English Teachers Who Have Had Students Write Essays About 'Anything' Reveal How It Failed Miserably
Believe it or not, there is a such thing as too much freedom.
If you've ever been a student in an English, Literature, or creative writing class then you've probably been asked to do some kind of free writing. Thinking back on it, most of you will have some kind of cringeworthy, angst-filled, poetry in your pasts.
It's bad enough thinking back on your own writings, but imagine what teachers and tutors must deal with. They've got to read these assignments from every student, in every class, every year. They must have so much cringe to share!
Reddit user DarkLazer215 asked:
Yup. We called it. It's like cringe-central in here. Pull up a seat, folks. We've got death, furries, foot fetishes, an interview with God and at least one butt rash so bad it ended a marriage.
I was teaching an test prep class to high school aged students in China. One of my students is planning on being a nutritionist. I gave her a topic about what she would change if she could be the president for a day. She could have written anything - but what she wrote was honestly terrifying.
She said that she would imprison everyone who was over a certain BMI until they were thin, and if they were repeat offenders they should spend life in prison for wasting public resources and making healthcare more expensive for everyone else.
Well... It wasn't the topic itself, but a student literally cited TheOnion as one of his main sources. No, they didn't do it as a joke, it was 100% unironic. They literally used TheOnion to support their thesis claim and failed the assignment because it destroyed the entire paper's credibility and argument.
That was enough to make me lose hope.
Hitting Too Close To Home
I teach literature at a college and mostly deal with freshmen and sophomores. For our freewriting unit, one of the assignments asked the students to write any original story based on your favorite fictional genre. So, one of my students wanted to do horror. I said great! That's also a favorite of mine. Go nuts.
Eventually, the assignments are turned in and I'm grading them at home. I get to the kid with the horror story and it's about a serial killer who stalks women. Okay, whatever. Nothing I haven't seen before.
But then the story goes into long, excruciating detail about the next victim: a petite blonde in her early 30s who teaches English. And it just so happens I'm a petite blonde in her early 30s who teaches English.
I didn't report it or anything since it was a creative exercise. I didn't grade him unfairly, either. But I seriously couldn't look that kid in the eye ever again.
My HS English teacher had to state, due to a submission the year before, that writing about your foot fetish and pleasuring your SO with your feet would not be read or graded.
English tutor here. I had a student in high school who was really struggling with the writing prompts I was giving him (he was studying hybrid genres in school, and how to write a hybrid genre short story). So I basically gave him a long list of genres, told him to pick any two he wanted and combine them to write a story.
He didn't get it.
He emailed me asking for clarification, like "which topic do I choose here?" and I told him he could be as creative as he liked. Pick horror and sci/fi, pick mystery and crime, pick romance and mystery, whatever strikes your fancy. I literally could not have given him an easier prompt.
Then he asks me to give him some examples of hybrid genre stories, so he has an idea of what to write. So I emailed him a list of famous hybrid genre books (e.g. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, Gun With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem, Harry Potter, etc).
This kid basically latched onto "Harry Potter" and rewrote the sorting ceremony from Philosopher's Stone, word for word.
There was no orientation (no info about his main characters, who were coincidentally also called Harry, Ron and Hermione), no complication, no climax, no resolution. It was literally just an incomplete retelling of the sorting hat ceremony from the first book.
Not only did this kid fail to think of a single creative story idea, he plagiarised one of the most famous books of all time and was daft enough to think I wouldn't notice.
It really made me despair.
Counselors Were Needed
Two stand out.
First one the prompt was "If you could go back and change one thing from your life, what would it be?"
A young man wrote about the night his abusive alcoholic dad came home. Apparently from the story, dad came home this way often. The fateful night he wanted to change was the first time he stood up to his dad. Dad came home, kid defended his mom and dad left in a drunken rage. Dad got into a head on collision and died. Kid totally blamed himself for his father's death.
2nd story the prompt was "Create a holiday and include the traditions and customs of the holiday."
A student created national black people day. I was like OK, how are you going to celebrate it? She said by killing white people. I questioned her, kind of shocked. She said yeah, once a year we can kill as many white people as we want.
I got the counselor involved in both of them.
An Unexpected Rash
This guy wrote me a paper about how his swampy butt ruined his marriage; describing it initially as an "unexpected rash." He wrote at length about how this "rash" caused his wife to stop having sex with him and refuse him any intimacy. After some time, he and his wife got a divorce, and he promptly blames the rash for it.
It isn't much later in the paper (at this point a good six pages long) that he details his struggles with proper hygiene due to cheap toilet paper causing this rash.
So, because this guy couldn't wipe properly, he lost his wife, his kids, and his sanity... to the point where he decided to come tell me about it.
Personal Interview With God
Former English adjunct here. One time a student wrote about a first date that went horribly wrong, including running over a cat and having it stuck to his truck tires, and then vomiting at dinner.
Another one that stands out wasn't a topic, but an assigned research paper. A student maintained that she didn't need sources, because God told her the information. She actually cited God as a personal interview in (correct) MLA format.
Interest In Blueberry Muffin
I was teaching a University 101 class. Study habits, how to write essays, time management. How to get by at college for kids who honestly aren't really ready for college. The assignment:
"1 paragraph about something that interests you."
One of those "essays" read:
"I am interest in blueberry muffin. Like how they round on the top and ripped on the sides. That what I like."
I kept that on my fridge for a year.
Not a teacher, but in 3rd grade I moved to a new school. I was in a Montessori before, the new school was a catholic school. I was a Unitarian Universalist, and we always called our preacher Reverend, not Father.
In my new school, the school priest, Father Jim, was retiring and we had to write a short essay about how much we'll miss him. This was like, I dunno, the third day of school? I had no clue what the hell a Father Gym was, and since nobody bothered to write out his full name I assumed this school just had a weird name for the gym. So of course, I wrote an essay about how much I'll miss the gym, and how terrible it's gonna be that I can't run all over it or play football in it anymore, and how terrible it is that the gym is "re-tire-ing." I ended the essay wishing the gym well with it's new tires.
The teacher was not amused.
A Poorly Made Koala Head
Not a teacher, but in middle school I was forced into this leadership class. The last project we did in that class was a 5-6 minute presentation on any subject of our choice. There was this scrawny and weird kid in the class that was always on his phone and he never talked to anyone.
Well, presentation day comes around and this kid rolls into class with a poorly-made koala head and we all assumed that he was going to inform us about koalas or something.
This kid, full of energy, storms up in the middle of the room and gives an extremely detailed presentation about his fursona. I remember his presentation time being far longer than 5-6 minutes and no one stopped him. He even went over common vocab used in the furry community and shared a couple of paragraphs from his poorly written fan fiction involving his fursona and another character.
I felt incredibly bad for this kid because he was extremely creative, but instead he spent all of his time and creative efforts on something that doesn't really matter all that much.
I used tutor Middle Schoolers and lower class men who just graduated high school. A kid wrote an essay about Cavemen using Hieroglyphics to communicate how they'd fight the dinosaurs. The assignment was to write about an early human civilization and compare and contrast their way of life to ours.
This kid was in AP World History (effectively a college level class), and didn't understand that there was around 63 million years separating Dinosaurs and the first Homo-Sapien civilizations. He then told me that I was incorrect and posed the question "If dinosaurs were dead then how did people ride them?"
I was truly baffled by that.
Not a teacher, but my classmate once wrote a solution essay titled ''Why do black people steal bikes - and how to stop it'' One of the solutions included spray painting black people white. I wish I was making this up.
No Future For Us
I am a student teacher in South Africa.
We are having a practice debate in English class and the matter of discussion is basically: FURTHER EDUCATION IS IMPORTANT / NOT IMPORTANT. The student are 12 years old. Upon introducing the topic the students seemed immediately irritated. When I asked them why, the one kid (who always speaks without raising his freaking hands, no matter how many times you tell him) said, without any emotion whatsoever:
"What does it matter what we do, there is no future for us anyway."
My heart dropped. I honestly love children very much and as a student in South Africa I know how difficult it can be. The locals literally throw rocks at students, burn buildings, vandalize buildings to the point that there are nothing left, burn cars and tires and disrupt classes by literally swearing at you, telling you, you should all be dead, jumping on the tables, even grabbing examination papers from students and tearing them up and disrupting sporting events by storming on the fields mid-game.
The country is in a rough place, but not yet in ruins and this is the future generation intended to save it. I have never felt more helpless in my life than that day- seeing a class full of faces that should be dreaming about becoming doctors and nurses and scientists and engineers, are utterly, utterly hopeless.
Needless to say, we never got to the debate. Spent the rest of our time trying to convince these students that they can change their circumstances.
Those of us who live in New York live this truth on a daily basis.
Sometimes, you just meet a person who isn't quite all there. It's hard to tell at first, but then you talk with them for a little while and it just becomes abundantly clear if they're two eggs short of an omelette.
The stories of how you find out are so interesting. But yet, they teach us to look for clues when we interact with others.