What Is Happening Now?

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As if I haven’t shown enough video clips lately, I have another one today. I can’t resist! It worked so well sharing it with my intermediate students on Wednesday that I had to show it to my husband after class, and he enjoyed it so much that I’m putting it here as well. And, on top of being entertaining, I think it shows a key aspect of good writing.

But first, the background.

See, this week was one of those in life where all your priorities shift the instant you touch your crying baby’s head and burn your hand on it. Especially when it’s to the tune of 102 degrees x 5 days and the baby will only sleep in your arms and he sleeps so fitfully that you can’t move at all or he’ll cry out. He’s fine now, but getting to the computer was not possible before Wednesday’s class. Rather than leisurely typing out every detail of my lesson plans, I knew I would have to find one good central idea that I could build off of for 75 minutes without a detailed plan.

God [or insert interpretation of your choice] didn’t let me down. I prayed to find an effective video clip, and two seconds after the prayer (not even exaggerating) I found it on the YouTube app on my phone. Usually I show clips that I’ve already seen somewhere, like from movies I’m familiar with, so I really do credit the prayer for giving me one so perfect even though I’d never seen it before.

The lesson topic was an introduction to reports, which they’ll soon be writing, and whenever I approach a lesson I’ve got a million objectives in my head, not the least of which is doing a better job than the previous semester by trying to help students avoid the pitfalls that the last class fell into. In the case of the report, it was that my summer class didn’t quite grasp that this isn’t an encyclopedia article detailing the entire history of your subject. I wanted this semester’s class to understand that reports are about what’s happening now.

So that’s what I led with: the simple question, “What’s happening now?”

Sometimes it’s kind of nice to throw them off with a question like that, one where they won’t see the point right away. It helps to grab their attention and keep it. We talked about Egypt’s dictator stepping down, about the A.I. beating Jennings at Jeopardy, about the last of the 4.3 billion IP addresses running out soon, about the latest studies and trends and so on.

With the IP addresses, those students who knew about it likened it to the Y2K scare, where yes everything had to be switched over but it really wasn’t going to be that big of a deal.

“Exactly,” I said, not because of Y2K but because the lesson was going exactly where it needed to: showing them how you find the balance between talking about what’s current while giving enough background information to help your audience understand it. The student who mentioned Y2K was helping give the rest of the class perspective on what’s happening now.

That’s when I pulled out this clip and had them watch for two things:

  1. How does the report maintain a balance between current information (what’s happening now) and background information (what happened before that helps us understand what’s happening now)?
  2. How does it balance between giving enough information to those who know nothing about the topic and keeping interested those who are very familiar?

See what you think. The bonus is that it’s funny just to watch, even if you aren’t teaching yourself about reports.



Afterwards, we talked about starting with what’s current and always coming back to it, weaving between the back story and the latest news. We discussed how most of the class wouldn’t have understood the point of the study without those clips helping them understand what The Colbert Report is like, and yet the clip still had to start with the news that there’s been a study about The Colbert Report, or else you wouldn’t have a context for why he’s telling you what Colbert is like. The two — present and past — have to be presented together, but always bringing the emphasis back to the present.

And now, as I’m writing this post to tell you about the event, I find myself recognizing how much it applies to other types of writing as well, from correspondence like memos and emails to entire books. When writing a novel, for example, you want to tell what’s happening to the character “now” while weaving the expository information in gradually, and only giving as much background as helps your reader understand the now.

So there you have it. While I’ve shown plenty of video clips on the blog lately, it’s been a while since I brought the topic back to writing — especially novel writing. Just typing the word “novel” makes me salivate; I should probably drum up some time for that now that we’ve survived the five-day fever. Any time I can hack at my manuscript with a new perspective, it helps improve it even more. This time around, maybe I’ll keep in mind “What’s happening now?” — as I hope my students will when they write their reports.

Any thoughts?

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