English Lessons I Remember

3rd grade

Blackboard sentences. Teacher wrote 1-2 sentences in chalk. We numbered the grammar errors. There were usually 8-10: punctuation, capitalization, misspellings. Wrong there, their, they’re.

The sentences always looked fine at first. You’d be surprised how much was wrong if you looked closely. Good life lesson.

7th Grade

Diagram sentences. Underline the verb, circle the object, cross out the prepositional phrase, star the adverbs.

This was its own year-long class for the one year I was in private school. It was the most frustrating, useful exercise in my grammar education. I never did it again.

Do public school kids diagram sentences?

10th Grade

Senses essays. Apparently there are more than five senses. After sight, smell, sound, touch, taste, there follows a sense of humor, sense of style, sense of belonging… somebody collected a list of 30+ senses.

Each week, we wrote a page emphasizing one of the senses. The catch was our pages couldn’t contain any passive verbs. So each week we’d bring in our essays, exchange papers, then mercilessly redline every is, was, would be.

I didn’t do well on these essays. I wrote a few good ones. There were a lot of mediocre/bad ones I didn’t complete or turn in. After several weeks, these incompletions got so bad I was bounced from the honors English class to the non-honors English class. There were no more senses papers. I finished the term with an independent study about All Quiet on the Western Front and WWI poetry.

Also 10th Grade (Creative Writing)

55 fiction. Our local independent paper runs an annual 55-fiction contest: tell a complete story in 55 words. Our class participated. It was a good constraint, practicing the art of not being too verbose and getting to the point using precise words to describe what you are trying to say instead of the usual fluff and padding that schoolkids use to fill out their essays and meet some arbitrary word count without saying much at all.

11th Grade

1,2,3,4 essays. AP English was all about prepping for the AP English test.

For each reading assignment, we wrote a 1,2,3,4 response essay. The numbers aligned with the rubric for grading AP English test essays.

  1. What is it? Write an idea from the text.
  2. What’s the support? Support the idea with quotes from the text.
  3. Why is it important?
  4. What are the further implications?

I didn’t do great on the AP test. Learning to think about my reading was a good consolation.

College (ECON 496)

Memos. I think this class was called “Nonprofit Economics”. It was really a writing class.

We learned good thinking is clear, good writing concise. Every week, we wrote a 1-page memo on a topic like, “Is education ALWAYS good? If not, why not?”. Every week, our memos returned butchered with red ink.

To start the term, we had to write a page introducing ourselves. Mine started, “My name is Josh Knox…”

It came back with the line crossed out and a note: “Boring. Get to the point.”

An example email sent to the whole class after an assignment:


None of you answered the question posed in the assignment. Your papers
are “all over the lot” — and there is virtually no value added. What


Doc was demanding, but he knew his subject. Beyond his scholarly articles, he’s written almost 30 books.

He was also loving. It was my favorite class and made me a better writer.

I’ll end it here. I can already hear Doc telling me this post is too long, pulling out his pen to edit my punctuation.

1 thought on “English Lessons I Remember

  1. Josh –

    I had three boot camp-like experiences that shaped whatever writing skills I claim today. First, in college, as you have reminded me very recently, I wrote nearly every day for a year for the college newspaper, where the editing process was fierce and the editors – students only a year or two older than I was – did nothing to spare my feelings when they thought I had been anything other than concise and accurate. Second, in law school, I wrote a Comment for the law review: 9000 words on a narrow arcane legal issue. At the direction of my (student) editor, I wrote and rewrote and rerewrote my turgid drafts until we finally broke into the sunny uplands of comprehensibility. Finally, when I had been a lawyer for about ten years, I fell into a case where I was allied with three or four other lawyers, all smarter and more experienced than I was. The case was venued here in Sacramento although they were spread out across the country. It fell by default to me, as the guy on the scene, to take their various contributions to our joint brief and shape them into a single product. I stilly rely on skills I learned in that assignment.

    Good writing is part of the Knox DNA, inherited from your grandfather. If you care to see evidence on that point, pull down from the shelf the little Vietnam book that the family published a few years ago and read the short essay at the back: “About Publishing This Book.

    Good topic.




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