Overview | How can students express their complaints in articulate and constructive ways? In this lesson, students read The New York Times “Complaint Box” series and use descriptive and persuasive writing strategies to communicate their own pet peeves succinctly and productively.
Materials | Computers with Internet access (if available)
Warm-up | As students assemble, visibly and obviously act out one or more of your biggest pet peeves, like squeaking the chalk or your nails on the board; talking with a mouth full of food or chewing gum; brushing your hair, applying cosmetics or clipping your nails; or talking on your cellphone or texting.
When students express confusion, horror or surprise, write the term “pet peeve” on the board and have them identify which pet peeves you were just acting out. Ask: Why do you (students) think these behaviors bother me (the teacher)? What would the school atmosphere be like if students and teachers often did these things?
Next, ask them to brainstorm a list of eight to 10 behaviors that they find most irksome. What are their personal “pet peeves”? What makes them jump out of their skin? Whip around the room and as students share, compile a master list of the things that make your students boil. Wrap up the warm-up by having students choose one item from the list and freewrite for five minutes about why this behavior annoys them.
Related | In “Complaint Box: Public Grooming,” Lion Calandra gripes about the very public ways in which commuters on public transportation attend to their personal hygiene:
These days, if someone seated near me on my morning ride is putting on makeup, someone else is clipping his fingernails (and, on one odd occasion this summer, a toenail). Or they’re plucking eyebrows, tying ties, squeezing pimples, even spraying perfume. There are those who just have to bathe themselves in lotion. Others are brushing their hair. It’s the full monty, commuter style.
Questions | For discussion and reading comprehension:
- What do you think about “public grooming”? Is it one of your own “pet peeves,” or do you think it is acceptable? Why?
- What do you think the author’s tone of voice was when he said “Maybe tomorrow you can shave your legs on the train” to the woman who had just finished flossing her teeth? How can you tell?
- What connection does the author make between public grooming and modern media, like YouTube and reality television? Do you agree or disagree?
- Have you ever groomed yourself in public? If so, would you think twice about doing so after reading this essay?
Activity | Explain to students that they will now prepare to write their own 500-word persuasive and descriptive essays about one of their pet peeves, inspired by the “Complaint Box” series.
Begin by having a discussion on what “worked” in Lion Calandra’s essay and what makes essays like this one interesting to read in general. You might prompt students to consider vivid description, colorful language, strong imagery, specific examples and details, dialogue, etc. They should also consider structure. Ask: How does the writer “hook” the reader from the beginning? How does the middle of the essay proceed? How does the author end the piece?
Ask students to return to the pet peeve they did the freewrite about from the warm-up (or to choose a different one) and do some more writing about it, using the following prompts:
- Write a few descriptive sentences about why this particular thing really irks you.
- Think of one to three examples of times when you observed someone engaging in this behavior. When did it happen? Where did it take place? What exactly did the person do? Describe the scene as vividly as you can.
- Have you ever addressed the person doing this thing directly? If so, what did you say, and what happened? If not, why not?
- What are some reasons why people engage in this behavior? Are they aware that it is bothersome to others?
- What factors might foster this behavior? How might people be dissuaded from engaging in this behavior?
When students are finished drafting, ask for volunteers who are willing to share their writing.
Alternatively or in addition, encourage students to share their pet peeves publicly in response to the Learning Network Student Opinion post “What Are Your Pet Peeves?”. Remind students that blogs are public and their comments – if approved – will be posted in perpetuity. They should take care in writing their responses and must identify themselves by first name only. They should also pay attention to The Learning Network’s commenting guidelines and rules and follow general Web posting etiquette.)
Next, split the class into pairs or small groups, and assign each one to read another “Complaint Box” post. Suggestions: “Immobile on the Phone” (about people who stand still, blocking the sidewalk, while on their cell phones), “iPod Volume” (about having to listen to others’ music because the volume on their iPod is turned up too loudly), “I See London” (about men wearing their pants so that their underwear is visible), “Counter Culture” (about rude or inattentive sales clerks) or “No More Cheeks to Turn” (about kids picking on a girl at camp). Or, have groups choose a post from the entire series.
In their groups, students should fill out the sheet Opening Up the Complaint Box (PDF) as they read their chosen post.
When they are finished, have each pair or group should share their findings with the group, discussing the parts of the essay that they feel were successful and sharing their favorite parts. Afterward, ask the class: What can we learn from what works (and what doesn’t) in these essays? Make a list of writing strategies and techniques on the board.
Students should then write a full rough draft of a “Complaint Box”-style essay about their own peeve. Once they are finished, they should hold peer or student and teacher conferences and then revise the draft for a final version.
Going further | When all essays are complete, hold an “author’s chair” or “sharing day,” in which students have the opportunity to share their work. You might also consider compiling the essays into a literary magazine of complaints or submitting them to the school newspaper. Alternatively, create an online blog or wiki space to which students can contribute more complaint essays on an ongoing basis.
Standards | From McREL, for grades 6-12:
1-Uses the general skill and strategies of the writing process
2-Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing
3-Uses grammatical and mechanical conventions in written composition
Arts and Communication
4- Understands ways in which the human experience is transmitted and reflected in the arts and communication
Teaching ideas based on New York Times content.
One of the great ironies of applying to college is that colleges expect applicants to put tremendous thought into their application essays while sometimes they seemingly put very little thought into their own prompts.
I feel little solicitude for the Common Application prompts, contrivances that they are. I do, however, respect institutions’ right to define their curiosity and probe students accordingly. Here are some, though, that deserve a second thought.
“Why Essays,” which ask students to explain why a college appeals to them, often to gauge applicants’ interest and see who’s done their homework. These essays are devilishly hard to write. So are the prompts, apparently.
Emory: Please describe your ideal college campus/academic environment and what you hope to gain from it.
Don’t mind if I do. My ideal campus has a water park, all-you-can eat pizza, a fission reactor, and a national champion cheerleading team.
Oh. You mean I’m supposed to write about Emory?
Kellogg (Northwestern) MBA:Pursuing an MBA is a catalyst for personal and professional growth. How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow at Kellogg? (450 words) Kellogg (think bravely).
Children are dying on the streets of Aleppo and Northwestern wants applicants to be “brave” in an essay about business school?
Santa Clara Univ.:Briefly describe how you learned about Santa Clara University.
I Yelped it. Someplace called Stanford came up too, but I didn’t want to drive that far.
Many: Why college X?
Near every Why Essay prompt – some of which are phrased as simply as “Why ____ College?” – is a red herring. Colleges, especially selective ones, rarely care why you like them. Will Harvard admit you because you think it’s neat that their science building looks like a Polaroid camera? Will Duke admit you because you want to be the loudest of the Cameron Crazies? Hardly.
They’re going to admit you only if you impress them. The question, then, is not “Why are you applying here?” It is, “Why should we admit you?” Being able to figure out that distinction, contrary to explicit questions, is one of the marks of a truly strong applicant. Why colleges can’t ask the question honestly is beyond me.
Choose Your Own Adventure
I like when colleges allow students to choose among prompts. Choice enables the colleges to have some fun knowing that they’re not forcing students to answer impossible or irrelevant questions. Some schools — most famously the University of Chicago — come up with inventive, provocative prompts. And then they undermine them with prompts that invite students to write about whatever they want. It’s an equivocation and a cop-out.
Princeton: Using a favorite quotation... tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world.
This prompt commits two sins at once. First, insofar as there’s a quote for literally everything, it enables applicants to write about literally anything. Second, it promotes a lousy essay-writing tactic. A disembodied quotation is a parlor trick, not an inspiration. If a writer has something to say, he should say it. If a writer wants to discuss an idea, whether a quotation or otherwise, she should do so in context. This prompt would be just fine if it started at “tell us about…”
P.S. Bonus points if you use Margaret Mead or Gandhi. Did I say “bonus points”? I meant instant rejection.
Univ. of Chicago: In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose your own question or choose one of our past prompts. Be original, creative, thought provoking… take a little risk, and have fun.
Chicago took a big risk with this one. Most applicants are just going to paste in essays they’ve written for other schools – as well they should when they get an invitation like this.
University of California: What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?
Unless a student knows exactly how she is unique among the 200,000 students who apply to UC each year, this is one instance when “write whatever you darn well please” would have sufficed.
Not Getting Any Younger
Seemingly unable to ask a simple question, some schools come up with convoluted and often banal prefaces that do exactly what an essay itself should not: ramble on, provide irrelevant information, and convey trite truths that annoy and bias the writer.
Boston College:Experience teaches us the importance of being reflective when making major decisions. Share an example from a recent event when a leader or an average person faced a difficult choice…
Experience teaches us that presumptuous clichés are grating and distracting.
Dartmouth: ‘’Three things in human life are important,’’ said the novelist Henry James. ‘’The first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.’’ Share a moment when kindness guided your actions.
Henry James is great and all, but if applicants need him to wrap their minds around kindness, I question the morality of Dartmouth’s applicant pool.
Wake Forest: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton has become a cultural phenomenon. It weaves together history with rap and hip- hop through the often overlooked story of Alexander Hamilton. Choose an unsung historical figure who deserves the “Hamilton” treatment.
I’m glad that Wake Forest is woke, but do we really need a prompt half as long as the response? And what is this “Hamilton treatment”? Are they calling for a spate of hip- hop musicals? Once I finish writing this blog I’m going to get started on “Burr: It’s Cold in Here.”
Tufts: It’s cool to be smart. Tell us about the subjects or ideas that excite your intellectual curiosity.
Whatever you say, Fonzie….
Predicting the Future
A new trend is to ask students not what activity they have enjoyed the most but rather what activity they will enjoy the most. These prompts force them to speculate on the future while forgoing the chance to discuss actual, meaningful accomplishments.
Columbia: What aspect of the Columbia community, outside of the classroom, would you most want to impact and why?
Colleges should never invite students to perpetuate clichés, “impact” being one of the most hackneyed. This prompt is especially awful because it invites wild speculation. No applicant can possibly know Columbia well enough to know how he or she could make an “impact.” What is some freshman is already founding a macramé club? What if the hip-hop troupe already has big plans for a Vanilla Ice quarter-centennial?
Michigan: If you could only do one of the activities you have listed...which one would you keep doing? Why?
This one is strange for two reasons: 1) the nonsensical hypothetical of being limited to one activity; 2) it’s not clear whether “keep doing” refers to the remainder of the high school year or to the student’s prospective college career. According the prompt, it could easily be the former. In that case, a student can just write, “I’ll keep being editor of the newspaper because… I’m already editor of the newspaper.”
Some miscellaneous offenders, including the prompt that inspired this blog: Barnard College’s “major in unafraid” prompt.
Chapman: Name a “hashtag” to describe you.
Tufts:There is a Quaker saying: ‘Let your life speak.’ Describe the environment in which you were raised...and how it influenced the person you are today.
Tufts has referred to this Quaker profundity for as long as I can remember. I have no idea what it means.
Yale: What is a community to which you belong? Reflect on the footprint that you have left. (You may define community and footprint in any way you like.)
Translation: Write about something you do in some context or another.
Barnard College: Alumna and writer Anna Quindlen says that she “majored in unafraid” at Barnard. Tell us about a time when you majored in unafraid.
Quinlan mistakes lack of fear for bravery, and she mistakes boasting for candor. If Barnard wants to identify students who spout self-aggrandizement masquerading as empowerment, this prompt will suffice. And what’s with this fetish for bravery? If I want to get to know someone, I’d rather learn about a time when an applicant was afraid.
Now that I’m done complaining, it’s only fair that I explain why the complaints are worthwhile.
First, nobody is perfect – not even “prestigious” colleges (neither are college counselors). Applicants don’t need to be perfect either. Second, nothing ruins an essay as much as blind obedience to a prompt does. Students should always take expansive, creative views of their prompts. They should think critically. If that means that they acknowledge a prompt’s stupidity, so be it. Finally, I believe in catharsis. Applicants who are frustrated by a certain prompt should have license to complain about it – in private – if only so they can set the complaints aside and return to the business of thinking, writing, and conquering their fears (of the application process).