How Frank McCourt Turned Faked Excuses Into Creative Writing Assignments

Frank McCourt (RIP) may be better known for his Pulitzer Prize winning memoir Angela's Ashes, but little did we know that he's also a teacher of creative writing at Ralph McKee high school.

Reader's Digest has an excerpt from another one of Frank's memoir, Teacher Man, about his experience dealing with his students' forged notes:

Isn’t it remarkable, I thought, how the students whined and said it was hard putting 200 words together on any subject? But when they forged excuse notes, they were brilliant. The notes I had could be turned into an anthology of Great American Excuses. They were samples of talent never mentioned in song, story or study.

How could I have ignored this treasure trove, these gems of fiction and fantasy? Here was American high school writing at its best—raw, real, urgent, lucid, brief, and lying. I read:

• The stove caught fire and the wallpaper went up and the fire department kept us out of the house all night.

• Arnold was getting off the train and the door closed on his school bag and the train took it away. He yelled to the conductor who said very vulgar things as the train drove away.

• His sister’s dog ate his homework and I hope it chokes him.

• We were evicted from our apartment and the mean sheriff said if my son kept yelling for his notebook he’d have us all arrested.

The writers of these notes didn’t realize that honest excuse notes were usually dull: “Peter was late because the alarm clock didn’t go off.” One day I typed out a dozen excuse notes and distributed them to my senior classes. The students read them silently, intently. “Mr. McCourt, who wrote these?” asked one boy.

“You did,” I said. “I omitted names to protect the guilty. They’re supposed to be written by parents, but you and I know the real authors. Yes, Mikey?”

“So what are we supposed to do?”

“This is the first class to study the art of the excuse note—the first class, ever, to practice writing them. You’re so lucky to have a teacher like me who has taken your best writing and turned it into a subject worthy of study.”

Everyone smiled as I went on, “You didn’t settle for the old alarm clock story. You used your imaginations. One day you might be writing excuses for your own children when they’re late or absent or up to some devilment. So try it now. Imagine you have a 15-year-old who needs an excuse for falling behind in English. Let it rip.”

Link - Thanks Yan!


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going to school in san francisco we had to cross the golden gate bridge everyday. one day when inordinately late i took my sister to the drinking fountain and splashed water all over her face and hair, then did the same to myself. we hurried over to the office and proclaimed, "sorry, the bridge fell down, and it took a while to swim, but were here."

the dean was so entertained he walked us to class.
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"Frank McCourt (RIP) may be better known for his Pulitzer Prize winning memoir Angela's Ashes, but little did we know that he's also a teacher of creative writing at Ralph McKee high school."

I'd have thought that everyone who knew McCourt would know that he was a teacher too - it's not like he ever kept quiet about it.

I'm unsure of what the story is here; an excerpt from his book is hardly breaking news, and this teaching method is practically textbook among English teachers (it has provided me with some of my best creative writing lessons). Maybe in the 70's it was new and unheard of, but now it's pretty old hat.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of McCourt's and I'm sure he was an incredible teacher, but this seems like scraping the barrel as far as stories from a man with such an incredible life go...
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@Kalel: I don't really understand your reasoning. You claim that it would be great to see what Mr. McCourt could have done with "students who already possessed the skills...expected of them." I agree, but he apparently didn't have those students.*** How is it failing the children to "move the goalpost closer" and give them the skills they need in order to improve? It's certainly better than just giving them assignments you know they won't or can't complete based on a belief that they _ought_ to be able to.

So, basically, it sounds like you're upset at the students' prior knowledge, which wasn't under his control (nor was it necessarily under the students'). Perhaps you think it's wrong that Mr. McCourt should have "had to backtrack" by actually teaching to the level of his students, just because that level isn't what you'd have expected them to know already. All the while you're condescendingly criticizing Mr. McCourt for "moving the goalpost closer," implying that he's giving up and letting them have it easy.

But it sounds to me like he was changing his approach when he saw it wasn't working. Sticking with an unsuccessful teaching style because you believe it's the best and therefore students should be able to do it - to me that would be giving up. Mr. McCourt was working with what he had, with the goal of reaching his students however he could.

***By the by, the article doesn't say the students couldn't write 200 words, it suggests that they were reluctant to. That might be an issue of motivation rather than lack of skill. We can't know for sure.
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