Who’s right? #SOL22 22/31

For the past few semesters, influenced by Kittle & Gallagher, most of my English classes have started either with short memoir or flash fiction. One of the minor miracles about doing this type of writing at the beginning of the semester is that students often invest in their stories in ways that elude them if we start with expository or analytical writing. Short pieces allow us to get into the nitty gritty of craft without getting overwhelmed by, as one student said, “all the things.”

These assignments also allow plenty of time for feedback and revision. Students begin to ask for feedback from peers and, in turn, to offer comments beyond, “it’s good” and “I think this is a run-on?” As they tweak their imagery, diction, rhythm and structure, I can offer plenty of feedback via quick conferences, voice notes, and written comments on drafts in progress. In the end, the best part is that these stories emphatically theirs. Most students finish with a well-written narrative that they actually like.

Once I had this assignment as part of my repertoire, I started to focus on improving my feedback because feedback is part of what creates the magic of these assignments. (I wrote about commenting on student work once here. More recently, Melanie and Heidi (and Joel in the comments), have addressed feedback in their posts.) If we just grade for grammar or comment on what is not working, our students will stop writing. Growth happens when we highlight what is working in a piece. So I’ve learned to share my reactions as a reader, explain what I see students doing, and ask a lot of questions.

This semester, one student used identical phrasing at the beginning and the end of a short memoir. I didn’t love it, so in my comments I asked what effect they were hoping to create. I was thinking of this essay on picturing narrative structure, and particularly of the visual about coming full circle, where the author writes, “For… (the) conclusion to feel truly satisfying, however, it must mimic life, which is never completely complete… So the best conclusions open up a bit at the end, suggesting the presence of the future.” I thought the story would be better if it were a little more open.

A visual of coming nearly full circle, then opening up

Then, the most amazing thing happened. In the classroom, the student called me over and told me that they didn’t agree with me. They liked their closed loop. As soon as they finished speaking, they took a deep breath and looked away, astonished, I think, at their own boldness. Are students allowed to tell teachers no?

Disagreeing with teachers isn’t an everyday occurrence in schools. Too often, even when teachers try to demonstrate openness or give effective feedback, students just nod and do what we ask. After all, we have all the power. If we don’t like what they write, they get lower grades. For kids who’ve learned to play the game of school, disagreement about how to do an assignment can be nearly unthinkable. After all, they explain, being right doesn’t get you into university; doing what the teacher tells you to does.

When this student told me she didn’t want to change her work, she was telling me that her story mattered more than the grade. THAT IS INCREDIBLE. So I told her the truth,

“Look, I’m only one reader. I’m not your only audience, and I might not even be your target audience.”

She looked dubious. I told more truth: I admitted that I sometimes don’t like books that have won awards. I told her about reading Jonathan Franzen’s much-admired novel The Corrections and hating it so much that my spouse begged me to stop. (I read to the last word so no one could ever say, “Oh, but the ending was so good” thus making me go back and reread.) It won the National Book Award, so obviously lots of people really liked it; just not me.

I asked who the student imagined enjoying this story. “My friends.”

“So, show it to your friends. Shop it around. Tell them that you like this and that I would change it. Ask what they think and why. Come back and tell me about the effect it has on your audience.”

It took them a few minutes to turn to a peer and share their story, but once they started, they gathered opinions from around the classroom. They made some changes based on what they heard, but they kept that circular structure exactly as written.

I still don’t like it, but they earned an A.

Make Writing #SOL22 13/31

I suspect that I found Angela Stockman through my knitting and reading (and all around awesome) friend Lisa Noble, though I honestly can no longer remember. I’ve lurked around Angela for a while – reading her emails, checking out her free units. Not only is she incredibly generous and thoughtful, her specific thinking and doing around writing intrigues me to no end.

Lately, I’ve been reading her work on using “loose parts” to teach writing. I find it fascinating, but each time I think about using it in the classroom I balk: I’m just not very spatial, I tell myself; I haven’t tried this myself, I worry, how will I explain it?

Angela writes, “Offer writers a variety of loose parts to build their ideas, responses, and drafts with.” In this phrase alone, I see all the reasons that loose parts fit with my writing pedagogy: play, multimedia thinking, draft, response… still, I couldn’t do it. Once I almost brought in a tray of thingamambobs, but then I didn’t.

On Friday, a student asked to conference with me about her personal narrative. She knew what she wanted to say, but she couldn’t figure out how to tell the story. She could articulate that the beginning was too long, “too much exposition”, but how could she tell the story without the background? She was stumped.

As we brainstormed, I found myself wanting to take scissors to her work – to physically move pieces around and see what might work where, but of course the writing was on the computer and somehow we couldn’t quite *play* with it. Play – PLAY! Of course!

I reached over to my desk and found some loose parts – a few pen caps, some paper clips; some random yarn (I have no idea – don’t ask) and a box of tacks. I plunked them down on the table where we were working. “Ok,” I said, “bear with me. What if these three pen caps were the aunties…”

We named parts, moved them, played around, and she ended up with this structure:

The final essay structure, minus a pen cap.

“This is great!” she said. “I can see exactly how to do it!”

I could, too, so I snapped a photo as the bell rang and thought, loose parts play. Got it.

Next step: figure out how to incorporate this on purpose. I have a feeling I won’t have much trouble with this now.

Many thanks to Angela Stockman, who doesn’t even know me, but who nevertheless just made my teaching better than it was before. Amazing. (And thanks to Lisa, too, for her neverending encouragement.)

Losting #SOL22 8/31

Near the beginning of each semester, my students write 100 word memoirs (thanks, Kittle & Gallagher). These never fail to knock my socks off, and this year that’s even more true. At my new school, many students have clear memories of coming to Canada, and many of them are continuing to learn English. Combined these lead to some great moments. For example, below, Tung wrote about his first time in a Canadian high school. Pay particular attention to the word “lost” – we’ll come back to that.

Walking through Canadian high school for the first time was like walking, lost, in an old tunnel surrounded by unknown creatures. The low-ceilinged crowded hallway was an ant’s nest of students trying to sprint through the narrow corridor. The thick moss-green bulletproof door had only a small glass cut-out, covered with an English-only poster. This prevented my curious eyes from spying on the Canadian students in the classroom. Everything was beyond my imagination. Each step I took, one rhythm faster my heart beat. What was I getting myself into? Would there be a light at the end of this tunnel? 

Tung, Grade 12
What I was seeing/ What was in my mind

He added pictures – including some pictures of his school at home. It’s much, much brighter and airier than our school and I can safely guess that it has never seen snow.

Watching Tung try to capture the feeling of that first day was fascinating. Some descriptions came easily – he knew he wanted a tunnel and he knew the door needed to be moss-green and bulletproof. Those things never wavered. Other things changed – coming in, getting cut out, changing form. To me, the most interesting thing of all was the word “lost”. He really wanted it to be “losting”.

We chatted in the back corner of the room – the place he’s chosen for now – about this word. Somehow lost just wasn’t quite what he was looking for. He had a sense that losting wasn’t a “real” word, but he wanted the word to be active. He wasn’t simply lost, he was wandering, loose, casting about, feeling the sense of not fitting in, not knowing if he belonged. He was losting.

I couldn’t help but think of my own child, then quite small, crying as his grandmother left after another wonderful visit. He threw himself into her arms and said, “It’s your fault, the goneness.” The goneness. Really, it’s the only word for the feeling.

I told Tung he could keep “losting” – that it made sense to me and described what he was feeling – but English isn’t thoroughly his yet; making mistakes and making new words are still too intertwined to tease one away from the other. Still, I expect that the word exists now. I suspect that someday, probably soon, I will see a student wandering in the hallway with a particular look in their eye, and I will know that they are losting. When I do, I’ll try to help – because the goneness can be overwhelming.

Join us – or just come to read – as we blog every day in March at twowritingteachers.com

100 words

He has written 100 words.

“100!” He  puts down his pencil. “Done.”

“Not done,” I say. 

He glares. He wrote 100 words. Mostly about a dog bite. Some about a broken arm. He added the broken arm because he didn’t have 100 words about the bite.

I talk about telling a story, about narrative arc, about sensory detail and dialogue. 

Done done done. “You said 100 words.” He plays tic-tac-toe with his friend.

But… what about that dog, that bite. Was he big? Did it hurt?

He waits. I wait. Two days. Then he picks up his pencil and writes.

(Today’s exit ticket was “one thing you learned”. His response: “I’m not a bad writer even though I thought I was.”)

A year of walking

Yesterday, one of the writing prompts I gave my students was “create a timeline of no more than six moments from your life that tell a specific story; then do it again with different moments.” The idea behind the prompt is to recognize how selection and omission shapes the stories we tell. As I wrote alongside my students, I had a revelation: most of my stories aren’t shaped by specific moments. Instead, a lot of my stories are determined by a series of events or choices that someone – me, my parents, my sisters or friends – made over and over. The story isn’t one test, one class, one dinner, one disaster or one anything: instead, it’s all the swim practices that led to the swim meets that led to one race and then another; it’s the series of dates that led . It’s not one book; it’s all the books.

My timeline was a disaster – so obviously I shared it with my students. Though they nodded as I explained, I can’t guarantee that they really understood my scribbles. Most of them had managed to complete the assignment with some ease. No messy ongoing moments for them.

As of today I have officially walked at least 1.5 km for 365 days in a row. Once I decided to do this, I went about it wholeheartedly. I was so committed that when we foolishly went to a cottage during black fly season, I walked in the lake. I was so committed that I checked the weather and walked around rainstorms – and sometimes in them. I was so committed that I walked in ice and snow and even sleet (but only once), which I do NOT love. In fact, this is now the first year of my adult life (and possibly even my childhood) that I went outside every day in the winter. It’s the first year I went through multiple pairs of shoes. (I got fancy new ones for today.)

My fancy new shoes for my one-year anniversary.

And now, maybe because I’m deep into studying information with my students – how it is never neutral, how it is shaped & created – I feel like I should, you know, share some life lessons. After all, it’s been a year. Still, I’m not sure that I have any. In ways both literal and figurative, a year of walking is simply about putting one foot in front of another. And then doing it again. It turns out, there’s no earth-shattering moment when all is revealed. There’s just another morning, another day I put on my shoes, another day I head out the door.

And yet, I want to create meaning from this year of walking. I *want* to reflect. Two million-ish steps later, I must have learned something. It’s not a timeline, but…

  1. Have a buddy. (Hi Lisa!) I already knew that having a buddy makes things easier, but I didn’t know that even a virtual buddy would be a real motivator. In some ways virtual was better (story of this year, right?). I had no idea if Lisa had already walked on any given day, so I couldn’t let her down by skipping my own. On days when the weather here was better, I imagined her slogging through snow or muck. How could I not go out when she had faced that? On days when the weather here was worse, I imagined the glory of sharing that I did it anyway. Lesson learned: community counts.
  2. Bite-sized goals. Our original goal was to walk daily from Victoria Day (right before Memorial Day for you Americans out there) until Labour Day. Ambitious but do-able – I mean, walk through the summer? Easy peasy. Then we aimed for Halloween. No problem. I balked a little at the stretch until Christmas – I knew what the weather might do – but once that was done, the rest was a no-brainer. (It was as if I had forgotten February’s existence. It was cold.)
  3. Make it fun. I listen to podcasts, talk to my friends or my sisters, walk with friends, take pictures, find scenic routes. Taking pictures every day has allowed me to slow down & really look at things – no worries about cardio or times. Just walking. I love it. Now, I take pictures every day – and I’m getting better at that, too.
  4. Focus on the basic goal. I am NOT going to run a race – turns out I prefer streaks to competitions. I am not going to sell my pictures. I am not going to walk 30 km. All I’ve committed to is 1.5km each day. Everything else is extra. Extra is fine, but some days 1.5km (and a few snapshots) is enough.

I’m sure there’s more, but there always is. I’m proud of myself in that sort of vague way that comes with milestones I saw coming: I never feel older on the day of my birthday, I found my various graduation ceremonies mostly tedious & I think I was more tickled about finishing a year of walking a few weeks ago when I realized how close I was. A year probably won’t fit neatly onto a timeline for a writing prompt, but as it turns out, I’m not especially good at telling my story through just a few big moments.

Might as well put my shoes on and head out the door again tomorrow.

100 word memoirs

For the past few years, I’ve used Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s idea of a 100 word memoir as one of the early assignments for my classes. It’s miraculous. Over and over, students engage deeply with this task. They dive into their notebooks for ideas; they draft multiple options; they give each other feedback, laughing and talking in small groups as they tell their stories. Best of all, they revise and revise – actual revision! – to get their word count and their craft just right.

Each time I assign this, I write in front of my students. They see how I generate ideas. They help me choose my topic from my list; they almost always choose ones about dating or embarrassing things I’ve done. They watch me struggle with decisions – how should I start? does this ending work? maybe I should fiddle with this sentence – and see my mini-memoir grow and shrink as I aim for 100 words. Sometimes, I actually get to the end.

Today, teaching online, I shared some of my potential ideas and saw the reaction of the two kids whose cameras were on; no point in taking a vote, experience told me that this topic would win. I fiddled and futzed, changed and rejigged. I started 87 words. I changed the opening. Moved the middle. Added some details, took out others. 100 words! But still not quite right. I moved bits, changed sentence structure… They were writing, I was writing. It’s actually pretty fun. In fact, I kept fiddling with it after class until I got something I liked. Tomorrow, I’ll ask my students for feedback, but you can read it here first.

Kissing J Austin
As soon as my lips touch his cheek, I know this is a mistake. I’m already seriously awkward and Pammy has pushed me forward, so I nearly knock him into a shelf full of beakers. Supposedly every girl in the 7th grade is kissing J. Austin for his birthday, but at this moment I realize he isn’t in on the plan. He rights himself and stares at me…horrified? disgusted? Red-faced, mortified, I retreat from the science supply room. Behind me, the popular girls titter and flit around him. How many girls kissed him that day? I never dared ask.

Craft moves: use of present tense, a hook that drops the reader into the moment, 7th grade POV/diction – all the emotions are giant

This is the end/beginning #SOL21 31/31

This is the last day of my fourth year of writing (and publishing!) every day in March. This is the end of the 2021 March Slice of Life Challenge – an amazing idea and community supported by Two Writing Teachers. I can’t lie: this year was a slog. I didn’t have much of a plan when I started this month – I usually have *some* ideas before I dive in; I didn’t have many hidden, half-written pieces that I just needed to tidy up and publish – I usually have half a dozen, even if I don’t use them all; I didn’t have any sort of available time – I usually have a schedule with daily quiet moments and a March Break. This year, I was constantly scrambling. There were nights when I posted at 10pm (or later), days when I sincerely wished that my children were younger so I could write about them with impunity or that I could tell everyone else’s stories without telling mine. I barely knew my students when we began and didn’t feel comfortable writing about the classroom most of the time. I didn’t join the Welcome Wagon ,and I didn’t have time to read and comment on nearly enough other blogs. (I tried; I honestly did, but there are only so many hours in the day.) As we come to an end, I am relieved.

So why did I keep writing? Well, first of all, I hate leaving things incomplete – even self-imposed things – and I love the community of writers. I know that daily writing – pushing past the point of frustration, letting go of my need for perfection – makes me grow as a writer. Most of all, I feel nourished as I read other people’s work and as they read mine. I learn and think, learn and grow.

This year I end at a beginning, as though I spent a month (or a lifetime) clearing away the underbrush and then am surprised to discover insistent green shoots poking up here and there. This year, I have a sense that some of these shoots are ready to grow. I have ideas that are ready for a little fertilizer, a little sunlight. I’ve found writing under my writing and, while I couldn’t write everything in the rush to write daily, I think I can nurture some of these shoots into something bigger. I have things to say that will take longer than one day or twenty minutes, things that need time. We shall see.

I guess I had to write every day for a month, every week for four years, to realize that I am ready to write, but I think I am. If nothing else, here I am, writing – always writing – at the end of the day, at the end of the month. So, look for me here. Even I’m curious to see what I come up with!

I can’t wait to read other people’s beginnings that stem from the end of March – see you on Tuesday!

Come, begin with TwoWritingTeachers and the supportive community they have grown.

Getting better #SOL21 28/31

314 days ago, Lisa Corbett over at A Little of This, a Little of That started a walking challenge and invited me to join in. The goal was to walk every day from Victoria Day (May 18, the week before Labor Day in the US) to Canada Day (July 1) – at least, I think that was the initial goal. It seemed like a fun idea and something to do during those early days of the pandemic, so I joined in. Once we’d finished that, someone suggested extending the goal until the end of the summer, and then until Halloween, and here we are, 314 days later, still walking every day.

When we started, I set myself a minimum goal of 1.5 km (ok, secretly 1.6 because that is a mile and I am, still, American in so many ways and apparently because I also like rules) and I walked. Mostly I walked around my neighbourhood and the more I walked, the more I started to notice things. By May 24, I was taking pictures on my phone as I walked. By June 3 I started posting them because I thought they were pretty. Soon my walking challenge was a walking & photography challenge.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this during March because, obviously, I’m doing another challenge. Given that I’m doing three challenges at once, and one of them is *entirely* self-imposed, apparently I am a challenge person. This is not something I knew about myself. I am not a race person: I’ve tried a few and mostly find myself on race day annoyed that my walk or run is so crowded and that everyone seems to think that a timer is a reasonable motivator. I’m a selective group-joiner, often preferring groups that allow me to attend or not attend based on my own needs. So, basically a selfish group member. Sigh. I *am* a perpetual class-taker, though I often end up frustrated in the middle and regularly swear never to take another – and then I sign up for another one the next summer.

Doing the Slice of Life Challenge got me started with regular writing four years ago, and every year March makes me dig deep to write through whatever comes at me. I have signed up for this challenge even when it made no logical sense and I have always written & commented every day for a month (and almost every Tuesday the rest of the year). As a result, I am a much more confident writer than I was four years ago. I am more comfortable writing in front of my students; I am more versatile (hey, I’ve written poems!), and I think I am more effective. I can’t say that the walking challenge has made me a better walker – what would a better walker be? – but I can say that it has gotten me out of the house every day this year, something that has *never* happened in my previous 13 winters in Ottawa.

I’m thinking about all of this today because today’s walk was in a cold gray rain. Days like today make me a) not want to walk and b) not want to take pictures. What sort of beauty can I find in late March muck in the middle of the city? After 314 days, you’d think I would know better, but I don’t. Even as I headed out the door, I had the same conversation with myself that I’ve had dozens of times this year, “There aren’t going to be any good pictures today, so you might as well capture what you can. You realize how often you think this? There’s always something. Sure, sure, but today… today’s going to be just like yesterday. Might as well just use something left over from yesterday’s batch…”

But there’s always something if I’m looking for it. Always. Today, I found myself fascinated with droplets, entranced by rain and the minutiae of the leaves pushing through the soil. Sure enough, I took pictures; when I got home and looked at them, I had a realization: I have gotten better at photography. This is improvement I can see. And you know what? I’m proud of my pictures and I’m really proud of my growth. That goes for all of these random challenges and maybe this is why I like a challenge – for me, the consistent practice that comes with a challenge helps me get better.

Here, enjoy a few of today’s pictures. Not bad, eh?

Thanks to https://twowritingteachers.org/ who host this challenge every year. Imagine what might happen if you joined!