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Writing as Questioning and Choosing

This weekend, I was browsing through my Feedly and came across Adam Grant’s current piece in the New York Times Sunday Review. I first discovered Grant’s work a few months ago when I was at school late browsing through the TED website, looking for a talk to show my students. Grant is a professor at Wharton, and recently published Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. His TED Talk—“The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers”—brings up some interesting points about creative individuals. For example, original thinkers tend to procrastinate—which made me feel a lot better about my own procrastination habits. 🙂 


As I read his piece in the New York Times“Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ is Terrible Advice”—I knew quickly that I would bookmark it to share with students next year. The advice to “be yourself” is something they are well-accustomed to hearing, and understandably so. But as the title indicates, Grant challenges this advice, ultimately concluding that the goal is not simply to “be yourself.” Instead, Grant offers this alternative:

Pay attention to how we present ourselves to others, and then strive to be the people we claim to be. Rather than changing from the inside out, you bring the outside in.

I appreciate Grant’s message, but what I also really like about the piece is its stance. This piece—more than anything—is about inquiry. It’s about taking a commonly-held assumption and questioning it. It’s the type of writing—and thinking—I hope my students can develop.

It’s also an example of the CFC method of organization, which I discovered this year on the NCTE Teaching and Learning Forum and wrote about last month on Moving Writers. CFC stands for

  • The Commonplace
  • At First Glance
  • Closer Look

The writer begins by identifying a commonplace view on the issue, then follows up with evidence to show how—at first glance—that view is correct. Then the writer shifts to take a closer look and propose an alternate, though not necessarily opposing, view of the issue. As I wrote previously, “from this point on in the essay, students must look closer, dig deeper, and question generally held (but often not closely examined) beliefs.”

When I discovered the CFC, I quickly realized that I had seen the structure in many professional essays, and now, whenever I pick up a magazine, read a news article, or browse through blog posts, I see the CFC everywhere, just like it is in Grant’s essay. When I found and introduced the CFC to students last year, we were already more than half-way through the year. At that point, I asked students to go back to the essays we’d already read and see if they could find the CFC in them. Looking forward, however, I can see giving my students Grant’s New York Times piece as an initial mentor text. I could then ask students to think about an issue that they can challenge. From there, students can choose the CFC to organize future writing, whether it’s used as a global structure or a simple craft move within a larger essay.

And the key is that choice. Every year, I’ve gotten better at showing students the many different ways they can organize their ideas, especially beyond a traditional 5-paragraph template. When students can see possibilities, they can choose which organization best fits their ideas instead of choosing their ideas to fit a template.  They can ask questions like: How can I best introduce my topic? What information does my reader need sooner rather than later? What information does my reader already know? What does the reader already know? Where can I place this information so that it packs the most punch? What other points of view do I need to include?

Then, as if my serendipity, I came across Curtis Newbold’s latest infographic today. As you can see below, it includes ten different ways to organize a paper, for any occasion.


I really love how comprehensive this list is, and I imagine sharing this with my students, especially my juniors and seniors. From this menu, again, students can choose the best organizational structure—or a combination—to present their ideas.

I decided to take an extra step and make the infographic a little more interactive by putting it into a Prezi  so that students can click through each choice, one at a time. With our new Schoology LMS next year, instead of taking class time to explain every single structure, I can flip the instruction so that students can access the Prezi at home, read through the different structures, and then come back to school to apply during writing workshop, ask questions, get feedback, etc. And of course, I added the CFC to the Prezi, too. 🙂

Grant’s piece and Newbold’s infographic didn’t come to me by accident. As I mentioned above, I came across both, within a few minutes of each other, in my Feedly. If you’re not familiar with Feedly, it’s an RSS reader. Basically, Feedly acts as a one-stop shop for all the blogs and websites that I read regularly. Instead of going out to each individual site, one at a time, I can subscribe to the sites I visit frequently and have the most recent entries sent directly to me in my Feedly. It’s very similar to the way Twitter works, except that instead of following people, you follow websites. I used to use Google Reader for years and when Google discontinued it, I was at a loss for how I would manage all my reading. Below is a quick screenshot:

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 10.50.16 AM

As you can see,  you can organize all your reading into different categories, and there are additional options for saving articles to DropBox, OneNote, and other services. There’s also a great app that you can use to read on the go, too, so you can always have your reading easily accessible. After all, when you’re connected—whether it’s to people or ideas—you never know what nuggets you’ll find.

Thanks for reading — feel free to share your thoughts below.

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