Thursday, December 31, 2015

[Review] Symphony for the City of the Dead. by M.T. Anderson

As I read M.T. Anderson’s nonfiction text for teenagers, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shoshtakovitch and the Siege of Leningrad over Christmas break, I pulled out my iPhone to search “Shoshtakovitch 7th Symphony” on YouTube. Over one hundred renditions of the 7th Symphony appeared--including a short clip of Shostakovich playing a fragment of it himself.

Before reading Anderson’s book, I couldn’t have said much about Shostakovitch. Additionally, I knew little about the Siege of Leningrad and the city of Leningrad itself. My lack of background knowledge neither stopped me from being a reader nor stopped me from being a writer. My personal device--an iPhone--brought the sounds of the 7th Symphony along with images of war-torn Leningrad into my den. Yet, it is Anderson's gift at weaving a story that kept me riveted. I read the book cover-to-cover in less than 24 hours.

Technology patched the gaps in my background knowledge in that it quilted together raw information, pictures, archival footage, music, et al. at my fingertips. This immediate access to information helps all of us to become more effective creators--because the same device which allowed me to pull up supporting information also invited me to record my thoughts.

Technology allowed me to pause my reading and listen to the 7th Symphony, to search images of the Siege of Leningrad, and to share my thinking on this blog. 

And I thought...why couldn't students learn to use a device to help them leave tracks of their thinking as they read? Of course, they could. But back to the brilliant book...

For long stretches, I reclined into the comfort of my sofa and listened to Shoshtakovich's music as I absorbed Anderson's word with my inner ear.

Sometimes the music by Shoshtakovich made me go back and reread, such as this excerpt on page 344:

A soldier in the Red Army wrote in his journal, ‘On the night of 9 August 1942, my artillery squadron and the people of the great frontline city were listening to the Shostakovitch symphony with closed eyes. It seemed that the cloudless sky had suddenly become a storm bursting with music as the city listened to the symphony of heroes and forgot about the war, but not the meaning of the war.

Starving and weak, survivors endured daily bombings, cannibalism, and cruel taunts from the Nazis surrounding Leningrad--they air-dropped pamphlets reminding the Russians that they would all starve to death soon. And these physically frail, emotionally brittle, human beings found the will to perform this brand new symphony composed during the Nazi invasion.

And sometimes the music of Anderson's writing made me reread passages such as the one below:

It was not only the Russians who reacted. The Germans listened too, too, as the music rose up through leafy streets and above the gilt barrage balloons. It barked out of radios in the Wehrmacht barracks. Years later, a German soldier told Eliasberg, “It had a slow but powerful effect on us. The realization began to dawn that we would never take Leningrad.” That was enough in itself. “But something else started to happen. We began to see that there was something stronger than starvation, fear and death--the will to stay human (345).

Riveted, simultaneously hunched over my iPhone and a book, I watched and listened and read and thought. This impromptu coupling of Anderson and Shoshtakovich enchanced my reading experience. 

I resolved that I would share this segment of the symphony and the story behind it with my students next week because just minutes earlier I knew scant few facts about Shostakovich. I knew less about Leningrad. Yet Anderson and Shoshtakovich together left an impression on me that I will never forget.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Joy & Value of Choice

In 1977, my mother and aunt trundled me off to art classes at the Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia. My mother, single and working, paid for the classes even though money was tight.

Recently she reminded me, “You didn’t like going to classes. You just liked doing things on your own at home. You used to paint and draw all the time. But then you took the class and you just moped around about it. You finished all the classes but you didn’t want to go back. ”

A painting of mine from college. Using oils.
I painted a portrait of Eugene O'Neill on
a canvas of egg shells and cardboard. I did it
for me, on my own time, and not for a class.
Even though I was nine-years-old, I can still vividly remember the blinding white light bulbs throughout the studio. I remember the bright lights forced my eyes low towards the floor. 

The staff, friendly and encouraging, set me up at an easel with pastels. They clamped a pad of white paper to the frame of the easel. The paper gleamed like fresh, smooth ice. Every place I looked--at their faces, at the paper, at the artists next to me--it was clean, white, light.

I remember feeling the weight of never having worked upright on an easel or on paper so perfect. I had never held a pastel. 

Used to drawing at home, sprawled across the floor with cheap pencils and wax crayons, I was now afraid to make a mistake.

Wedged in between other students and a maze of easels, I peered at the other sheets of paper to see what others did with pastels--large circles and half arcs, haphazard lines. This didn't look like the drawing I was used to. I smudged a bit of red on the paper.

We were to draw the still life of bright round oranges by a pink-flowered tea set. 

I remember not liking the idea of being told what to draw. And I remember not liking how the soft pastels mashed against the paper and smeared onto my fingertips like stage makeup.

My mother laughs when she remembers, “No, you didn’t save anything from those classes.”

Not long afterward, I tried guitar lessons. A nice man owned a small music shop right around the corner from us on Percy Street. I remember banjos hanging on the wall and I remember thinking about my Uncle Joe teaching himself to play the banjo. At the time, I was amazed that someone could teach himself how to play an instrument. 

When I recently asked my cousin whether my memory of his father is accurate, he replied:
To my knowledge, yes, my Dad was self-taught on the banjo and guitar. I remember the guitar more. He like to play the acoustic as it was easier to keep handy than an electric guitar. He also played the mandolin. My brother Joe took some lessons when we were younger but he didn't stick with for more than a few years. I do recall my Dad hearing Stairway to Heaven and saying what crap it was. He picked up the guitar and started to play it after hearing it the first time, and playing it well.
The adolescent me reacted the same way to the guitar lessons and the art classes: turned off! And I loved art.

These memories make me wonder today--as a teacher and writer--in what ways do we move students away from being writers? In spite of all of our good intentions, what conditions make our kids feel less like writers? So many of my young writers tell me stories about how much they used to love writing...before school entered their lives.

What conditions can we be mindful of which actually move kids closer to not only feeling like writers, but these conditions actually move students closer to being writers?

In the case of the guitar lessons I remember I sat on a stool in a cramped space, curtained-in on four sides with my instructor. I remember that he demonstrated the notes, and that I imitated him. 

The best way I can describe the feeling is that I felt like a caged gorilla because of the conditions of the physical space. 

It was confining. It did not feel like home. It did not feel like a place where I could explore. It did not feel like a place where I could play.

And I felt like a caged gorilla because of the rules. So, I did not practice the guitar. The rules caused me misery. Actually, I resented having to practice the chords. It required effort. It felt hard. And, more importantly, the rules and the chords suddenly meant I could be wrong.

I found no joy in the rules.

I found no joy in the still life.

I found no joy in the possibility of being wrong...or being corrected.

I can still remember the joy, however, in drawing what I wanted. I can still remember the joy and the value of choice.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Flash Fiction as Argument

Ralph Fletcher writes in Making Nonfiction from Scratch to have students "take what they're writing about and put it in brief narrative form--that is, embed it in a story."

As we are studying Argumentative Writing, I built in time for students to try Fletcher's advice. We are writing "flash drafts."

When I introduced it, students asked about what it was--and I realized I had no models handy other than the brief paragraph Fletcher includes in his book.

So, I wrote my own. You can scroll through the document to read it:

I've read that flash fiction can go up to 1000 words and that anything under 300 words is called micro fiction. So, when Fletcher suggests a flash draft I am asking my students to work with this knowledge in mind.

Students watching and listening to me share my writing.
In the end, we are trying to write a piece of fiction which argues something. When I heard Jack Gantos speak at SCBWI a few years ago he asked the audience who or what changes after we read a book. The answer, of course, is that we change. The book doesn't change. The book never changes. The reader changes from having read the book.

My students are writing fiction to try and change a reader's perspective about something.

Perhaps they will write about something near and dear to their heart. Initially I asked students to think about an example--someone who dances--someone who has been told that dancers are not athletes. And perhaps this bothers this person. Instead of writing a traditional argumentative essay that dancers are/are not athlete, write it in narrative form. Show us the story of an adolescent being told he/she is not an athlete and then show us this same kid going to rehearsal--show us the rigors of dance, the physicality, the preparation, the study, the teamwork, and the demands. After we read it, perhaps we will be changed.

In the piece I wrote and shared above, my topic was creativity. I thought about the long list of students--spanning more than twenty years--who have told me that they are not creative. And I tried to demonstrate through flash fiction that everyone is, indeed, creative...and that all writing is creative because of the decisions and choices that we make.