Finding a Purposeful Place for the Blog

Prayer from The Westminster Schools Thanksgiving Service
Prayer from The Westminster Schools Thanksgiving Service

The blog went dark over the last month, and I plan on rebuilding its momentum.  For over a year I had at least an entry a week, but I have not posted since late October. It is not that I haven’t been writing, but somehow I slipped out of the routine of posting.  I wrote a prayer for our Thanksgiving service, I wrote a brief devotional on Psalm 23 (that I may post later this afternoon), I wrote letters, and I have been working on a longer poem—it is far from ready for public display, however, and in fact, it may remain forever private. All the different purposes for which I write have temporarily ceased to intersect appropriately in blog entries, but I feel an intensifying drive to get back to it. I miss the discipline the blog takes, and I miss the demand it places on me to organize my thinking on a number of different topics.  The blog has helped me to be more purposeful in my work and in my living—perhaps I have been a bit adrift without it.

That said, as I have been working on the poem, I have been reminded time and again of the necessity of not feeling obligated to share everything or to share something before it is ready, before it has a purpose that includes an audience.  Interestingly, I have been good at telling my students about the powerful role of expressive writing—writing we do to think, to sort out, to leave unfinished; however, I have not been as good in the last year and a half or so of taking that good advice. Some personal blogs seem to seek a space that lives between writing expressively and transactionally—writing that has an audience such as is necessary for transactional writing but yet is still without a polished form or function, as is characteristic of expressive writing.  For me, however, this blog, Ross All Over the Map, is full of transactional artifacts.  While blog entries can be personal, having an audience is essential to them.

I guess this all leads to that conclusion that I need both forms of writing.  Some of it is not only “not ready for prime time,” but it is never intended to be ready for a wide audience, while other writing that I do benefits from the recognition that others will see and evaluate what I have written. I am looking forward to get back on track with the blog in the coming weeks.

An Essay Grading Criteria for High School

[Around 1998, as part of an effort to make the evaluation of Senior Demonstration essays more consistent at Asheville School, I wrote a grading criteria that over the years evolved into the document that follows.  When we took the step of creating a Humanities Department out of the faculties of both the History and English Departments, the department revised the original criteria into something a bit closer to what appears below. I have used versions of it as the basis for my assessment of student writing ever since. Often when I created a writing assignment for my AP Literature students, I simply added a couple of sentences to each grade description in order to reflect the specific expectations of an individual assignment. When used by each member of the Humanities Department at Asheville School, we found it increased our grading consistency, and just as importantly, it provided us with a shared vocabulary to describe the relative quality of student writing.

I sent an early version of the grading criteria back to colleagues at Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina where I taught for the first eight years of my career, and they adopted a very similar criteria. I believe it is still in use there ] 

An A paper exceeds the expectations for the assignment. It contains compelling strengths and rich content and is appropriately suited to a particular audience. The author states a thesis of substance and/or originality and defends it by using relevant textual evidence and/or supportive detail. The paper maintains a readable and highly organized style that never interferes with the author’s intended meaning. This paper is marked by stylistic finesse: the title and opening paragraph are engaging; the phrasing is tight, fresh, and highly specific; the sentence structure is varied. The tone suits the purpose of the paper. The paper bears evidence of careful editing and revision and contains few, if any, grammatical errors. The author creates useful and artful transitions between paragraphs and sections of the essay. This response reveals an appreciation for and grasp of the subtleties of the work(s) and topic(s) the author has studied. The author provides a well-articulated conclusion derived from the essay that precedes it. This paper, because of its careful organization and development, imparts a feeling of wholeness and unusual clarity.

A B paper meets the expectations for the assignment. This paper delivers substantial information–that is, substantial in both quantity, interest, and originality. Its specific points are logically ordered, well-developed, and unified around a clear organizing principle that is apparent early in the paper. The author states a clear thesis in an introduction that draws the reader in and defends the thesis by using relevant textual evidence and/or supportive detail. The paper exhibits an awareness of audience. The paper bears evidence of editing and revision and contains few grammatical errors. The author attempts to create transitions between paragraphs and sections of the paper. This response maintains a readable and highly organized style, which only rarely gets in the way of the author’s intended meaning. The diction of the B paper is typically more concise and precise than found in the C paper. Occasionally, it even shows distinctive style–i.e., finesse and memorability. This response reveals an appreciation for and grasp of the work(s) and topic(s) the author has studied. The author provides a well-articulated conclusion derived from the essay that precedes it.

A C paper meets the assignment’s basic expectations although it is limited in some way. The author states a thesis and attempts to defend it by use of textual evidence. The paper may not exhibit a clearly focused awareness of audience. There may be gaps in the author’s logic or in the organization of the essay as a whole. Vague generalization in the writing may prompt the reader to ask marginally: “In every case?,” “Exactly how large?,” “Why?”. These questions may also have appeared on previous drafts of the paper. Frequently these papers include stylistic difficulties such as: the absence of an introduction which draws the reader into the paper, a conclusion that is not much more than a perfunctory wrap-up, bumpy transitions between paragraphs, lack of sentence variety, lack of sufficient textual evidence and/or supportive detail, and imprecise or redundant diction. Grammatical errors may distract the reader and the paper may appear not to have been revised or edited carefully. The C paper, then, while it gets the job done, lacks polish and intellectual rigor.

A D response neglects several important expectations for the assignment. Its treatment and development of the subject are rudimentary. This response may reveal an inadequate reading of textual material. Because of a lack of careful revision and/or editing, sentences are frequently awkward, ambiguous, and marred by serious mechanical errors. This paper may contain a faulty use of documentation, paraphrase, or direct quotation. There are major gaps in the author’s thinking process and/or ability to convey and support his/her ideas. While some attempt at organization is present, it is neither clear nor effective. This paper may have all the component parts of an essay; however, there are significant problems within those component parts. This paper, in fact, often gives the impression of having been conceived and written in haste with little or no revision.

An F response fails to meet the basic expectations for the assignment. For example, the response fails to meet the minimum length requirement, reveals an incomplete reading of source material, or seems not to have been revised or edited. Its treatment of the subject is superficial; it lacks discernible organization; its prose is garbled or stylistically limited. In short, the ideas, organization, and style fall below what is acceptable for the assignment.

Another Essay Prompt Headed to Retirement (Part 2)

[This post and the one preceding it contain high school essay prompts ready to be retired for awhile from my teaching. While they were a good fit for my seniors, they seem less appropriate for my ninth graders.] 

Pathos is an element in art or literature that evokes feelings of compassion in the viewer or reader.  Great writers make us feel for the characters they create. How do four of the writers we have read this year create pathos?  You may want to consider such elements as plot structure, timing, and characterization as well as themes such as suffering, violence, and isolation.  In the concluding section of your essay, choose which author is the most skilled in making audience members or readers feel for the characters he or she creates and defend your thinking with care.  I have included one more definition of pathos below:


From the Greek root for suffering or deep feeling, pathos is the quality in art and literature that stimulates pity, tenderness, or sorrow in the reader or viewer.  (from A Handbook for Literature, 5th Edition)

Another Essay Prompt Headed to Retirement

[This post and the one to follow contain high school essay prompts ready to be retired for awhile from my teaching. While they were a good fit for my seniors, they seem less appropriate for my ninth graders.  The first is a poetry prompt from a final exam.]  


Poetry Essay.  Respond to the following.  Take your time to plan, allowing approximately forty minutes for this essay.  Remember: what matters is not only what you say but also how well you say it.  (100 points or 25% of the exam grade).

Read the two poems on the next page.  Both William Blake (“To the Evening Star”) and John Keats (“Bright Star”) address their poems to stars.  Compare and contrast each author’s purpose in using the image of a star.  How does the imagery used in each poem help achieve that purpose?  In what ways are their intentions the same, and in what ways are they different?  Make use of the language of poetic analysis in your response—i.e., imagery, tone, figurative language, symbolism, etc.  Be observant, specific and articulate.

Bright Star!

BRIGHT star! would I were steadfast as thou art—

Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,

And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task

Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask

Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—

No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,

Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

John Keats

To the Evening Star

THOU fair-hair’d angel of the evening,

Now, while the sun rests on the mountains, light

Thy bright torch of love; thy radient crown

Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!

Smile on our loves; and, while thou drawest the

Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew

On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes,

In timely sleep.  Let thy west wind sleep on

The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,

And wash the dusk with silver.  Soon, full soon,

Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide,

And the lion glares thro’ the dun forest:

The fleeces of our flocks are cover’d with

Thy sacred dew: protect them with thine influence. *

William Blake

*In astrology, the effect that heavenly bodies exert on earthly things and creatures