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What an Ode to Farting, Drug-Dealing’s Benefits and the FCAT Have in Common

| January 27, 2013

Nurse Ratched is the model for the perfect FCAT scorer.

Nurse Ratched is the model for the perfect FCAT scorer.

Farting.

Dealing drugs.

Not exactly politically correct topics for polite dinner table conversation. But to two Flagler County teens, these activities seemed like fodder for essays they were recently assigned to write in their respective English classes.

Last month, I asked the 75 students in my three Advanced Placement English Language & Composition periods to write a process analysis piece–essentially, an essay which explains how to do something or how something works. Among the many compositions I received included essays about banal subjects such as how to look smart, how to apply make-up, how to dump your roommate, how to throw a curveball, how to make lasagna, how to set up a Facebook account and how to procrastinate.

Hu-hum. Yawn.

On Farting


"You can't choose when the urge strikes. Remove your home setting and replace with vulnerability. This devil in a gaseous state doesn't play fair, nor worry about potential embarrassment. It has a job to do. A low grumble echoes within your body cavity. That quick stop for fast food or that cabbage loaded coleslaw sneaks back up on you. Gas bubbles build. However, all the cheek squeezing in the world can't hold back the inevitable. You will have to pay for those extra black beans in that burrito. But why not embrace this passing of gas? Through perfect positioning, you can escape awkward, pathetic toots here and there and release all of that built up gas at once. Don't deny what lies inside. Feel better, stand straighter, and move on with your day."--From Madi Beckman's essay on farting. Read the full experience.

Then I read Madi’s essay. Madi wrote to explain how to fart. I mean like how to really let it rip. I laughed my head off  – and awarded her a grade of 100. She wasn’t the only one to merit an A.  A handful of others did too.  Madi earned that score not just because she displayed a nearly impeccable mastery of every writing technique I’d tried to inculcate in my students so far this year, but also because of the essay’s pure entertainment value-–and her nerve. You’ve got to have guts to submit an essay about flatulence. I’d been encouraging students to think outside the box, so how could I not reward her creativity?

“That quick stop for fast food or that cabbage loaded coleslaw sneaks back up on you. Gas bubbles build…you will have to pay for those black beans in that burrito. But why not embrace this passing of gas?,” she wrote. “Through perfect positioning, you can escape awkward, pathetic toots here and there and release all of that built up gas. Don’t deny what lies inside…play the butt trumpet.”

I hadn’t had so much fun reading an essay since Dylan’s narrative last year about the Chicken McNugget challenge previously published on Flagler Live.

While my 11th-graders were writing and editing process analysis essays, my 10th-graders had yet another wonderful “opportunity” to polish their skills for Florida’s FCAT Writing test by using a costly practice program the Flagler school district yearly pays thousands of dollars for called “Write Score.” Write Score purports to prepare students for the FCAT Writing test (to be administered to 4th, 8th and 10th graders on February 26) by providing teachers with practice essay prompts for students to respond to. Then the company scores the essays and provides the school with data which is supposed to pinpoint students’ writing problems-–as if I (or any instructor worth her salt) need a for-profit company to point out what’s already so painfully obvious from the first day my students set foot into my classroom. What kind of English teacher would I be in the first place if I couldn’t diagnose my own students’ writing deficiencies and devise ways to help them improve?

The Nahirny Files:


Sophomores found Write Score’s latest prompt particularly insipid:  they had to write to explain a “good habit” which would benefit someone physically, emotionally and financially. B-O-R-I-N-G! The topic proved especially limiting because really, what could kids possibly choose? Exercise? Diet? Eat? Pray? Love? Honestly, there’s not a whole lot you can expect 15- or 16-year-olds to do with a topic like that in an hour. And therein lies the main problem with both the FCAT Writing test and Write Score. Students don’t write especially well about topics which don’t pique their interest and can’t possibly get their creative juices floating. Unless you’re Dylan or Madi.

Or JW.

JW, a 10th-grader in a colleague’s class, wrote about how dealing drugs could benefit someone physically, emotionally, and financially. He started off his essay with a disclaimer that he himself did not take part in this activity, but that his own observations had led him to this conclusion. He admitted it might be “taboo” or “dumb” to write about, but implored his reader to at least “listen to the possibility” that this activity could be a good habit.

As far as FCAT-style essays go, I’d have scored JW’s paper a solid “5” on a scale of 1 to 6. A score of 5 indicates the student has focused on the topic, that ideas progress logically from the introduction to the conclusion, that there is ample development of supporting ideas through use of specific details and examples, and that the response generally follows the conventions of grammar, punctuation and spelling. JW’s essay is included here, so you can decide for yourself.

Subject matter notwithstanding, JW’s essay clearly met the criteria for a 5, and in fact, the quality of his writing surpassed that of more than 90 percent of the other 10th graders who responded to the same prompt.

But unlike the 100 Madi earned in my class, Write Score flagged JW’s paper as inappropriate. The student’s reward was a conference with an administrator, where he was met with the threat of a behavior referral and a phone call to his parents.  Additionally, because he plays on sports team at school, his essay was turned over to his coach who was directed to “deal with this.” JW’s coach shared it with me saying, “You’re an English teacher. What do youthink?”

I think JW’s on track to become Florida’s next Carl Hiaasen or Dave Barry. That is, if frequent forced formulaic writing doesn’t prematurely snuff out his creativity. Heck, I want to recruit this kid for my AP English Composition class when he’s a junior next year so he can do some real writing.


I’ve literally prepared thousands of students to take the FCAT Writing test since the very first year the state introduced it. Yet I loathe it-–“it” referring to the test and to the act of preparing students for an absurd assessment which I know in no way measures their ability to write. As Columbia University professor William Zinsser (author of the classic On Writing Well explains, “Rewriting is the essence of writing.” That is to say, the clumsily-written first drafts kids produce under duress in an hour rarely, if ever, resemble what they could ultimately produce, given the opportunity to proofread, edit, revise and rewrite–-and learn from their mistakes.

Zinsser points out  “Good writing doesn’t come naturally…Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.” Even Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning writer Tracy Kidder still writes an average of 10 drafts of all his work.

In his guide, Zinsser also asserts that humor is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer, and that it’s sometimes the only tool writers can use to make an important point. “Writers of humor live with the knowledge that many of their readers don’t know what they are trying to do.”

The Write Score company, as student humorist JW discovered, is a perfect example of one such reader.

Jo Ann C. Nahirny, a 1985 graduate of Columbia University and a National Board Certified Teacher, teaches English at Matanzas High School in Palm Coast. Reach her by email here.

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21 Responses for “What an Ode to Farting, Drug-Dealing’s Benefits and the FCAT Have in Common”

  1. Pluto says:

    Great…little Madi will grow up to be in a freak circus as a flatulence queen. Maybe you should have had the little angels write about what this country needs to get back on top. How about how math and science is needed to enlighten the mind in order to become ROCKET SCIENTIST. Yes, we could sure use a few more of those. But no…..we will have to settle for “Madi, queen of Farting “.

    • Uranus says:

      Dear Pluto,
      To help clear the air, our little 11th grade combustion queen is taking AP (Advance Placement) Physics, AP Calculus, AP English Langauge and passing [gas] with flying colors. She is Red Cross certified in First Aid, CPR and Lifeguarding and teaches sailing during the summer. Although her great uncle was the ringmaster for the Clyde Beatty & Cole Brothers Circus, she’s not interested in that career path nor aerospace engineering. Not sure how the next chapter turns out, “butt”we are very proud of her so far!

      Warm regards,
      Uranus ( AKA MADI’S DAD)

  2. Whodat says:

    Before I read the article I thought something “stinks” here. Another future JD Salinger in the making, LOL. Time for a Catcher in The Rye II.

  3. Pierre Tristam says:

    Swift, Rabelais and of course George Carlin would not only have failed any of their FCAT prep crap, they’d have been brought up on charges. Good thing we’re investing in extra guards in schools to keep those little bastards in check. How dare they dare write daringly? Let’s rather take our cues from the most distant planet in the Solar System–nursery of FCAT prompts–where light and intelligence obviously shine bright.

  4. confidential says:

    Mrs Nahirny your editorial just confirms the words of a young teacher in Flagler County Schools this weekend, while enjoying our dinner and telling us that “in the current system” she does not teach anymore she just administers tests and yes those FCAT test who’s programs our schools and tax monies pay so dearly for. She said education is no longer about the students learning but “about money and profits”. The social close interaction of a flesh and blood teacher/instructor and students is bound to disappear. This account all by shocked me, as I haven’t spoken to a teacher since my children graduated 25 years years ago. No wonder our young generations are greatly taking the wrong path.
    Have we forgotten that humans are social beings in our planet in as much or more than the animals and plants that surround us? Why we the tax payers sustaining our education have forsaken our right to demand accountability on behalf of the greed of the one’s in power?
    Thirty five years ago I helped a Foreign Language Teacher in a Vocational Technical School in the middle of the NJ farmlands and recall the social interaction of knowledge exchange of historical events, names and dates provided thru by us to the students that made that language learning so much easier and unforgettable to them to the point that when the class time was over there was a general exclamation of disappointment in that foreign language, that some of the students manage to find out on their own.
    Was so nice to be called our attention while shopping around town on that foreign language they learned in school and in our classes, by students that often will see us. We treated our students then, like young men and women with hungry minds for knowledge not like today’s robots marking yes or not on a given answer FCAT test.

    Also the bias and pressure to keep unjustified Charters wasting our education tax dollars needs to stop! Since when our county schools get a gift of at least 115,000 for performing and “F” like the Palm Harbor Charter just did? To the contrary our traditional schools get punished with less and less funds in favor of the for profit and unregulated Charters.

    To the above first two comments…With all due respect I can understand but I also disagree. I found very creative and funny prose in that ode and… I am in my 70′s.
    The student wrote about her daily life event on which a total absence of our respected Mr. Lincoln, Mother Teresa,
    and the fast pace of the Internet supported by I-phones and I-whatever, do not leave much time “to stop and admire the roses”
    Coincidentally yesterday our household patriarch at 75 was laughing to no end, while watching late George Carlin’s “Stuff”
    Feel free to google it and probably you will laugh as well. I believe that this young writer would have been hired by Carlin and maybe she has a future as a comic screen play writer. We all should encourage her.

  5. Geezer says:

    Remember drive-by shootings that were all the rage in the nineties?
    That phenomenon has evolved into walk-by farts at Walmart.

    You’re picking out merchandise on a shelf, a person walks by, and let’s one
    go in silent mode. Three or four seconds elapse, the farter has disappeared,
    and his calling card now permeates your defenseless nostrils.
    That’s a “walk-by fart,” and It’s clearly a crime of opportunity.

    Anyway:
    A very interesting article by Ms. Nahirny. I wish that more teachers were like this fine lady.
    She keeps her students enthused about learning–no mean feat by any measure.

  6. emile says:

    Ms. Nahirny, I hope you can recruit JW. Our stodgy world needs more irreverence, more Carl Hiaasens, more Dave Barrys. If his essay caused the school administrators to threaten him, then I hope it was done with tongue-in-cheek.

    This teach-to-the-test business has got to stop. I read in the paper today that the No Child Left Behind act is becoming even stricter. What a waste of good teachers. And what a crime against good students.

  7. Linda says:

    I’m sorry, but I don’t see the humor in any of this. How about doing some critical analysis writing? Or topics that are relevant to important things? There can be creativity and humor in subjects that matter. And the word “fart” – vulgar in my book. I’m not that old. I proudly call myself a liberal. But this goes in some direction that I don’t see helpful.
    I just find this whole article supporting my disappointment in the quality of education given to and received by our students.

    • Nancy N. says:

      Critical analysis? That is an entirely different type of writing and wasn’t the assignment! The assignment was to write a certain kind of essay, and the chosen topics of these students were unconventional but fit that criteria. You want “topics that are relevant to important things”? Well, who decides what is important? Is “how to throw a curve ball” important? Maybe not to you, but to an aspiring baseball player it is!

      A good teacher like Ms Nahirny identifies a student’s talents and nurtures them. Humor, and the ability to put it into many different forms, is a talent that we value greatly as a society. It’s therapeutic, and it can be a powerful way to carry a message. One of the most influential voices on television in the political arena is the Comedy Central package of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert! Many other names have been mentioned here, like Dave Barry. Allow me to add the ones I grew up reading: Molly Ivins, Erma Bombeck – not to mention all of the brilliant ones I love to watch: Kathy Griffin, Jeff Dunham, Lewis Black. And Nora Ephron…I could go on and on.

      This article also left me disappointed in the quality of the state of education currently but for the exact opposite reason you are. This is a perfect example of how our current mentality of “teaching to the test” is eliminating creativity and stamping out talents that you can’t put on a standardized test. It’s a shame, and our society – and our kids – will be the lesser for it.

      • Linda says:

        We will have to agree to disagree.

      • Linda says:

        How to throw a curve ball – part of our culture. Worthy of discussion.

        “farting” — let me guess – we are all waiting for the sequel -“How to take a s*#t”

        • Nancy N. says:

          There are people in Hollywood writing and telling fart jokes that make 100x what your doctor does per year….the market has obviously given some value to them.

    • NortonSmitty says:

      No, Linda no. That’s a whole ‘nother series of jokes. Exemplified by:

      Old man sits next to a young dude at a lunch counter. He says to the kid “You youngsters, all you think about all the time is sex, sex, sex! All day long! Wait ’till you get to be my age, you’ll realize that a good bowel movement in the morning is better than sex.”

      The kid turns to him and sez “Dude, either you don’t know how to fuck, or I don’t know how to shit!”

      See the difference?

      Farts have been inherently funny since the dawn of man. No, even before then tracing way back into the animal kingdom. I swear when my dog farts laying at my feet he looks up and gives me a big rubbery-lipped grin when I yell at him. But I’m willing to bet that the first string of grunts put together by a family of Australopithecus packed tight into a cold cave would translate today as “Hey, pull my finger”.

      And I’m sure Gene Roddenberry is floating through the ether now regretting that he never had the stones to work in one fart joke in all the years predicting the future in Star Trek. Not even in The Next Generation. It would have been perfect. Picture Commander Data’s inhuman angst that he as an Android couldn’t fart as he stepped out of the Turbolift and turned to the closing doors saying “Counselor Troy, couldn’t you hold that for another minute or two?”. No wonder he was so sad.

      Which begs the question, what happens when an astronaut farts in a Moon-suit? Does it make it up to the helmet or is it just wasted? But I digress…

      So please folks don’t denigrate the long history and societal importance of fart jokes. Anything that has made kids of all ages laugh and be happy since the beginning of time has to be a gift bestowed from on high. And may it always be so.

      Think about how much funnier even the Three Stooges could have been if MGM studios would have been as free and enlightened as even the girls are today in Ms, Nahirny’s class.

      Maybe there’s hope for us yet.

  8. Deep South says:

    Ms. Nahirny, I love how you are getting the creative writing out of your students. Nothing like allowing young minds to express their thoughts and talents and put them down on paper. I got a real good chuckle out of reading Madi’s article. I am so glad we have teachers like you that push the students to learn and think for themselves. You are developing young minds who someday will be independent contributors to our country. Keep up the good work, and perhaps a few more stories. We all deserve a good laugh now and then.

  9. Stevie says:

    “If Republicans want to do something about the future, they should back a growing movement to pull children out of underperforming public schools where often their views, values, understanding of history and even faith are undermined. Home-schooling is an option. The public school system, seemingly a “hot house” for growing new generations of secular liberals, is a failure on many levels. It makes no sense to me to put one’s children in a school system that will likely transform their minds and souls into something quite different from those of their parents. ”

    http://jewishworldreview.com/cols/thomas012913.php3

    All this cheer leading commentary smells like something stinks. The states are moving their children out of the public schools to break the chronic dependency cycle of welfare and poverty.

  10. Shell says:

    William Zinsser – “Rewriting is the essence of writing.”

    Ernest Hemingway – “The first draft of anything is shit.”

    To paraphrase Winston Churchill (no slouch with the pen himself, but that’s beside the point), the second differs from the first in no wise, but is more pithy.

  11. An AP English student says:

    For the ignorant who are terribly confused, I thought I would clear up a few things. The essay was a process-analysis, meaning the idea was to write almost a “how to” guide. Madi geniusly picked farting, while other students may have taken a less entertaining route focusing on how to make a cake. Regardless, no matter how “vulgar” the word fart may be, Madi was still able to write a process analysis essay successfully. If a student wrote about how to become a rocket scientist and explained about how important math and science is, yet executed it poorly, that doesn’t further their writing skills. It’s not the topic that matters so much as using their creativity and AP skills to formulate an essay that gets people thinking, laughing, or crying. Isn’t that what writing is about? Evoking emotions? Because Pluto and Linda, both of you were successful in making me feel an emotion with your comments: disgust.

  12. confidential says:

    Kudos to Norton, Geezer and Madi for their eulogy of a passed gas!!

  13. Anonymous says:

    Years past, not long after the original 9/11, my son had to write an essay for his middle school English class on what he wanted to be when he grew up. He researched a lot, talked to some people in his field of interest at the time, and he wrote an outstanding, well-written paper on “Anti-Terrorism”. And he wrote that he wanted to be an “Anti-terrorist”. (This was not is this school system). Not only did he get an “F” on the paper, and a referral, but his father and I got called into the principal’s office to be held “accountable” for our son’s actions!!! Not even the principle of that fine school system could discern the difference in the word “terrorist” and “anti-terrorist”.

  14. Melissa says:

    Awesome essay Madi! So proud of you! I read this a month ago and couldn’t stop laughing. I would have given you an A in my class too!

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