In 7th grade English, students receive informal writing assignments, in which they are asked to respond to quotes by notable characters and thinkers, such as Cornel West, Mary Oliver, and Albert Einstein. The essay here, was written in response to the following prompt from Dr. Cornel West:
"I remind young people everywhere I go, one of the worst things the older generation did was to tell them for twenty-five years 'Be successful, be successful, be successful' as opposed to 'Be great, be great, be great.' There's a qualitative difference."
Written responses are shared in small group discussions and members nominate an author to read her work to the class. Students not only become acquainted with ideas and figures in history, but grow comfortable sharing their thoughts openly, being receptive to feedback without fear of judgement.
7th Grade English Informal Journal Entry (Success vs. Greatness)
To be successful is to accomplish something, to do it well, to meet your goals. We often think of success as something that’s measurable — like earning a high grade because you test well, or having a big house and driving a fancy car because you’re good at your job and make a lot of money doing it. But is that greatness? No. “And you may ask yourself, what is this beautiful house? ….My god, what have I done?” (Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime”) —Well, you’ve been successful, but you’ve hardly done anything great.
Greatness is qualitative, not quantitative. Martin Luther King was not successful in stopping racism and violence against blacks, but he was great in how he inspired many people to persevere in the struggle against that racism and violence.
On a much smaller scale, I think of myself and my first vocabulary quiz for English this semester: I was not successful in acing the quiz, because I devoted too much thought and effort to trying to write great sentences. I knew the definitions for all 15 words, but I ran out of time after 12 words. But on my quiz you wrote, “Gorgeous writing!” And when I saw that, I felt great.
I also think about my dream of publishing novels when I grow up (or even while I’m still a kid). If I do that, I will be successful. But it doesn’t mean I will be great. And if I don’t publish a novel but write a really terrific one anyhow, I won’t have succeeded in being a known author, but I will have done something great.
Madeline L’Engle’s book A Wrinkle in Time was turned down 29 times before she found a publisher. Just several years before Rudyard Kipling published The Jungle Book, his submission was turned down by The San Francisco Examiner in 1889 with the note, "I am sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just do not know how to use the English language.” George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm was rejected with the comment, "It’s impossible to sell animal stories in the USA." Richard Adams was told the same thing by British publishers about his manuscript for Watership Down. And the manuscript for The Diary of Anne Frank was dismissed by one publisher because "this girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the curiosity level." All of these books were great, even though for a while none of them looked like they would ever succeed (until they were published, at long last — hooray!).