Ask for help

Since day 1 she’s been glaring at me. By day 5 I work up the confidence to ask if something is wrong. “No,” she says casually, “I just have resting bitch face.” She’s 16. I laugh with her, but seconds later wish I had pushed back. I wish I had said, “No, not bitchy. You look sad, scared, wary and maybe just a little doubtful. You look like you and you are not a bitch.” But I didn’t.

Every day I say, “I need you to put your phone away.”
I say, “I know this is hard, but the phone is keeping you from doing your best thinking.”
I say, “Maybe you could create a 20 minute reading playlist so that you can read without touching your phone.”
She puts her phone away politely, but it always comes back out.

She has already failed English once. She does not like to read. She does not write. Still, when she wrote her goals in her notebook on Friday, the first one was “Read every day for the assigned time with no phone distraction.” She doesn’t say a thing about it, just hands me her notebook at the end of class, like she does every day.

We’ve read memoirs almost every day since school started. We’ve read poems and essays and picture books. We’ve looked at craft moves and done our own mini-writes. She doesn’t do much. “Resting bitch face” I remind myself when I look at her. I want so badly for her face to tell a different story.

Today we start 100-word memoirs. She checks her phone several times. She goes to the bathroom. Then she starts to write and does not stop until time is up. She shares a line with the class. As class ends, I ask students to write down one or two things they want to work on in their memoir tomorrow. She calls me over.

“I think it’s good the way it is,” she says. I feel my protest rising, then squash my first reaction. “Ok,” I say. We pause.

“Will you read it?” her eyes go down, her face turns away from me.

Her memoir is beautiful and powerful. She will edit it – we will edit it together – but her words, her story… it blows me away. I tell her so.

She says, “I want to enter that contest, the one about ‘One Strong Woman.'”
“Yes,” I say, “I think you should.”

In her notebook, her other goal is “actually ask for help.”

“I’ll help,” I say.

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Summary of Debate

I am close to finishing my summer writing courses. So, so close, and yet… so far. One long piece of creative non-fiction, one 1500-word research essay (with a proposal – how is that long enough for any real research? Whatever. I’ll take it.) and one 500-word close reading. I can get this done. 

In the meantime, I am amusing myself and, hopefully, the poor “tutors” who have to read these assignments day in and day out. It was with them in mind that I wrote the following slice of life. The assignment calls for a one-paragraph summary of both sides of “a specific, local debate” in under 250 words. I had to present the two sides in an objective, neutral manner. I decided to go extremely specific and local…

Debate: What Is That in the Sky?

The debate in our car is heated: is the giant glowing white orb that we see in the sky above us the moon or is it something else? The person taking the affirmative position states that it is the moon and develops her argument relying almost exclusively on logos. She begins with a concession, acknowledging that the glowing orb does, in fact, look larger than usual, which is part of what attracted the attention of the passengers in the car. She continues to support the affirmative position by pointing out that, despite its size, the orb is in the place where the moon is usually seen, looks like the moon, and appears to be moving along the moon’s expected trajectory. Finally, the person in the affirmative attempts to use ethos, pointing out that years of experience in observing the moon makes her a credible source for determining if the orb is, in fact, the moon. For these reasons, the affirmative asserts that this is the moon. The person defending the negative position contends that what they are seeing is not the moon. This argument, too, relies largely on logos. For one, he argues, what they see in the sky right now is clearly much larger than the moon. The person assuming the negative position points out that he has never seen a moon this large. He then refers to authority, maintaining that “someone” recently read him a book about planets and that planets are, in fact, very large. He concludes his point by reminding his opponent that he, too, has seen the moon many times, which gives him vast experiential knowledge, if not quite as much as the other side. He closes with a clear statement of position: “I know a lot about moons, and that is not the moon.” In summary, the affirmative position is that the large, white, glowing orb in the sky is the moon; the negative position is that it is not the moon but, more likely, a planet.

In case you are wondering, it was the moon.

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Join us at https://twowritingteachers.org every Tuesday.

Writing and writing

I have been writing A LOT for the past two weeks. For reasons that are both complicated and idiotic, I have to take three English courses in order to be allowed to take two courses which will officially make me “fully qualified” for the job I’ve been doing for seven years. Short explanation: don’t move countries mid-career.

At any rate, with some (ok, a lot of) cajoling and support from my (wonderful) colleagues and husband, I finally decided to get this credential issue out of the way this summer. I had it all planned out, but… someone made an honest (and costly to me) mistake, and I ended up registered for three on-line undergraduate composition courses in August. (Side note: The reason Comp 101 is not on my transcript is because I effectively tested out of it – when I was 17.)

I’m not going to lie, I spent more time than was healthy feeling sorry for myself. Then I spent a fair amount of time doing the whole 1990s “rage against the machine” thing – just another version of feeling sorry for myself, really. My friends and family practically achieved sainthood merely by listening to me explain how dumb this all is. Finally – finally – I got down to work. I’ve been writing A LOT.

It’s been fascinating.

Not unexpectedly, first year university composition classes have little to do with five paragraph essays. I love that I’ll be able to go back to teaching high school with this knowledge firmly in hand. I’ve written descriptive paragraphs, a summary of debate, a personal essay with research and an argumentative essay. Next up? A rhetorical analysis (which I’ve been putting off). Second year comp includes an expository essay, an argumentative essay, a persuasive essay, and a research essay. Creative non-fiction is making me write about place and culture.

I resent some of the assignments. I don’t want to write a rhetorical analysis of Frank McCourt. I have no desire to write a persuasive essay about heroes. “Who cares about this?” I grumble. Still, I mold and shape the topics, find the ideas, search for the words. I write.

It has been a long time since I wrote essays. Suddenly, I am in my students’ shoes – and not just in my memory or via my (sometimes dwindling) empathy. Writing essays day after day reminds me what a complex a task this really is. I read models, try to discern the teacher’s expectation, choose a topic from among those offered, and then I almost always pause. Sometimes I need research; always I need to brainstorm. Some days I walk around the house or the neighborhood to get my ideas in order. Good essays require good thinking.

When I started, one of my colleagues said, “They’re a bunch of 1000-word essays. You can write that in an hour or two.” But I can’t. I have to pare my thoughts down, write my “shitty first draft” (oh, how Anne Lamott’s words comfort and guide me). I have to observe and consider. I have to rewrite and then reread and rewrite again. I have to be a writer.

I’ve written eight essays so far. I have seven to go. I have drafts for four. I have ideas for all of them. I have three weeks until school starts, and one week with the kids off of camp. Can I get it all done? I don’t know. But I am going to be a much better writer for trying. That’s not an outcome I expected from this exercise.

Wish me luck. That rhetorical analysis awaits.

 

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Funke inspiration

While the woman now on the stage had a magnetism that had drawn our eyes to her even when she had been over in the shadowy corner, I was, to be honest, a little nervous.

img_8730After all, I had take half of a personal day and pulled my children out of school for this. And not every author is a great speaker. But the kids had begged. “Please,” said Eric, turning his big brown eyes on me, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” His brother, more self-possessed, simply added, “I really really want to go.” 

So I had bought tickets to see Cornelia Funke, author of the Dragon Rider and Inkheart series (among others), in the middle of the day on a Monday.

I need not have worried. Cornelia Funke was, frankly, amazing. Relaxed and funny, she filled the room, putting the young moderator at ease, telling us stories, opening her writer’s notebook for the next Dragonrider book to let us see her sketches, her playfulness. I thought Eric might fall out of his seat with excitement when she opened the notebook to show us a giant jellyfish she had drawn. Thomas craned his neck to see what else she had taped into those exciting pages. And then she read to us. Her hands moved, her eyes twinkled, her eyebrows raised and “she even did the voices!”

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The room was full of mostly adults and some teenagers, but Funke was keenly aware of my two boys and one other little girl, all seated in the front row. The little girl asked the first question during the Q & A and Funke complimented her, “What a great question! No one has ever asked me that before.” Afterwards, when we talked to her as she signed books, my boys were a little shy, but they warmed up enough to tell her about the sand sculptures they built during our winter vacation – sculptures of the characters from The Griffin’s Feather. They made me show her on my phone. Delighted, she gave them an email address and told them to send them to her so she could put them on the website.

As we left, Thomas said, “I’m so glad we went. She was… inspiring. It’s like I want to draw and write more just from listening to her.” Me too, as it turns out. Me too.

 

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https://twowritingteachers.org

And then… #SOL19 31/31

I woke up this morning and came downstairs to write my last slice for this challenge. I settled into the chair with the broken back in my corner of the kitchen table, now cluttered with papers, pens, a random playing card, some knitting – more or less abandoned since the beginning of March – and inexplicably, a hammer. I turned on the computer.

And then I decided I needed to make tea. So I did.
And then I decided I should read some other slices to see what people were writing for this last day. So I did.
And as I read, I really wanted to write back. So I commented.
And then one of the kids needed some help with a game. So I helped.
And then, since I was up, I decided to start the laundry.
And then one of the boys’ friends called and invited him to go to a bike park. So I encouraged him to get ready.
And then since he was getting ready, I got dressed and ready, too.
And then the father said I should come see the bike park. So I did.
And then I came home and my husband went out and I decided it was time to write. Again.
And then I realized just how tired I was. So I took a nap.
And while I was napping the phone rang and the cat came in and my younger son needed some help.

And now I’m downstairs again, and I’m writing.
And this is my life. It is busy and full and complex. It involves people and trade-offs and interruptions of all sorts. It is loving and active, sometimes overwhelming and often joyful.

And this is what slicing every day for a month has taught me this year: that this is my life. And I can still write. I can write every day if I decide to. Or not. I am allowed to be a writer on my own terms in my real life. I can write around the edges and through the middle and in the spaces in between. It still counts.

And then I realized that I am a writer.

What a gift from Two Writing Teachers who created this amazing space to help us become writers, learners and, most of all, a community. Thank you!

http://www.twowritingteachers.org

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What’s your comment? #SOL19 30/31

A few weeks ago I read the article The Feedback Fallacy in the Harvard Business Review. (Before you click on the link you should know that you only get three free articles from HBR every month.) The article is about providing feedback in a business setting, but it seemed immediately relevant to the classroom – in fact, it even uses examples from school settings. Much of the article resonated with me, and this really stood out:

Whenever you see one of your people do something that worked for you, that rocked your world just a little, stop for a minute and highlight it. By helping your team member recognize what excellence looks like for her—by saying, “That! Yes, that!”—you’re offering her the chance to gain an insight; you’re highlighting a pattern that is already there within her so that she can recognize it, anchor it, re-create it, and refine it. That is learning.

Isn’t that just what we do in this March Slice of Life challenge? We comment on each other’s work and point out the bits and pieces that make us stop and go “yes!” I know that the heart of the challenge is writing, but, in many ways, this month is a commenting challenge, too. Last year, my first, I didn’t quite understand this. I commented on the required three a day and was proud when I commented on five or six. This year, I comment on as many as I can get to, and I aim for twenty if I can keep my eyes open long enough.

Why? Why all the comments? Well, I’ve now been blogging and commenting for one year and one month (minus one day), and one of my biggest surprises is how giving and receiving comments has changed the way I write AND the way I respond to student work. Two for one! Here are some of my observations:

Receiving comments

  • I love receiving comments. I mean, I really love it. Knowing that someone is reading what I wrote and thinking about it is incredibly powerful. It motivates me in ways I did not expect when I started.
  • I love it when people notice something that I did on purpose or notice something that really worked in my writing when I wasn’t even thinking about it.
  • I love it when people connect to my story or relate my story to their own. I love the feeling of interconnectedness comments can generate.
  • I like getting comments anytime, but in the hours after I publish something, I sort of hover around, waiting to see if anyone says something.

Commenting

  • I never tell another blogger that their grammar is wrong or that a particular area of their writing needs improvement. I would never even think about doing this.
  • I use my comments to tell bloggers what I like about the structure, details or content of what they’ve written.
  • I often use comments to connect to posts, to share my reaction or relationship to the post.
  • I typically respond to posts from that day. When it’s not the March challenge, I try to respond to posts in the first day or two.
  • Commenting makes me read and re-read. Commenting helps me recognize the wide variety of ways to be excellent.

My own writing is better because of all of this. I am able to see what is working and what people are responding to. My use of structure has improved, and I have a wider range of posts. Sometimes, I realize that something I’ve written is unclear. I’m still not great at predicting which blogs will be most read (though sometimes that’s a question of luck), but I am getting better at knowing when my posts are done. 

Commenting on blogs has also changed my responses to my students’ work, especially on quick writes and early drafts. No longer do I point out what they are doing wrong; I try to extend to them the courtesy I extend to writers here. These days, I’m much more likely to tell them what I like about their writing or how I’m responding to it personally. The result seems to be that my students are now producing a greater volume of work and some of my struggles to get them to elaborate (such a hard skill for reluctant writers) are fading away.

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I still have challenges, of course, like making sure that I provide feedback as quickly as possible, but I’m getting better at using class time to provide oral – and even written – feedback as they write. This also lets me see patterns of mistakes which I can address with mini-lessons. These seem to help more with structure and grammar than the endless corrections I used to put on their essays. It remains to be seen if I can do this with a larger class – this semester’s is mercifully small – and if it will work with more formal essays, but I suspect I will be able to pull some aspects of this forward.

Commenting every day all month is challenging, but I’m pretty sure I’m getting out of it at least as much as I put in. So… time to post this and go write some comments.

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La la la

I said, “Write anything you want, respond to the prompts or don’t, but keep your pen or pencil moving for 10 minutes.”

I said, “Don’t worry if something doesn’t come to you right away, just keep writing.”

I said, “Sometimes I just write ‘I don’t know what to write’ over and over again for a while. That’s ok. Something will come.”

He wrote

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And he did it for 10 minutes. Now that’s tenacity. I can work with that.

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