Bouncing Back – writing in front of them, take 2: Slice of Life 3/31 #SOL20

Last Tuesday, I posted about trying to write in front of my class and failing. On Wednesday, our class used a New York Times mentor text to think about how we can use details to show rather than tell. The text is from an essay called “The Iguana in the Bathtub” by Anne Doten. Here’s how it opens:

When the temperature dipped below 40, iguanas started falling from the trees. Small, sleek green iguanas; big iguanas as long as four feet from snout to tail, scales cresting gloriously from their heads; orange-and-green iguanas, their muscled, goose-pimpled arms resolving into sharp claws. Iguanas were everywhere: in the bushy areas surrounding canals, on sidewalks, in backyards, lying helpless among the fallen, rotting fruit of mango and orange trees.

I encouraged the students to try their hand at opening a scene in this way – exuberant, over the top description. We played around with this for a while, and then everyone got back to work on their own scenes. I didn’t write in front of them on Wednesday, but that evening, as I prepared for the next day’s class, I dove back into my own failed attempt and used the model I’d given the students. Imitating Doten’s opening freed something in me, and the words came more easily. Suddenly, I was able to write the story I’d failed at the day before. On Thursday, I showed my students my progress, and they were suitably impressed – whether with my story or my persistence, I am not sure.

We’ve also looked at dialogue in class, and I don’t have any in here yet, so I’m going to ask for suggestions today. My students are of good ideas. Until then, here’s my revised piece:

When Mrs. Barkman announced the mythology test, all of our eyes widened. We had heard about this test from the upperclassmen: impossible, beyond the feats of human memory, designed exclusively to weed out those of us who didn’t really belong in Honors English, created merely to squash all of our dreams. To hear my best friend’s older brother tell it, every year students ran weeping from the classroom, tearing their hair, blood seeping from their eyes, fingers permanently disfigured from the cramping caused by all the writing. We were scared.

After class, my friends and I huddled in the hallway and murmured worriedly. What would happen if we failed? None of us had ever failed. It was unthinkable.

Somehow, someone appointed me to talk to Mrs. Barkman about the test. I say “somehow” but, looking back, I’m not shocked it was me. I have long been too willing to stand up to authority, especially in the role of defender. I was, simultaneously, intensely studious and intensely willing to speak up. I didn’t yet know if I was a rule-follower or a rebel. I didn’t yet know that I could be both. I was 13. One day I wore blue eyeshadow, “midnight” mascara, and blush applied so heavily that I looked permanently sunburned. The next day I came to school fresh-faced wearing turquoise pants and a Disney t-shirt.

In my mind, I approach Mrs. Barkman as a 13-year-old with pigtails. I tell her that we are not ready for the test tomorrow and that we need more time. In my mind, she looms over me, nose like a hatchet, eyes like a hawk. In my mind, her sharp voice cuts through my tremulous one as she denies me – us – any leeway.

But I might have been wearing mascara so thick that it flaked onto my cheekbones and a shirt designed to show my nearly nonexistent cleavage. It’s possible that I was shrill and demanding. There’s a chance I was more cocky than courageous.

Both scenarios are equally possible. Either way, she refused to move the test.

I worried so much about the test and my encounter with my terrifying teacher that I made myself sick. My mother kept me home from school the next day. Mrs. Barkman gave my peers a ridiculously easy matching test and, when I returned, I took the hard test – alone. 

I aced it, but it was months before Mrs. Barkman stopped thinking I had skipped on purpose. I aced it, but I still didn’t know if I was a nerd or a rebel or a social justice warrior. I think I might have just been 13.

 

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28 thoughts on “Bouncing Back – writing in front of them, take 2: Slice of Life 3/31 #SOL20

  1. Your sense of humour in the absurdity of life is here and I love this line: “I aced it, but it was months before Mrs. Barkman stopped thinking I had skipped on purpose. I aced it, but I still didn’t know if I was a nerd or a rebel or a social justice warrior.”
    You were all of those and more! Beautiful writing!

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  2. This test story is wonderful. I live the various scenarios you imagine. It really speaks to the mythology of memory. That’s so important. I hope you’ll share your students’ Suggestions for dialogue. I wonder if their ideas will parallel my own. And maybe at 13 you were all: nerd, rebel, social justice warrior. I bet you still are all. We contain multitudes.

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    1. So far, they’re not sure about the dialogue – possibly because they really aren’t sure about critiquing their teacher’s writing (or anyone else’s, to be fair). I’ve got a few suggestions… we’ll see what happens…

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  3. It was interesting to get a glimpse into your classroom, and then I love the turn you took where you shared your story. It’s so vivid and real. My very favorite lines are there: “I didn’t yet know if I was a rule-follower or a rebel. I didn’t yet know that I could be both. ” It gives me chills every time I reread it.

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  4. “they were suitably impressed – whether with my story or my persistence, I am not sure” I can speak for myself when I say I am impressed with both you persistence and story! The ending of the story is brilliant. When you reflect on all that you could be, with today’s lens, and then realize that it could have all been simply what 13 year olds do. I do hope the feedback and ideas you get from your class(es) leads you to share another revision in a future slice – you’ve got me hooked!

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  5. This was great! I loved the over-the-top iguana-esque part where you described the post test reaction from the previous year: every year students ran weeping from the classroom, tearing their hair, blood seeping from their eyes, fingers permanently disfigured from the cramping caused by all the writing. We were scared.

    I’ll bet your students loved that part too. I also really like the last line. This story is sort of the “hallmark” of 13.

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    1. The students really did love the over-the-top description of how awful the test was going to be. I caught even one of the more taciturn kids smiling… hopefully not because he was thinking of *my* tests! (Just kidding – I don’t really give tests.)

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  6. You made so many smart moves here as a writing teacher. You showed kids that adults, even teachers, struggle with writing sometimes. You showed them how a mentor text can get us started. You used a story from your own life that has meaning for you and shared it with the students. (And what a great story to apply the mentor text moves.)

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    1. Tomorrow they will share their own scenes. I’m really hoping that watching me struggle my way through this one inspires them a little bit. I keep telling them that I really am them plus experience. 🙂

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  7. I hope your students realize how lucky they are to have you as their teacher. I too was impressed with your persistence and your story. Both illuminate that you are human and relatable…to your students and of course to us, here.

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    1. Right now I think they’re just shocked that I expect them to read and write *every day.* I keep trying to tell them that this is what we do in English class; they keep giving me a narrow-eyed suspicious look. Hmmm… I’ll get them yet!

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  8. I’m so impressed that you returned to your earlier piece and shared that process with your students, too. What an incredible mentor you are to them. It was fascinating to get a peek into 13 year old you–rebel and rule-follower. I love that final line.

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  9. I’m glad you went back to write that story! I can see why your classmates elected you spokesman. I wonder what most teachers would do today if approached by a student with a similar request.

    As always, your embedded so much emotion into this piece. I imagine myself at thirteen electing you to speak up for me (us) but I never could have done it myself!

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  10. This was like two slices in one, three if I count the borrowed iguanas-from-heaven opening. “You should get triple credit!” said no Mrs. Barkman ever.

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  11. I’m quite sure your students were impressed with both your story and your persistence, as am I! I love the repetition of “in my mind…” It’s powerful stuff and speaks to our ever-so-questionable grasp on the past. Maybe you wore pigtails AND blue eyeshadow that day; either way, you were who you were/are that day. It’s a chilling glimpse into the “me against them” stance to which some teachers prescribe. Your students are sure to glean much more than ja lesson about writing with details here. Loved it.

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    1. I’m pretty sure more than one of them was so horrified by the thought of me wearing blue eyeshadow and blush that they couldn’t concentrate on the rest of the piece. heeheehee. Tomorrow they turn in the first draft of their own work. Looking forward to seeing what they’ve done!

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