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A Times X-Team Special Report: Arrrrggghhh!

[Times art: Earl Towery]

What would I do with a million dollars? What I did on my summer vacation? How it would feel to be the last leaf on a tree? You've got to be kidding!

By Times X-Team
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 4, 2002

Raise your hand if a teacher ever asked you to write an essay on a topic you thought was lame.

See? We've all been there.

With so much emphasis placed on FCATs and other standardized testing in Florida's public and private schools these days, the writing prompt is part of student life. A big, exasperating part.

What I did on my summer vacation. This one won't die. Your mother and grandfather were saddled with this assignment, too.

Imagine you've found a treasure chest; tell what's in it. Okay. So this one takes some creativity, but come on. A "treasure chest"?

What would you do if you had to babysit a monkey? WHAT?

What are teachers thinking? What do you think?

Members of the Times X-Team surveyed kids in elementary, middle and high schools around Tampa Bay to get an earful about the worst essay topics ever written on a whiteboard. Here's their report (hint to teachers, PLEASE READ):

"The worst essay topic ever? Arrrrggghh! That would have to be the "my summer vacation' essay. They give that same one to you every year, every class!" said Santana Huggett, 16, a junior at Lecanto High School.

The repetition causes you to dread uneventful summers because you have to make nothing sound like something. "I guess the most awful was probably when we moved down here (from Michigan)," said Santana, "because all we really did was, well, just move."

Even if you did something exciting over the summer, you wonder how you can make the essay different from the other years. The teacher inevitably adds, "Be creative." You sigh; you hardly can sit still in anticipation of the other creative assignments sure to come later in the year: "my spring break" and "my winter vacation."

Though she can't remember really despising a paper topic, Jessica Hodges, 15, a ninth-grader at Crystal River High School, was not too excited about one in particular: "I guess the worst would have to be the little "What would you do with a million dollars?' prompt. I said I'd first give it to my family, then give it to, like, some charity or something, but after that I'd just have fun with it!"

Another assignment stands out as her favorite: If you could meet anyone in the world, who would it be and why? "I picked my mom's dad, my grandfather. I never met him, and from the way my mom always talks about him, I think that I'd really like to."

Cassandra Zamboli, a 15-year-old sophomore at Lecanto High School, remembers what she considers the all-time wackiest essay prompt: "We had this one where it was like, you walk into your room and there's this box, like on your bed, and it was, "What's inside the box?' I guess it was one of those "use your imagination' ones. I just said there was a dog. I said the box had holes in it or whatever. I mean, it's my imaginary box, right? If I want a purple polka-dotted box, I'm getting a purple polka-dotted box!"

At Osceola High School in Seminole, senior Stephen Pett, 16, also has encountered the "million dollar" and "treasure chest" essay assignments. "I hate stupid essay questions," Stephen said, like "What animal would you want to be, and why?"

"The worst is when you are assigned a minimum amount (of time) for it," he said.

"These (types of) essay questions do no good for us," said Nathan Curtis, 16, an Osceola junior, "because (they) don't have anything to do with school."

Forrest Feld, 11, a fifth-grader at Pinellas County Jewish Day School, remembers a particularly unusual topic: "You are sitting and eating breakfast, and something strange is happening. Explain what is happening to you."

Sara Miller, 10, also a fifth-grader at Pinellas County Jewish Day School, nominates this essay assignment as her most memorable: "You are the only leaf left on a tree after all of the other leaves fell off in the fall. How would you feel if you were that leaf?" Lonely, perhaps?

Although elementary and middle school essay topics such as these are bizarre, at least they help you laugh a little, and they may be appreciated later on in high school when assignments can veer from fun to long research papers on such topics as "Cultural Diversity Caused by Mountains."

"You really miss the more open-ended topics when you have to memorize the locations of all of the countries and capitals in the world," said Joe Gross, 15, a sophomore in the International Baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg High School.

Lonely leaves and complicated geopolitical expositions pale in comparison, though, with "What would you do if you were baby-sitting a monkey?"

"Get serious now! When would THAT ever happen?" asked Charmelene Navales, 13, a seventh-grader at Southside Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg, where they faced the monkey prompt.

"Why I like ballet" provided more of a challenge for Tyler Jenkins, 13 and in the seventh grade at Southside.

The essay was assigned as punishment, Tyler said, for talking. "All I did was say one word," Tyler recounted. "All I said was, "but . . .' after my teacher warned us that the next person who said a word had to write an essay and share it with the class." Tyler had never danced ballet in his life.

Students agreed that if they aren't familiar with or don't like the subject matter, the assignment can be even more boring. "I didn't like the Rotary (Club) speech contest essay (last year); it was so boring because the topic was technology and I'm not really into that stuff. It took so long to find all of the information," said Kristine Putrino, 14, an eighth-grader at St. Raphael's Catholic School in St. Petersburg.

Jenna Sezionale, an eighth-grader at John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg, said she didn't like being asked to write about her favorite toy. "They always ask you that," she said. "It feels like I've done that more than twice every single year." It's hard to look forward to writing about a topic that's chosen for you, she said, especially if it might not interest you.

"What is your favorite way of transportation?" was the worst essay prompt encountered by Southside seventh-grader Genevieve Kiernan, 12. "It's just a dumb topic!"

When you're really emotional about a certain subject, it also can be hard to write about. "The worst essay topic I had was about the Sept. 11 events because it was so difficult," said Tricia Bullock, 14 and in the eighth grade at Holy Family Catholic School in St. Petersburg. "I wanted to be angry, but at the same time sad. I was really emotional. Really overwhelmed!"

Writing about a subject you have a feeling the readers won't like is difficult, too. " "The History of Cheese' was the most boring essay topic I've had," said 13-year-old Nathen Hedges, a seventh-grader at St. Raphael's. "No one really cares about it."

Even when the subject is something you care about, it can be annoying.

Chris Lueallen, a fifth-grader at Perkins Elementary School in St. Petersburg was assigned a poem or narrative essay that began with "I am . . ." He didn't like the assignment "because I don't know who I really am. Because I'm a lot of things," he said. Another reason he didn't like that essay challenge: He got a bad grade on it.

Rachel Rosen, a Perkins fourth-grader, said her least favorite essay topic was, "Describe what you'd do if you were a teacher." It was a timed writing assignment and she likes time to think, she said. Besides, she said, she doesn't want to be a teacher, partly because she doesn't "want to deal with 30 kids."

The memorable (miserable?) essay prompt is a fact of life, so many students advise you to take a deep breath and plunge in. At John Hopkins, eighth-grader April Palozie said the worst topic she ever had was, "What's good about having homework on the weekends?"

"It was a terrible assignment because NO ONE likes having homework on the weekend," she said. But she had to write something, so she penned that weekend homework "gets things out of the way, so there's less stress, and it's healthier."

No one said she had to believe what she was writing.


Topic torture

Here are some noteworthy writing prompts from Tampa Bay area classrooms:

  • If you were any fruit, what fruit would you be?
  • If you found a leprechaun and you were allowed to ask it one wish, what would the wish be?
  • What would you do if you became a monkey?
  • Would you rather be a penguin or a dolphin?
  • If you woke up and you saw a door, where would the door lead you?

Here's the rest of today's Xpress

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