University Laboratory High School
Urbana, IL

Fall 2017

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Open Letters

Directed writing (15 minutes):

With James Baldwin's "A Letter to My Nephew" in mind as an example, conceive and begin drafting an open letter on an issue that is important to you. Think about to whom you should address your letter, and how you might frame or present your appeal or argument both to appeal to that individual audience and to the implied wider audience.

Baldwin's open letter to his nephew was originally published in The Progressive, but it later became part of one of his most well-known and influential long essays, The Fire Next Time. If you're interested in a discussion of the open letter as a form of public protest, see "The Intimate, Political Power of the Open Letter" by Emily Nordi, which explores how the form has been deployed for literary activism by writers of color.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Reflections on the Writing Process

In a pair or a group of three, share and discuss your writing process for Essay 1 (the notes you took after the peer-edit and on Friday after turning in the final draft). You can either read/summarize your two sets of notes (if they mainly take the form of writing), share the two visual representations (if you illustrated your process visually), or describe either in a more general sense.

After everyone has shared their summary of their writing process, go to the document linked here and contribute a concise statement of at least one thing you learned from mapping your own process, and (scrolling down) one thing you learned, realized, or were reminded of from hearing your partner(s) share theirs.

Friday, September 15, 2017

For Monday: James Baldwin, "A Letter to My Nephew"

For Monday, please read James Baldwin's "Letter to My Nephew" and answer the prompts in your writer's notebook.

If you prefer, you can print a pdf version.

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In class today: Write for 10 minutes

Choose one of the either/or categories on the board and begin a brief argument essay, either 1.) defending one of the categories against the other; or 2.) exploring some aspect of this divide and making a case for what a person's choice says about them. 


How do you feel about "cussing"? Decide on and articulate a position on "strong language" and its use in particular contexts, offering evidence to persuade your reader of your position. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

"On the Pleasure of Hating" and "An Apology for Idlers"

The essays we're looking at yesterday and today--Hazlitt's "On the Pleasure of Hating" and Stevenson's "An Apology for Idlers"--are both examples of a particular mode or subset of the opinion essay, in which the essay is present as a "defense" of or "apology" (or justification) for some abstract concept. Other examples include Sir Philip Sidney's "Defence of Poesy" and Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Defense of Poetry"; Bertrand Russell's "In Praise of Idleness"; Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation"; and longer philosophical essays like Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason or Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman."

For today's in-class writing (10 minutes):

Choose a claim from either Hazlitt's "On the Pleasure of Hating" or Stevenson's "An Apology for Idlers" and write three paragraphs agreeing and expanding on it (and/or updating it for the twenty-first century) OR disagreeing with and disproving it (and/or suggesting why it isn't relevant in the twenty-first century).

Monday, September 11, 2017

New Syllabus for Essay 2!

Today in class I distributed the new syllabus, which will take us almost through the remainder of the first quarter. The second essay will be formally assigned on Friday: you will be writing a personal essay that also presents and defends an argument, and our next set of readings will focus on personal essays that make an argument. For these next readings, you should use this new set of questions for your entries in your Writer's Notebook.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Today's Prompts, Inspired by Sheffield, and Some Lessons Learned about Writing

Write about the first song you ever became obsessed with, and talk a bit about your relationship with it then, and your relationship with it now.


Write about an experience where you went somewhere else for a limited but extended time (summer camp, a semester or year at another school or in another country, a brief stint living in another state or attending another school) and temporarily became another person (or became part of a new and different culture).

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I've compiled some of the comments you wrote for the first day of class, about your writing successes and failures and what you've learned from them. Some common themes emerge: we write better when we actually have something to say, that we care about, that interests us, and that feels worth sharing. Procrastination creates more problems than it solves, and it's not easy to BS your way through a discussion of a topic you know little about. Writing about a topic--maybe especially when it's a struggle and a challenge--entails learning a lot about that topic. And a number of you struggled to write about Paradise Lost in particular!


I thought I had a good idea, but in the end my ideas became scrambled and what I produced didn't make any sense at all.

I waited until the weekend before reading the book I was supposed to write a research paper about, due that Monday. Instead of reading the book I just skimmed it, and tried to piece together an essay from the few chapters I had read. It ended up being awful to write (and an awful paper in the end) because I had only a very rudimentary understanding of the book, and only a day and a half to write it.

Sometime during fourth grade, I was assigned my first big essay. Since I was so young, my mother, sister, and father took it upon themselves to help me write my essay. Rather than learning some of the fundamental aspects of writing, I allowed my family to, in essence, write my essay for me. . . . [B]y the time the next essay came around, I was in a pretty bad predicament.

The prompt asked me to "describe diversity" and essentially "show what it meant to me." I thought this would be easy since diversity is a big influence in my life and so I began writing. The reason it was one of my biggest failures was that by the end of the night I finished and read over what I had done, and I realized I had written a complete cliche. The essay was tasteless, anyone could have written it, and I realized every point I made was broad, vague, and totally separate from who I was. I restarted the next day from scratch and eventually ended up with a solid piece, but the draft was disappointing and really showed me what made a good essay good.

This summer, I was determined to write my Common Application essay and make it the best thing I've ever written. It didn't seem like it would be too hard; after all, it is an essay about ~myself~ and very open-ended in topic. But I couldn't think of a topic for a month. I looked up prompts, tried writing other things to cure writer's block, but nothing worked. After a month of thinking, I decided just to write it. It was probably the product of 3-4 nights of work, and I thought it was decent. I got it peer-reviewed, and I realized what I had written was awful. The reader thought it was cliche and rereading it, it seemed a little inauthentic and pretty cringeworthy in general.

I thought that I had developed a strong and interesting central claim. However, as I continued to write I struggled to expand upon my main ideas. I decided to continue writing about the topic I chose, but the final product felt incomplete. I would like to have thought more deeply about the points and how to explicate them more thoroughly.

My largest writing failure was probably when I had to find similarities between two readings that I had neglected. It was how "Goblin Market" and Paradise Lost were similar. It was my largest failure because of not only had I not understood the readings but how I was going to put ideas on paper. I also had problems finding good ways to transition between the two poems. I was using "which is like" or "which relates to" almost 50 times in the paper. Not to mention the fear of having to write a paper I wasn't prepared for made me procrastinate more than usual.

I feel like the essays that I wrote for African-American Literature fell through at the earliest stages, during the planning and outlining section. From there, I had trouble connecting my ideas and fleshing them out, which led for them to be disconnected, confusing essays.


I was pleased with how my research and note-taking transitioned to the essay. I kept having to restructure and rearrange sentences because a lot of the data had to be listed and explained. I learned a lot about Flint and water from writing this essay as well.

It was the process of thinking about what we were learning, forming arguments and transforming my ideas into a polished piece of writing that made the experience enjoyable.

I was in fourth grade when a poem I wrote was published in an anthology with works of other grade school students. Even though now I don't regard my poem as anything close to impressive, the moment I flipped through the anthology and found my poem, I felt really proud of what I had done.

While at the start of the essay, I didn't feel I knew much about what I was writing about, by the end (after a revision attempt) I felt I knew the book and my essay back to front.

The assignment was to use a popular-media source to explain/show a social issue at the time it was produced. I chose to write about "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" in relation to the gap between the black working and upper classes. I had a lot of fun researching, which I believe showed on the page.

Last year we wrote two essays on different novels and were given a prompt to tie these novels together somehow. I think this was one of my biggest successes in writing because I found an important connection between the two novels and I was able to explain in detail the differences. I think I did an especially good job in using quotes from the texts to strengthen my argument. Of course, I went through many drafts of this essay to try and better my writing.

My best piece of writing was something I wrote last year in Creative Writing. It was a story about my past but with a twist. It was in second person and I tried to convey it like a child.

My biggest success was creating an article on lower income students. The fact that this was a little-talked-about topic kept the sense of urgency important. I kept a steady pace of interviews, research, and writing for several weeks, which I was extremely proud of. Not only that, but I was discussing an incredibly significant and topical issue. Rather than arguing theoretically, I had real-world facts and first-hand accounts.

One of my biggest writing successes was actually a parody of The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkein for my sixth-grade English class. It was a bunch of really terrible puns and dumb cringey jokes, but I just remember it being super fun to write and it didn't feel like an assignment. I think it ended up being about 20 pages long, which was the longest thing I had and have ever written, and I'm pretty sure I got a really good grade on it. But it was also the first time I had ever really gone "above and beyond" for a school assignment and enjoyed it the whole time.

My biggest writing success was during sophomore year. My essay was about the folly of Eve in Paradise Lost. This was one of the first times that I was interested in the subject matter and found connecting all the evidence together to push my point across as a very stimulating challenge. I put a lot of time into the essay and even thought of a title that I thought was interesting and would provoke the casual reader. "Eve's Emotional Folly" was one of the few essays that I thought was kinda good before I turned it in; ironically enough I don't remember the grade I received.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Writing Day: Tuesday, September 29

Five minute quick-write:

How do you feel about your name?

If your personal essay is already under way with a topic or direction you feel excited about, write for the rest of the period, developing your ideas and beginning to or continuing to shape an essay.

If you are still having trouble deciding on a direction to take in your essay or a way to focus in on a topic, consider Phillip Lopate’s observation that one important path toward engaging your audience is to understand that your story can “serve to elucidate a more widespread human trait and make readers feel a little less lonely and freakish.”  Consider a moment, a period, or an experience in your life where you felt “lonely and freakish,” and consider how you might draw on that. What made you feel less that way? Or, if you’re still in the midst of feeling that way, what are your thoughts on why you feel this way and how you might overcome that? And/or, what can you take from that experience, whether it is in your past or in your present?

With that in mind, expand on the “How do you feel about your name?” prompt, revisit the “Have you ever or do you feel ‘split at the root’?” prompt, or begin to work on some particular path that the contemplation of “lonely and freakish” leads you down.