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.
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