Sunday, February 27, 2011

Book Review: Becoming a Writer

Becoming a WriterBecoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

First published in 1934, Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer has been widely regarded as a classic. It must have been thrilling for young writers in the threadbare 30s to be able to access Brande in this way as I imagine she was among the first to offer guidance which neither reeked of pragmatism nor developed within the noble goals of the WPA.

In the 1930s many young writers were advised to gain some experience as a journalist if they wanted to be a writer in the long run--after all, you can make a dime that way. The artistic movement at the time, social realism, blended with this concept. A journalist could best experience the economic hardships and realistic portrayals of people and society if he/she was out in it. After all, the ills of society were everywhere.

Brande's advice moved writers in the opposite direction. As I read I kept coming back to 1934. Her advice is dated but charming, yet within the context of when it was produced--John Gardner (who wrote the forward) was one-years-old, Tropic of Cancer hit the bookstands, Ulysses had recently been allowed into the United States, and the mass inception of paperback books was less than a year away. Writing and publishing were changing. Social reality was being documented and held up to the light of art. Yet, Brande proposed that the developing writer had to treat the life they pursued as an art, yes, but in the purest sense. They had to work at it in solitude...the young writer's eye was not to be cast outward but turned inward on the self.

She makes the point that great musicians or painters don't cobble their talent by announcing to everyone they meet that they are a musician or a painter. No! The more you talk about it the less progress you will make as the brain and soul will grow satisfied with the mere affirmation--I am a writer. Don't tell people that. Sit down and write!

I imagine many young men and women leaving the old homesteads and flooding the streets of Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore looking for work while telling people they are writers...for some ulterior motive: to protect their joblessness or perhaps to garner a little more curiosity from the opposite sex. Regardless, it must have driven Brande crazy as she returns to this sentiment often:

If at four o'clock you find yourself deep in conversation, you must excuse yourself and keep your engagement. Your agreement is a debt of honor, and must be scrupulously discharged; you have given yourself your word and there is no retracting it. If you must climb out over the heads of your friends at that hour, then be ruthless; another time you will find that you have taken some pains not to be caught in a dilemma of the sort.

I appreciate Brande's instruction. If you are going to write, write! Not only does she promote the setting up of a strict schedule as I've read and heard many contemporary writers swear by, she also suggests the purchase of two portable and silent if possible. And don't drink so much damn coffee, drink maté if you can. Charming. Type at all costs. Yet treat anything you write physically like a work of art, even if you are writing on a bar napkin after climbing out of the booth and over your date at happy hour. Hang on to that napkin more resolutely than you do the girl!

In the end, Brande's Becoming a Writer is interesting to me from a historical perspective. She was an original and if you read books on the craft published within the last decade you'll find many of her influences repeated. The concept that most of the source of what we write found seeds in our childhood (write what you know) is Brande. Read other writers, not just what you like is also Brande.

If you like history or have any interest in reading the book which would have moved a generation of great authors then Becoming a Writer is worth the time to read. However, if you are looking for advice or activities for your students or classroom there are other books published today which serve that purpose--this isn't that.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

In Search of Strong Verbs

I'm not saying I split an atom.

I read through my current stack of student stories and highlighted every weak verb.  I needed to because as it stands today, six months in to school, my kids still create stories built around weak verbs.

We've worked through various exercises, edited, and discussed it to no apparent effect.  As recent weeks passed my personal attention to it increased.

Today, however,for the first time I saw eyes light up.  A point made it home.

I wrote all of the following verbs and helping verbs on the board: am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being, has, had, have, could, ,would, may, might, must, shall, can, will, do, did, does, get, and got.  I had them write the same into today's slot in their journal--just write them and keep them in front of you.

Then I asked each student to take out their independent reading book and turn to page 1.  We counted every verb on the first page of each of their novels and then we added them all up.  After we came up with the total number of verbs on all of our page 1s together, I instructed them to write all of the verbs into their journals and place a check mark next to any which matched our list of weak verbs/helping verbs.

This didn't go perfectly.  Some struggled with identifying verbs, but I helped them when they needed it.  I mention this struggle to identify some verbs because it impacts their ability to open up their writing and use a wider variety of strong verbs. 

Once this bit of build-up settled and we had all of our verbs recorded and counted I explained that improving their use of weak verbs is our current objective and we're going to stick with it.  Our approach thus far this year only managed to include time to review our own original work.  Today we evaluated published work...what does a published work look like when one considers verbs?

I've said use strong verbs ad nauseum but it dawned on me that I needed to find a better way to make the I showed them strong verbs in action.

We took out our calculators and found the percentages of weak verbs to strong verbs on the first page of  our independent reading.  These are books which span all genres and cultures.  They choose their own books.

The totals are interesting and revealed something...published works contain strong verbs!  My first class totaled 521 verbs.  Of those, 168 were helping/weak verbs (32%).  That left 353 verbs out of 521 as what we'll call strong verbs (68%).

The stories I graded most recently have the opposite ratio.

My first class understood my point, but it took my second and third classes to underscore the power of this exercise. My first class will benefit by this on Monday.

Amazingly to them, my second class produced numbers 1 percentage point different from my first class--many looked at me as if I performed magic tricks on a daily basis.  They counted 398 verbs.  Their total number of helping/weak verbs came to 130 (33%).  Some didn't believe it and demanded we count again--suggesting I must have led them into the numbers I wanted them to produce.  Two classes of kids all reading completely different books found out that published books contain strong verbs.  The stories they want to read contain strong verbs.  The stories they enjoy reading contain strong verbs.

Our ultimate goal isn't publishing, but we do want to improve our ability to write and tell a story.  I think they understand this challenge more clearly now.

The numbers produced by the books read by my last class helped me make my point even more.  They found 424 verbs on their first pages.  Of those verbs, 100 were weak/helping verbs (24%) while left 324 strong verbs (76%).

My last class also reacted better than I could have hoped.  They saw it in black and white.  Even though they are all good readers we haven't looked at our books in this light.  It was a simple exercise with what I hope proves to be a lasting impact.

Our work on this topic continues on Monday...

Monday, February 21, 2011

YA Book Review: Amaryllis in Blueberry

Amaryllis in BlueberryAmaryllis in Blueberry by Christina Meldrum

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One thing becomes crystal clear as I read more YA literature--the genre's complexities and range continues to hurtle away from the traditional core of what many consider YA literature. No longer can we hold a YA novel in our hands, call it YA, and distribute it to every one of our kids. Nor can we simply place YA books on our classroom shelves based on reputation or sales numbers. We really need to read what we store in our classrooms and what we suggest to kids. Our role as promoters of literacy is not to be taken likely, we know that, but we also need to realize that it grows ever more complex as the genre of YA expands and reinvents itself and occasionally produces good novels which are inaccessible to young adults. While the choices within the YA genre cater to a wide-variety of tastes, some authors are emerging who stretch the outer edges of the genre...and it leaves me wondering how it carries the label of being a YA novel.

As we wave the banner of the joy and benefits of reading, we also wear the armor of In loco parentis. English teachers should do their due diligence with the burgeoning YA market, especially with some crossover novels. By their nature 'crossover' novels appeal to both YA and adults, but if we are going to place any on our classroom shelves we have to consider what is actually in each book. And we need to see it for ourselves. Not every parent wants their son/daughter reading about certain topics at 12 or 13.

Christina Meldrum's latest YA novel Amaryllis in Blueberry takes aim at some stark topics not fit for a teddy bear's eyes: adultery with the parish priest, teen sex, bastard children, self-mutilation, fasting/starving, child slavery, and murder. Personally, I see the book as a better fit for an adult book club, or high school library moreso than a middle school library/classroom. While, I enjoyed the book on many levels, I can't in good conscience hand it to your 13-year-old son or daughter. Maybe I'm overreacting, but I just can't do it.

Having read both Madapple and Amaryllis in Blueberry I enjoy Meldrum's writing style and stories--but I'm also 42. I'll certainly buy the next novel Meldrum produces and I'll wager that I'll write a strong review for that as well. Meldrum is an artist and weaves a complex story as well as anyone. Yet, considering the purpose of why I write this blog for a very specific audience, I have to simply say, if you are going to pick up Amaryllis in Blueberry do it because you want to read a good book yourself, not necessarily that you want to find a good book for your classroom shelf.

Amaryllis in Blueberry follows the lives of the Slepy family (pronounced Sleepy) and their move from Michigan to the West Africa. The Slepy's move so that dad (Dick) can pursue work as a doctor for those suffering from dysentery. Many in the family hold dark secrets as they run (away?) to Africa...of course, over time, these secrets unravel.

Told from the perspectives of eight different people. This gritty story weaves in and our of the shoes of the Slepy family, their neighbor, and the parish priest. Driven by mythology, ritual, and religion the novel asks the reader to examine obsession and love, the significance of names, cultural practices as teens grow into adulthood, and the ever-expanding pastures of sexual maturity.

Yet, as I've intimated, Meldrum is developing into a master and handles every issue or theme as if her pen were tipped with jagged sandpaper. Her language scratch-scratch-scratches in an uncomfortably pleasing manner:

"She died? " Tessa said.

"She had the diarrhea," Addae said.

"I don't understand," Tessa said. But she did understand. "I thought it was a party. It seemed like a party."

"Yes." Addae said.

"She died of diarrhea?"

"Yes." Addae said.

And I knew Africa again was stirring this pot, even before Addae explained about the spirits. Two-year-olds died from diarrhea. Where melancholy should have gathered, drumming and dancing and feasting had. Sadness and joy were holding hands, and something else altogether was hugging everyone. I'd seen the shimmer of sadness at the funeral, but I'd heard the hum of joy, too. And overriding all of it was something I didn't recognize. It wasn't so much peacefulness as it was acceptance. Life is a gift, it seemed to say. When it ends, you don't ask, "Why me?" You ask, "Why not me?"

Why not me? I thought Why shouldn't I, who has a life be grateful for that life, no matter whether my life was formed with love?

Yet life was a gift I didn't understand. I thought of those slave souls in that slave castle, how they seemed to be forever trapped. They once had a life, too. But it was the life of a slave.

Do yourself a favor and find a book club and some time and read Christina Meldrum. She writes books worth reading and discussing...I'm just not so sure about the audience her publisher is trying to wedge her into.

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Teachers Should Keep a Professional Blog

In light of the Bucks County, PA teacher's troubling rant about kids, parents, and everything in between I actually want to sound the call for more teachers to write.  We already write.  It is almost overwhelming to sit back for a moment to consider all which teachers physically write on a daily basis--comments on essays, assessments, rubrics, evaluation forms, monitoring checklists, professional development checkpoints, as well as anything your district asks a teacher to write to prove he/she follows through on new initiatives.  We write and adjust lesson plans; we write notes, assignments, directions,  emails home, emails in response to parents, colleagues, and administration.  We're asked to write out new ideas moving forward--develop a new course, a new way to handle monitoring lunch or detention or the school yard.  We are even asked to keep homework pages online or webpages carrying information mom and dad might need at night or copies of notes, worksheets, study guides, and so.  This isn't a complaint or a woe is us--this is an observation and wake up call to all teachers.  Regardless of what subject you teach, you are a writer whether you like to admit it or not.

I imagine that some of my colleagues or friends who are teachers elsewhere may not think of themselves as a writer if they teach math, physical education, science, or maybe even social studies.  Yet, the fact remains, we all write a lot in our profession.

I started my blog in November…at the same time that I committed myself to participating in Nanowrimo with my students (write a novel in a month) and reading more YA fiction. T he reaction from my colleagues (and friends) has been mixed: pats on the back and one recurring question…how do you find the time to write a blog?

If nothing else, writing the blog (almost daily) has kept me mentally healthy.   I do not feel the burnout which normally creeps in this time of the school year.  And here is where I draw a connection to the unfortunate tirade by the Bucks County teacher.  It comes as no surprise to me that something erupted somewhere in February.  February and March are typically bears emotionally for teachers...and this particular teacher took to writing publicly on a blog to vent, lash out, and exhale.

This has really just made me wonder how necessary writing might be for a teacher--and yet it isn't really taught to educators to do.  We are encouraged to share ideas.  Many teachers over the years have expressed disappointment that we are not afforded the time to meet to discuss the craft, the lessons, the success.  I have been around occasional attempts to join teachers together to share, but they don't stick.  We end up back in our rooms writing everything we need to so that our classrooms can function correctly tomorrow.

I'm happily engaged in weekly online conversation  on the English Companion Ning.  It  is a website where English teachers across the country share ideas, lessons, concerns, etc.  The site has attracted student teachers, elementary school teachers, all the way through college professors and heads of education programs.  It hasn't become a place to vent; instead, it is a healthy place to exercise the muscle.   Many agree that daily exercise removes stress…yet, my recent participation in writing about the profession has left  me wondering about the benefits a staff blog or even a network where teachers in your district write a professional blog as professional development and they all link to one another...who knows what positive change that might produce.

Elementary school, middle school, and high school teachers rarely meet to simply talk about what they do.  Our understanding of what comes before us or after us is not as clear as any of us would like.  Imagine a network of teachers in your district blogging about the profession...imagine being afford the time to do it read, to write.  

I know there are lots of wrinkles to work out--who would see it, who would contribute, is anything off the table, what about people who abuse it, and some will exhale that they have no time to write such a blog, and so on.  There are educators out there who even poo-poo at the idea of any educator sharing anything (let alone a creative thought) online--"who cares about Facebook, Twitter, Blogging...who cares what Person X has to say"...I don't know that those people will ever come around to our way of seeing the benefits of technology, but they won't be reading this blog entry anyway.  There are districts who even suggest to their teachers that it might be a good idea to remove Facebook pages, blogs, et al.   Either way they would be missing my intention here: to raise the issue that all teachers are writers and maybe we all need to be encouraged to write in a healthier way.  Maybe we (educators) need to push to adjust what we are asked to write and how we are asked to collaborate.  There are great ideas tucked away in so many of my colleagues--and rarely do those things come out unless by chance in conversation.

The benefits of writing as therapy are well-documented.  Writing helps one clear his thoughts and understand feelings.  It helps us solve problems or work out solutions at our own pace.  I know it has helped me manage the stress which I can feel at work.

Not everyone might see asking a teacher to write a weekly entry into a staff blog as a good thing.  Some might actually find more stress in it--writing doesn't come easily to everyone.

The teacher in Bucks County got me thinking that there is clearly a need for all teachers to be encouraged to write.  Until the day comes when we are encouraged to write and keep a professional blog, I encourage my friends to seek out those safe professional places to write and share your thoughts and ideas.

Writing just might help smooth the waters of your next _____ years of teaching.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Book Review: Zen in the Art of Writing

Zen in the Art of WritingZen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One-quarter interesting anecdote.

One-quarter self-indulgence.

One-half helter-skelter explanation of how a writer could work.

Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing fails miserably if you are a writer or a teacher looking for professional guidance, a few pointers, an exercise to hone your skills, or feelings of simpatico. A collection of essays, each uses one of Bradbury's flagship stories as the backdrop of what should be a useful central message.

Ok, it is interesting that for a stretch he pumped dimes into typewriters at the public library just so he could find a quiet place to write.

It is interesting to read his explanation of how to "feed and keep a muse" as he puts it.

Also interesting that he found a good way for him to work so that he could unlock the subconscious: he created lists of nouns, anything which came to his head, and began writing. He did this everyday. The nouns at times emerged from the deep recesses of his brain tissue, experienced long ago in adolescence and buried for centuries. He didn't know how they would work or what they would inspire, but each day became a journey of nouns which led him into stories.

An example is his short story The Veldt. He imagined a time when we could travel anyplace in the world by dialing it up on monitors (Internet?) and entire rooms in our houses would be devoted to this. All of the walls would be screens from ceiling to floors, perhaps 3-D, perhaps holographic imagery. Then one day the technology goes too brings realism to the floor...we can feel the heat of Egypt...and we can smell the marjoram and hibiscus...and then the technology malfunctions. A dead carcass appears on the floor. Dad walks into the "TV room" to tinker with the technology just as a lion leaps from the walls and gnaws dad to shreds--as his two children watch while sipping tea.

Reading this collection of essays just reinforces the fact that the man is a master of the craft. Reading it was indeed entertaining and fascinating, because I have always been a fan of Bradbury. Reading this book made me want to go back read his novels and short stories again, so I suppose his publisher enjoys Zen in the Art of Writing because it is an effective commercial for his fiction.

His advice can be boiled down to the following basic points: Read everything you can, especially poetry; Don't give a rip about critics; Live a good life; Write everyday; Listen; Be open to your subconscious; Don't write for money. I understand--they are all salient ideas--but he spent so much time explaining how one of his stories serves as a good example of one of these topics that he never really offers much which is unique. The book strikes me as something more useful to a Bradbury fan and not as much for a student, teacher, writer...

I'll draw a parallel. Sometimes great coaches of kids (or great teachers) do not make great coaches/teachers of colleagues. Sometimes someone with a gift can't really explain how they do it beyond the basic bricks which can be found in dozens of other sources. You turn to a legend and you don't always receive the Rosetta Stone as a souvenir. As a football coach I stumble across coaches who function similarly in clinics. College and high school coaches from across the nation gather in hundreds of venues in the off-season to share ideas, teach, and demonstrate how they accomplish certain objectives. Some are great clinic speakers and leave you with tangible things to bring back to your own kids to show them and practice and use. Not every kid is a Division I athlete and learning how to make a very average football player better is the art of the coach. Others, too many, stand in front of the room and tell us that an idea exists, draws some squiggly lines on an overhead, show a quick video or two of world-class athletes executing IT perfectly in action, and then the crowd is thanked for paying attention. So often coaches leave those sessions in particular scratching their heads and asking, "How do I teach my kids do that??? or even "How do I teach myself that!"

I feel this way about Zen in the Art of Writing. Save the $7.99 in the United States and the $8.99 in Canada and spend it on a collection of Bradbury short stories instead. You'll learn more from the master...THAT is his classroom...and you'll enjoy it.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Five Journal Topics from the book Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court

Instead of dipping into a book on creative writing I thought I'd pull one of my favorite books off the shelf--John Wooden's book of observations.  This is such a great little book for teachers or coaches.  These five questions come from sections he labels as life's puzzlers...great for self-reflection and discussion after some free writing.

1. Why is it so difficult to realize that others are more likely to listen to us if first we listen to them?

2. Why is it so much easier to be negative than positive?

3. Why can't we realize that it only weakens those we want to help when we do things for them that they should do for themselves?

4. Why is it so much easier to complain about the things we do not have than to make the most of and appreciate the things we do have?

5. Why does the person with the least to say take the longest to say it?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Five Journal Topics from the book Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft

I reviewed Janet Burroway's Imaginative Writing in a previous post.  Today I posted 5 journal entry topics from that book which have proven to be evocative with my classes:

1. Write a short story on a postcard.  (Write small.) Make sure it has a conflict, a crisis, and a resolution.  Send it to a friend in another place (meaning you have published it), or to yourself (when it arrives you will be able to see it fresh).

2. Write a scene from the point of view of a young character in a setting that is uncomfortable, threatening, dangerous, or fearful.  Create the sense of conflict with the surroundings through at least three senses.  Use elements of weather, time of day, and time of year as well as place.

3. Pain is notoriously difficult to describe.  Describe a pain you remember, in images of all five senses--its size, shape, location, color, smell, sound, taste.  Then find a few quick metaphors for it--perhaps suggested by these concrete details.

4. Tell your life story in three incidents involving hair.

5. Villains are most effective when they are also being charming, convincing, touching, or otherwise not being villainous.  Write a speech for an unsympathetic character that makes us for the moment sympathetic.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Rejection Notices

One of the recurring bits of advice from other writing teachers is to write with your students.  This appears to be true whether your writing students are 13-years-old or 63-years-old.  Anyone writing is taking a personal risk.  Once an instructor picks up the pen to write him/herself we begin to peel away the perception of judgment, or right and wrong.  We see each other as in this together.

I thought about this passage this weekend by Pat Schneider in Writing Alone and with others
Most of us begin our writing alone, somewhere in childhood or adolescence.  We come as students into classrooms with our hidden and continuing passion on pages tucked away just in case we might feel safe enough to show it to the powerful person who stands before us in school.  If we are among the blessed, that powerful person says yes to our effort, believes in us, and teaches us without breaking our spirit.  Blessed or not, everyone with even a modest education has experienced writing with others in a classroom.  Many come into the class clad in a solid suit of armor.  Teachers who still wear that armor--who are still afraid of writing--unconsciously teach that fear to their students. 
Back in November my creative writing classes took part in Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month).  All of them produced a piece of work which ranged from 5,000 words up to 35,000 words for a few.  One student asked, "Are you going to do it too?"

I used the question (and invitation) to pull out something I had been working on for the last two years and went at it hard through November and finished it.  I used December to edit it, and begin submitting it to agents over the holidays.

At the beginning of February my first rejection notices began rolling in:

Thank you so much for your query. Unfortunately, however, this project
doesn’t sound right for me.

Thank you for your query, which we have had the chance to review. Unfortunately, your project is not quite right for our list.  We have to be extremely selective about what we represent, and we're sorry this isn’t a match for us.

Rest assured that we do read every query letter carefully and, unfortunately, this project is not right for us.  Because this business is so subjective and opinions vary widely, we recommend that you pursue other agents. After all, it just takes one "yes" to find the right match.  

Essentially, agents have found polite ways to say "It's not you, it's me" to writers seeking representation and publication.  It is like dating all over again!  There are manuals written about finding the right  I read a tweet last night by an agent who suggested that most queries by aspiring writers only leads her to think of them (us?) as the horrid contestants who squawk into a microphone during the first weeks of American Idol--Think Randy Jackson, "Sorry, dog.  Not today." that me?

I'm taking any of the rejection slips which come in and I'm hanging them on my bulletin board next to my desk in my classroom.  Right now there are four.  I used to hang any articles about our high school football team on that bulletin board--I coached them, and put up the articles win or lose each season.  Fortunately for me (I guess) I experienced a few 1-9 seasons so the accumulation of agent and publisher rejection slips won't affect me much.  My students used to ask me why I hung up the articles reporting on the losses--how can you be proud of that???  I've learned enough to know that if you stick with something long enough you experience every kind of season--we had a couple of undefeated seasons (10-0) with that football team too...after the long climb out of the cellar.  You remember where you came from and you remember what it took to get there.  Since that climb out of the gutter the high school football team has never reverted back to 1-9 seasons...actually they win at least 7 games a season regularly.  A loss is more shocking than a win.  All along, the articles went up next to my desk win or lose...and any notices from agents and publishers will go up too--win or lose.

I'm hoping some of my students can take something from this.  It  may not exactly equal the same perseverance as Lincoln, but my heart is in the right place.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

YA Book Review: Three Rivers Rising

Three Rivers Rising by Jame Richards is an interesting YA novel to review because there are some strong arguments to be made for including it in your creative writing classroom...on the other hand, I personally  found the story itself quite common: poor little rich girl falls in love with one of the lower class (i.e. Jamer Cameron's Titantic, or with the genders flipped  F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby).  To further heighten the wealthy white American contrast in Three Rivers Rising we not only fall in love with a poor man, but a black man.  So, while I am making an effort to give it a fair review, I am confident my 8th grade students who read the book will like it and will be drawn to this archetype.

The insolence, decadence, and cruelty of some in the novel will certainly hook my 8th grade students: the wealthy built themselves a playground (man-made lake) high in the mountains above several blue-collar towns...the damn gives way...and the wealthy gape down as floods ravage the downtrodden.  Oops.  How utterly indecent...just when I was about to pour another glass of port.

Ok, back to being fair.

The true hook of the book for any English teacher is how it is written: a multiple point-of-view story in free verse.  The reader is shifted back and forth through the poems/perspectives of five characters.  Their lives intersect against the backdrop of the Johnstown Flood of 1889 in Pennsylvania.  For a debut novel, this leaves me impressed.  It will be very easy for me to demonstrate the merits of this book and style to my students.  Pulling excerpts out for class discussion will lead to a worthwhile exchange of ideas on the merits of writing in third person, in multiple points of view, and in taking risks with style and voice.  Jame Richards found a unique voice and perspective to tell a story which has been shared by a master storyteller already, David McCullough.

I include an excerpt here of the wealthy father (new wealth) who casts his teenage daughter Celestina out of the family (the second he has done that too).  After the flood, he realizes his daughter may be in the towns below...those struck by the flood.  He begins his long and treacherous climb down the mountain through mud and splintered trees to reclaim his daughter:

I bid the girl and her parents goodbye
and resume slow progress
down the river valley.
and anxious,
I arrive in the borough of East Conemaugh,
a larger town,
home of the train yard.
Everyone speaks with gratitude
of an engine driver
who sounded the alarm
with his whistle tied down.
His house is one of a hundred or so lost.
His locomotive is among hundreds
of train cars scattered about
or carried off by the flood
as it picked up speed
towards Johnstown.
And toward Celestina.
For as unnerving as free verse can be to write (Robert Frost said that free verse was like playing tennis without a net.), I can't imagine this story told any other way.  It all feels right and I do not miss the traditional format of the novel.

One of the first conversations I want to have with my students is centered around my first question for Jame Richards-- Whose novel is this?  The format of the story wants it to be Celestina's, but I want to see if my 8th graders can argue the fact that the novel actually belongs to the father.  He experiences the greatest change.  He is the one who was boxed into a moral dilemma...and for him there seemingly is no escape.  If he accepts that his older daughter is pregnant before she is married and his younger daughter is in love with a poor, black servant then all of his new wealth and contacts in the world ostensibly disappear.

Is the fact that her father forbids her marrying the servant enough to make Celestina the heroine of the novel?  Is it enough that she chooses to leave her family to be with the man she loves rather than the one her father chose for her?  It wasn't enough to make Hermia the heroine in A Midsummer Night's Dream (nor Egeus for that matter), but my argument here is...the story in question, Three Rivers Rising, belongs to the father Whitcomb.

Furthermore, consider the naming of the heroine Celestina as a not so subtle nod towards the Spanish La Celestina by de Rojas.  La Celestina is written in series of dialogues which almost make it a cross between a play and a novel.  When I was studying theater and film at Temple University I had a professor who taught it as a play.  In the case of Three Rivers Rising, did I mistake dialogue for free verse?  I don't think so, but now as I skim the book it is definitely dialogue as well as free verse.  I didn't catch the connection to La Celestina right away...I'm going to have to pull it off the shelf, clear the dust, and look for some additional connections.

Regardless, there is enough to chew on here beyond plot.  I do recommend that you keep this book in your classroom.   Young adults will be drawn to the story and you may also find some good cause for discussion with it.  Enjoy!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

YA author visit: Rita Williams-Garcia is coming this Wednesday

I've arranged for YA author Rita Williams-Garcia ( to visit my classroom this upcoming Wednesday, February 16th.  She'll be driving a little more than three hours from Brooklyn N.Y. to southeastern Pennsylvania to co-teach a lesson with me.  We're going to work on a new journal entry which has produced great results in the past with other classes; I'm looking forward to hearing Williams-Garcia guide the students through it.

The idea to visit my classroom in person was actually her idea.  I hadn't ever met her before, but I emailed her to find out if she would be willing to find some time to Skype with one of my three creative writing classes.  I usually book authors for 30-45 minutes, some do it for free, some ask for what I consider a reasonable fee if we ask for an hour (anywhere from $50 dollars to $125 dollars).  I'm finding that you never can tell who is going to offer things gratis or ask for a fee--reputation, awards, name recognition do not seem to play much of a part in that.  I'm also finding that all you have to do is ask--several colleagues and strangers from the internet have asked, "How do you get these great authors?"  I ask.  It's that simple.

In this specific case when I asked Williams-Garcia for a Skype session she immediately replied:
Thank you so much for this invitation.  Is it at all possible that I could visit with your class in the flesh?  I'm speaking from my disastrous Skype experiences and my need to get out of my apartment and see trees along the eastern landscape.
Knowing that having any author come to school would cost well over a thousand dollars, my reticence came through in  my response.  Yet a very generous counter came back at me--basically, she'll visit with all three of my creative writing classes for the cost of what I normally pay for one 45 minute Skype session.  We usually record the Skype sessions when permitted and then show them to my other classes--so I try to book my authors at different times of the day so all of the kids have an opportunity to interact live with an author.  Our PTO is covering the expense of this visit through their special projects budget, and has covered most of my other author sessions through another budget which they set aside for teachers.  Our PTO offers each teacher $250 to use on their classroom each year--you can spend it in almost any way you see fit as long as it benefits your students.  Some of my colleagues offered me their $250 to help cover the expenses of my author sessions as well.  As of Wednesday when Rita Williams-Garcia visits, she will be the 8th author out of 14 scheduled this school year to work directly with my classes.

Our writing activity on Wednesday is something I posted previously, I believe.  I'm going to have the students sit in a large circle.  In the middle of the circle will be several objects: a dirty garden glove, an worn wooden chair, a chipped old brick, a spool of yarn with needle in it, and so on.  There will be many to choose from.  Then, Williams-Garcia and I will lead the students through the journal entry--find the story inside one of these objects.  We will save some time to share and process which I will defer to our guest to lead and comment.

I, along with several of my students have read her most recent book One Crazy Summer which has garnered many awards and distinctions:  2011 Coretta Scott King Award Winner; 2011 Newbery Honor Book; 2011 Scott O’Dell Prize for Historical Fiction; 2010 National Book Award Finalist; Junior Library Guild Selection; and a New York Times Editor's Choice distinction.  
I plan on offering a follow-up blog with some pictures after our big day on Wednesday.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Resource Book Review: Writing Alone and with others

Writing Alone and With OthersWriting Alone and With Others by Pat Schneider

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I spent the better part of two years researching a plan for the development of our current creative writing course and the past two years teaching it and adjusting it according to the needs of our students. In that time I have picked up many articles and books on writing. I've found that many books address the craft from the perspective of writers trying to publish. I've come across few which tackle the specific needs of an instructor and the best of that small selection is Pat Schneider's Writing Alone and with others.

Other books have instructed me in what to teach and what to tell writers to avoid or edit; some have provided a strong framework for designing a course in public school. Rarely have any made me stop and question what we do and how we do it when we teach writing in school. I will let some of her comments speak for themselves and you can judge whether or not this is someone you want to read:

As teachers we need courage--the courage to look clearly at the risks we ask our students to take, and a willingness to take those risks ourselves by writing and reading with them.

If you are a teacher, the most important preparation for your teaching is the liberation of your own writing voice.

Let writing be one place in the school experience where teacher and student are "in this together."

What about grades? I hate them. I am not alone. Good teachers everywhere understand the damage that is done by grading a young artist's work. And they try in every way imaginable to avoid them, mitigate them, soften the blow. Grading hurts the creative process.

The problems with teaching writing in our educational system cannot be fixed by mandated tests. It can only be fixed by the true commitment of all of our people to the education of all of our children.

In teaching writing, the problem with "standards" is their subjectivity. Historically, the have weeded out the voices of difference, and narrowed the channel of those who reach professional acceptance.

As far as it is possible, grading of student writing should be avoided. (This does not mean a lack of evaluative feedback. On the contrary, we can give encouraging feedback and build the writer within each student.)

Similarly, schools should not sponsor contests. For every one student who is chosen as excellent, there are many who come out of the contest having learned that their work failed--the opposite of the learning we want.

Author Pat Schneider ( is a teacher. She works out of the Amherst Writers & Artists Group ( Having read her book and browsed each site I've come to think of Schneider much in the same way I think of Uta Hagen, Stella Adler, and Isadora Duncan--an artist who sees things so clearly that they are able to positively influence anyone who comes within their orbit.

There are certainly several adjustments I need to make as I move forward with this class. If you investigate this further you will find that there is a companion DVD with the book, and many workshops and training sessions for writers and teachers.

Truly an inspirational person and message for any teacher.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

YA Book Review: Finding Family by Tonya Bolden

Finding FamilyFinding Family by Tonya Bolden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the most appealing aspects of Tonya Bolden's YA novel Finding Family is how it came to be put together. Bolden writes that she has collected all sorts of things over the years, but most notably she has collected old photographs. Several of these photographs have been pieced together to create a fictional family and history--a history which has been kept a secret from her young female protagonist Delana Hannibal.

The author writes, "So in the making of Finding Family I had the great thrill of combining my passion for history with my wonderings about long ago lives: the millions of every day people from the past..."

"Thankfully in museums and historical socities, in libraries and private collections, we have people's diaries, family Bibles, handicrafts, letters, and other artifacts--like photographs. Such treasures not only give us insights into history but also allow our imaginations to take flight."

This use of old photographs is particularly appealing to me because I keep many old photographs around my home. They are filled with pictures of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins--some date as far back as the early 1930s as far as we can tell. I've found myself staring at them wondering what they were talking about, what was in the news that day, or even who took the picture and what they were thinking when they snapped it.

Regarding the writing style, Bolden's strength is the voice she creates with her pen. Voice is powerfully strong in this novel. I plan on using an excerpt or two with my own creative writing classes. Written from Delana's perspective, we seem to cover several years of her young life. We settle in around her 12th and 13th year when family secrets begin to unravel in front of her. This is a novel of emotional journey where a young girl begins to learn the truth about her mother and father. She doesn't know either, and can't remember ever being with either.

Here is an example of the entertaining and vivid voice established in Finding Family:

Aunt Tilley had only let me have candy once in a blue moon. Said too much would curdle my mind. Cousin Richard didn't think candy was bad for me--or him, I learned when I helped him tote his things down to the library. I held my candy bag open to him, and he took a whole handful.

He popped jelly bean after jelly bean into his mouth as he swiveled in the chair before the rolltop desk. He was smiling at everything in the library, from the little table and chair by the window to the tiny maypops dotting the wallpaper. Scanning the bookshelves, he smiled even more. "I can still see her in here, curdled up in the chair, nose in a book, lost in some adventure."

I had a little bit of difficulty getting into the story early on, but the whole thing felt like a freight train taking off as it gained incredible momentum once Delana's family secrets came to light quickly. Delana didn't know any secrets existed--we learned with her. Truly, I hung with the story at first because of the wonderful storyteller's voice. Then Delana's journey kept me straight through till the end. Once it took off, I didn't put it down.

The fact that the novel ends a little open-ended...we are left to wonder something for well. Delana finds acceptance with herself and her family secrets and makes the determined first steps to reach out and confront them. What happens next is left to us to consider.

Add Finding Family to the ever-growing list of great stuff going on out there in the YA market and add it to your classroom. It is a clever story written from a great place within the author:

"As for your life, I hope you will take good care of artifacts from it, along with your family stories. A century in the future, what you have left behind may very well be prized by a writer working on a book of nonfiction. Or fiction."

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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Five Journal Topics from the book Writing Alone and with others

The following are five journal writing topics which have produced good results in my middle school classroom.  I tweaked some here and there to make them fit my current class.  However, all journal ideas in this post are from the book Writing Alone and with others by Pat Schneider which I will review shortly.

1. Create a new origin any of the following phrases: "rule of thumb"..."pain in the neck"..."catch some rays".  (Note: You can add any phrases you'd like.)

2.  If you are leading a group of writers, wait until they are quiet, then spread a plain cloth and put out a collection of objects that represent various kinds of experience: a spool of thread with a needle stuck in it; an old, scarred wooden spoon; a brush and hand mirror; a well-used baseball; a plastic flower; and on and on.  The more you use the better--keep the objects small and separate.

It is important that these objects be things that suggest memory or story.  After displaying all of the objects, tell the class something like, "Every object here is full of story--what is was before it was made into this object, where it has been, all of  the people who have used it.  Find a story in one.  Be open to it."

3. Lay out a collection of pictures and allow students to choose one or more as a trigger for writing.  An excellent source are photography or art books--look for photos which suggest a story.  Magritte paintings are wonderful writing stimuli.  (I hadn't been familiar with Magritte until I read this suggestion by Schneider...she was on point.  I used Magritte with fantastic results)  Of course you can have students pull a random picture from a hat, or you can assign one to the class, or you can even have students select a picture for a classmate.

4. Create a shoebox for class with the label "First lines of stories never written"...whenever someone needs a fresh idea they can pull one out of there or use it to lead a journal writing session.  These, of course, can be almost anything you can create and think of...there are also tons of options online.  Some of the suggestions in the Schneider book are as follows:

Rain moves over the garden...
A hickory nut falls to the footpath...
I am a small man without a head...
You were the gentle one...
I won't go back there this time...
I've read your letter again...
Right before you disappear...
She got quieter as she got old...

5. Write a piece in which you give a detailed description of a lesson, either from the point of view of  the teacher/instructor or the learner.  This is an excellent way to work on clarity.  Sometimes when a writer is truly faithful to detail the end becomes much more than the making of something.  Some suggested topics:

A mother teaching a child how to tie a shoe.
A sister teaching her brother how to climb onto a horse.
A grandfather showing a grandson how to drive a nail.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Author Mark Bowden (Black Hawk Down) spoke to my classes today

Author Mark Bowden lives near my school and generously devoted some time to speak with my classes today.

Since we did not record what author Mark Bowden shared with our kids today, I took some detailed notes for myself which I'll share here.  While I am being as accurate as I can, I am still paraphrasing based on my notes.  Some of Bowden's opening statement focused on the journey he experienced while writing Black Hawk Down, but I chose to note what he said about the craft of writing in general.

As I remember it, he began with the statement that his job is telling true stories.  One of the most important parts of telling true stories is getting out into the world and finding out things for yourself--firsthand.  He suspects that 90% of information which exists out there (namely internet) is recycled.  When someone else is reporting or sharing information it becomes recycled, redistributed, and distorted.  We can't put enough stress on the importance of finding out what we can firsthand.

One of his anecdotes about Black Hawk Down concerned a soldier named Brad.  As he interviewed Brad it struck him that Brad didn't share everything in his experience.  Bowden had heard from other soldiers that during a moment of high stress Brad refused to go back out into battle--he told his commanding officer that he would not, could not, go back.  Brad had just held a close friend as he bled to death in his lap while rushing him back to base.  When Bowden asked Brad about this event, Brad confirmed it, but then asked if it was necessary to tell that part of the story.  Bowden told my students that not only was it necessary, but it was the real part of Brad's story.  It was the core of all of it.  Brad didn't want to tell Bowden the story because he was ashamed of his fear.  Bowden explained, on the contrary, your fear illustrates just how terrifying this battle was...and at the same time it also illuminates just how remarkable it is that you (Brad) changed your mind and marched back out there to fight, through your fear.  And there are soldiers, human beings, sons, brothers, daughters, sisters, mothers, fathers, who do this everyday.  Yes, we have to tell it!  It is the story.

So many young writers today have access to Google or other search engines and simply sit down to write stories without doing anything on their own.  What happens then is this--they have nothing new to say.  If you want to be a writer, get up.  Get up out of your chair.  Get up and get out of your house and speak to people.  When you can bring yourself to have a conversation with someone face to face about something they experienced, you will be filled with things to tell people.  He called the writers who do not do that by the name of "Thumbsuckers"--and thumbsuckers never get any of the rewards of learning something new.

We started a Q&A with the classes--the following are Bowden's thoughts based on their questions:

How did you become a writer?
I didn't need anybody's permission to be a writer.  The only way to write stories is to do it. 

There is nothing interesting to write about right here where I grow up.  Where are the stories for a kid like me?
Everything in the world happens right here.  Stories are everywhere.  Have you ever driven along a rode and seen a dead deer?  Driving these country roads are more dangerous than driving in New York and Philadelphia.  There's a story in that.  There are people being born, dying, struggling to eat, falling in love, sideswiping a fence in a car.  There are stories everywhere--all you have to do is be open to it.

How did you learn how to write stories?
I learned how to write stories by reading stories.  Mostly, you learn by doing.  I am still teaching myself how to do it.

How do you create dialogue is you weren't there to hear it in the first place--how much flexibility do you give yourself to make it up?
I will allow myself to create dialogue if it is the best memory of the people who spoke it originally...which is never going to be 100%.  What is ideal is if it were recorded, but if not, then I trust those who were there.  The key is, you have to let the reader know how you know it.  I won't make it up.

What if you were writing about something in the 1800s?
This is hard work.  Writing is mental effort.  It requires a tremendous amount of energy to focus your mind to do it.  You commit yourself to a lot of legwork, but it is really really fun.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Reference Book Review: Sugar Changed the World

Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and ScienceSugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science by Marc Aronson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found a good companion book for teachers who cover the issue of slavery. Sugar Changed the World by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos firmly establishes the immutable influence which sugar has imposed on the world. The core component in the history of slavery and human rights worldwide sugar has left behind it a trail of blood unequaled by any product, including cotton.

The book appeared during many of my browsing sessions on over the holidays. Always combing booksellers for new YA books, this presented itself as something for the teen community. What you get is a reference book, a little dry, which traces the human history behind the discovery and implementation of sugar cane to beet sugar to contemporary chemical processes of creating sweeteners.

I see the book being put to use in a classroom environment where you might be looking for something to challenge a student who might test out of a unit (if you do that). Perhaps you utilize the extension project for students--this would be one resource which students in Social Studies or Geography classes could certainly put to good use.

My own personal experience has been that Americans are taught about the slavery wrapped within our own dark history, but little is taught about slavery in a global sense. This book ties it all together. It is interesting to read that the world abused and then adjusted their points of view on slaves--"All Men are Created Equal" was an international concept long before the words were penned in America.

We come to learn that England imported more slaves than any country in the world (over sugar)...Hawaii is the most ethnically diverse region on the plant (because of sugar cane)...France sold the Louisiana Territory to make enough money to pay for its wars in Haiti (over sugar) which they lost...Ghandi's mantra of passive resistance or Satyagraha ("truth with firmness") began before he led his people to take India back from the British, it began when an indentured Indian slave came to him--battered cruelly while working in sugarcane.

A teacher can hand this book to a student studying Napolean, Hawaii, the Caribbean, European History, American is a versatile resource. While it is not entertaining and dry in places it is a terribly interesting story worth the twenty bucks. I'd imagine many teachers could put this to use in their classrooms.

View all my reviews

Friday, February 4, 2011

Research in Creative Writing Classroom: Topics

This is a follow-up to a previous post (Research) which describes what we are doing with research in the creative writing classroom.

My class is about halfway through their research and writing process--all of their topics have been honed to develop into potentially good stories.  However, as an aside, I think I'm losing my grip on them...since when has Google become the buddha on the mount?  I'm meeting my stiffest resistance yet regarding the use of library resources.  Library resources are "too hard" some whine.  I may have to ban Google next year...

At any rate, here is the list of story topics which have come out of our research.  All topics were 100% generated by the students.  I only guided a few to help them make their intent more focused.  As you'll see from some of the topics, I am still working...pleading...with some to make some decisions on detail.  Some are clearly much better than others...yet you may also glean a sense of the wide range of abilities and sensibilities in the classroom.

Research Story Topics:

A child's perspective of the cruelty and fighting when India attempted to break free from England.
Thomas Farynor's journey towards starting the Great Fire of London...and ending The Plague.
A young Chippewa hunter goes on a journey to a new home with his family after the U.S. Government "buys" their land, forcing the Anishinabe to find a new place to call home
A 16 year old girl is forced to immigrate illegally from Mexico with her husband.
My great-aunt and uncle elope in Tennessee
A young girl's experience during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii.
A girl moves to California and experiences a horse round-up and is determined to save the horses.
Alisha is stuck in New Orleans with her grandmother who refuses to leave during Hurricane Katrina
A girl wants to paint for priests in Teotihuacan but the fall of the city changes everything.
A family's experience living the middle of the Love Canal incident.
A fifteen year old boy in the Confederate Army experiences toughness and loates the South.
A female artist dies while sneaking onto the crew to help construct the Eiffel Tower.
A pioneer daughter moves to Tennessee with her family.
Forbidden by her culture, a young Inca girl falls in love with a poor farmer's son.
A family struggles in a wagon train on the Oregon Trail.
A seven year old Italian boy's journey to America in the 1940s.
A homeless boy discovers a talent which enables him to stay alive on the streets.
My grandfather's experience as a paratrooper during WWII.
A starving honey badger has to steal food from a leopard in order to survive.
A little girl in Philadelphia during the yellow fever outbreak.
A 14 year old Native American girl wants to leave her pueblo in order to live her life to its fullest.
A thirteen year old boy experiences all of the horrors of a mercury spill in Minamata, Japan.
The rescue of a Chilean miner as told by a journalist.
A sixteen year old male slave on the run in the Underground Railroad
A fifteen year old boy finds a way into the seedy underworld of England.
A man is injured and needs Clara Barton's assistance.
Someone attempts to escape from Alcatraz.
David Karp's journey in developing the blogging site Tumblr.
The journey encountered by a band on the road.
A man survives after being trapped by a loose boulder during rock climbing.
A boy living through the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
The experiences of a young girl with Downs Syndrome.
A thirty year old man finds himself trapped while climbing K2.
The tragedy of the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571; its emotional struggles and the choice of cannibalism.
Molly Brown's heroic actions on the Titanic.
One's struggle with OCD in school.
Four cowboys from the King Ranch go on a cattle drive.
Nevaeh goes to America as an au pair to learn about the country she was named after and falls in love with its meaning and the people she meets.
A girl learns to cope with terrifying dreams.
A sailor's journey during WWII
A teenager's goals and dreams change when he sees Star Wars in 1977.
Seabiscuit's journey of changing the lives of millions during the Great Depression.
A wealthy girl's life in the 16th century.
A boxer sizes up an opponent in the corner of the ring before the match.
A man takes a jouney to an exotic place and chooses to become a  native.
A young teenage girl finds herself alone on the sinking Titanic.
The Kennedy Administration responds to the Cuban missile crisis.
Bode Millers journey at the 2010 Olympics.
The experience of over 1,000 dead birds falling from the sky in one knows why.
A stranger saves a person from being struck by a subway.
Herb Brooks motivates a group of college kids to beat the Soviet hockey team in the 1980 Olympics.
Two storm chasers move too close to a storm.
The experience of the idea and completion of Sweden's Ice Hotel.
A couple admires Amelia Earhart and goes to see her final take-off...and follows the search and rescue.
A thirteen year old Jewish boy is left alone to fend for himself and hide in Poland during WWII.
Lawrence of Arabia is trying to cross the desert to atack Aggaba.
My grandpa's great adventures.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

YA Irene Lathan spoke to my class today through Skype

The author of the historical fiction novel Leaving Gee's Bend spent some time talking to my creative writing classes about the craft.  Irene allowed my students to participate in an open Q&A with her.   I included some excerpts from the experience.

Here Irene discusses the concept called "raising the stakes"...

Raising the Stakes (click the link)

Irene shares her thoughts on writing with an accent or vernacular which you may not know very well yet...
Vernacular  (click the link)

Irene gives my students another way to think about their endings...
Endings (click the link)