Truth and Beauty: Finding Delight in the Written Word
Let me tell you about a crush I had in college…
He carried a messenger bag around campus and scribbled in a notebook so tattered I started to wonder if his ideas alone were somehow keeping the whole thing together. He wrote recurring, liberal-leaning op-eds for the university’s newspaper and in class discussions regularly mentioned authors that I – a self-described, but admittedly sheltered, “book nerd” – had never heard of. If you already guessed that he smoked pot and adored Kerouac… well, of course, you’re right.
For our first date, we hung out in his dorm room and watched movies, including his favorite: Donnie Darko. I didn’t like the film at all; in fact, I found it creepy and confusing (no offense to all the fans out there of this cult classic). So, when my crush asked me, eyes big and expectant, “What did you think?” as the credits rolled, I replied, “I loved the scene with Drew Barrymore.”
Sure, my response was an attempt to avoid telling a cute boy that I hated his beloved indie flick. But I did mean what I said: the scene with Drew Barrymore is great. And while that crush has long since disappeared from my life, that scene continues to influence my teaching practice.
In Donnie Darko, Barrymore plays a high school teacher whose methods are a bit odd. In the scene that captivated me, she writes a few words on an old-fashioned chalkboard and turns to her students, saying: “A famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language, of all the endless combinations of words in all of history, ‘cellar door’ is the most beautiful.”
For days after that movie date, I whispered those words again and again: cellar door, cellar door, cellar door. I let them roll off my tongue, enjoying the way the vowels undulated and the “r” at the end of each word sighed. I filled countless pages in my own journal, trying to find a word pairing that flowed as smoothly. And though I never landed on a perfect combo, the process led me to write a number of poems that played with “willow” and “ceremony,” “ceasefire” and “murmur,” and all sorts of other euphonic words.
So, I may not have gotten Donnie Darko, but I got Barrymore’s lesson: there is value in noting words simply for their beauty.
This belief in the importance of appreciating writing for the pleasure it provides has since become a tenet of my pedagogy. Just as we want our students to be lifelong readers who, long after they’ve left our classes, continue to pick up books, so too should we want them to develop into lifelong writers. If our hope is that students approach reading with joy and curiosity, why not writing as well?
Often in my class, the relationship between reading and writing was based on analysis. When students were asked to write about what we read, it was to analyze the literary devices and author’s purpose. And if I did try to include more personal writing about our texts, it was usually to have students journal about their reactions to the characters and their choices or to have them draw connections between the plot and their own lives. But rarely did we write about the way the words in our texts moved us with their power or loveliness.
In the era of high-stakes testing, I always felt I couldn’t justify sitting in a classroom and talking with kids about writing we found beautiful in and of itself. But then I read Carol Dweck’s Mindset.
In her book, Dweck differentiates between a “fixed mindset” (believing that our abilities are set and cannot change) and a “growth mindset” (believing that we have the capacity to expand our abilities through dedication and hard work). After advising educators on how to nurture a growth mindset in their students by setting high expectations, praising effort, and a slew of other handy techniques, Dweck states, “The growth mindset is based on the belief in change…Nothing is better than seeing people find their way to things they value.”
When I first read that, I was reminded of the messy journal in which I had tried to find a pair of words that fit as perfectly as “cellar door.” Back then, I had seen something beautiful and been motivated to work to achieve it myself. Why not try that with my students?
There are countless classroom resources out there for trying to get students to replicate impressive writing. Mechanically Inclined by Jeff Anderson is a great book on using mentor texts to teach grammar. Activities such as “Write Likes” provide students with a model sentence that they then mimic. So admittedly, I’m not exactly cutting edge in wanting to incorporate examples of great writing as a guide for students.
But in trying to develop students’ growth mindsets about writing, I don’t want to lose sight of the empowerment that comes from pausing to acknowledge beautiful word play and use it as inspiration.
So, I designed a few projects that make space for students to collect good writing that moves them and use it to propel themselves further down their own writer’s journey. These projects are imperfect (I continue to adapt and adjust them in my own classes), but they can be embedded in any grade level or unit and, most importantly, they provide an excuse to let students capture those moments when they read something and sighed at its sheer brilliance and beauty.
Coming from the Latin flos (flower) and legere (gather), florilegium was once a practice of gathering information about herbs and plants in a single tome for medicinal use. Over time, the word evolved to refer to the act of collecting excerpts from other writing in a single place.
I love the slightly whimsical nature of this practice: collecting quotes like ancient peoples collected flowers. It makes me think of Robert Herrick’s poem To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time which opens with the line: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”
Practically speaking, this project has the broadest range in scope – you could try it out in a daily lesson as an opening activity in which students select a quote from their homework that resonated with them or expand it into a yearlong project where students collect an entire volume of writing excerpts from all the texts they read in your class.
Truth & Beauty
The Roman poet Horace is quoted as saying, “the aim of the poet is to inform or delight, or to combine together in what he says, both pleasure and applicability to life.” But Horace, why limit that sentiment to just poetry? Why not appreciate any text from any genre for the truth and beauty it offers us?
Similar to florilegium, a “Truth & Beauty” project could be scaled back to a single activity or lesson in which students explore their reading for the life lessons and winsome writing it provides (perhaps even using what they find as a jumping off point for their own writing), or it could be as far-reaching as an entire year spent collecting quotes that capture the enlightenment and loveliness that students discovered in their reading.
When I’ve done this in the past with students, we spent our final class period of the year sharing the examples of “Truth and Beauty” that we had found in our texts. Students had total freedom in how they presented their collection of quotes. We ended up with everyone from Microsoft Powerpoints to imaginative posters to bouquets of flowers made from book pages. When we let students savor good writing, it’s amazing how they reciprocate with sublime work of their own.
Examples of Truth and Beauty Projects:
This technique is admittedly from my days as a middle school teacher and perhaps lends itself best to younger grades. But, depending on how you adapt it (or how nostalgic your student body is feeling), it could find a place in high school as well.
Essentially, I crumbled brown construction paper and stapled into to a wall in my classroom, creating a weathered tree trunk and knobby branches. Then, I cut out a stack of green leaves. Throughout the year, students wrote quotes they found compelling onto the leaves and attached them to the tree. They could add a leaf at any time, and sometimes we all took a moment to contribute a quote.
We called it our “Giving Tree” because we returned to it again and again as a catalyst for our own writing and learning. Frequently we chose a leaf at random and reflected on the quote, its techniques and effectiveness. Other times we connected the quotes that had been added months before to our current reading, exploring connections and themes across literature.
I don’t know about you, but what motivates me as a reader is not the thought of what essay I’ll compose about it, but rather the promise of a story that will envelop me or a writing that will awe me. For me, the muse often waits to reveal herself after I’ve reveled in some other author’s work. Maybe that can be true for our students too. Maybe we can encourage their own growth as writers by letting them discover and delight in what’s possible to create on the page.
If you try any of these methods out, I’d love to hear your how it went and how you made it your own. Or if you’ve got other ideas for how to let students bask in beautiful writing, please share. And if you find another pairing more captivating than “cellar door,” I’m all ears.
Sarette Albin holds a BA from Iowa State and an MLS from Southern Methodist University. She’s worked in a variety of educational spheres, including: Title I schools, performing arts charters, and private institutions. Her entry into the world of education was Teach for America and ever since she’s been committed to educational equity for all students. Sarette is also a published poet. She is a nomadic writer who enjoys a good fork in the road or turn of the phrase; she’s currently searching for her muse, as well as a cure for fernweh.
Anderson, Jeff. Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style Intro Writer's Workshop. Stenhouse Publishers, 2005.
Dweck, Carole S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2006.