Author Archives: Gary Anderson

Carolyn McChesney: How to Chew Gum

Carolyn McChesney enjoys writing and playing tennis. She is an editor of her high school newspaper and hopes to travel the world someday as a journalist. While she can write most of her school papers in half an hour, it took Miss McChesney about twenty minutes to decide what to include in this three-sentence bio.

Your breath reeks.

So, naturally, you dig deep into your purse or pocket and grab that last piece of chewing gum. If you are like many high school students, you discard the wrapper on the floor and pop that minty, rubber delight into your mouth. And that’s when it begins—the squishy noise of your tongue wrestling your teeth for possession of the gum. Your tongue calls in reinforcements. Acknowledging your tongue’s request, your salivary glands fire gallons of spit into your mouth. The saliva, determined to break apart the now soggy breath-deodorizer, adds to the volume emanating from your mouth.

Meanwhile, the girl sitting in front of you whips around and glares. Her eyes are full of disgust, but you remain completely unaware of her and continue to chomp, chomp, chomp away. Now, I realize that you are not being obnoxiously loud on purpose, but you must realize that you are driving your classmates insane. Believe it or not, no one wants to listen to the lip-smacking, saliva-swishing, teeth-chomping orchestra in your mouth every time you chew on a piece of gum. I am not saying you should never chew gum ever again. Despite the atrocious, permanent damage gum inflicts upon your teeth, chewing gum has the potential to benefit multiple people at once.

I highly recommend chewing a piece of gum before you walk your date up to the front door. I also suggest checking your breath before talking to a teacher, for completely different reasons of course. Both your date and teacher will appreciate your effort to mask your severe case of halitosis, and everyone will be happy. And when everyone is happy, good things happen. A kiss goodnight on the front porch and a good grade in any class are only two examples of the many wonders of good breath. Yes my friends, a single piece of gum can help you snag the guy or girl of your dreams and get you an academic scholarship to Harvard. However, you must take caution when chewing gum because as I explained earlier, an amateur gum-chewer can drive people to almost suicidal levels of annoyance. Simply follow these steps to learn how to maximize your gum-chewing potential.

Let’s start with picking out the perfect kind of gum. Personally, I prefer Orbit, sugar-free, “wintermint” gum. The flavor is milder than Dentyne gum, which tends to burn the mouth occasionally. Each piece of Orbit gum also comes individually wrapped. This wrapper is essential in the following step: unwrapping and placement.

Individually-wrapped candies are much easier to enjoy than any other kind. When preparing to eat a piece of gum, you must never discard the wrapper. Do not pinch the paper between your fingers or wad it into a ball and toss it on the ground. The custodians at Fremd work hard enough, and they do not need your gum wrapper clogging the vacuums. As I said before, try to stick with individually wrapped gums, such as Orbit or any product that is proudly stamped “Wrigley’s.” Other types of gum, such as Dentyne, are packed in plastic and foil contraptions that make an irritatingly loud noise in a silent classroom. Also, individual wrappers become quite handy when that “long-lasting” flavor disappears about ten minutes later. When placing the gum in your mouth, do just that. Place the gum on your tongue. Do not bite it in half or allow your fingers to fondle it. Just eat it. Then, gently slide the empty wrapper into your pocket for easy access in the future.

This next step is crucial to the enjoyment of gum in general. The instructions are easy. With the piece of gum in your mouth, begin to chew. That’s it. Simple enough, isn’t it? But wait just one second. In all my years of gum chewing analysis, I have noticed that the majority of gum-chewers lack the ability to chew correctly. When chewing gum, it is imperative that you savor the flavor. Repeat this to yourself. “Savor the flavor.” In order to “savor the flavor” to its maximum extent, your mouth, nose, and brain must form a strong alliance. The mouth must alert the brain when a piece of gum has entered its perimeters. In response, the brain must command the lips to remain locked at all times during which the gum resides in the mouth. A sealed mouth prevents the flavor from escaping and keeps any chewing noises to a pleasant minimum. However, the nose must recognize that the mouth is sacrificing its ability to breath. This means the nose must accept all inhalation and exhalation duties. (WARNING: Gum should not be chewed if the chewer has a cold. A stuffy nose cannot function properly, and insufficient amounts of oxygen can lead to dizziness, fainting, or death. And how embarrassing would it be to have “Faulty Gum-Chewing Techniques” written in your obituary under “Cause(s) of Death”?)

Now that you are an expert regarding how to unwrap, properly place, and chew a piece of gum, there is only one step left in the gum-enjoying process: removal. Discarding gum can be tricky. Should you spit the little slime ball into your hand and transport it to the wastebasket? Or should you mold it ever so artistically to the underside of your desk? Perhaps you should nestle it gently among the long locks of the most obnoxious girl in class, who just so happens to sit in front of you. Heck, at this point, you probably just want to swallow the soggy piece of silly putty and be done with it. However, I highly advise you to pass the former options and approach the removal of the gum in a much more civilized manner. Remember that wrapper you slipped into your pocket earlier? Well, it’s time to whip it out! Now aren’t you glad you chose Orbit over Dentyne? You cannot reuse the space your gum came from in a Dentyne Ice container. Believe me. I’ve tried. And if you attempt to cram that slimy piece of gum back into the centimeter-wide slot from which it came, you will have the worst mess imaginable on your hands. Literally. However, I realize some people simply lack the capacity to follow directions and will either have discarded the individual wrapper of the recommended Orbit gum or have purchased a pack of Dentyne gum instead. Luckily, you can find a soft, white, some times scented, and other times moisturized fabric in most classrooms here at our school. Behold the Kleenex. Spit your tasteless gum into the tissue and throw it away. If you are in a classroom that does not provide tissues, you have two choices. You can either file a complaint to the teacher, which may compel him or her to offer extra credit if you bring in a box of tissues for the classroom. Or you can bend over and allow the gum to drop from your mouth into the waste bin. Do not spit. Spitting is unappetizing and vulgar. You may, depending on the size and weight of the wastebasket, lift the bin off of the ground, in order to increase your chances of successfully transferring the gum from your mouth to the garbage without any interaction from the floor.

Following these simple steps will make your gum-chewing experiences much more enjoyable for all. However, some of you may be intimidated by the numerous details that accompany each step. Keep in mind that every detail and description is important. Do not omit any step in the gum-chewing process. If my suggestions are simply too cumbersome for you to handle, allow me to leave you with two final words of advice: Try mints.


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Angela Zade: My Slide

Angela Zade aspires to become the world’s first paid daydreamer. She enjoys reading, writing and dancing. Miss Zade also has a bossy sweet tooth.

  Stomping my small, purple boots through the elegant gown of white snow, I yanked my plastic, red sled with every eager step. Once I spotted the highest hill in sight, I turned around to tell my younger sister where I was headed.

My sister, Dee, had little, first-grade legs and couldn’t tread the thick ground to keep up. I squinted closely at her face from my distance. She looked like a cherry! Her cheeks were all plushed and her nose poked out like a tiny radish.

“Come on, Dee,” I called to hurry her.

“You aw wunning too fast!” she shouted back.

I stood in my fluffy, purple snowpants and adjusted my fat hat. I was so anxious to go sledding that once I saw Dee safely skipping behind in her small, pink suit, I rushed off into the white horizon.

My heart twirled like a tornado as I pushed my path up the hill. As a child, I surely thought the slope was like a mountain in size. I became so excited that my heavy breathing let some high-pitch shrieks out. Some snowflakes landed on my brown eyelashes as I blinked at the short distance left until I was on top of the world. I forgot about waiting for Dee and I didn’t care where she was because I was busy planning exaggerations to tell my girlfriends in my third grade class.

Like a stumpy balloon of purple padding I looked down at the treacherous slant. I positioned the red sled on the edge of heaven. I saddled up and gripped the two, black plastic hand strips. I sat there for a few minutes just staring into the deadly field. There were no trees in my way to worry about. I couldn’t find Dee anywhere in her pink snowsuit down on Earth. I didn’t care, I was ready to go! My heart felt like it was popping out of my jacket with every beat, so on one quick breath, I jerked my icy rear end forward and started to slide!

At first I began whining my girlish pout. The winter air punched my face and clogged my lungs. My mouth hung open from shock. The speed of my sled had picked up so fast that I stopped pouting. My eyes teared up because the force of the wind tore at their sensitivity. I tried to inhale bits of winter freshness through my numb nostrils but that was tough too. I flexed all my mini arm muscles to remain steady on the sled and I held to the black strips tightly.

Still sliding, I closed my eyes because the intensity was just too scary. I felt the planet flying away beneath me! I soared over the ground. I could hear the sound of my plastic sled skimming the snowy surface of the hill. Then I began hearing other people scream from around the distance.

“What are they yelling at?” I thought, “I must look so cool going so fast.”

I opened my wet eyes to see the people praise my slide and …SMACK!

Lying on my back with my arms and legs sprawled out like a spider, I sat up. I knew I wasn’t on my sled anymore because water was seeping in through the seams of my padding so I quickly shuffled my boots to the ground and stood. My body ached from the collision. I felt like one big bruise.

I noticed a red dot about ten feet over which I assumed was my sled. I sighed and put my mittens on my hips, scanning for the enemy that I had hit. I also noticed a pink bundle hunched over crying. I found Dee.

I pranced as fast as my purple, tree-stump legs would move. I plopped into the snowy cushion beside her and asked if she was okay.

“My butt huwts. You hit me hawd,” she cried.

“Sorry,” I mumbled.

“I wanna go home,” Dee said when she got up. She was so little, barely reaching three feet but her face was certainly powerful. Still kneeling, I looked up at her angry expression.

Despite my craving to sled all day, I didn’t bother opposing the little authoritarian. Instead I moseyed over to my sled, grabbed the pull string and began the sad trek home. This time I stomped behind Dee.

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Rachel Giese: A Lesson Learned

Rachel has loved exploring languages and literature from a very young age. She spent her young years writing stories instead of coloring and painting. Rachel is continuing her exploration of the “spoken word” as she heads off the college to study the Spanish language and possibly onto teaching or more writing expeditions. Rachel grew up in northern Minnesota with her parents, Marty and Marcia, her two older sisters, Anna and Sarah, and with her younger brother, David. She enjoys playing the piano, singing, going for a jog, and experiencing the gifts of life.

  The breeze through the trees soothes. The sun reflecting off the subtle movements of the lake as it’s pushed by the breeze make a happy sparkle show for my eyes. The trees grow together as if they were a natural blanket protecting all who pass underneath them. The grass has grown so naturally long that it becomes a soft tangled carpet for the feet of those who walk through it. And as I watch the leaves I am overcome with a feeling so strong that I must sit. I must sit, watch, and learn from the leaves. I must learn about acceptance.

Bright colors fly all around. The leaves have spent all spring and summer living on their tree, with those who are like them: their own kind. They have spent their lives watching the sparkle show on the lake, dancing in the breeze together, and watching over all those who pass underneath them. They have watched each other grow; they have lived through the rainy nights and have been there with each other to enjoy the sweet scent of the forest the next morning. But what is truly admirable about the leaves is what happens when it’s time to fall. They don’t know when it’s time; they don’t know when the breeze will carry them to a new place. They don’t know when they will no longer be able to hold on and must float away forever.

And where do they fall? No one knows but the wind. A leaf cannot choose where the wind will lead. It cannot choose where it will live apart from its family and soon die. It cannot choose, but it does not complain.

When the leaves come to their place of rest, a wonderful thing happens. Beauty happens. There is not a certain place where all the green leaves lay; there is not an area where the yellow leaves fall or where the red leaves come to rest. They fall together and dwell among leaves of a different color, from a different tree. This is how it’s been for centuries. No one has told the leaves that it is wrong to dwell with those of a different color, from a different tree. Those leaves have not heard, yet, that they are supposed to fall and remain with their own kind. No one has told them these things because no one wants to ruin the beauty. No person would go into the forest and separate the red from the green leaves or the green from the yellow. Who would dare injure the rainbow of diversity? It is beautiful; it is what makes the forest come alive.

This is acceptance.

The forest is not color blind. There would be no reason for the leaves to dress up in the fall if the trunks of the trees could not see their brilliance. It would be pointless for the moisture in the air to paint a colorful rainbow in the sky if the forest could not see. No, the forest is not color blind. The forest can see the mixing of the different colors and it sees this as beautiful. It is beautiful because it is right!

At some point in time, the world changed its view. At some point, it became wrong to have one color dwell with a different color. At some point, someone said that the rainbow of diversity was no longer a beautiful thing, but a bad thing. Someone changed the ways of the world, but the forest remained the same. Even with its ever-shifting seasons, the forest has kept its way of life since the beginning of time.

If I start to question what is right and what is wrong in this world, I will consult the forest. I will take a walk on the soft tangled grass carpet, under the protective covering of the tree branches, past the brilliant sparkle show, and I will look down and see the ground full of leaves of different colors lying all together, and I will learn my lesson. I need to live as the leaves live.

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Kim Swansen: Striving for the Perfect Paper

Kim Swansen enjoys playing guitar, traveling and playing with pet newts, Vinchi and Hendrix.  In twenty years, she sees herself as a rock star, or else fat and married with fifteen kids.

She sits…at the computer, staring at the screen for hours, waiting. And she wonders why her eyesight is taking a turn for the worse. She’s not quite sure why this is taking so particularly long. “It’s only a school assignment, right?” No, this seems to be more than that. It usually is. And suddenly, like a tidal wave starting in her brain, she starts typing. A paragraph, maybe two. Satisfied and content, she begins to reread her surge of writing. As she rereads, the smile disappears and frustration grows inside. She deletes it without a second glance, hoping the next wave will produce something more worthwhile. She sits again but becomes hungry. She knows it is a self-induced feeling, and that it’s just an excuse to get up. But she gets up anyway, makes the short but relaxing walk to the kitchen. She opens up every cabinet like she does every time (knowing there is nothing in there she wants to eat), closes the cabinets one by one, and starts the walk back. The second she steps into the computer room, she feels that dreadful feeling creep up through her spine to her brain, knowing it’s time to “really start working,” and she sits, and waits some more.

I guess now it is pretty evident that I have a writing dilemma. It is so serious that I can’t be content with the paragraph above, the line before, or even the words I’m writing this moment. Am I too critical? Too picky? Do I just want to impress my teachers or do I do it for myself? I have come to realize, through many nights at the computer, that writing for me is a never-ending process of striving for self-satisfaction but always ending up a few steps short.

Obviously I wouldn’t want to share my work with an audience because I am too critical of myself and don’t approve of what I write most of the time. It is so hard for me to promote something that I am not satisfied with. It’s like, “Hey, I think this is terrible, but don’t mind me, make your own judgments. I’ll just sit here and fear your reaction.” I wonder if famous writers ever had a problem sharing their work with others. What if Shakespeare or Woody Allen (not likely) were afraid of others’ reactions? We would have never been exposed to their art. I am trying to be more open about it, trying to be less afraid of “critics.” Besides, this paper is not going to be like -God forbid- read in class; it’s not going to be published in a book, or even read by anyone but my teacher. So what do I have to worry about?

For some reason, I take writing very seriously and love to do it. When a teacher assigns a paper or an essay, I dread knowing the process at the computer will start again, yet I am excited. As a matter of fact, I love to write. That is the insane part. I love to write and I dread it. Maybe writing to me is a combination of love and dread. Maybe the feeling of dread is part of the excitement. In any case, if I didn’t have such a problem, maybe writing for me would be different. It could be a very simple process. Sit down, type, reread, smile, print, reread again, let mom read, read to dog, let whole world read, and be satisfied. If Ernest Hemingway or Ralph Waldo Emerson were here to tell me that I have potential or good writing skills or something like that, maybe writing would be a breeze for me. I’d have more confidence and satisfaction with what I wrote. Because that’s how I am. I need others’ approval. But I can’t get that without sharing my writing. Therefore, I am stuck between love and dread, striving for the perfect paper.

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Andrea Olsen: One-Hundred-Forty-Two Junes

Andrea Olsen is an English teacher at William Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois.  Thanks, Andrea, for this contribution. 

Each time I stepped on grandpa’s farm, my veins pushed through the bottoms of my feet, entangled with the oak roots, and together we would weave ourselves into the dark, timber soil. There was magic to the place. When I stood on the land, with the blood of my veins woven through the dirt, I heard four generations of my family whisper through crisp, white sky, through maple leaves, through my hair and into my heart. Anchored between their spirits and their land, I knew that I would always belong there. But then grandpa died. We buried him on a Halloween wild with wind and bitterness; still the earth opened up for him like it did for fifty Junes of farming. Leon Griesemer was the last of four Griesemer men who would open the earth and whose body the earth would swallow. Today he sleeps where he was happiest, and a new tenant occupies his house, caring little for the landscape that grew over one-hundred-forty-two years. All the magic of the farm has been destroyed. Gone is the Eastern White Pine wide enough for camping under on sticky August nights. The apple tree my cousins and I used to climb in order to be as tall as the ivy-bearded silo is a stump. Dry dirt and brittle branches are reminders of the dense bush that used to sit like a happy Buddha along the front porch. Forty acres of reliable, corn-yielding prairie are in the process of being split up and sold to people who may want to build on the land instead of plow it.

When I see the farm now, my toes squirm for a place to dig into. Feeling much of my life like a displaced mishmash of American suburbanite, living in a new house in a neighborhood of other new houses, that land was the closest thing I had to feeling rooted. At grandpa’s farm I could see my life beyond me; the farm was a place where I could envision four generations of my family tilling seed, raising ivory Percheron Stallions, and laughing together at the table in a time when family and land were everything that mattered. In Schaumburg, the concrete town of 75,000 where I was raised, there was never a place to dig into, to feel roots. So I cherish the pictures and sounds of the farm’s history that I envision, but now that the farm’s landscape is barely recognizable, the images of my history are harder to hold on to. As months pass, my memories and imaginings from the farm become like the tiny, yellow butterflies that used to die on grandpa’s porch and whose wings would break up and disintegrate between the weight of my clumsy fingers. No matter how hard I would try to be gentle with them and to preserve the vibrancy of their delicate beauty, the butterflies refused to stay whole when disturbed. I fear that in losing the landscape I will lose pieces of myself.

But before there were pieces of me to lose there was dirt and the landscape of trees and fields that belonged to grandpa for each of his eighty-four years, and to great and great-great and great-great-great grandpas Adam, Charlie, and Lee. And, like them, the landscape of my history includes a farmhouse, a barn, a silo, and a weepy white pine. Land, of course, does not sprout silos, so in order to build the landscape I call my own, I have to return to when Barbara Luley and Adamus Griesemer emigrated from Bobenthal Germany. The pair married on October 23, 1849, and in March of 1868, they bought ninety acres of land west of Bloomington, Illinois. I like to imagine Adam: He is standing at the center of his ninety acres, facing the eastern sun then turning counter-clockwise to face north, south, and west, facing nothingness and home. The flat earth meets the forever shock of white sky up ahead. A man and his family cannot live on empty land, so Adam picks up his hammer and begins building, his hands bloodied and blistered under clear April air. One month after the house and barn are topped with roofs, Adam picks up his plow and turns soil, then after the seed corn and soybeans are sown, he uses June to cultivate and weed. Many seasons later, when Adam is tired from turning the dirt of forty-eight Junes, he lies down on his skeletal mattress one September night and gives himself to God. He would not see the harvest of that October. This is how I imagine my story began; this is the start of my place.

After Adam died, his son Charlie cared for the land, and besides farming, Charlie worked as a wood whittler, photographer, and concrete constructor. “Concrete Charlie” added to the landscape a garage east of the house, a washhouse with a cellar, and a small shed; all of these additions were made from Charlie’s hefty concrete bricks. When it was time for Charlie to go into the earth, his son Lee inherited every odd thing his father left behind, and my grandpa inherited the rest from Lee. My grandpa admired his grandfather Charlie, but I do not imagine that it was in Charlie’s buildings – the garage or the washhouse – that grandpa dug his roots. What mattered to grandpa were the fields. It was on those fields that grandpa spent half of his life, working and hoping for good harvest; farmers do not have faith in buildings. Farmers have faith in the earth.

I doubt that I will ever know what it means to pray to the June sky for rain. My survival will never depend on the rhythm of the seasons. I will never turn the dirt, but my rootedness still includes the landscape of the Griesemer Homestead because each acre, rich with adventure, forms the foundation of my memories. And even though I can still walk the farm grounds and see that the buildings still stand, my memories are breaking up because they were most rooted in the vegetation that as early as two years ago guarded the house like warrior angels, daring people and nature to change things. For my mom the considerable blow taken to the oak is most devastating. For me, it’s the pine. When I visited the farm five months after grandpa followed Adam, Charlie, and Lee into the ground, the piece of sky that the pine once occupied was bare. I drove the gravel road leading to the house, and because that was the tree that stood at the end of the drive, it was the first change I recognized. I always parked beside the tree’s wide, weepy branches, and because it was taller than the house and as broad as two pickups, the farm felt empty again. It felt like the century and a half spent building the landscape, building my family, had been erased. I sank. Within the passing a single season, I had lost the grandfather whose accordion music and laughter delighted babies, strong men, and me. Then, the only landscape with which I identified, the magic place whose soil sucked down my veins and rooted me there, had died too.

When we involuntarily lose bits of ourselves, we grieve. I grieve by investigating what I’ve lost. So, not long ago, with the sun starring in the open sky, I kneeled in the band of dust that encircles what’s left of my pine, and I counted rings. One-hundred-ten rings wind around the crown of the stumpy trunk. Prostrated over the stoop with eyes shut tight, I grieved the loss of my youth. When the August corn in grandpa’s fields had grown two feet above my head, I used to sit under the pine tree and listen to a silence like I never heard in Schaumburg. I took in bottomless breaths of the wild dirt that our suburban pavement suffocates. Sitting under that tree, my bare legs crossed out in front of me and the fallen brown needles pressing into the backs of my thighs and imprinting the palms of my hands, I became closer to being myself than I could be anyplace else. I could breathe. I was home. The small pools of sun that sprinkled through open patches of sparse, sagging bottom branches were the glimmers of reassurance that reminded me, “This is where you are from. This is where you belong.” When the nights were too hot for tents, my cousins and I would sleep under the tree, our ten naked feet peeking out from under disheveled blankets at the ends of its heavy arms. All of us fit from one end of the pine to the other when we huddled together and slept side by side. In the morning, Leland made his famous flapjacks under the apple tree. And we laughed. We laughed about nothing in particular until bits of flapjack batter were flying from our noses and mouths. We were smelly and sweaty from the heavy, humid air, but we were so happy.

The pine is gone, and what is gone takes time to restore; another pine as stately as what’s lost will take another century to rise. As our acreage is sold, my family hopes to be diligent in surrendering the land to another farmer who will work the fields because once planted, concrete takes too long to crumble. I understand that time moves forward and people move too, but there is a sacred splendor in belonging to a place and in knowing that for one-hundred-forty-two Junes the people whose lives made my life possible dug their cultivators deep into row after narrow row of the same land. No matter what places I occupy in my life, grandpa’s farm will always be the one place whose soil my feet and veins and heart can dig into. I have difficulty reconciling the places where I’m from with the places where I’m going.

When I was little, my mom told me that we were going to visit “Grandpa on the Farm” because it was an easy way to distinguish the difference between my two grandfathers. The title stuck, and grandpa was, is, and will always be “Grandpa on the Farm.” You don’t separate grandpa from the farm. Grandpa is the farm, and I am part of grandpa. I am part of Lee and Marzella, Charlie and Ida, and Barbara and Adam, who started my story. I try to hold on to the memories and images of my story by closing my eyes. When I do, I see four women walking through a field, walking through time, with glasses of skimmed milk and shavings of skinned chickens for their husbands pushing plows then riding tractors. Barefooted, the women cook dinner over wood burning then gas stoves and sprout milk from their heavy, ivory breasts into the soft, pink mouths of happy babies. I see Adam’s blistered hands and I watch little Lee pump water by the white pine into a metal pail under the thick, August sky, his canvas trousers rolled up and his ruffled shirt collar bouncing as he pumps. I see grandpa. He is standing in the front yard, next to our Eastern White Pine, smiling big like he did better than anyone. He is wearing a green John Deere cap, navy Dickie’s, and black Velcro K-Mart shoes. There’s a pipe tucked in his flannel shirt pocket, he smells like cherry tobacco, and he’s waving, laughing out the word “Howdy!” Through time and in the farm’s changing landscape, these images will break up like brittle butterfly wings in my brain, but, like today, at least I have words to help keep them alive.

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Zapping Apathy with Chat-Based Test Review

One of the year-end rituals with debatable value is final exams. At our school, most classes are required to end with a 90-minute final exam that comprehensively tests a semester’s worth of curriculum. This test is to be preceded by some kind of meaningful review.

I’m not a big fan of those tests or the reviews. Some teachers hand out massive review packets that students labor over for several days before the test. Maybe that works. I’m not judging, but it seems to me that if you can teach the whole class from a single packet in a few days, why not do that at the beginning instead of the end, and then move on to some kind of individualized learning projects for the rest of the semester?

My own approach is to post the essay questions online at the beginning of the semester so that students know exactly what’s coming and their thoughts can sort of incubate as the semester goes along. My review sessions sort of go like this: “OK. Does anyone have any questions about the final exam material?” As exam day draws closer, the questions become more specific, and I can see that the students are preparing, connecting ideas, considering organizational plans, and talking things over with each other.

Which brings me to what happened this week. In our American Studies class, our Ning provides a lot of resources and learning possibilities. One of the features that I don’t use very often is chat. I’m concerned that if I just left it on 24/7 it would be abused. My students are pretty solid, but I’m not comfortable with leaving a chat window wide open around the clock, so I don’t.

On the two evenings before our final exam, however, I opened up the chat, and good things happened. On the first night 9 or 10 students (out of 52) popped in and out. They asked some questions. I answered them, although they also answered questions for each other if I was away from the computer for a bit.

On the second night—Final Exam Eve—about half the class participated in a rich, flowing review session that was more satisfying than any in-class discussion we had all year! Joshua said he was having trouble thinking of a third example for his essay. Katie gave him an idea. I’ve never seen Joshua and Katie exchange a word to each other in class, but online they were learning together. Mike asked a question about how to organize his essay. Scott and Sam threw in their advice. Sara asked me to explain a phrase that I’d used in class a few times—“Individual Liberty vs. Preservation of Order.” I explained it, giving a few examples, and then a different Sara chimed in with another perfect example. At one point I said, “”Why do I have the feeling that our class would be different if we met at 10:00 at night instead of 7:30 in the morning?”

As the two-hour session continued, Sam and Kyle started teasing each a little bit, which I watched carefully, but I didn’t mind too much as they included our Greek roots-based vocabulary words in their gentle barbs: “Sam, I don’t understand you. Your language is too esoteric!” “Oh, my antipathy is boiling over!” “I’m LOL-ing so hard I’m afraid my endocrine gland is gonna burst!”

At about 10:30 p.m., I gave fair warning that I would be ending the chat and removing it from the Ning at 11:00 p.m. Immediately, students started organizing a way to move the chat to Facebook. They talked about who would set it up, which happened in a flash, and how to invite everybody in. At 11:05, I asked if anyone had last-minute questions for me. A few students said thanks, and then I removed the chat feature and went to bed.

The next morning the test session began at 7:30 a.m. The chat participants didn’t seem particularly sleep-deprived. On the contrary, they seemed energized. Mike said, “That Ning chat was awesome.” Kim, who hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for anything all year, actually threw her fist in the year and yelled, “Woo, Ning chat!”

As it turns out, the students created the “American Studies Chat after 11:00” group on Facebook, complete with an avatar photo of my teaching partner and I recreating the famous 1890 Burnham and Root photo in The Rookery. They continued chatting there for another hour or so, and although I haven’t seen a transcript, they told me it continued in the same vein as the Ning chat that I was monitoring. (They posted a few ideas in the Group that were mostly funny, but most of the productive conversation happened through live messaging, they tell me.)

So what did I learn from this? First of all, students who are reluctant to participate in class can thrive in an online discussion. Second, online activities can be productive, good-natured, and valuable. (One of my colleagues the next morning poo-pooed the idea of an online test review as “a waste of time.” Um, not really.) Third, online activities can increase a sense of community as students interact with each other in ways that may not happen in a classroom. Finally, learning occurred because of the technology involved. If we had not conducted this chat-based test review, those students probably would not have communicated with each other or with me in the same way, and their learning would not have been enriched by that communication.

In the future, I’m looking for ways to use live, chat-based sessions for other learning opportunities. I’ve got some ideas, but I’d appreciate suggestions, success stories, and reactions. Thanks.

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The Brave Faces

My heart is with kids who say to themselves:

• I try but I still fail, and I don’t know why.
• If someone in my family doesn’t get a job soon, I don’t know what’s going to happen.
• I don’t like to read. I know most of the words but they don’t connect.
• My teacher has favorites. I’m not one of them.
• I go to a school with thousands of students and hundreds of grown-ups but no one talks to me.
• My parents check my grades every day and always find something to complain about even when my grades are all good.
• My friends are bad influences but I don’t know what to do about it.
• I’ve never had a boyfriend/girlfriend. Am I normal?
• I’d like to go to prom but we can’t afford it.
• My classes don’t teach me anything I need to know.
• I try to be friendly but people act like I’m not there.
• If my parent goes to prison, I’m not sure what will happen to my family.
• I’m angry and afraid I’m going to hurt somebody.
• I don’t have a computer at home so I can’t do certain homework like other kids.
• My teacher doesn’t like me and I don’t know why.
• I’d like to have friends but I don’t know how.
• I don’t understand math the way other kids do.
• Everybody tells me to take advanced classes but they’re so hard that it’s ruining my life.
• I don’t see where I fit in at school.
• When my teacher calls on me I’m afraid to answer in case I’m wrong, so I always say, “I don’t know.”
• I think I’m depressed but I don’t know what to do about it.
• My boyfriend hits me.
• My mom hits me.
• My dad hits me.
• I’m going to graduate but I know I’m not ready for college.
• There are people in my school who scare me.

Those of us who work in schools are surrounded by brave faces suffering in silence. Today’s challenge: Say, “Hello. How are you doing?” We might get an answer; we might not. Either way, a simple exchange like that can do more than the words convey as we let students know they are not alone and not invisible.

We can’t solve all the problems, but we can smile and say, “Hello.”


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Surprise! Students Read!

Our school has a huge number of students with very active reading lives! I thought that most students only read books when they were required to do so for school, and a certain amount of that reading was “enhanced” by SparkNotes. It’s not true. We have many, many, many, many students who enjoy reading, talking to each other about books, and hunting for their next good book to read.

Why did I have this misconception? Several years ago we had a school-wide “silent sustained reading (SSR)” program. It died a miserable, ugly death. Many students and teachers looked for ways to not do the program. This year, several teachers have introduced SSR dimensions to their individual classes, and in every case, it’s working extremely well. Students who have never read books are doing it and finding it rewarding.

It’s no big secret that our school’s English Department and numerous other school personnel read Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It. That books explains how schools are killing a love of reading in four specific ways:

– Focusing on test preparation skills at the expense of reading instruction

– Overteaching books and sucking all of the life and joy out of them

– Assigning books that are irrelevant and too difficult for the students

– Not providing authentic reading experiences

I’m guilty of all of the above, but my eyes are open now. I’ll do better.

Another book has also influenced my thinking about students’ reading habits: Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer. Miller is a sixth-grade teacher in Texas whose students read at least forty books a year and consistently exceed state standards in reading. Her students all do the same assignments, but they never read the same books. Her approach is highly successful in developing lifelong readers. Sixth grade and high school have obvious differences, but Donalyn Miller is on to something, and her ideas deserve consideration at the high school level.

I’m also inspired by Daniel Pennac’s “The Rights of the Reader”:

1. The right to not read.

2. The right to skip pages.

3. The right to not finish.

4. The right to reread.

5. The right to read anything.

6. The right to escapism.

7. The right to read anywhere.

8. The right to browse.

9. The right to read out loud.

10. The right not to defend your tastes.

If we can somehow find ways to encourage students to exercise these rights, we will take huge steps in developing a culture of readers in our school.

So, to all of you readers, congratulations. You’re doing yourself a huge favor by finding time to read, reflect, and talk about books. You don’t have to be underground about it. There are a lot of you. If some people think you’re wasting your time, it says more about them than it does about you. Keep going.

If you’re a student who hasn’t yet found the book that lights your fire, let’s see what we can do about that. It’s not too late. We’ll gladly help you find a book that suits your tastes. Take a look at for some suggestions. Talk to your school or public librarian.  They exist to help you find books.

For any parents who happen to be reading this: Please help your sons and daughters get books in their hands that they will enjoy.

As always, your comments and questions are welcome.

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Writers on Writing

Some of the most important writers of our time have gone on camera to talk about their craft and give advice on how to think about writing.  Here are some of the best…

“1. Keep your hand moving. When you sit down to write, whether it’s for ten minutes or an hour, once you begin, don’t stop. If an atom bomb drops at your feet eight minutes after you have begun and you were going to write for ten minutes, don’t budge. You’ll go out writing.…

2.  Lose control. Say what you want to say. Don’t worry if it’s correct, polite, appropriate. Just let it rip.…

3.  Be specific. Not car, but Cadillac. Not fruit, but apple. Not bird, but wren. Not a codependent, neurotic man, but Harry, who runs to open the refrigerator for his wife, thinking she wants an apple, when she is headed for the gas stove to light her cigarette.”

—Natalie Goldberg


“ A good device to remember is the fishhook. It rises slowly and then hooks back, so it will dig in and stick. It is barbed. Its curve points back to its beginning, to remind itself and the reader where it came from.

Many professionals employ the Hook in their writing: They begin with a word, action, or symbol and at the end of their article or story come back to it. All that has intervened between the first and second mention makes its second appearance more exciting or significant than its first.”

—Ken Macrorie


“ When we have spent enough years on earth and gained knowledge of the longing that exist within us and in the hearts of others, we may finally understand that if there is anything truer than truth, it is the legend with which we frail mortals embellish that truth.”

—Robert Phillips


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