On a road trip this summer, an old favorite track, Ice Cube’s “My Summer Vacation,” popped up on my shuffle. I immediately started ruminating about its amazing, subversive cultural commentary. The entire track plays out as a straightforward story of drug dealing and violence, until the final verse ends with the sudden revelation, “No parole or probation / Now this is a young man’s summer vacation / No chance for rehabilitation.” Every time I hear this final verse I react to it–I draw connections to research I’ve read, and I think of statistics about America’s youth. But mostly I react emotionally in exactly the way the song cleverly wants me to.
My years of writing and reading have trained me to react to everything–even decades-old pop songs–reflectively and thoughtfully. Even if I don’t actually grab a writing pad while driving, I have enough experience to know that my thoughts about something like this song would constitute authentic writing with powerful voice, and would probably include quite a few text-to-life and text-to-text comparisons.
Wouldn’t it be great if, this year, your kids were engaging in all of those targets during the first five minutes of every class?
Scorching Hot Takes!
I’ve tried stretching my imagination, believing that the kids are producing meaningful notebook entries–questioning Gatsby’s greatness or their favorite independent-reading books. But the truth is, this is uninspired writing.
And I’m the one who has failed to provide the inspiration.
This year, my notebook topics will be ripped from the pop-culture world of high schoolers and the headlines of the day. And the kids are going to produce a rather new form of writing, perhaps not completely unique to the internet age, but certainly popularized by it.
My kids will be writing…daily hot takes.
If you’re not familiar with the term, I’ll let The Week’s Paul Waldman define it for you, from an excellent piece defending it in the pantheon of opinion writing:
Briefly, the “hot take” is a piece of opinion writing, produced quickly, about some breaking event or controversy. It seldom involves reporting heretofore unknown facts, but instead is meant to provide a unique perspective that will supposedly deepen your understanding of that event.
This sounds a lot like how teenagers prefer to write and think–maximum weight on emotion and personal perspective, little effort expended on reasoning or (God forbid) research.
Not the usual criteria we’d put on a rubric, eh? But think about how well it lends itself to what a good notebook entry could do for a student. It would engage them, draw out their natural voices as writers, encourage them to draw on their own experiences, remind them that their social-media voice is valid in other forms of writing, and provide them a safe zone for writing.
Those last two elements are what I’m hoping will result in better writing. My students are on the internet all the time, but rarely do we, teachers, call attention to the number of colorful, energetic voices that flood that realm. If we celebrate the truly colorful voices in students’ most natural writing, then maybe we can get them to develop more subtle tones as well.
“Safe zones,” too, are going to factor largely here. It’s not news that the material we ask of students sometimes intimidates them, and that many kids don’t extend themselves as writers because of this. How often have your weaker writers produced entire essays that are clearly their perception of what you (the teacher) want to hear? How often have they produced the generic when you were looking, nay, begging for the original and nuanced?
They Might Like it Hot
I’m prepared to be proven wrong. But I think shifting the focus of their low-stakes writing might result in much higher-quality results. A student who felt lost the whole time you read A Doll’s House, for instance, might bring the noise if you ask her to assess the gender stereotyping of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette.
You can make up your own, but you get the idea: Give your students some lively, real-life topics to chew on, and make it clear that the hotter the take, the better. In fact, I’m going to create a “Hot Take of the Week” corner in my classroom, a place to share the best–and hottest–student takes about that week’s topics.
The eventual question is what to do next. Great, they produced a ten-minute free write that captures their rage about The Grammy Awards. Now what? Here’s one possible answer: Perhaps a really good “hot take” is only a few steps away from being a damned good piece of writing, provided students get writing guidance, and pursue a sprinkle of research and/or revision.
That’s getting ahead of the game a bit, but what kind of teacher would I be if I didn’t start off the new year on an ambitious note?
Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School. This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.