Tag Archives: Writing

From “Oops!” to “Aha!”: A Story of Reflection and Reflexivity

NCTE15

I’ve said this before: We can write our way out of dark places. I know because I’ve done it. But how much of the writing that we assign in school nurtures that kind of ability? If we want to students to better understand their own reflective and reflexive abilities, it helps if we develop those capacities in ourselves. Which brings me to a story …

Once upon a time I was stuck. I wasn’t stuck in everything. Home life was great. My classes were great. My colleagues were great. But my professional development just sucked, and I was stuck within some unconsciously self-imposed boundaries.

I’m not going to dwell on what was wrong with the professional development I was experiencing at my school. I don’t really want to re-live that other than to set up what came after. I didn’t agree philosophically with the ideas and practices that were being mandated and imposed. I despised the role I was being asked to play in promoting those ideas and practices, and I was horrified at how quickly this ugly blob was expanding.

My dissatisfaction with this one area of my professional life wasn’t really affecting my classroom or personal and professional relationships, but it was affecting my self. As I drove to work or mowed the lawn or wrote in my journal, I found myself reflecting on what I disagreed with, but I found that I couldn’t do too much about it. I knew exactly what was wrong but felt relatively powerless to change it.

Have you seen that video of people stuck on an escalator? They are riding up an escalator in a mall or business center, and it suddenly stops. They go into full meltdown about how awful it is, and how they hope someone will fix it soon. In reality, all they have to do is take a few steps, and they will be off the escalator and on to wherever they were headed. Of course, there is no reason to be stuck on an escalator. Just get off the damn thing. But that was me. I was stuck on the escalator of ugly professional development for a while, too long.

This is where reflexivity comes in. As I processed all this in my journal, first I complained, then wondered, and then epiphany: Get off the escalator!

Even though I couldn’t change the problem, I could reflexively re-define how I engaged with it. So that’s what I did. I just stepped back and stopped investing in that part of my job. I still had to go to meetings and do stuff, but I did the minimum amount, and I tried not to dwell on it.

But professional development is important! As I reflected on this some more, I realized that I had a narrow understanding of what professional development opportunities were available to me.

Then some doors opened. At the NCTE convention in San Antonio, I was talking to Jodi, a teacher from suburban St. Louis. She said she thought I would like Jim Burke’s new social media site English Companion Ning.

I went home and jumped on that, and boy did I carpe that diem! I found even more incredible colleagues, including people who have become dear friends. I found a place to help other teachers, ask questions, write about my ideas and opinions, and actually collaborate with others to build online professional development opportunities for a larger community.

Those energizing connections have led me to all kinds of rewarding relationships and valuable professional experiences, including writing, publishing, and speaking opportunities; renewed energy for the classroom; and authentic collaboration.

So, exactly what realizations did I gain from all of that active reflection? Here are three:

1. I had two sets of colleagues, one on-site and one mostly online. I valued both of them, and it seemed strange to me that they didn’t know each other. To my great satisfaction, many of my online colleagues are now people I see with some regularity, and my on-site colleagues and online colleagues have even worked together on some projects.

2. I realized the difference between my job and my work. My job is where I report each day, practice my craft, try to help as many people as possible, and earn a paycheck. My work is deeper and goes beyond the school where I worked. This realization served me extremely well when I retired from that job in 2014. My job ended, but my work has not ended at all. My work continues in all kinds of interesting, rewarding ways. I’m the most un-retired retired teacher you can imagine.

3. Although my job dissatisfaction never affected my work in the classroom, it did affect my underlying attitudes. When those attitudes became more positive and when the new professional development resulted in actual learning, my teaching and professional life became even more energized.

To put a fine point on all of this, reflection helped me understand the problem. Reflexivity helped me solve it.
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At last month’s National Council of Teachers of English convention in Minneapolis, I was honored to be co-chair of a session entitled “From ‘Oops’ to ‘Aha!’: Reflection as a Creative Act.” This is a slightly different version of what I talked about in that presentation. Thanks to everyone who joined us on that Sunday morning and contributed to this powerful session at NCTE15, and thanks to everyone who read about it here.

I always welcome and appreciate your comments, especially if you have ideas on how to expand on this idea at next year’s NCTE convention.

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Life in a College Writing Center

successservices

Although I’m busy doing several different jobs in my un-retirement, one of my favorites is tutoring in a college writing center. Maybe some understanding of my work there can be useful to high school teachers as they seek to fulfill the elusive nature of what it means for their students to be “college-ready” writers.

I work with college students on their writing for classes from across the curriculum. About half of the writing I see originates in English classes; the other half comes from other departments, most commonly nursing, art, history, engineering, speech, and psychology. I also see students seeking help for writing personal statements as they prepare to transfer to other schools, applying for internships or other work experiences, and developing ideas to use in their first-year seminars.

Here is the dilemma for college writers. Each student takes an English class, right? In that class he may work on organization, argument, voice, synthesizing ideas from a variety of sources, and overall coherence. Then he goes to his next class—let’s say it’s a nursing class—and the writing expectations are completely different. The writing in a nursing class is expected to be devoid of any personal flavor—no synonyms, no transitions, and definitely no opinions. Then he goes to his history class where his writing is expected to be objective at times and subjective at other times. In each class, the instructor sees writing a certain way and usually has very little understanding of the writing expected of the student in his other classes. But that student must navigate all of these expectations and switch gears for each writing assignment. My work in the writing center is to help our students see that dilemma more clearly: Although the instructors contradict each other, they are merely responding to the needs of their disciplines.

What do I find so gratifying about this work? First of all, it’s one-on-one. Each student comes in with a writing-related problem, and we work together to make progress on it. Sometimes that involves a quick lesson on a mechanical or usage issue. Sometimes they know they are missing transitions, or a conclusion, or examples. Some are mystified by documentation requirements. The guiding principle in the writing center is this: Developing the writer is more important than developing the writing. In other words, we’re not focused on “fixing” this paper right now; we’re more interested in helping the student become a better writer.

My favorite tutoring sessions are those that involve brainstorming. This happens when a student arrives and says, “I have this assignment, and I don’t know how to start.” I take a look at the assignment, clarify the student’s understanding, and then I ask, “Is it OK if I take some notes while we talk?” Then I ask some guiding questions, writing down the parts that sound most interesting. As the student continues to explain her thoughts, I try to see what parts fit together, and how it might work as a coherent response to the assignment. At some point, I’ll say, “How about this?” and then show her a rough outline of her own ideas that might just work as an approach. The looks on their faces when they see an outline of their own words just waiting to be fleshed out in paragraphs is enormously gratifying.

Another very cool aspect of working in the writing center comes from the fact that so many of our students are new to America for a variety of reasons. I learn so much from them! I’ve had fascinating conversations about Jamaican cooking, Polish World War II heroes, Nigerian schooling, and how Russians view themselves as different from Americans. (“Americans like to have fun. Russians are sooooo serious all the time.”) I’ve always known that one of the advantages of being a writing teacher is improving my understanding of human nature, and working in the writing center definitely reinforces that advantage.

What implications does all of this have for high school teachers trying to achieve “college-readiness”? Well …
1. We can avoid drinking the kool-aid of the standardized testing industry that tries to define college-ready writing in terms of their for-profit test platform. I’ve never seen a standardized test that approximates the writing expected in college. The new ACT writing test is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t come close to the demands of a typical college class.
2. We need to prepare students for writing in many different modes. Expressive, narrative, objective, research, expository, analytical, and persuasive writing are all alive and well on college campuses—and students frequently must write in more than one of those modes during the same semester in different classes.
3. We can help students become comfortable with talking about their writing. Conferring with high school students about their writing, and helping them become comfortable with asking questions about their papers will serve them very well as they meet with professors and tutors to discuss their work. A bonus for high school teachers who do writing conferences is the relationship-building that happens when we talk with students about their words and ideas.

As always, thank you for the work you do, and for reading this.

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How to Prepare Students for the New ACT Writing Test

tmb-writing-promptThose of us involved in helping students prepare for the ACT test should know about some significant changes in the writing portion that rolled out in September. ACT calls the changes “enhancements,” and that’s probably a pretty good word because the changes are positive ones, at least in my opinion.

Here are the major changes:
1. The writing test is now 40 minutes instead of 30 minutes.
2. The format is now focused on “contemporary issues” rather than on specifically school-related topics. The first new topic, for example, was “Bad Laws.”
3. While the original ACT writing test asked students to choose and defend one side or the other of a topic, the new writing test has a wider scope. Students are now given brief perspectives on an issue, and they are required to evaluate those perspectives within a framework that includes their own point of view on the issue.
4. The scoring is different. The previous writing test holistically scored essays on a 1-12 scale and figured that into a Combined English/Writing score. The new version will score the essay 1-36, but instead of a holistic approach, the scorers will give separate ratings in four domains: Ideas and Analysis, Organization, Development and Support, and Language and Conventions. The essay score will be part of a new ELA score, which is the average of the ACT English, writing, and reading subscores.

How can we prepare students for these changes? First, we need to familiarize them with the format changes. They should know about the time change, as well as how to use the space provided on the test for planning and pre-writing. The pre-writing questions and blank space can serve as a useful checklist and “sandbox” for writers as they make sure each of the prompt’s expectations is fulfilled.

Second, we need to help students understand that the structure of this essay will be different from those written for the old test. While the old either-or writing test asked students to formulate and defend a one-dimensional opinion, the new test requires students to articulate a more sophisticated thesis. The essay’s main idea needs to be complex enough to allow evaluation of each of the provided perspectives as well the writer’s own point of view. It’s no longer “Here are three reasons why I’m right.” Now it’s more like “I believe because . Therefore, I consider Perspective A more valid, and Perspectives B and C less valid.”

The writing approach required on the new test is more in line with what college writing is actually like. The ACT is a college aptitude test, so it’s now more likely to assess a student’s preparedness for the kinds of writing he will encounter in post-secondary classes. The old version of the writing test always seemed to me like it was a high school achievement test rather than a college aptitude test.

My only concern with the new test is that the breakdown of those domain components doesn’t seem to recognize or allow for writing with exceptional style. If a student’s language is mechanically perfect but otherwise flat, what Language and Conventions subscore should she expect? I’d really like to see the rating markers within each domain of the rubric, and maybe those will eventually be made public.

Click here for ACT’s sample of the new writing test format.

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How Do We Teach Style in Research Writing?

research_0“And this needs to be in MLA format.”

Those of us who teach in the humanities frequently ask our students to use MLA format when writing research documentation. Because a lot of research writing tends to come through English classes, especially in high school, students are most often exposed to MLA rules for citing sources.

Although there is nothing wrong with that, teachers should know that APA style is also alive and well on college campuses. Focusing exclusively on MLA might cause problems for students when they step foot on a college campus. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for teaching research writing in high school and introductory college writing classes.

Let’s take a step back. MLA is the acronym for the Modern Language Association, an organization focused on the use and study of language, primarily in academic settings associated with the humanities. APA is the acronym for the American Psychological Association, an organization focused on all aspects of psychology that has developed a set of rules and standards for scientific writing used across many disciplines. Although MLA and APA are the most common formats used on college campuses, there are some professors who require papers written in other formats: Turabian, Harvard, Chicago Manual of Style, and IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers).

Because college students are likely to encounter multiple documentation formats in their classes, introducing students to research writing by requiring them to memorize the specifics of a particular documentation format is less important than helping them know how to find the right format. After all, the formatting rules change from time to time rendering obsolete those memorized specifics. If a student knows MLA and only MLA, confusion can arise when college professors require other formats.

Although I work with many humanities students using MLA format for documentation, one of my biggest eye-openers from working in our college’s writing center is the depth involved in the term “APA style.” Papers written in “APA style” for a nursing, psychology, or sociology class look very different from interpretive papers for an English class or a narrative for a child development class.

In other words, an individual college student is required to write in widely varying styles as he goes from class to class, so as we prepare students for college writing, we need to make them aware of these different expectations.

For example, in addition to documentation and page layout, APA style actually includes a rhetorical stance that emphasizes precision, clarity, and objectivity, which is consistent with APA’s scientific orientation.

apa pub manWhile more expressive writing may strive for variety by using synonyms, the APA Publication Manual suggests that using synonyms is risky in scientific writing: “The intention is commendable, but by using synonyms you may unintentionally suggest a subtle difference. Therefore, choose synonyms with care. The discreet use of pronouns can often relieve the monotonous repetition of a term without introducing ambiguity.”

APA style also prefers “economy of expression”: “Say only what needs to be said. The author who is frugal with words not only writes a more readable manuscript but also increases the chances that the manuscript will be accepted for publication.” (“Publication” as used here clearly refers to academic or technical journals.)

For precision and clarity, APA suggests avoiding colloquial expressions and jargon, and being careful when using pronouns or comparisons.

APA style also has no use for what the Publication Manual calls “linguistic devices”: “Devices that attract attention to words, sounds, or other embellishments instead of to ideas are inappropriate in scientific writing. Avoid heavy alliteration, rhyming, poetic expressions, and clichés. Use metaphors sparingly … Use figurative expressions with restraint and colorful expressions with care.”

Perhaps the most important element of writing in APA style is the issue of bias. The APA Publication Manual devotes seven pages to guidelines for reducing bias in language relevant to gender, sexual orientation, racial and ethnic identity, disabilities, age, and “historical and interpretive inaccuracies.” Objectivity is obviously important in scientific writing: “If your writing reflects respect for your participants and your readers and if you write with appropriate specificity and precision, you will be contributing to the goal of accurate, unbiased communication.”

So, if we want students to be college-ready writers when it comes to research, here are some suggestions:

1. Provide students with practice in a variety of rhetorical stances, including those without traces of subjectivity or bias. In an earlier post, I wrote about how students think they are not supposed to use “I” in their writing, although they frequently misunderstand the intention of that rule. Be the teacher who helps writers understand how to adapt their writing to all kinds of situations.

2. Provide students with practice in following in detail at least one specific documentation format, but make sure they are aware of the existence of others.

3. Help students understand the mechanics and purposes of documentation. Be aware of the existence of automatic citation generators such as EasyBib, BibMe (my favorite), and Citation Machine. These are amazing time-savers, but they work more smoothly for those who understand what is being created. Although students are responsible for the results of their work, those who use these sites are not cheating.. In fact, many databases and college libraries now provide citations in a variety of formats alongside the entries so that users can simply cut-and-paste them.

expository_books4. Help students understand the dichotomy of research writing. Research is not writing, and writing is not research. They are two separate activities. As we said in Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice, “Good writers can create sloppy, meaningless research projects, and good researchers can write research papers that are dreadful to read.”

Of course, research writing is just one element of a healthy writing curriculum. In addition to the research writing discussed here, young writers need opportunities to practice narrative, analytical, expository, personal, and creative writing. Students who are comfortable and competent in all of those modes are ready to face not only academic writing challenges but can also embrace writing as a vital, fulfilling means of expression.

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What a Night!: Fremd High School’s #WriteNite

write nite sign
Kudos to Fremd High School for holding its first Write Nite last night as a fund-raiser for their mighty Writers Week program. (Disclaimer: Although I was an organizer for Fremd’s Writers Week for many years, my only involvement in Write Nite was as an enthralled observer.) What is Write Nite? Well, it can take many forms, but Fremd’s version included the following:

Three students involved in spoken word poetry who opened with pieces that set the tone for the evening by combining humor, insight, courage, and excellent writing

The Ukeladies—two talented singers who played ukuleles and sang parodies of Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum songs, including a version of “I Need You Now” that served as a plea to the superintendent to call off school due to cold weather. The superintendent was in the audience for Write Nite, and he later tweeted, “Totally energizing and glad-to-be-alive-in-this-moment evening at Fremd. Outstanding performances by all. Great for the soul!”

Ed Nickow—the father of a Fremd English teacher whose day job has nothing to do with writing but who has become something of an online celebrity due to his blogging and his Twitter persona @TheCubsInHaiku

A haiku competition featuring people who have the same names—a married couple who both teach at Fremd, siblings who both teach at Fremd, two students who have the same name, and a teacher and student who both share the same name

An a cappella competition—a mini-Pitch Perfect show with three groups of energetic singers

Write Club—a head-to-head competition between writers on assigned topics, including students who blog together writing about siblings; the newspaper advisor on Truth and the state champion sportswriter on Dare; the principal advocating online communication and Fremd’s tech director advocating face-to-face communication

Semester Abroad—a student pop-punk band that brought the crowd to its feet and eventually turned the media center into a mosh pit

The energy in that room was amazing. A lot of schools are dragging at this point in the year, but the faculty, students, parents, alumni, and community members at Write Nite were the opposite of dragging.
Fremd High School is a writing community. The best student writers are as well-known and respected as any other campus paragon. Many teachers at Fremd understand writing as something more than an academic endeavor; they cover the academic bases when it comes to writing, but they go far, far beyond regarding writing as nothing more than assignments and test prep. Many students at Fremd use writing as an outlet and as recreation. And, of course, for 21 years Fremd has hosted Writers Week, an annual week-long celebration of writing that brings together student, faculty, and professional writers.

write nite hansBeyond writing though, last night the school strengthened itself as a community. The audience cheered the principal. They cheered teachers. They cheered each other. Take a look at the #WriteNite hashtag on Twitter. One student said, ” There isn’t a lot to love about public high school, but the allegiance Fremd kids feel towards Writer’s Week is something to believe in.”

Any school can do what I saw last night at Fremd’s Write Nite. All it takes is dedicated teachers willing to plan, work, and organize, along with a supportive administration and community. Every school has student writers. That’s the easy part. Find the writers and build a program around them.

I’ll bet the fund-raising part of Write Nite turned out well, but that’s almost beside the point. What happened last night in the school’s media center for three hours helped Fremd’s students experience writing with a depth and passion that is rare in schools. I’m proud of my former colleagues and students for what they put out in the world last night. Respecting student writers and holding up their work is something that Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois does extremely well.

Lately I’ve been seeing this quote from business consultant and writer Shawn Parr: “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” In other words, you can strategize all you want, but your organization’s culture is really its essence. Schools need to strategize to a certain extent, but you have to work with the culture that is already in place. From what I saw at Write Nite last night, Fremd’s culture as a community of writers is in a very healthy place.

Thanks for an inspirational evening.

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Hello and Goodbye: Introductions and Conclusions

hello my name isStudent question: “Does this paper need an introduction?”

My answer: “I think that would be polite. Do you agree?”

Quizzical looks follow. What does politeness have to do with writing an introduction?

Then I explain that an introduction is really just a way of saying hello to our readers, and usually when we say hello we try to be polite.

Many students come to us with formulaic notions of what an introduction should be and do. They think an introduction is a paragraph that begins with a startling statement, dictionary definition, or provocative question, followed by a general overview of the topic, and ends with a thesis statement as the last sentence.

That’s a nice little checklist, and maybe it’s useful for very young writers, but writers with any sophistication at all are ready to move beyond those limits.

If we are helping students think of writing as authentic communication between human minds rather than as the culmination of piling predictable rhetorical bricks upon bricks, an introduction becomes something much more interesting.

Most human interactions begin with some variation of “hello,” right? We say hello when we formally meet someone for the first time. We usually say hello to the people we see every day. Sometimes we say hello to an old friend after being apart for a long while. Within each of these situations, we can bring a variety of attitudes to the interaction. For example, a blind date is different from an inherently adversarial first meeting, as in some kind of legal proceeding. We say hello differently depending on the situation. The same is true of writing introductions.

If we help students think of writing introductions as a way of saying hello, we are asking them to think deeply about important elements of composition, including audience, purpose, and tone.

  • Who is my audience? Is it one person, a specific group, or a more amorphous readership? Do we have any kind of pre-existing relationship with this audience? What kind of approach is most likely to engage this audience, and what kind of approach is more likely to create distance?
  • Why am I writing this piece? Assuming it’s meant to be read by others, the piece has a purpose–persuasion, nostalgia, delivery of information, call to action, etc. What is the best way to say hello to my specific audience that is most likely to achieve my purpose? Do I engage charmingly and then work my way up to the most challenging main points? Do I drop an attention-getting bombshell right away and then attempt to pull together the shrapnel? Do I begin with a straightforward preview of what I’m going to say in the rest of the piece?
  • What about tone? What attitude should I adopt at the beginning of this piece in order to elicit a certain type of response from a reader? If I immediately begin ranting, how is a reader likely to respond? If my introduction is stuffy or overly academic, what effect will that have on my audience?

When we discuss tone, students usually are quick to understand that whatever attitude we present in writing or face-to-face is likely to be reflected back to us from our audience.

A great discussion usually emerges when I explain a bit of theory from psychologist Eric Berne’s transactional analysis model. Berne said that we operate from one of three ego states when we interact with each other: Parent, Adult, or Child. These terms have specific meanings in Berne’s model. If we act like a Child (unreasonable, overly emotional), the person we are interacting with will likely respond as a Parent (condescending, authoritarian). If we act like a Parent, the person we are interacting with will likely respond as a Child. However, if we act like an Adult (reasonable, empathetic), the person we are interacting with is also likely to respond as an Adult. In this way we can predict and, to a degree, control how others will respond to our tone.

With this understanding of tone in mind, a writer can decide whether to begin concretely, emotionally, or poetically. Good writers are good decision-makers, and that decision-making ability is really the most valuable skill we can help develop in young writers.

But what about writing conclusions? Well, a conclusion is really just saying goodbye. As with introductions, we say goodbye in a variety of ways depending on the situation and the people involved. Maybe that will be another blog post.

Meanwhile, thank you for reading this. Your comments are always welcome. (Goodbye.)

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Learning with Second-Language English Writers

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One of my biggest learning challenges this year has been figuring out how to help writers for whom English is a second language. These are students who have completed English as a Second Language (ESL) programs and classes but who are not completely fluent in English. They are fluent in their native languages–Serbian, Ukrainian, Jamaican Creole, Polish, Spanish, Japanese, Turkish, Korean, and Hindi—but their English includes non-standard idioms, expressions, and mechanical errors.

Interestingly, I can converse with these students almost perfectly. They may have accents, but I have an accent too. With the help of eye contact, vocal inflections, and gestures, we can understand each other easily. I’ve enjoyed fascinating conversations with many students this year about cooking, culture clashes, technology, and schooling. But when it comes to writing, the communication begins to break down.

The most common types of English errors from second-language writers include missing articles, missing or misused prepositions, and variations on irregular nouns and verbs. I can understand why these are tricky for those still learning the finer points of English. Of course, I also see errors in tense, sentence formation, spelling, and punctuation, but native English speakers frequently make these kinds of errors too.

So I find myself wrestling with how to separate the second-language issues from the other composition concerns. In other words, as I look at a student’s writing, I try to understand what its strengths would be if it were written in the student’s native language. Even when the writing is somewhat garbled, I can usually tell if the thoughts are organized, developed, and focused. In many cases, the writing includes significant amounts of explanation, detail, and even some humor.

I’ve always believed that clear writing represents clear thinking, and unclear writing represents unclear thinking. For a second-language English writer, I’m not sure that’s true. His thinking might be completely clear in his native language, but his lack of facility in English muddles that clarity in the version I’m seeing. Like I said, the clarity isn’t completely obliterated; it’s just muddled. But it might be perfect in his native language.

When working with students in our writing center, I usually begin by asking how I can help them. Many second-language writers say, “Tell me all of my mistakes. I want to write in English perfectly.” So how do I help these motivated but sometimes frustrated students move forward as writers?

First, I look for patterns in their errors. I learned this diagnostic practice from Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations back in the 1970s, and it’s served me well for several decades. For example, if I can point out to a student that she is missing articles in several places, she will frequently say something like, “Oh, yes. In my language we do not have articles, so I make that error.” Then we can go from there. Of course, I’m limited by my understanding of my students’ native languages, but they usually are expert enough to help me help them if I point out a consistent error pattern.

The second approach is to urge simplicity of expression. I frequently see students who write complex sentences to convey sophisticated ideas, but that complexity increases the likelihood that a sentence’s grammar wheels will come off. So, I suggest that the writer break down the complex idea into shorter, simpler chunks that he can manage linguistically. My hope is that as he becomes more adept at manipulating shorter, simpler sentences, he will eventually develop the ability to manage more complex sentences. Learning to walk before trying to run seems like good advice, but it also feels a little condescending to ask writers with big ideas to practice simplifying them.

The third aspect of my approach with these students is to be sure they know what they are doing correctly. My feedback always includes commentary about the depth of their ideas and the quality of their development, in addition to my focus on their mechanical issues. If we concentrate only on negative aspects of a student’s writing, she will frequently overgeneralize and think, “I’m a bad writer.” On the other hand, if we can let a student know that she has good ideas but is still learning some linguistic nuts and bolts, we can hope that eventually her mechanical abilities will catch up to her high-level thinking, with the result being complex ideas expressed in clear, correct English.

Am I on the right track? I’m grateful for any suggestions you have for helping students at this level of development as English-language writers.

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What If Students Write for Themselves?

writer“You can write your way out of dark places. I know because I’ve done it.”

My confession emerged yesterday during a class discussion of Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” an essay in which she writes empathetically about a plain moth unsuccessfully struggling to find its way through a window and to the light. Woolf’s essay becomes a meditation on endurance, limitations, and eventually death. Its purpose seems to be nothing more than Woolf reflecting on why the observation of this small moment reverberated in her with such emotional intensity.

Most writers can relate to that. I know that when I’m trying to work my way through some sludge or explore my own state of mind, I need to write about it.

If writing has any utilitarian value, maybe it’s just that: Writing can help us explain ourselves to ourselves. Writers understand this, but how often do writing teachers help students appreciate the value of such reflective writing?

In school we ask students to learn persuasive and expository techniques and approaches. We help them create description and figures of speech. We give them advice about how to organize and develop their writing.

Then we ask students to write for us or for other audiences.

What if we helped students to better understand the value of writing for themselves? What might it mean if students learned that writing can help lead them out of their own dark places? What if young writers could learn to see how writing can be their vehicle for problem solving and conflict resolution? We can help student writers understand that when we put our emotions down on paper, they become more of an object. When our feelings are written down, they are a little more outside of us, which means we can see them better and work on them with more clarity.

Personal writing leads students to spontaneously experiment with words in ways that result in surprising versions of their own writing styles. The satisfaction (maybe even pleasure) derived from this personal writing can infuse other more academic writing with fresh, unique voices. Young writers are more willing to dig deeply as they think about their own situations and issues; they can then apply that deeper level of thinking to the scholarly tasks that schooling demands.

Those of us who approach reading by using class time for both personal reading and literary study can adapt our writing instruction in a similar manner. What if students had time each day to write only for themselves, but we still covered all of our composition goals of teaching students to write effectively in a variety of modes for a variety of audiences?

I can hear the chorus of well-intentioned objectors warming up in the background: “But that kind of writing isn’t on the state test.” “We don’t have time for that kind of writing.” “How do we grade it?”

Those are realistic concerns, and there are ways to address them, but please don’t let that kind of thinking become an obstacle to the most important goal: Help students see themselves as writers.

A student recently said to me, “When I talk, I have a small voice or sometimes no voice. When I write, I have a big voice.” She is a different, more powerful person when she writes. And she knows it.

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“Can We Use I in This?”

47134_floral_i_smA recent writing assignment in my college composition class involved telling about a change experienced or witnessed by each writer. One student told about an interesting situation (too personal to be detailed here), but her language was convoluted and highly formal. I almost felt like reading it required wearing a tux.

I told her, “I can’t find you in here.” She said, “Well, maybe it’s because I took out all the Is.”

“Didn’t you have to flip a lot of these sentences to get the Is and mes out of here?” I asked.

“Yeah, but I didn’t know we could use I in this.”

“Can we use I in this?” is a question I’ve heard many times as students begin to frame a new piece of writing, even writing that is obviously personal in nature, such as a reflection on a book or passage, or a college application essay. The question always baffles me.

Why would it not be OK to use first person pronouns? How can anyone write about his thoughts or experiences while avoiding first person pronouns? Why would anyone want to read something personal by a writer who can’t refer to herself?

When I write, I’m using my words and my ideas. I claim them. So referring to myself, either in passing or at length, requires using some form of I or me, unless I want to resort to the kinds of linguistic contortions and hyper-formality contrived by my well-intentioned student.

When I tell students it’s fine to use I, they don’t trust my permission. They’ve heard too many times that I should not be used in writing. Or at least they think that’s what they’ve heard.

To help me understand how this issue looks from their perspective, I asked my students, “What is your understanding of the rules about using first person pronouns such as I and me?” Here are some responses from high school seniors and college freshmen:

“You can’t have Is in papers that are for classes.”

“One of my teachers said that other people can’t relate to it if you use I.”

“Using ‘I think’ takes away from the power of what I’m saying. If I state my opinions as facts, they are more powerful.”

“It’s not your own thoughts anymore when you have to reword it to avoid I.”

It is true that some teachers forbid the use of first person pronouns. Maybe it’s because many schools and teachers are emphasizing research-based writing and seem to be biased against narrative or other personal types of writing. That narrow approach can strangle the voices of young writers.

I’m sure that most teachers have explained the first person pronoun dilemma correctly: Using first person pronouns is fine in some situations, and using first person pronouns is not fine in other situations. But many students process that as “Too complicated. I can’t risk it; therefore, I will never use first person pronouns.” The result is that many high school and college writers are walking around with the idea that using I in their writing is wrong.

The primary consideration, of course, should be the purpose of the writing. If the purpose of the writing is to be personable, we’re going to have to use some Is. If the purpose of the writing is to be completely objective, then we won’t use first person pronouns. (If the writing is persuasive in nature, I still think it’s OK to use first person pronouns. An opinion’s merit isn’t weakened by presenting it as an opinion.)

Sei_Shonagon_artist_unknownIf we want our writing to be formal, even when talking about ourselves, we should probably use the third person one instead of first person pronouns. Writing in the 10th Century, Japanese ur-essayist Sei Shonagon said, “I have been very shocked to hear important people use the word ‘I’ while conversing in Their Majesties’ presence. Such a breach of etiquette is really distressing, and I fail to see why people cannot avoid it.” Interestingly, in this passage Shonagon uses I, apparently opting for informality and granting something less than magisterial status to her readers.

Let’s look at this from a perspective larger than pronouns. The most important ability we can help develop in young writers is decision-making. A writer takes stock of her situation by considering her purpose, audience, and goals. She then makes decisions about how to best capitalize on the contours of that rhetorical situation. When it comes to writing, good decision-makers will follow the right rules for the right reasons. Otherwise, writers will become stuck in their development at the point where their decision-making is trumped by rule-following.

We should guide student writers to become better decision-makers and not concern ourselves too much with guiding them to be rule-followers.

Thanks for sharing your advice about how you help student writers navigate this issue.

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Just Keep Going: Writing Strategies for Elaboration

scribbleIn one of my first class sessions with a group of college writers, I gave a survey asking what issues they wanted us to definitely cover this semester. The most common concern was how to add length to their pieces of writing. This wasn’t a surprise to me; actually, it was kind of a relief. In their first journal assignments, many wrote paragraphs that took up only three or four lines on a page, so I was glad to see on the survey that they recognized a valid area of needed growth.

Here are some simple suggestions for making a piece of writing longer. Of course, the shape and depth of the ideas should determine the length of the piece, but these practical tips will generate more content.
1. Just keep going. Oooh, that one’s deep, deeeeep. I know it’s artificial, but when students are practicing adding sentences to paragraphs, and paragraphs to their essays, they need to build up some stamina. So just keep going. Fill the page. Teach them to ask themselves, “What else do I know about this?” or “What else can I say about this?” If the writing strays from the topic, that’s fine for now. It’s kind of like when children are first learning to draw, and they create wild, unrecognizable explosions of colors and then proudly announce that it’s a picture of you. Eventually, with practice, children learn to sharpen their representations. The same is true of developing writers, but before they can practice the skill of focusing, they must have enough material to bring into focus.
2. When a puzzled student asks how long paragraphs should be, I give two suggestions. I tell her to hold her index finger and thumb as far apart as possible. The space in between is about how big a paragraph should be. Again, I know it’s artificial, but developing writers appreciate that visual guideline, and I can’t tell you how many former two-line-paragraph writers I’ve seen framing paragraphs with their fingers as they try to gauge if their new paragraphs are long enough. It works.
3. The other suggestion is for those who want to know how many sentences should be in a paragraph. I say, “There is no perfect answer, but aim for seven.” Again, this moves the two-sentence-paragraph writers into new levels of elaboration and provides a certain measure of confidence for those uncertain about what a paragraph should be. After they become accustomed to writing longer paragraphs, this rule and that finger strategy go away naturally.
4. Longer sentences make for longer paragraphs, so I also show how to revise at least some of the sentences in each paragraph by embedding a detail or descriptive clause.
For example, Abraham Lincoln was the only president not affiliated with a religious denomination. becomes Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s most admired leaders, was the only president not affiliated with a religious denomination. With this addition, a 12-word sentence becomes a 18-word sentence, adding 50% more words to the sentence. Is this mere padding? Maybe, but the goal here is helping writers learn strategies for adding mass to their writing. Making judgments about that mass can come later.

Beyond simply making existing paragraphs longer, students may wonder what else they can write about when they feel like they are out of ideas. Here are three approaches to try that can add a juicy paragraph or two to a piece of writing.
1. Provide examples of the main idea. These can be personal examples, hypothetical examples, or factual examples.
2. Offer an opposing view. In addition to giving one’s own reasons or perspectives on a topic, describe how it might be seen by someone who disagrees or has a different cultural point of view.
3. Although it probably depends on the purpose of the writing, I believe a narrative section is an appropriate way to illuminate persuasive writing or other expository writing. A narrative section can theoretically appear anywhere in a piece of writing, but students can usually easily see how a brief narrative can function as part of an effective introduction.

Each of these strategies is a way to add words to sentences, sentences to paragraphs, or paragraphs to essays. They will not automatically make a piece of writing better, but they will make it longer. Although some of these may seem gimmicky, they have the effect of asking students to think more, to probe a bit deeper, to push through when the easy part is over.

Writing represents ideas. When the amount of writing increases, the ideas are also likely to be bigger. Writers may not know what they know until they write it down. When we provide ways for them to write more, we are simultaneously helping them enlarge and better understand their own thinking.

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Teaching Writing from the Inside Out

Artwork by Lisa Congdon.  Artwork by Lisa Congdon.

It took me a long time before I could say, “I am a writer.” I now proudly claim that Writer mantle because I spend a fair amount of time stringing together words, trying to say something worthwhile as engagingly as possible, and then sharing it with others.

I was thinking about this today and wondering how I learned to be a writer. Unfortunately, I can’t say my high school years had very much to do with it. I don’t remember writing anything for a high school class. That doesn’t mean writing wasn’t assigned or taught. It just means I don’t remember it, probably because I didn’t do it. I didn’t do most things assigned in high school. (Yes, I was a true joy to my teachers.)

I remember writing an explication of Don McLean’s “American Pie” and an editorial or two for the school paper. One of those editorials was a truly awful satire entitled “The Bells, Bells, Bells …” which ended like this: “If we continue to allow bells to run our education, surely, surely they will run our entire lives.” Yikes! This is fresh on my mind because my masterpiece recently ended up on Facebook, posted by my classmate Denise, the artist assigned the unenviable task of illustrating it many years ago.

From Boone High School newspaper, circa 1976.  Artwork by Denise Chelmsford.From Boone High School newspaper, circa 1976. Artwork by Denise Chelmsford.

Writing is still hard work, and I struggle with it. I struggle with beginnings, middles, and endings. I use too many unnecessary modifiers. My tone frequently varies from what I hear in my head to how it appears on the page. I use anecdotes that distract from my main point, and once in a while I use the wrong your.

Over time I have learned strategies for spotting and revising those weaknesses. I can cut distracting words, sentences, and paragraphs. I look for ways to add or subtract material to enhance the attitude and ideas I want to convey. I read my work out loud before submitting or posting. Still, I’m rarely satisfied with the result. This Paul Valery quote comes to mind: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

I’m a better writer because some people have helped me along the way, no doubt about it. In college my saintly mentor Marion Gremmels helped me grow by leading me to reflect on my writing process. The writing group I met with at the Barrington library for several years motivated me to be a more productive writer. I’ve worked with colleagues who give excellent feedback and encourage me to pursue ideas and projects. My wife is my best editor and b.s. detector. I also try new ideas gained from reading a lot about writing and listening to really smart writing experts.

My point is that I learned to write on my own for the most part, and I’m glad. The lessons I’ve learned about writing come from my own writing experiences. I learned to write by writing. I learned to generate ideas by generating ideas, and I learned to revise by revising. I figured out things about writing, and the lessons are deeply internalized.

I didn’t learn to write because someone told me how to do it. I didn’t learn to write because I completed assignments made by somebody else. I didn’t learn to write by following rules I didn’t understand.

I learned to write from the inside out.

So what does this mean for the way I teach writing? Is teaching an inherently outside-in kind of thing? I don’t think so.

Telling about my own writing is part of how I bring my internal processes to the surface with the hope I am providing a useful model to help students discover their own processes. I share what I’m working on and ask for their advice, which is almost always solid.

What else? Well, my students will tell you I’m not very big on directions. When it comes to writing, I rarely tell students what to do or how to do it. This drives them a little crazy at first, but I strongly believe that if they are to grow as writers, they need to figure out how to make writing decisions. They need to feel what it’s like to grope for an idea and experience the trial-and-error process of shaping it into something satisfying to both writer and reader.

When students ask questions about rules, I try to respond with answers that will shape them as writers rather than shaping a specific piece of writing.

Question: Is it OK to use I? Answer: There are no forbidden words. Think about what you’re trying to accomplish and use the words that get you there.
Question: Is there a rubric for this? Answer: The rubric is based on the size of my goose bumps when I read it.
Question: How long does this need to be? Answer: You’ll know when it’s done.

When students ask questions about writing processes and individual writing dilemmas, I take those very seriously and thoroughly walk through options and problem-solving scenarios.

After students submit writing, we reflect on what worked well and what didn’t work so well in their individual experiences.

Our school also promotes the development of inside-out writers in a couple of other ways. I’m not the only writer on our faculty. We have many teachers in many departments who write and share their work. Through our Writers Week program we bring in a dozen or so professional writers each year who talk about their writing. Along with those professional writers, our faculty writers and student writers also share their writing lives during Writers Week. Thankfully, our students are frequently exposed to writers who articulate how authentic writing works and what it’s like to be a writer.

What does it mean then to teach writing from the inside out?

Maybe the best I can do for young writers is provide opportunities to practice many different kinds of writing, help them think through the obstacles that arise and reflect on what worked well in the writing process, and encourage risk-taking.

Practice. Reflect. Risk. Isn’t that what writers really do, from the inside out?

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The Journal Topics

journals photoToday members of our Expository Composition class wrote their final journal entries and handed in their well-worn spiral notebooks. I’m so proud of how many words and pages they wrote, and the profound wisdom and entertaining writing found in those notebooks.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about integrating journal writing into a writing class, how I set it up, grade it, etc. As some readers know, for the past few semesters I have posted our class journal topic on Twitter each day, and it’s always fun when someone tweets a response. Thanks to those who have played along.

Recently I’ve had some requests for the list of journal topics I have used. So, here it is.

Some of these are adapted from other sources, but I’m a little worried that some of the topics listed below are borrowed from sources that I’ve forgotten. If you see something I should attribute to someone else, please do me a favor and let me know.

Those familiar with Natalie Goldberg’s work will immediately see her influence on this list. In some cases, I know exactly who inspired it, and I’ve provided attribution in those cases.

I hope this list helps teachers and inspires young writers to think and write deeply about their influences, outlooks, and experiences.

The Journal Topics

Begin with this: I remember …

Begin with this: I don’t remember …

Tell about your favorite clothing item.

Tell about something that happened near water.

Tell about when you’re most comfortable.

Tell about the time you didn’t go.

Tell about a trait you probably inherited.

Tell about when you feel awkward.

Tell about when you feel confident.

Tell about when you don’t want to be disturbed.

Tell about a work of art (painting, song, film, poem, etc.) that has meant something
to you.

Tell how you knew it was over.

Tell what normal means.

Tell about green.

Tell about a memorable car ride.

Tell about something someone (maybe you) said yesterday that is still relevant
today.

Tell about what you don’t understand.

Tell about the games you like (or don’t like) to play.

Tell about something from your refrigerator.

Tell how to do something that you do really well.

Tell about what isn’t fair. Should we expect to be rewarded for doing the right thing?

Tell about your luck.

No words today. Just draw.

Tell about when you tried to be perfect.

Tell about the difference between passion and obsession.

Tell about a memorable meal.

Tell what you think about at night.

Begin with this: I Am From …

Tell about something that starts w B.

Tell about your ideal college.

Tell about an argument.

Tell about your stress.

What else do you need?

Write a 26-sentence alphabet entry. The first sentence should begin with A, the second sentence with B, all the way through to the last sentence beginning with Z.

If you could do whatever you wanted, what would you do right now?

Tell about trust.

How are you intelligent? (from Sir Ken Robinson in The Element)

What food or drink best represents your personality?

What’s your subplot?

Tell how your hair has changed over time.

Tell about leftovers.

Tell about a change you would like to see in your school.

Tell about when you were surprised.

Tell about your favorite elementary school memory.

What are you waiting for?

Tell about what you’ve never been asked.

Tell about a time you couldn’t see.

Tell about a baby.

Without complaining, tell why you felt (or feel) stuck.

Write in praise of something not usually praised–fleas, garbage, mold, etc.

Tell about a first meeting.

Tell about an interesting non-English word or phrase.

Tell about a person you see regularly but don’t really know.

Tell what you wish more people knew about you.

Tell about what surprised you.

Tell about what you tried to fix.

Tell about your music.

Begin with this: I’m glad my name isn’t …

Tell about wearing high heels or neckties.

Tell about what doesn’t matter.

Tell about one of your responsibilities.

Tell what you would do if you were invisible for a day.

Look through your journal. Tell about what you see in there.

Tell about something minor that turned major.

Write the apology you should give, or receive.

Begin with this: “I used to believe…”

Do we get the lives we deserve?

Begin with this: No thank you. (from Natalie Goldberg)

Tell about what you see in the mirror.

Tell about a smell you encounter frequently.

Begin with this: What if…

What do you have stored or saved?

Begin with this: I want to be ____ because _____.

What did you recently realize?

Tell about your favorite lie.

Tell about your favorite picture of yourself.

Tell about when you won.

Make a list of all you’ve learned in the past week, in school and out.

Tell how you want to live.

Tell about an interesting family member.

Tell about the best advice you have received (or given).

Tell about something someone said yesterday that is still relevant today.

Make a list of your strongly held beliefs.

Tell about your favorite animal.

Tell about a time you screamed.

What is a current trend (fashion, music, media, technology, etc.) that you particularly like or dislike?

Tell about yourself as a little kid. How are you still kind of the same? How are you different?

Tell about something you earned.

In one page, tell about your mother or father.

Tell about one of your dreams.

Tell about a class that should be offered at your school.

Tell about being alone.

Tell about what you eat.

Tell about your manners.

Tell about the oldest person you have known.

Who do you believe (or not believe)?

Tell the president/principal/governor/mayor how she’s/he’s doing.

Choose one word for this year and tell about your choice.

If you could make one rule that would be strictly enforced in the community around you, what would it be?

Tell about someone important to you. Include all 5 senses. (from Kathryn Janicek)

What is your FREMD acrostic–F is for …, R is for …, etc. (“Fremd” is our school.)

Tell a true story involving a liquid other than water.

Tell about Fridays.

Tell about a disguise or costume you once wore (inspired by Natalie Goldberg).

Begin with this: I wish I had more time to …

Tell about someone you’re glad you know.

Tell about something you think is infinite.

Tell what it would take for you to be more like _____.

Do you consider yourself young? (inspired by Alyse Liebovich)

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What I Learned in Summer School

I just finished my last session of summer school, ever. (We are not allowed to work in a public school for sixty days after retirement. I retire in June, 2014. After that, it’s unlikely that I would return for summer school.) I’ve taught summer school for many years. Why? Three reasons: (1.) The summer school kids are different from my regular school-year kids, and they sharpen my skills as an educator; (2.) I know I’m making a difference for these struggling students in how they view their own literacy skills as well as school in general; and (3.) the pay is decent.

My summer school classes were a pretty rough bunch. We gathered each morning at 7:30 a.m., about twenty students, each of whom had failed sophomore English at least once. The record was five times, a record tied by numerous students over the years. We were together until noon. Four-and-a-half hours is a long stretch.

I like these kids. They are energetic, after they wake up, and they have good hearts. School and life have not been easy for most of them, but they have also done a good job of making it hard on themselves. Some of them have parents in prison. Some of them are parents themselves. Many of them have very difficult home lives for a variety of reasons. On the first day, I asked each student to tell everyone why he or she failed. The most common answer was a variation of “I didn’t get along with the teacher.” The second most common answer was “I didn’t do any work.” Other students also admitted that laziness and poor attendance contributed to their failures.

When I asked what they wanted out of summer school English, two-thirds of these students said they simply want to pass. The others said they want an A or a B, although Dean said he wanted to “expand [his] knowledge of the English language.”

I had no interest in spending long days with this crew and ending up with a bunch of repeat failures. My goal was to help them get what they wanted, and maybe a little more. If we can believe the reasons they gave for failing Sophomore English, and I have no reason to doubt them, their failures had very little to do with literacy. Many of them are struggling readers and writers, but they are not F-level readers and writers, whatever that might be. Their failures were largely due to behavioral choices and other obstacles, many of them self-imposed.

So, what if we remove the obstacles? Will they make better choices? Will they learn more if they are not embroiled in dramas that have nothing to do with their literacy skills? Those questions guided me each day with these students.

The attendance obstacle is automatically removed. If they are absent three times, they are dropped from summer school. A tardy counts as half an absence. If they are not in class when the bell rings or when the fifteen-minute break is over, they are docked half an absence. Absences are the most difficult obstacle for me to remove because they are set in motion an hour or so before the school day begins. I offer to call them in the morning, but none of them took me up on it. One girl missed the bus, and her mother made her walk to school across town in the rain. She was late, but she was there. Roughly one-third of the students registered for my class each semester was dropped due to attendance issues.

After they arrived, I dismantled every obstacle I could. I provided paper, pens, and pencils for those who didn’t have them. (One student ate most of a Bic pen every day. At the end of each day I would find by his desk a completely gnawed pen, the cap chewed into oblivion, the barrel crunched and cracked. I frequently saw him with a pen in his mouth, but I never saw him going after it with such vengeance; yet, at the end of each day there was a mangled pen by his desk.) I freely admit that I was not teaching them maturity, responsibility, or any other efficacy components by providing them with school supplies, but that wasn’t my goal. My goal was to show them that they are smart enough to pass if they make better choices.

Many students failed because they didn’t do homework, so I removed the homework obstacle. All work was done in class during the school day. If students were absent, all work was made up in class on the day they returned. By the end of each semester, out of dozens of grades for these students, I had fewer than ten zeroes. When they could do their work in class, they did their work. When it’s homework, they don’t do it.

What about the teacher conflict obstacle? I’m pretty easy to get along with, but I have clear behavioral expectations. When those boundaries are crossed, it gets ugly fast. Two lads caused problems on the first day, and we had “clarification sessions” in the hallway about their behavior. Two days later, one of them started screwing around again, saying he “needs a lap dance,” “can’t stand being confined,” and “needs a bitch to slap.” I sent him to the principal. The principal told the student he had one more chance to shape up. I called home and told his mother exactly what had happened. The student’s mother was shocked but more than supportive of our discipline attempts, and the next day this young man respectfully asked if he could talk to me privately. We stepped into a seminar room where he tearfully promised that he would be “totally chill” and asked me to please not call his mother again. His behavior was fine from that day forward.

What about the laziness obstacle? In my mind, “lazy” is synonymous with “unmotivated,” so I did my best to motivate them. I gave these students frequent feedback. I provided a report card every other day. They got their un-homework back very quickly so they could see what they were doing right and wrong. I wrote encouraging, positive comments in their journals. I gave them choices in how they could do many of their assignments. They were still a little sleepy first thing in the morning, but I don’t see that as laziness. I see that as sleepiness. Laziness is an obstacle that disappeared.

Did they learn anything? Everyone passed. Each semester I had one student earn a D. The most common grade was A. Some of this grade inflation is due to a mandated change in how we figure grades that made it almost impossible to fail if a student did even a minimum of work. One student passed with a 19.62% based on the new grading system. Should she have failed? I think it’s a moot point. If she had been closer to failing, even with that dismal percentage, I would have found a way to get her to a passing level. The new grading system resulted in much higher grades, but the students also demonstrated that they learned some things about reading, writing, and thinking.

These students maybe didn’t do everything right, but they accomplished more than they did in the regular school year, and they saw some positive academic results. Yes, I’d like to see them bring their own paper and pencils to class. I’d like to see them successfully complete homework. I’d like to see them come to school regularly without the threat of being dropped. Those are challenges for another time. The challenge for summer school was to show these students that they could do it if they try just a little bit harder.

An interesting realization for me with these students had to do with the physical considerations of writing. They responded well to suggestions with physical aspects. For example, one day Calvin said, “I know I have more to say about this, but I just can’t get the words out.” I could tell he was being sincere. I looked at him, over six feet tall, scrunched in a hard plastic chair with a flip-up, auditorium-style desktop, and said, “Why don’t you try standing up to write for a while. Just go over there and lean on the wall and see what happens.” Calvin unfolded himself, went to the wall, and wrote and wrote and wrote.

Louie enjoyed cranking out words but seemed to have no conception of a sentence. His words just went for miles and miles with no periods in sight. After a day or two of this, I asked him, “How many sentences would you say this is?” Louie said, “I don’t know,” and he started counting the lines on the page. He equated a line of writing across the page with a sentence. I pointed out to him that they were not the same thing, but he didn’t quite make the conversion. He knew that sentences had periods at the end, but he didn’t know where they should go. His words just flowed out, and he didn’t think much about punctuation. My suggestion to Louie was one I’d used before: “Make your periods really big. Like crazy big. It will look kind of funny at first, but it will help you think about where sentences end.” So Louie started making his periods really big. His writing had a unique look, but in order to physically insert those big periods, Louie had to say to himself, “I think this is where a sentence ends,” a new line of thought for Louie. Some of those huge dots still popped up in fairly random places, but as the days went by, Louie’s sentence sense improved, thanks to gigantic periods.

The other example of using physical senses to help students write better was a simple suggestion to “Fill the page.” Just keep going. They were required to write at least three pages a day. They could tell simply by looking at their paper whether or not they were going to get full credit: If the third page was full, 100%. Some students wrote more, and I challenged them to try to fill whatever page they were on.

The biggest realization for me with these students—and it’s an epiphany that I believe applies to every student and every classroom—is that we must meet them where they are. We must deal with the students in front of us in whatever shape they arrive. We can wish they were more accomplished, better behaved, or more studious, but our decisions and actions need to be based on where they are now.

If faced with a class of students—or even one student—for whom the standard way of doing things didn’t work, we have a responsibility to make changes. We don’t need to coddle each student’s every whim, but it’s also kind of crazy to repeat the circumstances that will lead to predictable failure. (Lowering the grading scale is not my favorite way of avoiding failure, but I had no choice in that one.)

Sincere empathy is motivational. A taste of success is motivational. Choice is motivational. Personal feedback is motivational. And when our students are motivated, they will learn.

On the last day of summer school, we had a little celebration party for Claudio who had earned his diploma after failing sophomore English five times. As we enjoyed bagels and juice, I told these kids to get a D if they have to, but don’t fail any more. Audrey said, “If regular school was like summer school, I would never fail.” Well then, maybe regular school should be more like summer school in some ways.

(Some material from this post appeared in an earlier blog series on English Companion Ning.)

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“Does This Need a Title?”: Helping Students Generate Titles

baby-names-268x300Most English teachers have heard some variation of “Does this need to have a title?” Although it seems like a yes-or-no question, my stock answer is “A title provides an excellent opportunity to set up your readers with some expectations about your topic and tone. There is no downside to providing a title.” In other words, “Yes, you need a title because it helps your writing, not because it’s a grade-based requirement.”

But students sometimes struggle with titles. I imagine them so exhausted after concentrating on crafting juicy paragraphs and considering the many ways their pieces can be organized that they end up just tacking on a simple label rather than an interesting title. How many pieces have we seen with the words “Romeo and Juliet” at the top, or even “Romeo and Juliet Essay”?

I’ve found that students can actually enjoy the search for just the right title if provided with some guidance and models. Listed below are four simple techniques for generating titles, along with some examples of my own culled from elsewhere on this blog. (I made the titles here clickable to posts on my personal blog just in case you’re compelled to take a look at the respective posts. It isn’t really necessary though.)

Three Key Words: This technique requires waiting until after the piece is written to generate the title. Then the writer simply chooses a few interesting words from what she has written and starts playing around with them in different orders, adding other words, and just seeing what clicks. (Much of this title-writing business relies on the “I’ll know it when I see it” impulse.)

Examples:
Delight, Wisdom, and Cutie Poems
Lilacs and TwitterArt
Schools, WAR, and Froggy DeMaestri

Make It Look Like a Title: This is the title-colon-subtitle strategy used in a lot of academic titles, many of which are perhaps accurate but also boring. “Boring,” of course, is in the mind of the beholder, but the titles of many academic papers actually seem intentionally boring. Let’s not encourage students to do that.

As we help students craft this kind of title, suggest that they use a single word or a very short phrase (1-3 words) followed by a colon and an emphatic or bold phrase.

Examples:
The Good Start: Twelve Targets for New Teachers
Today’s PLC Meeting: What Have We Learned?
Writers Week: 17 Years of “The Best Week Ever”
Stephen King: An Appreciation

Make It Not Look Like a Title: This is one of my favorites. Include symbols, numbers, punctuation. I’m not sure of the psychological principles involved, but titles using non-word elements seem to stand out.

Examples:
Un-send! Un-send! (two hyphens and two exclamation marks)
“The New/Newer/Newest Colossus” (quotation marks and two blackslashes)
The Truest “Grit”: 1969 or 2010? (quotation marks, colon, two dates, and a question mark)
#NCTE12 – Glimpsing the Future (hashtag and dash)

Dramatic or Funny Image:
Sometimes we use an anecdote in a piece to serve as an example or unit of evidence. If the essence of that anecdote can be distilled into a few words, the result can serve as a title.

Examples:
Extenuating Circumstances
The Brave Faces
Catch More Fish

Bonus Strategy: Each of these techniques can be augmented by noting that some kind of catchy sound device is a bonus: alliteration, assonance, consonance, etc. Students can be reminded that this is a practical application of those literary terms they’ve been learning all these years!

Examples:
Zapping Apathy with Daily Journals
Brit Lit: Reading, Writing, and Relevance
Trust Teachers

Class activities: I’m not sure how much time you want to devote to the art of writing titles, but here are some activities you can try:
– Bring in an op-ed piece and use these strategies to come up with a title. Headlines accompanying a newspaper op-ed piece are usually created based more on available column space than actual craft. What would the title be if space were not an issue?
– Have students bring in an untitled piece of their own and use these techniques to create multiple title possibilities. Then survey classmates about which is most appealing.
– Share a piece of your own writing that is finished or close to finished. Then solicit title suggestions based on these strategies.

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to add your favorite titles or advice about crafting titles.

This is cross-posted, in slightly different form, on What’s Not Wrong?

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When Young Writers Get “Worse”

oopsIn most school subjects, the learning is linear and cumulative: Students learn a concept, and then they build on it. And then we add more complexity. But when it comes to acquiring literacy skills, especially in writing, things work differently. The path is not straight; it’s more like a slanted spiral. This means that sometimes young writers will get worse on the way to getting better.

Let’s consider a young writer we’ll call Ted. Ted isn’t cognitively ready to process thoughts that require much complexity, so he uses mostly simple sentences. He has no personal frame of reference for punctuating more complex sentences. His simple ideas require simple sentences, and simple sentences require simple punctuation. But as Ted’s thinking and ideas become more sophisticated, he needs more complex sentence constructions in his syntactic repertoire. If Ted didn’t grasp those sentence-formation rules when they were presented in class—because he wasn’t developmentally ready for them—his writing is likely to have some sentence-formation problems.

Ted had no sentence-formation errors when his thinking and writing were simple, but now that he’s operating on a higher level, he ironically has sentence-formation errors. Has Ted become a worse writer? If we simply count up his errors, Ted’s tally might look like he’s getting worse when in actuality he’s getting “worse” on the way to getting better. When the complexity of Ted’s ideas syncs up with his understanding of how to correctly form more complex sentences, he’ll be a stronger writer and thinker. And then this recursive process will resume from Ted’s new level of expertise.

The same dynamic is true of young writers with a growing vocabulary. The first time Rachel uses a new word, she might use it wrong, either grammatically or in terms of its context or connotations. After she learns the new word’s contours and correct usage, she’ll probably use it correctly for the rest of her life. But if we take a measure of Rachel’s writing while her acquisition of that word is still forming, we may see a stylistic or syntactic error that is actually the result of new growth. If Rachel’s vocabulary wasn’t growing, she wouldn’t be making that error. Paradoxically, her error is a result of an increasingly sophisticated vocabulary.

All of this is a long way of saying we must be very careful with summative assessments of writing. At any given point, each student is developing new abilities; trying new words, phrasings, ideas and constructions; and experimenting with every aspect of writing. Because writing is so multi-faceted, some aspects will be farther along than others, and some may appear to be going backwards as trial-and-error takes place. While some mistakes are simply mistakes, others are missteps resulting from important experimentation that will soon result in helping the writer become more versatile and articulate.

Just as every piece of writing benefits from going through a process, every young writer is also midstream in an on-going developmental process. Learning to write is the most dynamic, recursive academic process a student is likely to experience. Let’s be sure we see “errors” as a healthy, predictable part of that process and not allow stand-alone assessments relying on static measurements to characterize any student’s ability.

Assessing a student writer’s growth with accuracy and validity requires multiple check-points across a long period of time. Any other approach carries a high risk of catching a student in the act of getting worse on the way to getting better.

Thank you for reading this. Your comments are welcome and appreciated!
AlbertEinstein4

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Revision is not a re-take.

“Can I re-take your test?” This is a question teachers at our school are currently considering. Should we allow students to re-take tests and quizzes so that they can demonstrate more learning and receive higher grades? I understand the plusses and minuses of these practices. Lately though, I’ve been hearing writing teachers, at our school and elsewhere, lump together re-taking tests and revising writing. Regardless of how we want to think about allowing (or even encouraging) students to re-take tests, writing teachers must insist that revisions are very different from re-taking tests. Revision is not a re-take.

When students re-take tests, they have additional opportunities to show that they have learned more. Most schools allowing test re-takes require that students show proof that they have somehow prepared for the re-take by conferring with the teacher, visiting a tutoring center, or doing extra homework problems. Theoretically, these additional experiences instill more knowledge in students’ brains, and the test re-take will generate a higher grade based on that learning. OK fine.

Revising a writing piece is a very different process. When we come back to a piece of writing, we are not seeking to show more knowledge; we are exploring how to improve our communication and enhance the way we affect our audience. When we revise, we are clarifying our own thoughts and seeking the best ways to frame them for others.

Although schools sometimes teach test-taking skills, these “skills” are not real-world tools. They are artificial, academic game strategies. Learning to re-take tests is an even more dubious expenditure of intellectual energy.

But learning to revise is an end in itself and a valuable life skill. The act of “re-visioning” means we see our writing (and possibly ourselves) in new ways, either because of feedback from other readers or simply because some time passes after the original drafting. As students learn to revise, they are engaging in acts of re-creation. Sometimes revision is an artistic process; sometimes it’s a rhetorical process. Sometimes it’s both, but it’s always a more sophisticated process than more thoroughly learning static content in order to re-take a test.

Writing teachers play an important role in helping students develop these revision abilities. As we help students see their own words through the eyes of someone else, we are deepening the ways they use words to express their perceptions. As Penny Kittle says in Write Beside Them, “I remember what my job is—not to produce a bunch of products but to help my students write their way to clarity.”

In order to revise effectively, students need to be encouraged to try again, to look for new and better ways to express particular ideas. If we simply say, “Too bad. You could have done all that the first time,” we are denying not just an academic opportunity but an opportunity for actual intellectual growth.

Revision is about growth. Revision is not about points, and it’s not about grades, although I understand that sometimes it needs to be converted into those kinds of systems. Regardless of what we think about re-taking tests, when students say, “Can I re-write this?” the answer should be “Yes.” Revision is not a re-take.

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6-Word Memoirs with Wordle

To fully maximize this community-building activity, you will need Internet access to Youtube and Wordle on a computer connected to a projector. Each student will write an individual six-word memoir after watching a couple of videos providing models. Then Wordle will form a cloud-based image synthesizing the 6-word memoirs of everyone in the class. Here is the step-by-step breakdown:

First show these two Youtube videos. It’s always a good idea to preview videos before showing them in class. The one on the top has some words and images that might not be appropriate for every clientele. The one on the bottom will be fine for most classes.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBnP0DoGjRI

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejndNExso9M

After watching these videos, students will be ready to write their own 6-words memoirs. Be sure to tell them that others will see what they write, and then provide a few minutes to write the memoirs.

Now, here’s the fun part. Fire up the computer and projector and go to Wordle and demonstrate how it works. Throw in a bunch of text from the daily newspaper, school web site, Shakespeare speech, anything. Then hit Go. Play around with the formatting tools to give students the idea that the words can be formatted in a variety of designs.

Then invite students to type in their six-word memoirs with no caps. As students type, others will see what their classmates write. The teacher will probably need to do some minor editing after everyone is finished typing to fix up misspellings or inconsistent forms of words. (Wordle works best when words are repeated in exactly the same form.) Then hit Go. A preliminary version of the Wordle will appear. Then you can play around with the formatting tools to graphically capture the essence of what the words convey. The class will know when the appropriate font, color scheme, etc. matches the essence of the words.

Although this can be an excellent warm-up activity for many writing purposes, I’ve used it successfully with students preparing to write college admission essays.

Feel free to post your comments, questions, and successes. Thanks.

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Zapping Apathy with College Application Essays

If you want to see college-bound upper-grade students take a writing assignment seriously, help them with their college application essays! Writing college essays as a class assignment provides an authentic audience, extreme personal relevance, and an opportunity for introspection—in other words, all the makings of a meaningful writing experience. Students appreciate the advice and guidance, not to mention receiving academic credit for something they would otherwise be doing on their own.

Without guidance, many students approach college essays in a collaborative fashion, which isn’t a particularly good idea when they’re trying to set themselves apart from other applicants. They ask their friends, “What are you writing about?” Then the pressures of conformity set in, and they end up writing formulaic, predictable essays that echo themes and even the events discussed in the admission essays of their pals.

Although well-intentioned, parents are also not always the best advisers when it comes to these essays. It’s completely understandable, but parents tend to see these essays as the time to talk about the activities that they have been “sponsoring” since childhood: “I paid for all those years of ballet/riding/skating lessons, and you are going to by golly write about them!” Those activities might be good topics for the college essay, but it’s not automatic.

The first step in teaching college application essays is to focus on the concept of audience. Emphasize to your students that their essays need to be unique. Help them see college admission officers as actual human beings who might be reading their essay as the 49th file of the day, and the last one before lunch. How can they write engagingly with this audience in mind? This video From The College of William and Mary can be useful to help students shift their thinking about who will be reading their essays.

Many students do not feel like their lives have been exciting enough to generate a unique college application essay. Pshaw! One student told me, “My suburban life has been nothing but boring. I was smuggled out of Poland as a baby and nothing exciting has happened since!” Needless to say, she ended up writing a dramatic and important college essay.

I help students zero in on a unique, personal topic by asking them to consider their lives’ most meaningful moments and the broad themes of their lives’ narrative. For the meaningful moments, students can simply draw a line with an arrow on both ends to form a timeline. Then they add the dates and events that they consider formative. Be sure to suggest that some important events may have occurred before they were born. For example, events that affected their parents may have set in motion important influences on individual students. For the broader themes, I suggest playing around with 6-word memoirs. I wrote about that in a previous blog post.

After students have considered their lives from these macro and micro perspectives, it’s a good idea to share some successful models from previous students. Some excellent examples are available in Chapter 11 of Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice (EMC Publishing). If you haven’t already started a collection from your previous classes, be sure to start this year! These models can show students various ways of opening, organizing, and presenting college essays.

As students set off to create their individual, unique, personal college essays, please be sure they have these big ideas in mind:
• Use the essay as the opportunity to spotlight something that isn’t obvious from the other materials in a student’s application file.
• Show instead of tell, especially when writing about emotions. Describe the event and situations, but don’t tell readers how the writer felt. Show details, and the emotional impact will follow.
• Write in a sincere voice—not too understated and definitely not arrogant.
• The essay should reveal how the writer’s heart and mind work.

You may ask students to bring in drafts of their essays for peer review. This is a good idea, but consider asking students to practice thinking about their audience by looking at each other’s drafts through the eyes of a college admissions officer: Based on the essay, do you have a favorable opinion of the candidate? Why or why not? What concerns you about this candidate? Questions like these can then be followed by talking about the details that were most compelling, and any unclear sentences or phrases. As always, the writer should consider this feedback open-mindedly, but each writer has the right to accept or reject any suggestions as they craft subsequent drafts.

Students writing college application essays are frequently concerned about word count. Some colleges request essays of 250, 300, or 500 words. Here’s my advice to students about wrestling with word count: Write it big. Then revise to fit the word count. Students will frequently write a brief draft, check the word count, then add a little more, gradually sneaking up on the word count. This tends to result in weak, tentative writing.

If, on the other hand, a student writes the essay boldly, thoroughly describing everything and showing how his heart and mind works, without too much regard for length, the result is likely to be stronger writing with better verbs and description. Of course, it will be too long, but we can help with that!

Most writers have a hard time discarding words that they have labored to bring into existence. Students are no different. During this past week I’ve said to at least a dozen students, “I’m going to do some surgery here. I’m not making your writing better; I’m making it shorter.” They understand.

When editing student writing for word count, look for repeated ideas, extra adjectives, passages that can be easily lifted without affecting the overall structure or message, and any use of very or really. (I tell students that if they are using very or really, the next word probably needs to be stronger.)

For example, here is Jenny D.’s first draft that came in a little too long:

Out of all my extracurricular activities and clubs, Peer Ministry through my church has given me the greatest sense of fulfillment. I have loved building relationships with the kids by helping them with problems and answering any questions they may have. Even if I am only able to make a difference in one of their lives, it will all be worth it.

The decision to become a peer minister myself was not a hard one because I had already gone through the two year program which prepares students to make the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation. I felt by being in religion classes with older peers aiding the class that I was truly able to connect with the material and the rest of my classmates. Part of the reason why I chose to become a teen leader was to help other students get the most out of the class. When the students have questions about the Confirmation ceremony or about the sacrament in general, I am always there to help them as much as I can. I am very glad I have had great opportunities such as this one to show me that helping others is just as important as helping yourself.

By being there for the students and helping them it gave me a sense of accomplishment and was very gratifying. In return though, the students received advice from an experienced peer and felt comfortable talking to someone who could relate to them.

Seeing the passion in the students’ eyes is so gratifying, and now I understand why teachers enjoy what they do so much. One boy in my class started attending the class simply because his mother made him. He pulled me aside one day and asked me some questions about Christianity. He then told me he used to hate coming to church but he now looks forward to our Sunday night meetings because it’s somewhere he feels is truly “safe” to express his feelings. At that moment I finally saw proof that I was accomplishing something with the class.

I hope that the students get the amazing experience that I did when I went through the program.

Jenny is obviously a good writer and a thoughtful person with relevant experiences. These facts come through pretty well in this draft. But at 514 words, it’s about 40% over the school’s required word count of 300. So we went to work on it, taking out any repetitive material, and focusing on one idea. We left in two specific situations emphasizing Jenny’s main idea that the most rewarding aspect of teaching is helping people. We cut the sentences that told about emotions and focused on the details that revealed those emotions. We made sure the beginning and ending were strong. This final version is exactly 300 words:

I love building relationships with people by helping them with problems and answering their questions. Out of all my extracurricular activities, my church’s peer ministry provides the greatest sense of fulfillment by allowing me to make a difference in the lives of my classes.

One day during school last year a girl from my peer ministry class looked distressed in the hallway, so I approached her and asked what was wrong and if I could do anything to help. She told me her grandmother had passed away unexpectedly and she just needed someone to talk to, a shoulder to cry on. Listening to and supporting my student in that moment made our relationship grow. Another student started attending our class simply because his mother made him. He pulled me aside one day and asked me some questions about Christianity. He then told me he used to hate coming to church but he now looks forward to our Sunday night meetings because it’s somewhere he feels is “safe” to express his feelings. At that moment I saw proof that I was accomplishing something with the class. I kept in touch with the kids in my class throughout the summer and now that it has started back up again we are closer than ever.

Seeing the passion in the students’ eyes is so gratifying, and now I understand why teachers enjoy what they do so much. Being there for the students and helping them gives me a gratifying sense of accomplishment. Even if I am only able to make a difference in one of their lives, it will be worth it. Serving my community by being a peer minister at my church has been a great form of service for learning, building relationships, and rediscovering what I love so much about teaching.

Helping students with college essays is one of my most gratifying activities of the school year. Students actually care about their writing. They think deeply and well and try their best to express their most important ideas. They see value in feedback, editing, and revision. The “reward” is not a grade but an intrinsically satisfying, powerful piece of writing and—hopefully–college admission.

If you’re working with younger students, plant the idea of college application essays early and often. If a student writes a piece that could morph into a college application essay, write a note saying, “This is a keeper! It could be a college essay in a couple of years!”

Your advice, stories, and input about helping students with college application essays are welcome ! And thanks to Jenny D. for permitting the use of her writing here!

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Our Creative Writing Class

Some questions about our Creative Writing class have come my way in the past few days from a few different people. Although I responded to those folks by email, I thought I’d offer this as a blog post too with the hope that others searching for ideas will find it heplful. If this is more or less than you’re looking for, feel free to stop, or ask for more!

When I started teaching Creative Writing, the best advice I received was from my colleague Kevin Brewner. Although I knew what I wanted students to learn and experience, I wasn’t so sure about the subjective grading. So I asked, “How do you figure grades in Creative Writing?” His answer: “By weight.” Great, great advice. Sometimes quantity is quality. With that in mind, I created a grade contract requiring students trying for an A to write 75 journal entries, a 30-page manuscript, some kind of publication submission, numerous assignments, and participation in whole-class peer review. Those who wanted to aim lower had somewhat less demanding expectations. This raises all kinds of grading-related philosophical questions and concerns. I understand that. All I can say is that this has worked for my students and me. I try to never talk about grades and writing in the same conversation with students. In fact, I hardly ever talk about grades, but the day of reckoning always arrives, and we need to have a way to approach it. The grade contract is ours.

Let’s tackle those other elements one at a time. First of all, the journals are the starting point for each class session. I said pretty much all I know about journals in a previous blog post. Maybe you won’t mind popping over there for my take on journals.

The manuscripts can be a 30-page single project, or a collection of various pieces produced over the course of the semester. The assignments, activities, and exercises from class can be wrestled (or massaged, if you prefer) into more polished versions to be included in the manuscript.

As we work through poetry, drama, and prose, students attempt a variety of writing genres, formats, purposes, and styles. Some of those pieces—but not all of them—will find their way into those manuscripts, along with some of the ideas that started out as journal entries.

The publication submission can be a contest entry, a presentation at Writers Week, a Facebook “note,” contribution to Polyphony, fanfiction.net, Figment.com, or TeenInk.com, a more-elaborate-than-average Tumblr.com post, or the school’s literary magazine. I’m also open to suggestions from students. The main thing is that it has to be available for others to see. Three of my students this semester started new blogs through Blogger or WordPress. That was pretty cool.

I have all kinds of assignments and in-class activities—too many to upload here. If you’re looking for something in particular, please let me know, and I’ll try to provide it or steer you toward it.

We do Wednesday “sharing sessions.” This means that students sign up in advance for a specific Wednesday or two when they will bring one or two pages of their writing for the class’s consideration and feedback. Before we do this, I give them a talking-to about the importance of pairing criticism with suggestions. If a criticism doesn’t have a suggestion attached, it can be written as a margin comment, but it should not be said out loud. That has worked pretty well. On those Wednesdays, each of the students for the day distributes copies of their work, and the other students read it and write comments on it. After ten minutes or so, the writer is invited to read it aloud. Sometimes they do; sometimes they prefer to have it read by someone else. In rare cases, they say something like “I’d really rather it just remain on the page.” That wish is respected. Then for about ten minutes, students offer oral comments and suggestions. Sometimes I have to steer the conversation a bit, but these sessions are almost always productive and memorable.

So, a typical day begins with a journal prompt, followed by an activity, followed by the opportunity for anyone (including me) to read aloud or tell about something written that day.

A typical week includes three of those typical days, plus Wednesday sharing sessions, and on Friday, we do “topic journals,” a collection of notebooks on specific topics that students take turns adding to throughout the semester.

Some of the dilemmas I haven’t quite solved:

1. Is a genre by genre approach the best way to go? If so, which genre should we start with?
2. How can I integrate more one-on-one time with individual writers?
3. How can I serve the larger composition instruction needs of Creative Writing students who take this class in order to avoid the research paper in our Expository Composition class? I use some of the description and pre-writing activities from our Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice textbook in Creative Writing, but I still wonder if I’m doing enough of this to meet the needs of the heterogenous class make-up this class tends to pull in.

Your thoughts on those issues are extremely welcome.

Here is a list of the books that have been helpful to me for our Creative Writing class:
Thomas Newkirk: Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones
Penny Kittle: Write Beside Them
Steve Kowit: In the Palm of Your Hand
Natalie Goldberg: Old Friend from Far Away
Geoff Hewit: Today You Are My Favorite Poet
Ted Kooser: The Poetry Home Repair Manual
Sheila Bender: Writing Personal Poetry

English Companion Ning and Twitter are also great ways to connect with other teachers interested in this kind of class and who are going through similar experiences. Knowing you’re not alone is a good thing. I’m glad to help, and maybe those of you reading this post can also somehow help each other.

Again, I don’t intend for this to be read as The One True Way to Do Creative Writing. It’s just the way I’ve done it, for better or worse, mostly better, but I’m always looking for ways to make things even more rewarding for our young writers. Please share your ideas. Thanks for reading.

Our Creative Writing class outside on the day after the seniors left us.

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Zapping Apathy with Daily Journals

What do I like best about the daily journals used by my Creative Writing students? Probably the surprises.

Each day I write on the board: “Today’s journal topic,” followed by a prompt that comes to me or that I adapt from other sources. I tend to draw the prompts from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away, Susan Shaughnessy’s Walking on Alligators, our Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice, or from a variety of sites that I find through Googling “high school writing prompts,” “journal prompts,” “writing ideas,” or some other similar search terms.

Each journal prompt also goes on Twitter so that absent students can get the day’s prompt. A happy by-product of the tweets is that quite a few people see them, use them, and chime in with ideas. In the past, I’ve used the hashtag #journal, but that one has become sort of busy and distorted, so this semester I’m using #E307, our school’s code for the Creative Writing course. Feel free to follow along and join in!

When I write the day’s journal prompt on the board, I always add “ … or ? …” The idea is that students can use the prompt or not. I tell them that when it comes to the journal prompts, they are free to explore or ignore. Why should students be tied down to my idea when they might be more compelled to delve into their own ideas? The goal is to explore their own depths and imaginations, so it’s 100% OK with me if they never use my prompts, but at the same time, I don’t want anyone to struggle with “I don’t know what to write about.”

Sometimes it takes a minute or two for the writers to settle in, but then it becomes almost eerily quiet, with pens and pencils scratching across paper and the occasional quick flip of a page the only sounds. The air in the room seems to change as everyone, including me, focuses for ten or twelve minutes on whatever we’re writing about.

After about ten minutes, I say something like, “OK. Can we please bring that in for a landing?” All of the writers find a way to come to a stop within about a minute. This is followed by, “Does anyone have anything you’d like to read today?” On most days, several writers will share something from their journals.

When I check the journals from time to time, I always get surprises. In my most recent class, I was surprised that several students wrote poetry every day. Sometimes the poems were on the day’s suggested topic, sometimes not. I also had a couple of pairs of students who wrote to each other, trading their journals on alternate days. This resulted in some rich back-and-forth on a variety of topics with each response at least a page in length. One student wrote in red every day but never used that color on her other work. Many students wrote about their own writing projects or referenced pieces written by other students.

I’m still in the process of learning from my students’ journals, but so far I’ve learned this:
• No one is brilliant every day, but everyone shows brilliance from time to time.
• Quantity begets quality. As the semester continues, the writing gets stronger as stamina improves.
• Students will write thoughtfully and energetically when they trust the environment and feel like they have something to say. Teachers can provide motivation for both of those elements.

Over the course of this one-semester class, students write at least 75 journal entries, each at least a page in length. They use their journals to reflect, have fun, question, rant, problem-solve, and think deeply. When I read what comes out of their minds and pens, I’m always inspired to be a better, more disciplined writer.

Your thoughts and experiences with using journal in class are welcome here! Thanks.

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Tips for Helping Struggling Writers

Students struggle with writing for many reasons.  Can you offer a tip for dealing with a specific obstacle that has worked for you in helping a struggling student writer?

For example, I had a student who had no conception of what sentence means.  He thought that a sentence was whatever was on one line of a piece of paper.  So, I tried this.  As he wrote, I asked him to make his periods way-big.  Ginormously huge.  My thought was that if he took the time to make a really big period, he would also be using that time to consider why he was putting it there.  I only had this student for one semester, and he showed some progress during that time.

If you use this strategy, please let me know how it works for you.  Thanks.

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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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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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