Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book Review: The History of the World in Six Glasses

Beer.  Wine.  Liquor.  Tea.  Coffee.  Coca-Cola.

In six individual essays, author Tom Standage explores the impact on politics, geography, and culture caused by each of these beverages.

Built on many vignettes of history, The History of the World in Six Glasses reads like a textbook comprised of well-polished and researched informative essays.  I coudn't help but think that one section of this book will show up on an SAT someday.  Even though the book is filled with bits of narrative and some persuasive combinations of information and story, I felt as a reader at arm's length from the writer--and this was ok as I wasn't expected to be propped up on Standage's knee and told a story.

What I did get was a tightly constructed history lesson that did not disappoint to fascinate me--I kept turning pages to understand, and I kept turning pages to hurry to the next vignette:

The reason why beer is the staple in northern regions and why wine blossomed in the southern regions.

Why wine became the social drink with class and refinement.

The role whiskey played in the formative years of America and how it embodies all that is American.

The assistance coffee played in the improvement in work production as Europe and America went industrial, as well as the new political and social worlds created by the blossoming of coffeehouses as an alternative to bars and taverns.

The corrupt leveraging of tea within the politics of England...and its political and social impact on China (who suffered for decades from the results).

The mistaken assumption about American's drinking more coffee over tea.

(As an aside I barely grazed the surface by providing those examples above.)

The final essay focused on the rise and entrenchment of the iconic Coca-Cola company--the reader is just hit with fascinating fact after fact as Standage traces the rise of Coca-Cola with America's transition from an isolationist country to one who intervened in the politics of the world.  Wherever America was, we learn so was Coca-Cola.  It followed our troops around the globe (and purveyors of Coke were even granted military rank at one point) and was among the first items handed to East Germans as they passed through the Berlin Wall.

Included here are all of the associations that our enemies have with America--the Nazis are said to have printed propaganda stating that Americans have proven to be only good for two things: chewing gum and Coca-Cola.

The stories pile atop of one another and are so compelling that I will absolutely be recommending this to my father (a retired history teacher) and I know I will be taking repeated peeks inside the book over time just to enjoy the vignettes again and maybe catch a nuance I hadn't on a first read--especially in the complex and politically embroiled essay on tea.

The book concludes with one final though--a chapter on water.  Where we go from here as a civilization is inextricably tied to fresh water.  Water has become the new Coke--in countries with running tap water, people are willing to pay more per ounce of water than gasoline.  Even though it has been proven in scientific tests again and again, bottled water is no more safer or palatable than tap water--yet we pay up to 20,000 times more a bottle of water than it costs us to run the water in our own homes for several seconds to fill up a glass.  Add to this, the disease, death, and strife caused in nations where water is not readily available.  Add to this the fact that of greatest concern to our exploration of the universe is our search for water on other planets. Water is the next beverage which will absolutely shape the course of our existence.

Fittingly, the book ends with water and much like a well-crafted essay, the book leaves the reader with something to think about...actually many many many wonderful things to think about.

It is appropriate that I read this over the holidays as the information and vignettes collected here are an absolute gift.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

YA Book Review: The Running Dream

Positive.  Uplifting.  Inspirational.

Unlike any book I've read recently, positive energy radiates from Wendelin Van Draanen's YA novel The Running Dream.  I'd added the book to my "to read" pile at some point this summer and over the course of a few months several books have shouldered their way past it and into my hands.

It took my overhearing a conversation in my 8th grade classroom a couple of weeks ago for me to anchor the book solidly into my upcoming (current) reading blitz during the holiday break.  A student saw the book on a cart near my desk and told her friend that The Running Dream is a favorite of hers, that she loves the book, and loves the author--and she talked about the book with the widest eyes and biggest smile.  She didn't a lot, it was just the way she said it that grabbed my attention.

And now I understand why.

High school junior Jessica Carlisle runs.  And runs.  And runs.  She is the best runner for her high school and among the best in her county--The Running Dream takes us on her inspiring journey to learn how to run again after suffering an awful accident which claims one of her legs.  However, the novel is bigger than that as Jessica forms a new friendship with a girl, Rosa, who was born with cerebral palsy...and the novel takes on a patina which is more than just about one girl overcoming an awful blow and challenge, it is an upbeat and positive call to see people for who they are, not for what they have or can do.

Jessica grows sensitive to all that Rosa does not experience in life, and becomes especially sensitive as to how she presents Jessica to others.  Her mother asks her at one point why she didn't tell her that Rosa has cerebral palsy.  We know as a reader that it isn't because Jessica is embarrassed by any of it.  As she says to newswoman interviewing her later in the novel when speaking about a goal she and Rosa are working on together, "Don't sum up the person based on what you see, or what you don't understand; get to know them."

Many of the characters in this novel remind of some of the best young people I've ever had the privilege to know and work with as a teacher and coach.  And by best I mean positive, generous, and thoughtful to the nth degree--if you are a teacher you see this in your students.  Some young people just get it and make you feel blessed to know them as you marvel at their passion, kindness, and positive influence.

The positive energy of young people radiates and fills rooms.  When others catch on, it radiates and fills a community--however, what you learn about this positive energy is that when it is planted inside someone, it roots itself.  It isn't temporary.

It is catching and pervasive much in the same way I imagine negative energy anchors people down and destroys them.

Take the best elements of the films Soul Surfer, Patch Adams, Pay It Forward,  and you have The Running Dream-- a book that carries that same positive radiance that roots itself in people and helps mold them into the people we hope they can be--for all of the challenging obstacles in this novel there isn't one heartbeat of negative energy in it.  As I imagine we all want our kids to be exposed to as many positive and uplifting experiences as possible, this is a book you must include in your classroom or in your home.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Book Review: Hold Still

Recently, I bought the entire collection of novels from Penguin's publishing wing entitled "Point of View" --these are novels dealing head-on with topics many people find difficult to discuss.  Having just read and reviewed Thirteen Reasons Why, I picked up Nina La Cour's Hold Still yesterday and could not put it down (I finished it in two sittings)--both of the novels I read in the last 48 hours explore teen suicide.  I am working my way through these novels a few at a time, but I need a break every now and then from the prickly texture and weight of the subjects...but I am finding this is a beautiful stretch of novels.

In Hold Still, La Cour builds characters and relationships brilliantly--every character in this book resonates with life.  Even the protagonist's brief encounter with demolition expert near the end of the novel rings true.

While there is a lot to love in this novel (especially Caitlin's new friend, the "new girl in town" Dylan), I found myself admiring and moved by the subtle (and some not so subtle) layers of art and sensitivity.  If you read the novel, you'll enjoy the significant role photography plays in the lives of several characters.  It is used as a template for relationships, self-discovery, and self-expression.  The writer obviously cares a hell of a lot about art, and does great justice to the soul of the artist.

There is the art of writing (and a nod to beauty in song writing) and the art of theater and acting along with the art of photography...and the fact that La Cour writes the photography teachers as one who is exploring herself through her own imperfect art is a welcome touch.  Aside from the obvious arts, the writer also presents the art of friendship, the art of family, the art of love, and the art of forgiveness just to list a few of the big ideas.

One of the hallmarks of a great novel is that it gives me things to talk about, think about, and it asks great questions.  Just today, I could probably write a half dozen reviews of Hold Still and focus on something different each time.  My mind is swirling around all of the ideas that I want to express here, but in its simplest form what impresses me the most is that while Hold Still is built on a very difficult issue, it strikes me as brilliant that there are so many rich topics to discuss here beyond the very heavy and conspicuous iron post driven through each page of the novel--the intrusive and cruel iron post of teen suicide.

Yet, I've settled that I want focus on the writer's artful use of the tree house and the old theater as one example of the complexity of the novel's many layers: 

Caitlin, the protagonist, eventually sets to building a tree house one piece of wood at a time much in the same way that she is rebuilding herself one piece at a time after losing her closest friend.  This is not something she is fired up to do right from the outset of the story--actually, she is reluctant to the idea.  Her parents have a large pile of wood dropped off in their back yard because they know their daughter likes building things, likes projects--but in the current state of anger and depression she is inno mood to build.  So, the wood sits in a pile on the property...a parallel to Caitlin who can't sleep in her own bed.  She sleeps in the backseat of her car in the the driveway.

Slowly, she warms to the idea and begins by building a ladder.  As the novel grows and Caitin's rocky relationships are steadied and righted, the tree house comes together more and more.  At the same time, the date is finally announced for the demolition of a town landmark, a movie theater that Caitlin and her friend Ingrid secretly loved and shared together.

The demolition date was never set for a long time, just as the rebuilding of a life (Caitlin's life) could not have been predicted or planned.

This wonderful juxtaposition of rebuilding and demolition cross paths at the end of the novel in a beautiful final image of Caitlin taking a self-portrait of herself in front of the pile of rubble which was once the theater.

I want to write more about this novel--I want to tell you about the epiphany Caitlin has where she discovers and defines what friendship is...I want to write about the brave and ballsy pen of La Cour...I want to write about the theme of curiosity...I want to write about self-mutilation...I want to write about a teen's self-image...there is much to say and discuss here.


If I say too much here then I reveal too much here--I want to keep this review brief but sharp and plain.  I want you to read this book because this a great book.

Beyond all else, it is an artist's book written by an artist ready for recommendation to any high school student in your life.

photograher - Sarah Moon (one of the artists mentions in "Hold Still")

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Book Review: Thirteen Reasons Why

Jay Asher's YA novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, provides an opportunity to open the discussion of suicide, with ourselves...our friends...our families.  As a reader and teacher I appreciate the recurring concept that so many moments of our lives are connected to the lives of others--and we never know what others carry with them when they come into contact with us.

The novel plays much like a guided tour in an art museum--Clay Jensen is our guide through a recounting of events leading to the end of Hannah Baker's life.  We hear her unsettling journey through a set of cassettes created to be mailed to thirteen people who played a part in Hannah's suicide.

Clay is number 9 on the list--his suspense is our suspense.  His angst is our angst.  And, as the novel concludes, Clay's journey forward leaves us to take our own journeys forward--hopefully having learned something about being more aware of ourselves and those around us.  We, in a sense, held onto Clay as we moved through the novel and as he literally hustles up the hallway to take a positive step forward in his life, we can feel ourselves let go, or being let go.  If a million people read the book then we are all letting go to move forward on a million separate paths...which ultimately will cross and affect (a million?) others as soon as today.

After reading a book like this you can't help but ask yourself what you will do with your path--no matter how old you are.

I am especially struck by the fact that the safest havens in Hannah's life were taken from her incrementally.  Admittedly, this didn't dawn on me at all until 1/2 way through the novel--Asher does a great job of making sure his themes and big ideas come out clearly--he respects the reader, but finds a way to make certain his messages are not missed.

Another element worthy of discussion is Asher's decision to exclude Hannah's parents from her life just when she could have used them the most.  Oh, they are present (barely)--she has parents--but Asher lays this story out with a reality any parent has to come to grips with--they can not be present at all times in their child's life.  Asher keeps Hannah's parents well on the outskirts of her private life dealing with their own business, their recent move, and their own private lives.

Similarly, as Clay takes us on his journey, his mother checks in with him (warily) from time to time throughout the novel and gives him the space and trust to continue on his path...even though we are fairly confident as readers that she is aware that he is lying to her.  Suspecting something is up, she too remains on the outskirts of this moment in his private life.  Clay is wearing his emotions on his sleeve--even the male working at a diner sees it on his face and doesn't charge Clay for his milkshake.

As an adult, the roles adults play in the novel is compelling--because as much as I'd like to say otherwise, Asher's inclusion of adults is fair and honest.

Asher's homework is evident--the characters make choices that feel like those made by real teens--not romanticized versions of a sixteen year-old.  Their world feels real--the adults almost feel like the furniture in the room--they are there when you need it, they just kind of came with the house, the school, their life.

And I'm not so sure this isn't really what adults are at moments of high stress and anxiety in a teen's life.  Sometimes we are the last person they turn to (as is the case in the novel) and even at that the novel makes me question the job we do as adults to establish those connections of trust and comfort without forcing ourselves over into that other plane of reality, the plane teens ride through life on.

From what we are given in the novel, Mr. Porter had as much of a chance to save Hannah as Clay--even though he is the adult, his connections are very different.  I don't pity him nor do I blame him, but his character makes me disappointed because I know he is real...and so, the question I walk away with as a teacher, is how do we go from being the furniture in the room, who the Hannahs in the world turn to last, to someone who can maybe be a positive influence from the beginning?

Are we no more than the diner owner who offers to waive the charge for a milkshake, a mother who has to trust and let her son go on his own journey, a dad helping a son with an engine, the teacher who sets up well-intentioned structures in her class yet they are abused by individuals...are these connections meaningful...are we on the surface no matter what we do?  Do we ever dig deeper with young people--or are they set on digging alone, or only with their own kind?

The real connections in Thirteen Reasons Why, the meaningful connections, are made between the teens--the book is their world, and their world is on a very different plane from the world of the adults in their lives, even though many of us (youth and adult) extend our hands to each other and cling to each other. 

I know many young people have read and will continue to read this book--I can only hope that more adults also pick it up in the hopes that it allows us to extend one more hand to the other plane...the plane we once stood on in our lives when we were teenagers.  At some point we made that leap out of that world into this one: the one with mortgages and loans; the one where we come face to face with our adolescent dreams; the one where our failures grow heavier with age; and the one where the love shared with our children, our talents, and our accomplishments makes it all worth is incumbent on us to help everyone realize their hopes and help everyone edge closer towards their happiness and the beauty in the world...and it is incumbent on us to play our part with as much passion, selflessness, and awareness as is humanly possible.

We may not all always be a part of the solution, but at the very least we can all make sure that we are never a part of the problem.

Well done, Jay.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Book Review: True Notebooks

Conflicting thoughts collide as I set to review Mark Salzman's nonfiction True Notebooks: A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall.  Among those thoughts, two rise as the most pronounced--this is a book about finding our humanity and it is a love letter to writing.

Salzman leads a writer's group in the Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall for some of the most violent criminals in the early stages of the system--most have committed murder and are waiting to be tried as adults.

Filled with the simultaneous journeys off all of the adolescents who moved through his workshop, True Notebooks also provides a glimpse of the good people serving as advocates behind the scenes.  Remarkably, all involved recognize the importance of writing of in our lives.

Just as I, as a reader, grow attached to what an inmate has learned to express he is soon gone--gone from the book.  Gone.  Gone from the juvenile hall.  Gone.  Gone into the prison system where all acknowledge that they fall back into their hardened ways by necessity--in order to survive where they are going, some facts are indisputable.

Yet, what is never lost is what the writing experience, albeit too brief, shows each of these young people their humanity--and the possibilities of their humanity.  Through their own words we read what they have been trained to believe, their regrets, fears, hopes, and dreams.

Rough-hewn elegance meets street poetry, the writing produced by these prisoners does elicits many questions about how societies in general handles violent criminals.  However, this isn't a book set on debating the state of the justice system--when someone asks Salzman wouldn't he be better served teaching writing to troubled youth before they become criminals who committed murder we are offered the same response as when he is repeatedly asked by the inmates why he continues to show up to workshop with them: everyone needs to find their own humanity.

Never about stopping crime, Salzman's efforts demonstrate the power of writing, the power of compassion, and the many slices of reality offered to him through the writing of the inmates: 

Someone who made a big difference in my life was my partner.  Well, I should say my ex-partner, hate.  Hate was always there for me at night when I was all alone and the air-conditioning was on too high in my room.  Hate would keep me warm.  I should say he was like my father 'cause for the seven years that my father was gone, hate taught me how to speak, hate taught me how to love, and eventually hate taught me how to hate.  My best friend, my mother, my father, hate was all that.  Hate helped me grow, or was dat wrong?  I asked myself this question one day when I was lookin' into a six-by-nine mirror in my cell.  I was wearing somebody else's clothes, underwear, and socks full of holes.  Hate had left me to duel with misery and pain.  Thanks, hate.

Initially, I picked this book up because it is about writing and memoir--and as I read I saw it through the lens of being a teacher--and now, as I write this review, I've come to understand it through the lens of being a human being.

Highly recommended for teachers and human beings.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Framing Literature Accordingly

Would many have thought in the 1590s that William Shakespeare would be read and taught 500 years later?  Hard to say.

Do video game programmers imagine a time in the future when their work will be taught as a form of story-telling?  Hard to say.

Framing William Shakespeare in a context so that his writing is not intimidating to my students takes  time, patience, and a willingness to see his plays for what they are--plays.  None of his plays are novels.  They are plays bound in book form, true...but they are not novels.

Placing a Shakespearean play in front of 13 year-olds and telling them to read it (using only the tools currently in place to decode and process a novel) is any shot at their developing a(n) love, admiration, or receptive attitude for Shakespearean literature.

Tell this to students up front--if I asked you to read it, without any training, I would be failing you as your teacher.  It isn't your fault that reading Shakespeare as if it were a novel often results in heavy eyes and somnolent breathing patterns.

Explain that their ears are not tuned to hear Shakespeare.  Plays from the Elizabethan stage are meant to be heard--not read.  My 43 year-old ears are not tuned to listen to rap, hip-hop, or whatever else my students listen to--I'm probably behind the curve by calling it rap and hip-hop--yet, with some guided practice my ears could be tuned to comprehend any rap or hip hip.  I'm not incapable.  I'm just not used to it.

Tell your kids that they are not incapable--they are just not used to it.

Imagine a music classroom environment in 2011 where classes are taught without instruments.  Imagine students learning about The Beatles, Mozart, John Phillip Sousa, or Elton John without ever having heard them (either the original stuff or even being allowed to play instruments and singing the songs)--they just read the lyrics and sheet music.

In the same way that one needs an instrument in a music class, one also needs the benefit of an instrument when teaching any theater--the human body is our acting instrument.   To a certain degree, equate teaching Shakespeare with The Beatles in a music class and allow the kids to move and stretch and speak and howl--let them use the instrument!  Free the acting instrument--they don't need to be great actors.  No one is winning a Tony during our classroom lessons--but put the play in the context of how it is supposed to be used: heard and seen...not just read.

I spend some time teaching some of the background and framing different access point for my students:

a) Elizabethan audiences said they were going to hear a play...not see them (a very contemporary idea).  This is something we'll have to grow used to for this lesson--and I ask for examples of how we are a visual society.

b) The best seats in the Globe Theater were to the side and on the second level--it is where they sat the Queen and any royalty.  Sound rises...and for people needing to hear a play, those seats suited them best.  (It was also under cover and shielded people from the elements in that particular theater space.)

c) The Elizabethan theater experience was one of light and noise.  Performed in the daylight, audience members could see each other.  Think that doesn't matter--turn the lights on in any public speaking event--there is often a dull murmur in the room, and always people who speak too loudly and rudely.  When the lights are on, human beings are more social--Shakespeare's audience talked through the performance...and at times they yelled and got involved, "She's not dead yet Romeo!  No!"

e) Because of the light, actors could see the audience--again, another huge difference.  When there is light and you can look into the faces of your audience, you gain an advantage--you can connect.  You can look people in the eyes, smile at them, roar at them.  Henry V could now speak to the audience and engage their imaginations as if they were the soliders digging their heels in at Agincourt--a little more impressive than trying to pretend the four other actors onstage represent the entirety of the army.

Of course, there are any number of connections we can use to ease the transition into difficult literature.  What I offered here is only a portion of what I do, and I owe all of it to my training at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts--and to Kevin Coleman and Maynard (Sandy) Mack specifically.

Whatever your context may be, create a framework which speaks to the unique nature of the text.  For me, it is providing examples of why we need to hear and see and move and play with the text.

Disarm any preconceived notions and resistance to difficult literature by addressing it head on.  If we don't explain why different texts can be difficult then we leave young people to create reasons of their own: it is boring; I don't get it; I'm stupid; it isn't relevant to me; it is stupid; and on and on.

We do read the text--but only after framing it and engaging actively with it.

Now imagine a classroom 500 years from now learning about the birth of story-telling in video games (not too far-fetched).  If all they'll do is read a script of a game from 2011 or a detailed explanation of the story of the video game Red Dead Redemption (an open-world game where gamers can explore and create their own narrative to a certain degree), and never play the game, never engage with the controllers, hear the sounds, see the images, experience the challenges, hurdles, and tasks--make decisions--what will they have learned about the experience?  How in tune would they be?

Teachers in that futuristic environment might be best served allowing their students to pick up the instrument and explore...just as teachers can do today.

Note: link to an interesting interview with author Salman Rushdie on video gaming and story telling.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Immersion with a twist of Skype

Yesterday my 3rd period class experienced a Skype chat with literary agent, Victoria Marini of the Gelfman Schneider literary agency in New York City.  Typically, we chat with YA authors in my classroom.  However, this particular chat with an agent grew from unique circumstances.

Victoria went to our middle school and high school--I directed her in the middle school plays, and she volunteered all through high school as one of my student directors.  After graduating, Torie and I lost touch as is the case with 99% of the students we teach.

We reconnected recently on Twitter.

I follow authors, literary agents, publishes on Twitter and saw a tweet by a "Victor Marini" directed to someone I followed.  And that is how we reconnected and kicked around some ideas about her participating in a writing chat with my creative writing class.

Torie started with a few comments about writing for an audience.  She made it clear that from her chair it is almost impossible to sell a book which does not have an intended audience.  When you walk into a bookstore and see all of the shelves, ask yourself which bookshelf does my book belong on?

The differences in what you'd write for an adult audience or a YA audience are huge, she explained.  One such difference (and which I would like to explore more with her and other authors) is in the phrase she used "immediacy of feelings."

Torie then went onto explain several common mistakes that authors make in a manuscript:
a. overexplaining, oversharing, overtelling

For instance, I could write "I tasted the blood in my mouth."  Don't explain the implication!  I know you tasted it in your mouth...where else would you?

b. talking down to readers--you have to trust your reader--don't be condescending

c. over symbolism

For instance, you try to lead the reader one way (with a red herring) and then surprise them with an overly-highlighted detail

She concluded her thoughts by offering that stories should be immersive--readers should be experiencing them and feeling (and are) involved.

Below are some highlights of the Q&A portion of the chat:

Q: Who is the youngest author you've seen published and what did they do that was so different?
A: Hanah Moskowitz had an agent by 16 or 17 and is about to publish her 3rd or 4th book by the age of 21.  What sets her apart is that she has unique, original stuff--it is entire her own and not trendy.

Q: What makes an awesome villain?
A: Lots of things, but again that feeling of immersion--where every single word said by and about the villain matters--there is no excess...each action and word is justified.

Q: Could you tell us about the different ways an author might be rejected?
A: It is very common to be rejected for pacing and plotting--especially for a very slow pace.  The three most important elements when agents look at authors are character, voice, and writing--if you have those three then there is a good chance someone will be able to work with you, but really sometimes an agent just doesn't connect with a character--it happens all the time--or maybe something you've written is too similar to something we already represent, and if we signed you then we'd be pitting two of our clients against each other.

Q: Have you seen any subjects or topics that are too conversial?
A:  There are some tough sells out there such as Hush by Eishes Chayli, or Cut by Patricia McCormick, or Sold by Patricia McCormick.   Yet, these books make it because the writing is so breathtaking that it is difficult for an agent, editor, or publisher to say "no."

Q: What are you reading right now?
A: Getting Somewhere by Beth Neff which isn't released yet...the middle of January I think...but I highly highly recommend it.  It is about four girls sent to a juvenile detention center.

Q: What are some common qualities in authors that you see published?
A: Good authors are receptive to editing and change.  They are excellent readers.  They are patient with themselves--they spend time ruminating and are never in a rush and understand that the process of writing can't be hurried, even when it gets to our level--they are just willing to be a part of a process that they understand may take a while.  Finally, and this may just be a personal taste of mine, good writers write economically...there is little excess.

Torie also recommended the following blogs or sites for those interested in immersing themselves a little more into the community of YA writers:

YA Highway
Killer Chicks

Henriette Brown - artist

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Resource Review: Save the Cat

After well over two dozen author chats via Skype in my classroom, one book continues to surface on the lips of the authors: Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder.

The first I heard of it, YA author Lizabeth Zindel responded to a question about how a writer can make a character likable.  Zindel references this book and explained that a character may be written to "save a cat" or perform an act of kindness, tenderness, selflessness that immediately renders him/her likable.

Most recently, YA author Irene Latham talked about building her novels through "beats"--a term she learned through Save the Cat.  Latham will write one line for each chapter or significant development in plot--each of those lines represents a beat because each serves a different purpose.  From there, she builds outward from each beat.

I read the book--through much of it Snyder offers a template for how many films are organized...or should be.

Without going into all twelve beats, the first several beats can be summed up as:

Act One - Thesis:
Where the audience sees the world before the adventure starts.
There is a sense that a "storm" is about to hit...things must change.

Catalyst Moment:
A life-changing moment occurs here, often disguised as bad news.
This is the first moment where something happens.

The last chance for the hero to say that this is crazy.
Should I stay or should I go--it's dangerous out there, but what other choice do I have?

Each beat has its own chapter where Snyder explains what it is in depth and he often offers examples from contemporary film to help elucidate his point.

This book is a good tool for writers or, in my case for writing teachers, in that it provides clear examples of how writers plan.  You'd have to tease out Snyder's prescription if you are writing a novel--which Irene Latham must do. For instance, Snyder is so firm about the specific page numbers on which each beat must appear (the "catalyst moment" must appear on page 12 of a script) that everyone would be writing 100 page "novels."

More than the beats of organizing a piece, I found the book to be an interesting and a refreshing resource in that it very directly and distinctly presents some usable ideas and techniques.

August Klimt - artist

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I Think Therefore I Revise

Through an author chat on Skype, YA author Irene Latham helped reinforce our ongoing conversations and lessons on revision.  Especially for a topic such as revision, it is so helpful to have another mentor, a different voice, delivering the message in the classroom--revision not only matters, it is the pulse of the writer's process.

If you aren't revising it, you're piece has gone dormant--perhaps it has died without any hope for ressuccitation.  Without revision, cold winter, shadowy and still, settles on your writing.  Deep in your brain, you know you are done with the piece...and if you care about your piece, and you leave it unrevised, it carries with it the same emptiness and foreboding found in a George Ault painting.

Similarly, when we leave books half-read, we might take pity on it and try to muscle our way through it again. Someday. Mostly, we leave half-read books as they are because they are not our kind of people.  We don't connect with them and so we shove them on shelves--we may reconcile that our trophies of gentle guilt can sit there because we paid $9.99 for it.

Why do we leave our own writing so callously at times?  Certainly, people who see themselves as writers pay a much greater price than $9.99 to place it down on paper.

But those are people who see themselves as writers--what about our students---what about our students who do not see themselves as writers?  ...or our disgruntled students who experience knotty and straining feelings when they hear the word "revise?"  ...or our students who do not see themselves as writers?

Some young people absolutely believe that they have as much business being called a writer as we do asking them to dig in the soil so that they may see the sun.

Who dares have such an impulse?

It is with that heart that I try to lead my students through revision as matter of course--it is how we do business.  Dig...and find the sun.

And so Latham (italics) helped deliver the message to my 8th grade class:

Each time you read--read for something different: plot, main character consistency, dialogue consistency, supporting character consistency, voice (which can be very elusive)...just ask yourself "does this sound like me?"

Each time you read (no matter if essay or fiction) get smaller and smaller with each reading.

Read just for similies and metaphors.

Read just for color or sound or repetition.

Read for the senses. the very for sentence structure and editing.  True, our impulse is to do this first.

Our impulse? or our training?

Every first word we write is the revision of previous thought, experience, or desire.  As I've read (and believe) writing is thinking.

And if we are ever done thinking...

We have to model revision, and we have to model how to think about revision--this type of thinking, this type of living.  It is on this current generation of English teachers (Year 1 to 30+) to reconsider the impulses we are drilling into our students.

An impulse to prune, snip, that we might accept winter?

Or an impulse to dig, dig, that we might find the sun?

George Ault - artist

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Lens of Strong Nouns & Verbs

My 8th grade creative writing classes are studying the use of strong nouns and verbs, and I asked YA author Mitali Perkins to build our recent author chat on that topic.

A concern I have is that many students assume that using a strong noun or verb simply means extracting a weak one and easily inserting a better one.  Many worksheets seem to be built this way, but that exercise doesn't properly translate to the reality of a writer's experience.

I wanted to avoid treating the topic as if we were about to exercise our steady hand with the board game Operation.

Perkins framed her opening remarks around the concept that a writer shares power with their reader.  Strong verbs, for instance, can change the plot and set the reader free to own the action.  Don't be afraid to let your reader figure things out through your verbs; we don't have to be bossy as a writer and over explain every moment and fill in the space between each breath with backstory.

For instance, a writer can tell a reader how to feel by writing, "Jeff was sad."  The alternative is to use place and strong verbs to feed our reader's imaginations.

When building place in a revision, try to add a lot of strong nouns while capturing as many of the senses as much you can.  Our imagination engages good, strong nouns.  When you are doing a good job writing you are trying to engage all five senses.  Writing is always about that weave of people, place, and plot.

Mitali posed the following example:

As I walked through the hot marketplace, I saw many colorful things.

I wandered through the stuffy alleys, shaking my head as vendors sang the praises of their wares, trying to lure me closer. There were piles of orange and yellow lentils in hanging baskets, narrow bottles of golden oil, copper pots in a range of sizes, and strings of blue rubber sandals. Naked lightbulbs hung from low ceilings, glowing on the faces of the men and women sitting cross-legged in the center of each narrow stall.

By the time I reached the enclosed fruit and vegetable market, sweat was pouring down my back. I sniffed the fresh ripe fruit and fingered piles of glossy zucchini, red tomatoes, green bell peppers, and purple onion.

I like that my students saw and heard that you have to be willing to add, expand, change, stretch, and engage the senses.  The above example allowed me to provide a new lens for my students--write with patience.  Don't extract and replace single words--dig deeper.

The only difference between you and a Mozart is that he took the time to run his fingers up and down the strings, up and down the strings--take your time to run your fingers up and down the strings.

While some students haven't quite understood the concept yet ("What is another word for 'closet?'") the best we can do is provide examples, mentor texts, and mentor experiences such as an author chat if it is available to you.

I found another (more detailed) blog about a similar lesson with Mitali which is worth reading if you are interested in helping your young writers understand the concept of place: Creating the Magic Carpet of Place on the blog Spilling Ink which is designed specifically for the teachers of young writers.

M. F. Hussain - artist

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Book Review: The Way of the Peaceful Warrior


After nearly four months of labored reading, I finished Dan Millman's The Way of the Peaceful Warrior--the literary world's first hollow chocolate bunny.

Recommended to me by an 8th grade student, I was instantly "in" and excited to dig in.  A student handed me this book and I needed to read it for the sheer sake of the connection, the ability to talk about it with him and around other students--this was perfect.  The experience and my plan to use it as the great uniter in my classroom unraveled quickly...and I forced myself to read it, to stick with it, because the kid recommended it to me and I wanted to be able to say I finished it.

I finished it today with little good to say about it--actually, I am more astonished that its sold millions and touts itself as "the book that changes lives." 

Over the course of the past four months, I've read three other books, started another, and have several waiting in the wings--I just could not wait to clear this off my plate, yet rarely wanted to pick it up to work through it.

A true story?  A true metaphor?  A romanticized life experience turned Joycean epiphany?  The journey of poor little rich and confused boy?

It is either boring storytelling by someone who evidently duped the literary world much as James Frey did, OR it is a mostly true story as Millman remembers and romanticizes it and wills it to be, yet still written poorly. 

Either way, you need your own spiritual journey to keep going.

Someone notify the Smoking Gun website!

I don't dismiss the spiritual nature of Dan's journey or the (purported) teachings of the wise and subtly nicknamed "Socrates" who could leap to and from rooftops, place his hands on Dan and send him on journeys into the greatly secret cave to face Darth Vader, and then die in a brilliant flash of light in the water closet...without a trace of ash or dust...the same ash or dust which is supposed to be a part of the elm, the rodents, the grass and the breeze...we are everything and everywhere...except when we vaporize in a gas station lavatory.

Dan leaves the service station--its night employee just died in a toilet flambe--and no one is left to pump the gas.  Or tell the station owner why its night employee vanished.

Perhaps Socrates owned the service station--that is never made clear.  He used an office, perhaps it was his.  Did Dan leave a note for the day shift?  Did Dan take over the station and turn it into a modest investment which enabled him to write his book and sell his movie?  Which leads me to the moment just before the spectacular Roman Candlesque death of Socrates...

Socrates handed a Dan a notebook of the history of life so Dan could also write books, be a teacher, make a movie, and take what was once (the point of the book!) a very private act of going on a personal journey of self-discovery and bastardizing it into a paycheck.  Socrates even instructs Dan that living more simply is the key to being a peaceful warrior--get used to living with less and then you'll always have enough.

Get used to living with less...except when you are cashing it in, eh Dan?

This is A Million Little Pieces meets the Karate Kid meets The Bachelor.

I don't buy it...well, I did buy it, but I won't buy the sequel or the Journeys of Socrates or understand the fascination behind a million copies sold.

Just simply awful.

Liking and Hating Have No Home

After reading Kelly Gallagher's Readicide this week, a metaphor of shopping for a house has been working itself out in my head.  I wondered how many of my colleagues or parents of the kids I teach have the read the book, and wondered how many would if asked.

I wondered how many of your colleagues or parents of the kids you teach have read the book, and how many would if asked.

Without the proper perspective, we can all make terrible decisions when shopping for a house...without the proper perspective we can all make terrible decisions when teaching/encouraging young people to be readers and writers.

Immediately put-off by the color of the walls, the furniture itself, the layout, the curtains and the lighting, we judge and we leave.  If we don't give ourselves the time and freedom to explore the house (free from interruptions of color or ceiling fan style) beyond the surface issues, then we are more apt to dismiss it.  Next.

Because of state-mandated tests and the pressures and expectations associated with them, we hand drill-and-kill worksheets to our students to measure what they read--we make our students stop every chapter to reflect on a topic or quote in a dialectical journal--we regard a piece of writing from a student only for its errors in punctuation, grammar, and usage.  When we don't give students the time and freedom to explore the text (free from interruptions of who, what, where, when, why) beyond the surface issues, then they are more apt to dismiss it.  We are building test-takers, not readers or writers. Next.

Will someone provide the proper perspective, and teach us how to look at a potential home if we aren't receptive to it?  Are our discussions about a house centered on I didn't like it (based on the surface issues and our initial reactions)?  Can we take a step back and consider the real issues:

a. are there cracks in the ceiling or walls?
b. how old are the appliances and how soon would they need to be replaced?
c. what is the condition of the roof, the furnace, the windows, the air conditioning unit, the water heater?
d. is there dampness or mold anyplace?
e. did you turn on the faucets or flush the toilets?
f. how many amps of electricity are run into the house?
g. is there adequate storage and closet space?
h. does the layout work for you if you have children?

Will someone offer the state some legislators some perspective, and enlighten them to encourage teachers and parents to regard their child as a flesh and blood reader or a writer and be receptive to it?  The students are not numbers in their mother's arms, and when they are face to face with a teacher they are human beings--not numbers.  Pressed to find avenues to increase our state test scores, many of our discussions about reading center on "my students/child didn't like the book?"  Because if a kid likes a book then he must understand it...if he understand it then something good must be happening...and so we dwell on like. Can we take a step back and consider the real issues:

a. are your children reading for recreation, free of sticky notes, worksheets, and quizzes?
b. how many classrooms have a book flood--high interest books which students can borrow?
c. when do your children have time to read for pleasure--at home and at school?
d. is literature over taught--do you stop every five minutes to discuss it?
e. did you overemphasize the trivial at the expense of the meaningful aspects of the work?
f. are students asked to read a balance of difficult and recreational texts...authentic, real-world texts as well?
g. are the same students mired in remedial reading each year?
h. have we designed our reading and writing practice around NCLB and state-mandated tests?

None of the points about the house or the classroom or home reading practices are about style.  None are about how one polishes a house, an essay, a literature discussion or worksheet and prepares it to be seen and enjoyed by an "audience"...our family and friends and neighbors.

Liking a book should not be a part of the discussion--I know every student won't like or understand every book.  That is what a teacher is for--we're there to help them through the difficult and challenging literature, to see the big ideas, and relate it to world they live in now.  "It's not the difficult novels that are the problem; it's how they are taught that is the problem," Gallagher writes.  Reading (and writing) are rehearsals for the big ideas that will follow, inspire, and interfere with human beings all our lives.
Teach them how to see the book properly--give them a frame to begin with, guide them through some of the difficult passages, but then let them free to build up their own reading stamina.  Don't get in the way!  We don't have to apologize for students not liking a book or if a student is challenged by a book.

Whether or not a student likes or hates a book is no more relevant than liking the paint color of a house--that is what a paint brush is for.   Liking and Hating have no home in our classrooms.

As Gallagher notes, "These finding remind me of the words of Lev Vygotsky, who said, 'Children grow into the intellectual life of those around them." (53)

We are the teachers with the tools in our belt--consider adding Readicide to your professional library--hand it to colleague, an administrator, a parent.

August Macke -artist