Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Throwing out the Rules

Illustration by Austin Kleon
Elizabeth just came up to my desk to ask if she is allowed to use contractions in her personal essay.

Allowed.

Our student writers are taught a set of rules. Don't use contractions. Double space your essays. Spell out numbers under ten. Write everything in complete sentences. Make sure that your subject and your verbs agree in number. These are easy to teach, easy to learn. But clearly the writing that we remember, that packs an emotional punch, is more than a well-employed set of grammatical rules.

As an English teacher, I admit to focusing a bit too much of my energy on marking misplaced commas and dangling modifiers in the past, but this is not where the heart of writing lies.  In spending our energies on correcting grammar, we teach our students that grammar is important. Exclusively. When we focus on writing as teaching students to write a certain number of paragraphs, to a particular set of rules, we limit student possibilities for expression.

I understand the need to begin somewhere.  However, a set of rules, a list of dos and don'ts, decapitates student writing. (I asked my creative writing students for help with this sentence. Jordan came up with the verb decapitates.) Instead, taking a lead from Kylene Beers, Lynne Dorfman, and Kelly Gallagher, I ask my students to find mentor texts for each piece of writing they craft. What is the writing doing? What do you notice? What moves is the writer making? Beginning in this manner, students come up with their own rules. They notice that personal essays published in the New York Times Magazine use contractions. The college application essays that earned the highest marks are those that use slang, that contain intentional fragments, that break the rules of what is "allowed."

I am asking my students to think about writing for publication. They are trained to write in five paragraphs, but pick up any magazine, a newspaper, read a blog. How many of them are written in formulaic five-paragraphs? Yes, we must begin somewhere when it comes to teaching writing. However, I firmly believe teaching students to write to a set of rules, rules that so many of us break, is not the place to begin. Rather than close off possibilities, we must find ways to open them up.

So it's not that I'm throwing the "rules" out the window. I'm just setting them aside for awhile and letting our community of writers figure out the rules for ourselves.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Cry Baby

Flickr Creative Commons image by LMAP
I am a cry baby. Always have been. My younger sister would sneak in to steal a toy, and I would cry. Didn’t get my way or change our plans, and unstoppable tears would rush over my fat cheeks. I remember making a decision, perhaps at eight or nine, to stop crying. I didn’t want to hear another exasperated sigh escape from my dad’s moustached mouth, wishing under his breath that I would just stop.

So I did.

But somewhere between nine and thirty-nine, I realized how devastating that decision was. It wasn’t that I stopped the hurt or emotion behind the tears; instead, I stopped sharing. I stopped revealing. But on becoming a teacher, working with emerging writers, I have came to understand how dangerous that pressure to conceal can be for writers in particular.

A writer’s power comes in connecting truth, in revealing in ordinary moments the larger themes of our connected lives. To do this well, the writer, whether nine or thirty-nine, must reveal themselves. I am the odd one in my solidly Midwestern family. I cry at diaper commercials and fundraising campaigns for the ASPCA. In class, when my students share their personal This I Believe essays, I cry. Students write about their experiences with loss: losing a mother to cancer, a grandmother to Alzheimer’s, a father to drug addiction. Students share their fears, their loneliness as much as their pride and joy, often sitting side-by-side in one essay. And I cry.

The courage that it takes to reveal oneself, whether that be to a teacher, to peers, or to an unseen audience via the web, is awe-inspiring. I have grown more not only as a teacher but as an individual by opening up opportunities for students to revel and reveal in their writing. Sometimes that brings me to tears of joy, other times to tears of commiseration. But now I share them freely. Unashamed.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Taking the Stage

I'm nervous.

I've spent the day making sure that everything is in order for our visit from the One Book, One Philadelphia author Christina Baker Kline, author of the fantastic historical fiction novel Orphan Train. Emailing maintenance to make sure we have a registration table and microphones, asking students to come up with questions they want to ask of the author, and running around the building snapping pictures of teachers and students reading Orphan Train. I had quite a bit of fun with that last task. As teachers, students, and community members file into our auditorium tomorrow, I have a slideshow prepared of our community members reading Orphan Train, and snapping pictures throughout the day has also meant that I have had the opportunity to talk with so many different people about this story. There has been one common thread - we love this book!

A guidance counselor shared with me the story of discussing this book with her 90 year old mother, connecting over the history behind Vivian's tale. A tenth grader shared how she loved the parallel between Molly's story and Vivian's. A gym teacher nearly cried as she shared how this story helped her connect with an important young person in her life who shared a similar journey to that of Molly. Young and old, men and women, students and teachers from all walks of life connect to this story. There is something so moving about Vivian's journey, her struggles and decisions, her heart break and connections and the way in which young Molly is able to reach out and connect with her experiences across generations that touches all sorts of readers.

But, I am nervous.

I have the job of being moderator for tomorrow's program with Christine Baker Kline. It's not that this is my first time moderating an author presentation, but that doesn't seem to quell my nerves.  I have had the pleasure of moderating presentations authors Edwidge Danticat and Julie Otsuka made when they visited our campus in the past, but there is something about being so near the writers whose work I've admired, while also standing on stage in front of hundreds of people under a spot light. I mentioned this nervousness to a non-teacher not all that long ago who gave me a quizzical look. "Aren't you 'on stage' in front of people every day? Isn't teaching the same thing?"

My classroom is not a stage, and I don't put on a performance each day. Although I work with about 75 - 85 young people each day, it's not quite the same experience. As years pass, I find that I spend less and less of my time in front of the class. My nervousness about tomorrow alludes to my position in the classroom. I am not confident speaking in public. It is not something that comes naturally to me. I much prefer to be in the classroom working with people. So to prepare for tomorrow, I had my students help me brainstorm questions to ask of the author. And, not surprisingly, they came up with great questions about Ms. Baker Kline's writing inspiration and her process.

So I'm starting to feel a bit more prepared for tomorrow because when I go up on that stage, I'll take with me the stories shared with me by our community of readers about their connections to Orphan Train as well as the questions that my students generated. We've prepared for this together.

Okay, I'm more prepare but still nervous.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Curling Up with a Book

I stay in my pajamas until well after noon. The rain rhythmically sliding down the window panes from the early morning hours until now has made it easy to stay curled up on the couch. I don't often get to do this. I'm usually out the door early, even on the weekends. Either I'm heading to conference or reluctantly slipping into gym clothes and heading to the Y (which I always ending loving after I've arrived). But not this morning. It's rainy, and my boys stay happily upstairs orchestrating elaborate stories with their Legos while my husband and I polish off a pot of coffee and immerse ourselves in reading.

Cuddled in with coffee and a book. This is paradise!

I finish Wild by Cheryl Strayed and start in on Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, trading non-fiction for fiction. Nearly four hours pass before I realize how long and how happily I've been sunk in. Four hours.  I haven't read for this long of a stretch in...well, I can't quite recall.  My eldest comes thunking down the stairs. He needs me to separate one Lego brick from another, which of course leads to a barrage of questions. Whatcha reading? Why? What's it about? And that's when I realize the opportunity that I have here.

My eldest is six. When I met with his kindergarten teacher at parent-teacher conferences on Thursday, she declared that reading just "clicked" for him recently. He's jumped up two independent reading levels quite quickly. He's always loved being read to, but he's just discovering reading on his own terms. And for the most part, he's always had someone reading with him, either a parent or teacher leaning in to support his efforts, to gently correct. So I suggest that he grab a few of his books and curl up, too. Grab the chair next to me and read. He looks at me a bit confused. "But you need to read with me." Nope. And you could see the light go on. Wait! I can do this for myself? I can read to myself.

He grabs a whole stack of books, a blanket, and curls into the chair next to me. I half expect him to ask for his own cup of coffee (he didn't). And he reads.

This is how life-long readers are born. Find a book, a cozy corner, and some quiet time to read. Just read. Get lost in the story, let it twirl around your imagination, and sink into your soul. This is what it is to curl up with a book.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Connecting Readers

The excitement over our March Book Madness bracket is growing.  This past week as our school community voted on books in the initial bracket, I had the pleasure of handing out signed copies of Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park and Patricia McCormick's Sold along with gift certificates to local book stores and copies of Looking for Alaska and Thirteen Reasons Why.

And not only have students been getting into our daily voting, but teachers have as well. On Tuesday, I drew the name of a fellow English teacher as the winner of our raffle from all those who participated in the day's voting. She was giddy as I handed her a copy of Thirteen Reasons Why

But yesterday afternoon, the excitement started to really gain momentum. And it all started with an email. From LOIS LOWRY!  Oh yes, you read that right. Prior to the start of our voting, I emailed every author in our bracket, explaining our March Book Madness bracket and requesting a signed copy of their book to give away. It is how we received copies of Rainbow Rowell's and Patricia McCormick's books.  Well, I also emailed Lois Lowry, author of The Giver, a clear favorite among both our students and teachers.  So when I saw that email signed "LL" in my inbox, stating that Lois Lowry was sending a signed copy of The Giver, well I couldn't keep that to myself! 

I've been using Celly, a text-messaging service, to conduct our daily votes. When I saw Ms. Lowry's email, I shot out a quick text to all our bracket voters sharing the news. Within minutes, I had teachers and students coming up to excitedly chat about their love of The Giver. And then, just a few minutes later, S.E. Hinton retweeted us! I had sent out a tweet earlier in the day from my class account sharing our daily vote between Elie Wiesel's Holocaust memoir Night and S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. And she retweeted it. By the last bell of the day, I had lost count of the number of students and staff that approached me excited, nearly giddy, wanting to talk about their love of these authors and their books. 

That bring us to today...
I'm sitting in the teachers' workroom typing up my Writer's Notebook prompt for my last block of the day, Creative Writing, when my phone buzzes that short zap. Someone has just tweeted me.  I turn in over and find...JOHN GREEN HAS TWEETED ME!  Not a retweet, mind you. He has directly tweeted my classroom Twitter account to put in a vote for today's March Book Madness battle which pits his Fault in our Stars against Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower, our closest battle to date. I believe I squealed and that shouted, "Holy crap!"

Now this is not normal, every day behavior in our teachers' workroom. The English teacher sitting next to me at the large table in the middle of our workroom just stared at me when I could barely stammer out why I was so excited.  I handed her my phone to show her the tweet. And she laughed before clicking a quick photo of my phone to post to Instagram. I quickly retweeted and sent out a message to our student and teacher voters through Celly letting them know about the day's connection. We were giddy! It didn't take long for the buzz to spread. Not thirty minutes later when I walked through the lunchroom for cafeteria duty, a student called out from the din of conversation, "Ms. Ward - I just saw! John Green?! That is sooooo cool!" 

I love that we had an opportunity to connect with author John Green using social media (on Digital Learning Day, too), but here's the best part: students and teachers are giddy talking about books! These connections have sparked an interest in our community. We're talking about books, making reading recommendations, arguing the merits of one book over another. We are excited, engaged, and connected readers! 

Now, I wonder who we'll hear from next? Veronica Roth? J.K. Rowling? ;)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Poetic Connections

My hours at school this week have been filled with poetry. My tenth grade students are pulling ideas from their Writer's Notebooks to polish into pieces to submit for publication next week, and many of them are revising poems. For the past few days, I've been listening in on conversations about word choice and line breaks. Does this sound right, or am I forcing the rhyme? I love these rhetorical collaborations, hearing students thinking deeply about word choice.

When we had an opportunity to Skype with the senior editor at TeenInk Magazine today, my students and I learned about how works are selected for publication. And being the English teacher that I am, I asked a question about the importance of correct grammar versus the quality of composition. It was refreshing (and validating) to hear the senior editor of a publication, Ms. Stephanie Meyers, state that "It's not that grammar doesn't matter, but it's about the story being told." A work can have perfect grammar and syntax but lack heart, lack spirit and soul.  Along with her group of editors, Ms. Meyers stressed that TeenInk looks for works that carry a strong voice.  Spelling and proof-reading mistakes can be corrected with editing, but a poem that lacks a nuanced perspective, lacks a distinct voice, is much more difficult to correct. Our hearts are moved by poetry that speaks to the stories that lie within us. Poetry begs for connection. Our job as writers (and as teachers of writing) is to use our words to realize those connections, and remember that grammar is only a part of the equation. The power of poetry lies in the artistry of crafting connections.

And it's this connection between poetry and art that my Creative Writing students also spent time exploring today.  I spent a good amount of time in front of the copy machine blowing up fingerprints.  Earlier I had my high school students rub a pencil across their thumb, darkening it with lead. Then, taking a piece of clear tape, students carefully pressed their print onto the tape, and sealed their print to an index card. This is why I was standing in front of the copy machine. I took each student's fingerprint and blew it up 500 percent until their unique mark looked as though it may have been left by some ancient giant.  Our Writer's Notebook prompt today was:

Start with where you began. 
Where does your story start? 
Wind into the moments that have shaped your life. 
Have there been twists and turns that have helped you become the person you are today? 
Then, weave your way into what you want to be. 
What will be your mark on this world?

Students started in their Writer's Notebook crafting their story. Then, laying a bright white sheet over top of their photocopied print, used the lines of their fingerprint as a map upon which to write the lines of their story.
But this was only our opening activity, our first creative connection. Next, I asked my Creative Writing students to take a look at the Times Magazine's “Picture and a Poem” series where a contemporary artist is asked to create a visual representation of a poem. The two works together help the reader to understand both creative pieces in a new light. Sifting through our poetry books, student selected works from Walt Whitman to Lao Tzu, from Shel Silverstein to Edgar Allan Poe. Then, using either digital tools or by putting pen to paper, student found creative ways to illustrate their poems.  Some used Canva and Animoto, while others illustrated and inked their creative interpretations of their selected poems. Throughout our class today, students connected their rhetorical choices in visual composition to those written rhetorical decisions made by the original poet. 
It has been a day filled with poetic connections!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Labor of Love



I don't have a desk. Okay, I do, but it is home to my sewing machine and not really a conducive place for writing, crowded as it is with snips of thread, straight pins, and pinking shears. Instead, I write each day at our dining room table, either well before the sun comes up or well after it goes to sleep. These are my hours. The quiet time when my little boys are snuggled into their beds, and there is time to reflect and not just react. 

I especially appreciate this daily blogging challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Instead of keeping my writing to myself in my Writer's Notebook, I have this opportunity to write daily, to share daily, and to connect daily. I encourage my students to connect and share in similar ways, but then often find that without this daily deadline, my own blogging gets pushed to the bottom of a to-do list whose items I know I will never be able to completely check off. My blog is pushed to the back of the line behind responding to parent emails and providing feedback on student essays and arranging for Skype sessions with authors and calling local museums to arrange for speakers and responding to more emails. I write daily, but the writing that renews my soul - reflective writing and creative writing - often times is left as an unwritten monologue playing through my head while I attend to more immediate concerns.

This morning a request appeared in my inbox to share my reflections on when, where, and why I write as part of the weekly National Writing Project iAnthology series. And so I've spent some time today mulling over why I let the writing that I am truly passionate about go unwritten much of the time. I don't have a good answer to this question. But I do have a simple answer.

It's hard.

This is the writing I care about. I care about weaving a narrative, pulling threads of ideas together, making a creative and hard-hitting point. But this takes time. I am not someone that can pound out a blog post in minutes. I read over and write over each sentence. I write in stops and starts, slowly moving forward like a child on a rocking horse, ever leaning forward to an imagined finished line. And so far, I've only written five paragraphs, that is if you can really count my fourth as a paragraph. But I've considered why I've let that sentence hang there alone.

It's hard.

And now I'm at seven paragraphs. But if it takes me this long to write this short piece, I have to remember what it might take a student as of yet less experienced than I am at blogging to share his work publicly. Check the widgets to the right. I've been at this since 2007. And I know that this is hard. I must remember that this is hard no matter what age or level of experience you bring to writing. To do it well, writing is a labor of love, but it is labor. It is work. Writers must be given the space, the time, the opportunity to work at the craft. In order to create a narrative worth reading, students need time....writers need time to put in the work.

And, sometimes a deadline helps, too.  

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