In one of the very first English 101 courses I taught, most of the students struggled with the concept of specific detail. I decided to try an activity a member of the Western Kentucky University graduate faculty had shared with the teaching assistants there.
I bought a bushel of apples. (I was teaching five sections of English 101 with 20 students per section.)
In each section, I had every student take an apple from the basket and write a description of that apple. When everyone finished, they put their apple on the teacher’s desk.
Then I had each student read his or her description aloud while another student tried to pick out the apple that was being described.
In the first four sections, every student was able to identify the apple by its description. As a reward for writing good descriptions, each student left class that day with an apple.
In the fifth section, I had students take an apple to describe, and then put it on the desk after they’d written their descriptions, just as I had in the four other sections.
The activity ran smoothly, with students readily identifying the apples from the descriptions, until it came Jerome’s turn to read his description.
Jerome was a black kid from Cleveland, first in his family to go to college, the first black at that particular college, an incredibly hard worker with a sweet disposition and a delightful sense of humor. Of all the students I’ve taught over nearly a half century, Jerome was my favorite.
When Jerome read his apple description, probably half the apples had already been identified, but the student attempting to identify Jerome’s apple couldn’t find it.
Jerome had written a beautiful description of the ideal apple, a distillation of the essence of an apple.
It was a fine piece of writing.
But Jerome hadn’t described his particular apple.
We had to wait until all the other apples were identified by their descriptions before we knew which was Jerome’s.
In four of my five sections that day, students performed an activity. They had fun doing it. Maybe they learned something, but I wouldn’t swear to it.
In the fifth section, students didn’t just perform an activity. Those students saw acted out before their eyes the difference between a generalization and specific details. They all learned why specific details matter.
But the student who learned the most was Jerome.
That’s why Jerome left class that day with two apples instead of just one.