Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I owe Father Leonard a cigarette

I'd promised myself that I would no longer take my split-lipped aunt’s car at night, I still drove it during the day when she asked me to drive her someplace. I also convinced her to let me take it to school some days. I usually took public transportation to high school. The only problem with taking my split-lipped aunt's car was that I did not have a school parking pass of my own and would borrow one from a friend when he knew he would be out sick the next day.

The last day I used her car to go to school ended poorly for me.

Feeling pretty strong about driving to school, the car growled into the parking lot a bit faster than it should have. Owned by an 60-year-old woman for twenty years and never gunned above 30MPH, it responded to my foot which in turn responded to the Rolling Stones. Pressing hard with my right, I made our entrance more dramatic by standing on my left foot. The brakes locked and spun the car towards a row of empty spaces. I almost pulled it off. She slid past my wish point--I wasn't aiming. No harm though. After she slowly rocked to a final groan, I eased this rectangular, red Dodge Dame back into the space, locked it, and strutted inside the school.


During my 3rd period Economics class, my teacher stopped the discussion and asked, "Hey, anyone know who drove that little red battleship into the school yard this morning?"

We were silent, not yet sure he meant me.

"Anyone see that car race into the yard this morning?" Mr. Payne continued.

Some hands raised simultaneously with his eyebrows; all noses pointed toward me.

"Was that you in that little red car?"


"You little demon. That was some move."

The class laughed.

Classes switched and I walked to Chemistry with a deep sigh. I realized I hadn't switched out my books at Dominic's locker. Mine had been jamming for weeks and I never used it. Dom let me share his, but I had to work around his schedule--he had the only key.

A kid I barely knew, sitting near the windows, stood and waved to me, "Yo, Kel, your car is blocked in." I needed my Chem book--I had no idea where Dom was--Mr. Petrarch would kill me if I didn't have my book.

Everyone in class lined the windows.

Parked directly in front of my split-lipped aunt's car was a small white hatchback. Leaning against it was the principal of the school, Father Leonard. If I hadn't treated the parking lot like a theater of war, I would argue that he simply stopped to enjoy his cigarette.

He stared at it fondly as long slow exhales swirled and dissipated behind him.

Father Leonard was the cool recent addition to the high school. He once stood in the hall during a change of classes and brandished a large pair scissors over his head. As he SNIP SNIP SNIPPED the air he proclaimed, "JEWS MADE HERE! JEWS MADE HERE!"

Mr. Petrarch joined us at the window, placed a kind hand on my shoulder and said, "You'd better go see him."

It was the longest walk I ever took.

I popped open the aluminum exterior doors with an unintentional bang. The wind ripped both from my hands which made them echo like I came roaring out to attack Father. With his back to me, he didn't budge.

Instead, he took another captivating drag of his cigarette. The long helix of smoke
hurried busily into nothing.

With head bowed, I approached and stepped in front of him, "Father," I said, "this is my car."

He finished another long drag and flicked the cigarette away before looking at me.

His eyes were intense and hard. He stood straight and punched his finger into my chest. It knocked me back.

His finger kept at it as he started on me, "Don't ever drive in my school yard again. You walk. Don't ever ride in anyone's car in my school yard again. You walk. Don't ever approach me again unless I call you; you should be in class. You wait for me. Don't ever interrupt my enjoyment of one of my vices. You owe me a cigarette."

He stood taller than me, even though he wasn't and hitched at his pants like a gunslinger.

I blinked. There was silence until I simply asked, "What?"

"You heard me. You owe me a cigarette. Nothing filtered either."

I said, "I-I don't smoke."

"Oh shit, that's perfect, isn't it?" He flopped his arms to his sides exasperated.

We stood silent in the wind for a short time.

He turned toward the building and called over his shoulder, "I need a cigarette and I'm out. Don't you dare make a move."

And he disappeared back inside the building.

And I just stood there.

And stood there.

Silhouettes looked at me through the grated and green glass windows.

Classes changed and I stood in place. I thought about going in to see him, but he told me not to move and I was already in deep trouble.

I stood there the rest of the day. At the final bell, as the students hustled from the building to buses and cars, two secretaries approached me through the same doors I slammed open. One got into the white Honda as the other handed me detention slips for cutting class 4th period through the rest of the day.

Alone and still, I read and re-read five weeks worth of detention slips. One week for each cut class. The papers snapped in the wind as I pulled at the locked car door.

The car keys were in my jacket.

My jacket was in Dominic's locker.

Resource Book Review: What a Writer Needs

What a Writer NeedsWhat a Writer Needs by Ralph Fletcher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am participating in a National Writing Project workshop from late June through mid July. Our first reading assignment has been Ralph Fletcher's What a Writer Needs. My initial reaction is that Fletcher does not necessarily distinguish teacher from student when he discusses writing. True, he provides many examples of work generated by students of all ages. This underscores the immutable reality that we are all writers and should view ourselves as such.

There are few writing exercises to be found here. That is not Fletcher's way.

What a Writer Needs promotes the concept that as a teacher of writers we need to be both guide who knows when to get out of the way, as well as an active and vital participant in the writing process. With guided encouragement, we are to help ourselves and our students write about the things and ideas which they truly care about.

Most students write far far better than they will ever know. We have to let children in on the secret of how powerfully they write. We need to let them take inspiration from they already do well.

Fletcher devotes several chapters to some of the better known tools of the craft: character, voice, beginnings and endings, tension, and language. I appreciate that Fletcher handles each of these less like a nuts and bolt chapter on what is right and wrong but more true to his overall message and tone of encouragement. We can learn how to tease these things out of our students, but only if they can see and hear their classmates successfully use them. Yes, you can use examples from literature, but the real sell on a soul is when one experiences the concepts and realizes that they truly are accessible.

As an aside, some of the most powerful messages delivered by Fletcher were the student samples included in his book--especially those from younger grades. It is natural for an English teacher to look at a piece of writing and think about how he/she would assess it...what comments we could have made.

Fletcher does not get into assessment or grading, and that is ok. This isn't that book. Additionally, there is an undertow in this text--stop setting kids up to please you. Stop asking for writing which earns your smile or disdain. Who we are and what we say and how we go about each affects students and their writing far beyond what we know.

I like that Fletcher uses and promotes the use of the word "mentor". Actually a prominent chapter of the book is on the role and good use of a mentor. I anticipate that a core element of the NWP experience will include mentoring. This word is changing the way I view my role in the class--there is indeed a different spirit to the word "mentor" as opposed to the word "teacher".

It is ok to be a mentor. It is ok to open your love of language, story-telling, and books to the students. While I see many similarities between the role of mentor and teacher, Fletcher categorization of our roles seem to blur as the same as what we expect of ourselves as teachers: high standards, build on strengths, value originality and diversity, encourage risk-taking, passion, and look at the big picture. The difference lies in the willingness to coach or guide--and I firmly believe that while all coaches are educators, not all educators have it in them to coach. Coaches can reach kids in ways that a teacher may not. That sounds harsh and perhaps critical, yet that is not the spirit or my intention.

With the right coach or teacher, the person becomes bigger than the text. A teacher or coach can be like a mountain--the closer your get to them, the bigger they seem. They care more about the name in the grade book (or on the jersey) than the letter/score in the grade book.

I think this can be a challenging transition of mind for some. I wrestle with it as I write this and as I read Fletcher's thoughts. I would never not consider myself a teacher, but I'm beginning to interpret what Fletcher means when he calls for us to mentor. My gosh, it is ok for me to write with my students...and share it? Isn't that a little self-absorbed? Isn't that risky?

Additionally, I struggled with the concept that it is more important to make time available for students to write, and I supposed that will be the greatest challenge for me.

How can I find or make time?

Where can I snip free some of the elements of my teaching which would allow for significant blocks of time for writing?

It is time for an overhaul of how I look at writing and have been trained to look at writing.

I applied to the NWP because after 16 years of teaching and experiencing many new initiatives, curriculum changes, philosophies, and adjustments because of law or nuance, I wanted a fresh perspective. I see this as an opportunity to step back and open my eyes and ears and overhaul what I do and why I do.

Fletcher's book What a Writer Needs could just as easily have been titled What a Teacher Needs, or What a Student Needs, because when it comes to the unique vocation of mentoring young writers, we write with and not for.

View all my reviews

Monday, May 30, 2011

A King Cut My Hair

On the corner closest to our house a struggling barber shop owned by a king named Tony reopened for business. He looked like Frankie Avalon in Grease. I first saw his new white placard with gold glittering letters in the window as I walked home from school:
Open for Business.

As it was convenient, I had my poker straight Irish hair cut there. Once.

Tony tried to cut and coax my head into what all the men and boys in my neighbor had—a pompadour. I’m not certain if he noticed that I was a pre-pubescent Irish boy or if it didn’t matter either way. He knew what he knew and I sat in his kingdom.

I can still feel the backs of his fingers caressing the freshly soaked sides of my head. When he leaned back in a half crouch and admired the perfect lines formed by comb and hand, he swayed his hips and studied his proud work silently.

Tony slipped peppermints into my chubby fingers and set to work again.

And throughout his scissor and comb assault he hummed the same thing over and over: “Cheek-eh-di-dee, Cheek-eh-di-dee, Italian Festival” And then he’d bellow the second line each time like our business transaction concluded a rousing moment in an opera, “Cheek-eh-di-dee, Cheek-eh-di-dee eh-Mangia Festival!”

Tony was happy and bejeweled and sang loudly—he was like a king.

His pinky ring tapped cold against my jawline and ear as he coaxed stray hairs back into military order. In the corner, a black and white television with poor reception hissed and exhaled a Bob Hope film.

He smiled and hummed and clipped. Throughout the hour, my smock squeezed my throat uncomfortably.

“Cheek-eh-di-dee, Cheek-eh-di-dee…”

I only ever used water and a comb or brush to shove my hair to slide left or right. Never up and over and back. Now, Tony fit me with a hair crown on my head. He finished a can of hair spray on me and started another. By the end, I think water beaded up on it.

Italians from my neighborhood knew one way and that was it.

“Cheek-eh-di-dee, Cheek-eh-di-dee…"

Tony simultaneously stomped a foot and winked at me when he was done, proudly rapping the black comb twice on the counter. The Italian matador-king stood before me in triumph. His gold jewelry glittered and framed his very pleased smile as he guided a hand mirror around my new head.

"Itsa gotta be good, right?"

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Homework I Failed & Never Forgot

In the fall of 1986 my first homework assignment in college was to find the word "spurious" used in context in any published work...except reference books. Few of us had our own computers (the university library barely had a few) and even if we did, most used computers for word processing--we knew nothing of the fledgling concept of internet.

We had the better part of two days and nights to pull this off.

No surprise, I could not find "spurious". My strategy was simple. Open as many books as I could, flip through them, scan, and hopefully find the needle in a haystack. I had no idea what the word meant, but I hunted it. For a few hours that first afternoon I rifled through books in the library, took a break for dinner, and then returned to the chore for several more hours. Occasionally, I recognized someone from this class of 300 who also went with this limpid method. No one I knew found it.

Spurious. Where the hell is it?

At the beginning of our next class a modest number of students held index cards in their hands. They'd found it.

I had nothing to pass to the front. Among many others, I'd failed my first college homework assignment miserably. I couldn't even submit anything.

Our professor, sort of a cross between a grouchy Warren Frost (George Costanza's father-in-law, Mr. Ross) and the current state of Jason Robards, collected them and just as quickly shuffled through the stack. He went on silent for several minutes.

When he finished he dropped the index cards into his briefcase, clapped it closed, and remained silent for another minute. Without lifting his head and hunched shoulders he groused that many cheated--merely copied the answer from another. I remember him adding, "These index cards are probably from the same goddamn box." He often colorfully spit the word "goddamn" into many statements which were not class-related. Catch him socially and you'd be certain to feel the spritz of some "goddamns" from his lips.

So, he punctuated his disgust with his "goddamn" and then he wandered free of the topic. Never addressed it again. Never. Just allowed his lecture to tumble onto something else and then something else and he never came back to it. Nevertheless, it is the one homework assignment in all of my years of education which I remember. And I'd failed at it. And I'm not free of it. Quite honestly, without the internet I still don't know how I'd attack the assignment differently today, a full 25 years later. Googling the assignment now is a piece of cake now and I wonder how poor Professor Grumblejowl adjusted the assignment when the internet infiltrated the university campus...

It makes me wonder what his purpose was behind the assignment. And I have wondered this on and off for 25 years: to have us open books? to learn to find a difficult answer? to have to use the tools which were around us? to have to get out of our dorm rooms and into the library? to actually learn the meaning of the word "spurious"? to see who cheated, who quit, and who already possessed the skills of a good researcher?

But he didn't tell us...and that makes me wonder as well. Why not tell us? If you are an educator or a coach I'm a firm believer that you have to tell young people why. Why they succeeded, failed, have to do something or even avoid something.

Twenty-five years later and I am a teacher myself reflecting on an assignment I'd failed when I was 18-years-old. I didn't care so much then as I was busy writing limericks with the cute girl next to me in the enormous lecture hall. I don't remember the professor's name, and I don't remember her name. But I remember the "goddamn" word of the homework assignment: spurious.

What I care about is what was (or was not) behind the assignment. I don't much matter where the word "spurious" is or isn't. It isn't my white whale. At the very least I took something away from that failed 25-year-old assignment and the older I get I'm beginning to suspect that what I've found is exactly the answer Professor Grumblejowl wanted us to find in the first place.

He didn't much care where the word "spurious" was either. He didn't believe we'd find the answer then anyway--we weren't supposed to. And I now understand they he couldn't tell us why and shouldn't have told us why.

I just wish I had the means to pass him an index card to let him know.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Assignment: Writing through Imitation

On June 1st my creative writing class will participate in a Skype session with Dr. Gregory Roper. A longtime friend of another professional in my district, I was approached to contact Dr. Roper as he has recently published The Writer's Workshop: Imitating Your Way to Better Writing.

The premise lays it out that human beings learn from imitation and experience. I can think of a dancer watching and stepping as an instructor demonstrates; perhaps a tennis or golf instructor is a more appropriate analogy--we watch, someone guides us, and we take a swing.

Roper notes that if we watched any of Ken Burns's PBS documentary on the Civil War "you heard letters written in beautiful prose by men and women with no more than a grammar-school education. How did they learn to write that way? Through practice--and imitation."

He takes it further: "In school, William Shakespeare and John Milton were given assignments asking them to imitate carefully the great Latin authors Ovid, Cicero, and others. Abraham Lincoln, surely the best writer of all our presidents, learned his prose style by imitating his great masters."

So, the arrangement is that my class will attempt to imitate a great author and Dr. Roper will speak about the process afterward and offer some critique...hopefully opening up some useful discussion between my 8th grade students and Dr. Roper.

The assignment to take a given passage and rewrite it in the style and voice of a different master. Since my students have read both The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Red Badge of Courage, our two authors are Mark Twain and Stephen Crane. As an aside, many of my students this year find Crane painful and literally groaned at the prospect of revisiting him.

The two passages I selected are when Tom first sees Becky Thatcher and goes through a series of histrionics to show off for her to gain her favor, and when Henry witnesses his friend, the tall soldier, walk away from the group of freshly battered men, find a place which suited him, and collapse and die.

Rewrite Twain in Crane's style...and rewrite Crane in Twain's style. As an side, the fact that the surnames rhyme has been a pain in the ass. I and my students have constantly confused each while talking about this assignment--"in the Crane passage, not where I'm writing like Twain but as Twain writing Crane...is that still the Crane passage or the Twain passage.." Fun times.

In our rough drafts I've found that my students have been able to (bit by bit) alter the tone (somewhat), modify the word choice (mostly) correctly, and have even picked up on Twain's use of simile and metaphor while trying to conjure some appropriate uses of nature for the Crane-sque Tom Sawyer rewrite.

Where we are falling short is in the syntax. The 8th graders are all over the map in their understanding of phrases, clauses, and sentence structure. This aspect of the assignment is a challenge, but a refreshing one. It afford us a practical approach to grammar--"THIS is why we study the differences between phrases and clauses and adverbs and..."

Admittedly, we cobbled this Skype class together rather quickly, but I do like what I am seeing. I'm looking forward to hearing Roper's thought on manipulating syntax appropriately and trying to find a way to make it work for my 13-year-old brains in the future.

Review of Rex Ryan's book on Leadership

Play Like You Mean It: Passion, Laughs, and Leadership in the World's Most Beautiful GamePlay Like You Mean It: Passion, Laughs, and Leadership in the World's Most Beautiful Game by Rex Ryan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Because I am a part-time college football assistant coach, there are men out there who I keep an eye on in the profession. If they speak at a coaching clinic in the area, then I go. If they write a book or if something they've presented is available online then I check it out. Rex Ryan is one of those coaches I keep an eye on.

I have to say that my rating of "like it" is heavily influenced because I "liked it" going into it. It seems more of a specialty book, something a New York Jets fan or another coach would be interested in. It doesn't have the universal appeal of something by John Wooden.

That said, I came out of it learning something about him...at the very least I learned what he wanted us to know about him...and that is honesty. If what he says about himself is true, then he is a guy who I will continue to keep and eye on and listen to when he speaks. Not saying I'm genuflecting, I'm saying it is nice to have someone who speaks honestly, from the heart, and who doesn't remind me how much smarter he is than the rest of us.

Ryan comes across as a man with a lot of passion for what he does and who makes no excuses for his warts.

View all my reviews

Thursday, May 26, 2011

YA Author Christina Meldrum spoke to my class yesterday

Several of my 8th grade creative writing students have picked up Christina Meldrum's novel Madapple; all have returned to me to say that it was "intense"...some couldn't finish it.  What was interesting was that they identified that she is a good writer, yet something about her writing made them feel unsettled.

Before Meldrum met with my students I gave her a heads up on this...my kids may not ask the typical questions because first and foremost they quite innocently and honestly want to know how you can write subject matter which is, and one said, "strongly weird."

I was interested in what exactly caught them as weird or unsettling.  My gosh, on their own they devour plenty of YA literature with strong and/or challenging subject matter: The Hunger Games (children killing other children), Speak (rape), Positively (cancer), If I Stay (death), among others.  What is it about Madapple and now Amaryllis in Blueberry which yanked on their inner child?

My observations from some informal follow-up talks and even in some of their written expression is that Meldrum's style is relentless to them.  It isn't a light jaunt to Neverland and back.  They have to work a little bit when they read Madapple, and they are working to further dig their heels into something which doesn't always sit well with our senses.  Meldrum makes our alarms go off from time to time.  My kids have just experienced a taste of an artist who can reach inside of them and tug (to varying degrees) on those soft and tender heartstrings adolescents are just learning that some can reach at will...even artists.

As Meldrum spoke yesterday I took some notes and share them with you here; none are direct quotes but some are quite close:
I received some advice from a friend, 'Write what you love, not what you know.'  You can research what you love, right?  Your love of your topic comes through when you love it.
Everyday, I only write what I am interested in.  I don't write drudgery.  I put that aside.  I write what I'm into that day.  Writing doesn't have to be such a linear process--you can come back to things.
Writing, reading...literature...is a place for us to explore things...sometimes things which make us uncomfortable.  And you know what, literature is a safe place to explore those things...to write about what makes us uncomfortable and explore it, face it, and place it out there for others to explore too.
Stories can be difficult to write for good reasons.  Certain topics make us dig deeper...into them and into ourselves.  But if no part of that excites you then maybe you should walk away from it. What excites you?  What interests you?  If I am writing something and I feel like I don't like the book, yeah, I want to leave it.  It's hard sometimes because others may be telling you it is great and you already sold the rights, but you are in it and it is difficult...you don't like it.  You have to walk away sometimes.
Just because you had a personal experience doesn't mean it is worth writing about.  It has to have passion behind it.  Be picky about which personal experiences you want to share.
For Amaryllis in Blueberry there are parts of me..parts of my experiences in Africa...when I was younger I spent some time in Africa...but I leave much of my personal life out of what I write.  I don't want to burden those close to me with that weight.  So I only share what is necessary and the specific things that lends something to the story I am writing.
In Madapple there is a lot of botany...and I have a great curiosity and interest in botany.  So, learning about it, researching it, excited me and so much of that helped make the book.

In the end, Meldrum was classy and wonderful with  my students.  She treated every student and every question with great care and seriousness.  In my follow-up discussions today my kids felt great about how Christina Meldrum made them feel about writing.  Thank you, Christina!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A practice backchannel

Here is a look at a backchannel.  Students can use their cell phone in class to comment, ask questions, and write.  I plan on using it while we have author chats on Skype--the author can read the comments of my students while he/she is still talking and responding to a particular point of interest.

You can try it out now.  Using the instructions at the top of the screen, send a text message.  You should see it pop up instantly right here on the screen of this blog.  If you are not registered on the host website it generates an anonymous name for you.

I'll make a different one for my class and project it onto the wall of my room, or on a smart board if you use one.  This can also be useful during class discussion, reading, journal entries, etc.  It allows shy students to get involved; it also allows students to use technology which they all already have and are good at...it is a another tool to draw kids into the discussion.  I can post questions this way...do a quick grammar drill...brainstorming for writing assignments...etc.