in their writing, and I nearly always made the task a multi-paragraph assignment. It was a great way for me to see the kids’ writing process (or it could be a great way for you to introduce those prewriting graphic organizers we have suggested) and to get to know them as students and their writing capabilities. Depending on your subject and grade levels, you can choose quotations best suited to your needs, curriculum, units, etc.

This is a sampling of quotations I’ve used over the years for “Say What?”:

  • “I can accept failure; everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.” ~ Michael Jordan
  • “It’s awfully important to win with humility. It’s also important to lose. I hate to lose worse than anyone, but if you never lose you won’t know how to act. If you lose with humility, then you can come back.” ~ Bear Bryant
  • “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read good books.” ~ Mark Twain
  • “I’m sorry, if you were right, I’d agree with you.” ~ Robin Williams
  • “If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt
  • “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” ~ Albert Einstein
  • “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.” ~ Albert Einstein
  • “If you don’t build your dream, someone else will hire you to help them build theirs.” ~ Dhirubhai Ambani
  • “The first step toward success is taken when you refuse to be a captive of the environment in which you first find youself.” ~ Mark Caine
  • “… the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” ~ Steve Jobs
  • “Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.” ~ Bob Marley

I’ve used dozens of quotations in eleven years. Keep in mind that you want to give kids a broad range of quotations, from sports figures, celebrities, historical figures, etc. (Hint: Try to avoid the most famous and popular quotations, because kids probably have seen them before and you may not get a sincere response from them.) I also tried to mix serious quotations with humorous quotations, too, so that I could get a better feel for the students with whom I would be spending the next several months. Overall, make sure that you give them enough to choose from without overwhelming them; typically, I offered five or six quotations. I also emphasized choice in this assignment, so if students wanted to supply their own quotations, I reviewed them for approval before they started the assignment. And, don’t forget to supply students with the due date and scoring guidelines/rubric when you first introduce the assignment, so the kids know your expectations and requirements from Day 1.

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