Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Long Pull of Family Meals

The following is my self-created mentor text for my students. They took a favorite photograph and listed things they noticed on the surface and then started to dig a little deeper--they listed the things they wondered, speculated, and remembered. Turning that list into a poem, they were charged with trying to find what was important to them about their picture.

Next week, we are taking our poems and converting them to essays--narratives, vignettes, memoir--that should fill the reader with a strong sense of the meaningful nature of the photograph. In order for my students to produce what I would like to see, I try to create a mentor text, a real example, from my own pen.

As an aside, the yellow highlighter is also a part of the assignment. I ask them to mark an example of the grammar and/or writer's tools current in class. In this class serial commas, appositives, prepositional phrases, and participial phrases are our global concepts:

The aroma of homemade meatballs greeted us. By us, I mean family, friend, and guest. It isn’t that Bepa fried meatballs every day, but she did cook something every day in that same pan. Seasoned black with time, the pan, a cast-iron palette, seemed too heavy for an old woman. Yet, Bepa, forever 80 years-old in my memory, handled the pan with the discerning patience of an artist.

Emerging from the pan were meats crusted with a rustic char of brown, while evidence of her choreography--chopped green herbs rimming a knife’s edge—layered their cleansing aroma atop the crisped sweetness and heat of Italian sausage, bragiole, and pork ribs. The crusted meats, steeping in a pot of red gravy, seasoned the air we breathed.

Our family’s concept of gravy, red and spiced, has been simmering for decades. I can still smell it bubbling in her familiar silver pot. Like a trusted friend, she knew its imperfections and knew its strengths. She let the old pot do its thing day in and day out—even with its dents, it worked the gravy, it worked the gravy, it worked the gravy…nothing else.

Spread across the dinner table, our family feasts welcomed anyone—literally. Family and friends walked into her house as it were their own; neighbors turned the doorknob, warm with use, with nary a knock. The air around her table, the air filling each room, and the air around her home was rich with our family history—hard-handed Italian immigrants, and the children of these pioneers, and their children’s children, the grandchildren, all breathed this same sweet air. It is in our lungs today.

We ate simple salads with a splash of red wine vinegar and oil from a plain round dish. Bowls of pasta coated with homemade gravy passed from hand to hand, and never emptied—they were simply refilled. And we always encouraged the next guy to take more. Long platters of tender meats, round and hot, traded hands in the opposite direction. Glasses were filled with wine or water across each path of plated food, and crusty bread was sawed with a sharp edge beneath it all—beneath this familiar dance of hands and arms, dish and spoon, laugh and wink.
Our arms continued the ballet that would have made La Scala graduates envious—we twirled the delicate capellini around the tongs of our forks. Some pulled the long strands and twisted high in the air, while others swirled low against the dish. Silence fell and we ate. In all the right places we leaned in close to listen, or dipped our bread in gravy. We never refilled just one glass or one plate—everything about the slow meal was a pas de deux of food.  Our family song was one of familiar tastes complimenting the familiar aromas complimenting the familiar setting complimenting the family—the long pull, across the decades, of eating food prepared and served with love—the long pull, across  the decades, of eating with family.

Today, I see those images in my head and I raise a simple glass. It would be appropriate to raise an old jelly glass in this case—filled halfway with red table wine. I raise a simple glass and I salute the long pull of family, and I think to myself, “here’s to what we knew.” Salut!

Here’s to what we knew
Brian Kelley

Here’s to what we knew…

We knew the comforting aroma of brown
                  meatballs frying in a crowded pan
seasoned black with time.

We knew the cleansing scent of green
                  basil chopped fine into fragrant flakes
                  lingering on the knife.

We knew the deep sapidity of red
                  gravy simmering for generations
                  in your tired pot, loved and full.
Here’s to what we knew.

We knew the precise scrape of your knife
                  against the warm bread.

We knew the pull of the long pasta
                  on family.

Here’s to what we knew.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

One of the Dreamers

My students are just starting to use the classroom blog as an extension of their writer's notebook--a place to think, free write, develop a thought, dream.

Last night, a student shared her dream of being a writer:

I left a comment, along with a classmate, but I also forwarded the blog via Twitter to the YA author my student mentions, Laini Taylor.

Within the hour, YA author Laini Taylor left a comment on Valentine's blog entry.

Which I then posted in class, inside my writer's art frame, and the students keep gathering--awed that a writer would take the time to write to one of them--one of the dreamers.

The Books I Honor

Students in my class are writing and creating their own book awards. I wrote a mentor text to use with them in class, blending elements of informative and narrative writing:

The Books I Honor

Books move me. Well, good books move me. I have learned that a good book can come in any format and can be written for any level and still move me. Over the years, so many different books have been a part of my development as a person, reader, and writer: Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms; Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter; Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree; Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, and A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh just to name a few.

I am honoring any books I read this year with my own special award modeled after the Newberry and Printz awards. My award will be called “The Pooh” in honor of a character from a book that has always stuck with me my entire life, Winnie the Pooh.

The criteria to receive a prestigious “Pooh” is the following:

It moves me emotionally: This can be any emotion. I’m not picky in this regard. I can easily recall sobbing on the floor of my parent’s house after finishing A Farewell to Arms, or being lost in few long moments of quiet reflection upon turning the last page of Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls. Tears and reverie aside, I love a book that inspires me to change a behavior or belief in something—reading John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent may have been the first book that made me want to be a writer myself.

It challenges me morally or spiritually: Some YA literature has moved into controversial themes over the last decade—so much so that I often encounter a phrase similar to “YA books are not just for YA anymore.” Recently, Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, and Francis Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World challenged me—they made me think about issues. They made me think about where I stood on issues that I never had to face in my life on a personal level. Being challenged by books makes me a better person. Books make me more thoughtful. Books open my eyes and ears. Books teach me tolerance for differences and change. Books show me that we survive…that we can get through “this” too.

The characters or people have to face difficult decisions: This is different than slaying-the-dragon-and-saving-the-princess difficult decisions. I want to see the characters face a difficult decision, and I do not necessarily care if it ends up in joy or tragedy. I want it to make sense and feel right. For instance, at the end of Winnie-the-Pooh, Christopher Robin has to leave to go to school—he leaves The Hundred Acre Wood forever. He leaves Pooh Bear behind forever. I love the spirit of inevitable sadness this conjures. On the one hand, it could be argued that this is not truly a difficult decision because Christopher Robin has to go to school—there is no real way around it. However, I would argue. Some decisions in our life may be inevitable, and they may even already by made for us, but that does not make the actual facing of it any less difficult on us.

Since school began, I have not read a book worthy a “Pooh” just yet. I have read some wonderful books that I highly recommend including The Diviners and Every Day, but none that are Pooh-worthy. So, I keep reading, and I keep hoping, because when I discover the type of book I truly love, I am most content, at ease, and joyful. These are the books that make me smile.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Chasing Comets

As a reader, I am finding my radar is sensitized to lines about writing--when I see a good one, I dwell on it. In Libba Bray's The Diviners I just came across this line:
In its way, writing was like healing: a cure for the loneliness he felt. Sometimes the cure took; other times, it didn't. But he kept trying. He bent his head over his notebook, writing by lantern light, chasing after words like trying to grab the tails of comets."
 I like the sense that writing is associated with something practically impossible, yet worth the effort--only one with imagination could grab the tail of a comet. Only a dreamer could imagine such a feat...yet at the same time the image suggests that the dreamer will only ever chase the comet, and never quite be able to grab it.

It makes me think of so many things in our lives that we give up on. Yet writing, the struggle of scratching down lines and symbols in order to express our difficult thoughts, feelings, is wild.

I have these thoughts in my head, or these feelings in my heart, and I can transfer them to the reader with the right combinations of lines, marks, and symbols. I'm reminded just how incredible and magical the process of writing can be..."like trying to grab the tails of comets."

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Where Great Ideas Are Born

Having just finished David Levithan's every day I am wondering where ideas come from? Well, not just any ideas, but great ideas...ideas that make us say"Wow!" or ideas that make us pause to wrestle with them in our own minds and souls...

At the end of every day, Levithan thanks many people but also offers that he doesn't know where the idea for this story came from:
For most of the novels I've written, there's been a definite starting point--the spark of an idea that turned into a story. Usually I remember it. But for this book, I must admit I don't.
This inspires me. It reminds me why I love reading, art, athletics, and travel.  Inevitable, if I hang around or experience enough of any of those things then I know, eventually, I will brush up against someone or something that will show me, as a matter of fact, that there is a place where great ideas are born.

And any of us can access it.

It may not be easy. We may need to put in a lot of mileage reading books, scaling monuments, and catching a ball, but we can all touch greatness.

The only difference between you and Mozart is that Mozart took the time to run his fingers up and down the strings, up and down the string, so that he could find that moment...and share it with the rest of us.

David Levithan's novel introduces us to a character (we assume male) named A. All A has know his entire life (he is sixteen) is always waking up in another sixteen year-old's body. He lives each day in a separate body--gender race, weight, height can all be different and varied. He can not control it...yet.

And, one day, he falls in love.

Every day after meeting her (Rhiannon), he fights to find a way show himself, A, to her. Not the body he has borrowed...but the soul, spirit...something...within.  He manipulates the routine of all of these different sixteen year olds just to drive a few hours to see her leave school...talking with her friends...

Yet this is not just a love story...because the possibility of malevolence arises. There is a palpable darkness off in the corner of the story...a threat separate from the love story or the twisted plot arc of whether they will get to be in love or not.

There is talk that some people can remember being "taken"...and word is, it is the work of the devil.

It has become clear in recent years that some YA novels are exploring serious issues. For many of us, literature becomes our first lucid exposure to injustice, love, anguish, triumph...humanity's list goes on and on. Here, Levithan's narrator almost plays the role of Yoda when he writes lines that almost read like they come from an ancient philosopher:
The clock always ticks. There are times you don't hear it, and there are times that you do.
Levithan uses A's love story to take the reader on a different journey. You'll find, as a reader, being equally challenged by the lives of the people A inherits. Among others, A participates in the life of socially cruel girl, an obese boy, a girl planning her own suicide, a boy strong in his faith, a musically inclined male, a home-schooled boy, a "hard-core design geek, " a girl who excels at cross-country running, a girl who works as a maid, a diabetic...there are many others (it is amazing how many lives Levithan packs into the novel). Through these varied lives, Levithan takes great care in presenting several of the social pressures some teens encounter today.

Here the narrator tells us about A's discovery of the sad darkness within the character Kelsea:
I try to access any memory of Kelsea giving a cry for help. But the thing about a cry for help is that someone else needs to be around to hear it. And I am not finding a moment of that in Kelsea's life.
Here A wakes up in the body of a boy hurting himself with a chemical dependency:
There will be no school for me today. There will be no parents waking me up. I am on my own, in a dirty room, sprawled on a dirty mattress with a blanket that looks like it was stolen from a child...There comes a time when the body takes over the life...You have no idea you are giving the body the key. But you hand it over. And then its in control.
Throughout the novel, A tries to do the right thing by each body he takes over that day--initially, he believes by leaving their life uninterrupted, that he is doing the best thing. Instead, he begins to learn and feel a responsibility for helping those who need the help.

Levithan's novel is not just a creative and unique idea, but a socially interesting, and morally challenging sweep through many issues young adults experience every day.  He has found a way to deal with these social issues with great honesty and great sensitivity.

Authors, artists, actors all find their own way to not only tell the truth but also to reveal what is behind the truth.

Because all great artists, actors, writers know that only through struggling to tell the truth will they brush along the path where great ideas are born.

Email Signature Initiative

I want to give credit, but I cannot recall specifically where I first saw or heard the idea of adding the current book you are reading to your email signature. I want to say I saw it on Twitter...I want to say it was a part of a National Writing Project article...I can't recall. But it has stuck with me, and I recently added it to my signature.

A colleague commented that he thought it was pretty neat, and did it himself...and then suggested it could be a cool idea for a building-wide initiative among the faculty.

We have not moved that far yet, but I took a lateral step with it. Since our students have district email accounts, I (on email) sent my students instructions on how to add it to their account. Also, I asked them to send me an email so I can see it in action.

I like that it creates another level of respect for reading--we honor it with a small space at the bottom of an email, and it opens another door of conversation. In less than a week I've already had three conversations about books all originating from the signature at the bottom of an email.

Our 8th staff has had conversations recently about working to improve our state reading scores. What can we do across the masses to inspire growth among all of the kids and not just small pockets of demographics.

Perhaps this idea is step in the right direction in terms of attitude. Hopefully, my colleague and I will use this as a demonstration piece at an upcoming faculty meeting...and inspire a new, purposeful, building-wide initiative.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Bookmark as Teaching Tool

Our school operates on a six-day cycle (A - F day). I have set aside every "F" day as an independent reading day--today is an "F" day in our building.

Students will receive a laminated bookmark as they gather in the library--the first of several bookmarks I have decided to make for them over the next month.

The information on this bookmark comes from Kelly Gallagher's Deeper Reading. Since we have been moving forward (slowly) with our classroom blog, I will use bookmarks as a way to give the students ideas and structures from which to write on the blog.

Some of the bookmarks we see pass through our books include positive messages, or promote a positive behavior. Sometimes they are the stereotypical inspirational billboards (in miniature form)--the kitten dangling from a branch with the phrase "Hang in there" above her. Mostly, I have noticed that post-it notes have seemed to grasp the role of bookmark...even in my own texts on my desk.

Deciding to take the matter into my own hands, I have come to see the bookmark as a potential teaching tool, an opportunity even, to blast a bit of information, or a reminded into hands of my students.

Simultaneously, as the students are encouraged and rewarded for self-selected independent reading, I have continued to dig for ways to help them become comfortable with writing on the blog. I would prefer if it was truly free-form, sort of a digital and communal writer's notebook.  

So far we have been blogging on the global issues arising in class through our study of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, but I would like to see students move into writing about anything that stikes them, or the books they are reading on their own at the very least. And move beyond waiting for me to assign it.

I have started to write entires on the class blog, and I have been waiting for someone to notice them. None have...which tells me, obviously, they are not going to the blog on their own unless it is assigned--another example where students can see writing as just something they do for school.

I need to break that habitual vision and belief.

Bookmarks strike me as an easy way to place gentle reminders, guidance, and encouragement to write in front of them.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Writing and Cooking with Fire

Watching the programming on The Food Network I'm struck by how the network's implied mantra is similar to the lifeblood of a writing teacher.  I've learned by reading and listening to many writers and educators, but two really stand out when I think of the connections between chef and writer: Don Graves, and Penny Kittle. Most of the connections I make in this essay come from Penny Kittle's Write Beside Them and often cross-over into many of the Food Network programs.

Based on Penny Kittle's vision, I see five similarities in the way chefs and writers develop their craft:

1. Chefs mentor other chefs. 
Programs such as The Next Food Network Star, and The Worst Chef in America place chefs and home cooks in situations where an accomplished chef can advise, demonstrate, and challenge.

Often, writing teachers confer with students over their writing by asking how can I help you? tell me what you're doing as a writer at this moment? why did you decide to do it that way?

We try to leave our fledgling writers and developing chefs excited to get back to writing and cooking. We each try to make a point of what is working as well as what we'd like to see.

2. Mentor chefs offer feedback on surface errors and deeper revision.
Many shows built on competition such as Sweet Genius, Cupcake Wars, and Restaurant Impossible highlight problems that may or may not be corrected without guidance from the master chef.

Writing teachers remind themselves "Teach the Writer, not the Writing," and while I see the complementary "Teach the Cook, not the Cooking" in many of the Food Network programs, I see this explicitly in shows like Restaurant Impossible. Chef Robert Irvine often teaches people how to work within their strengths, experiences, and limitations in order to create a final product that can stand up to the local competition.

Our focus as writing teachers is always on the individual writer. We try to help students find what is buried within a first draft, a first attempt. It is about more than focusing on what we did wrong--we work to have writers understand what they did right and to embrace the possibilities.

3. We see, in many of these shows, that cooking is often for an audience as much as it is for our own sense of peace and joy.
Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, The Great Food Truck Race, are audience-based. Viewers write-in to DDD to suggest a local place that is doing food the right way. The Great Food Truck Race bases its decisions on who sold the most product--a combination of charging the right amount for the money spent. However, when listening to the teams plane, they often have to consider their audience. What is the community used to eating and paying. Are there local foods or traditions that might be honored on their food truck menu?

4. High profile, Food Network chefs not only offer advice or evaluate the food produced by guest chefs from across the country but also place their food on the table for evaluation.
This impresses me the most. The programs that highlight this circumstance often end up my favorites: Iron Chef, Next Iron Chef, Chopped. These chefs demonstrate their own struggles with cooking. While many have years of experience, they show us that cooking is an art, chefs are human, and neither can perfect every time.

Like writing, chefs have to do a lot of their craft before they produce the good stuff.

Ralph Fletcher writes that a mentor teacher can influence student writers by having high standards, building on strengths, valuing originally and diversity, and encouraging students to take risks. Our passion and ability to see the big picture can help guide young writers through the process--but it only works when we write beside them. When we present ourselves as mentors rather than judges, we lend a hand to a lot of young writers.

5. Vision: chefs speak about food, culture, and other chefs with humility and passion. 

It becomes obvious when you hear a chef such as Aaron Sanchez speak of the influences of his upbringing, his culture, and his mother that cooking is something he realizes he may never master. Chefs listen to other chefs; taste their food; and delight in the many differences of food and cooking.

Chefs understand the the construction of a meal and can explain how the parts work together to create the whole. They demonstrate that their knowledge is to be shared and that they can always learn from other.

Don Murray once wrote, “I am apprenticed to two crafts I can never masterwriting and teaching. As writing teachers we are constantly reading and writing so that we may share the vision for how others work, expand our minds to be more open to possibilities, and see that our "ordinary" lives are alive with topics.

When I watch The Food Network, and see chefs such as Geoffrey Zacharian well-up over an achievement, or compliment another chef over their execution, I hear and see his passion for cooking.  It reminds me of what I read in Ralph Fletcher's What a Writer Needs: "Passion remains the most important quality the mentor has to offer. When we think back on those teachers we looked up to, we don't always remember exactly what they taught. Above everything, we remember passion. Fire."

Lo and behold, the seminal ingredient in cooking and writing is the same: Fire.