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.
My mom hates when people don’t RSVP. My sister cannot stand when someone else’s feet touch her. A friend of mine literally gets hives when she sees people dressed up and she doesn’t know where they’re going. We all have pet peeves. For some, it’s loud eating or long fingernails; for others, it’s a biker that won’t get out of the middle of the freaking road. Whatever it is, the peeve really gets us going. We all have pet peeves. Want to know mine? No? I’m going to tell you anyway. Let me paint you a little picture…
I’m at the mall. I see J. Crew at the top of the escalator (why, at every shopping center, is J.Crew always right at the top of the escalator like a beautiful shining beacon of overpriced clothing?) Of course, I hop on the escalator with every intention of spending money I don’t have on another shimmery skinny belt and blinding neon cardigan. I’m behind a fellow shopper on the escalator, let’s call him Bill. I politely give Bill two stairs of room so that my face isn’t in his butt, because I understand the shopper’s code of conduct that demands ample escalator butt space. We approach the end of the escalator. Bill steps off. Bill stands there, contemplating. Should he go left to Ann Taylor, or right to Forever 21? (It doesn’t matter, Bill, neither of those stores sell clothes for you.) Does Bill understand that I have to get off this escalator, I wonder? It’s moving, Bill, I have no choice! You pretty much have a four second window before this contraption propels me off of it and I mow you down. Move, Bill, pick a direction! Ann Taylor or Forever 21, Bill, they’re very different stores! Make a decision, Bill, GET OUT OF MY WAY!
I’m getting myself worked up, and here’s why: there is a very easy solution to all of man’s escalator problems. If Bill had thought about his final destination before hopping on the escalator in the first place, we could all avoid some awkward back hugs and “well, excuse me, uh-oh, MOVE”s. Why did Bill go to the second floor if he didn’t know whether to buy a sensible work skirt at Ann Taylor or a far-too-short mini one from Forever 21? Know where you’re going before you get on the escalator, that’s my only request.
Here’s the part where I tie it all back to college Admissions. We are (as much as I want summer to last forever) creeping up on the time when our shelves fill with applications, and it becomes our job to read them, one at a time. Soon I will have many, many files on my desk, one for each student I get to “meet” throughout the winter. Last year’s reading season taught me that, as it turns out, my little pet peeve translates to application essays as well as escalators. Essays are my favorite part of your application, without a doubt. It’s the time when you and I get to spend some time together, and I can learn all about your interests, your personality, your family, your school. And so you can imagine my disappointment when I leave an essay not knowing who you are! Essays without a clear purpose or direction from the beginning tend to leave me feeling like I don’t know you. When your first sentence is “My dog once ate my Giga Pet,” I’m on board. I’m on the escalator behind you, and I’m hoping you know where you’re going. What do you want me to know about you, ultimately? Maybe you are a person of extremes, or you aren’t afraid to challenge your own beliefs when a really good counter-argument comes along, or you will always feel more comfortable with a book in your hand than a hockey stick. Whatever it is, you need to have it in mind before you start. Otherwise, I’m stuck behind you as you stand at the top of the escalator, wondering why you got on in the first place. Ann Taylor or Forever 21, applicant, which will it be?
This isn’t to say that unimportant, whimsical, hilarious details don’t have their place in college applications. They are often my favorite parts! Show me your personality, your wit, and your writing style. Tell me that your dog once ate your Giga Pet. I love some good entertainment on the escalator (have I taken this metaphor too far?) But these little fun facts should work together to give me a clear picture of something… anything. Otherwise, I leave knowing more about your dog and your poor, poor Giga Pet.
Hopefully this roundabout blog post has taught you to enter your essays with an end point in mind. Lists are fine, funny stories are great, but in the end, I don’t know you yet, and I would like to. Tell me something important about you, something exciting or hilarious or defining. And know it before you start, because it makes the whole thing more cohesive, I promise. But most importantly, this post should have taught you to move out of the way at the end of an escalator, because I’m heading to J. Crew and I cannot be stopped.