Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Dentist's in the DETAILS - Anderson's 4th THING

Today's TeachersWrite! prompt worked with my reading in Anderson's 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know.  Hmmm...there may be universality present in both learning opportunities.  Makes sense when I think about it.  I'll just keep combining the experiences and see how far it takes me.
 Today's exercise took me to the dentist.  Yes, the dentist - don't worry, I'll get there from here.

So, Anderson's 4th THING is DETAILS.  This is another chapter dense with information, but he starts from a place so many of us know, but have found difficult to apply in our own writing as much as we should.  You've heard the adage, "Show, don't tell", yes? Anderson takes us through this process step-by-step so that we can do the same with our students.  He even shows us, using a model, how re-creating this process as a writer requires students to use inferencing skills (Common Core, anyone?)  That's just the first section of the chapter, so you can imagine how much more there is yet to add.

Speaking of adding, (or deleting, as the case may be), within that section and in other sections of the chapter, Anderson has special cautions and examples for those of us who also tend to run off at the pen.  He makes great suggestions and shows terrific models for getting rid of too much detail.  This is a major problem for me as a writer.  I tend to get caught up in trying to describe every inch of a character or setting and lose the story.  I have trouble finding the balance between "show, don't tell" and "get to the point, already".

Due to the nature of today's TeachersWrite! prompt, I was invited to practice my freewriting skills to talk about a place that is special to me.  Due to the descriptive nature and the limited amount of comment space, I decided to keep it short.

I have two images embedded in my brain that can immediately bring my blood pressure down.  The first is the beach on St. Maarten that I've actually been to once.  That's nice, but sometimes too shiny an image if I'm looking for calm.  The second is a photographic poster from my dentist's office 15 years ago.  I've since moved and have a different dentist who has a television in the room, which is distracting, but not nearly as calming.  So, I still close my eyes and remember the poster that I used to fall into whenever the work going on in my mouth became too much to stay present for.

Here is a short poem, untitled, that describes that image to me.  This is approximately the same poster, with a few differences from original - like a photo of the same place by a different camera on a different day, but you'll get the idea.

Sometimes nature can dull the pain
A deep breath and I sink into the picture 
like the arms of a sympathetic mother
Beds and canopies of vibrant green
Embrace me, mute the harsh light, taste,
And sound of the dentist's work
Thick trunks, erect like ghostly soldiers,
Shrouded in the mist
Warring factions divided
By the sweetly crystal slip of water
Over a crumpled blanket of smoothed stones
Air tasting cool and ancient slows my heart
A deep breath and I sink further
Sometimes nature can steal you away from the pain

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Writerly Focus to Begin TeachersWrite! Summer Writing

Today was the first day of TeachersWrite! Writing Camp 2013!  I am PUMPED!  I've got my bug spray, and my swimsuit, and sunscreen, my face paint is ready for color wars, and lots and lots of string to make lanyards...what? No mosquitoes on the internet? Not really a sleepaway camp, you say?  No one actually goes anywhere?  Not even canoeing?


Well, anyway, I'm still awfully pumped to put my writer-hat back on again, and I look forward to all the fun things that the authors will have for us to do this summer.  If you don't know what it is, look at Kate Messner's webpage, and she'll explain it better than I ever could.  Go ahead.  I'll wait.

I knoq, right?  Did you SEE the LIST OF YA and MG AUTHORS she has all lined up to offer us suggestions, advice, and feedback?  Did you see how many teachers have responded already to just the first prompt(s)?  Hey, in case you didn't catch it, there's two prompts on a Monday - one from Kate and one from author, Jo Knowles on her blog.  Yeah, Jo Knowles, author of one of my ALL-TIME FAVORITE middle grade books, See You At Harry's.  I'll admit to being an geek overachiever, and so I did both.

Kate's asked for what our writer's notebooks are like.  On reflection, I've been re-inventing tweaking the concept of a writer's notebook for my students every year for the last six years.  They evolve a lot little more every year when I try to figure out what they should include for organization purposes.  It's likely possible that I need to lighten up about this a little.  Perhaps less is more when it comes to sectioning off notebooks, but I HATE when I my students have to struggle to find what they're looking for in their own writing.  My own writer's notebooks have very little rhyme or reason, save The Red Moleskine - it has one definable section - the reading log.

This year will see my students with both a Reader's Notebook AND a Writer's Notebook.  I'm hoping that it will be easier for them to manage.  Here are mine:

Notebook 1: The Red Moleskine - For on the run ideas, reading log, and sudden observations.

Notebook 2: The Green Composition Notebook - This is a back-up notebook for Write Club (our school's faculty writing group) and a place where I keep lists of mentor texts and model pieces of my own writing specifically for my students to see.  There's something comforting and nostalgic and important about that blotchy cardboard cover and bound pages.  I always have one available.

Notebook 3: The Yellow Legal Pad.  I love these.  All my best writing (that doesn't happen on the computer) happens on those.  There's something inviting and less scary about a yellow page, rather than a scary blank white one.  I prefer the heavier weight of paper, and I paper clip things into it obsessively as a I write.  This is my main writing notebook for Write Club.  As you can see, the top page is a map of my memories that was created from a Write Club prompt.  It centers around my experiences during summers at my Grandma Thompson's house in Southern Illinois.

The Pen:  I have, this last year, become a great fan of fountain pens.  Yes, they are messy.  Yes, they are sometimes a tad unreliable.  However, that being said, you can refill and reuse them again and again.  Those of you who have a favorite pen and love the weight of it in your hand as you write or annotate life, know how heartbreaking it is to have to throw away that old friend when it dries up.  A fountain pen stays a friend for a good long time.

Here is my response to the prompt from Jo Knowles.  You can probably infer the question/task from my answer:

Creating the World

This dovetails so neatly with the portion of 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know by Jeff Anderson that I've just finished up today. Love that man. He is a gem! The 3rd "Thing" that writers need is FOCUS. Towards the end of the chapter, Anderson gives examples of having students summarize their point of view to make sure they've maintained focus throughout their piece.

A one-sentence summary of why I write?

Reading is to consume and understand the world around you, but writing is to create the world; and I wish not just to consume, but to create.

So, with that, I leave to read and write a bit more tonight!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Sliding In and Out of Focus - Jeff Anderson's 3rd THING

     In case you didn't read the last post, I'm knee-deep in Jeff Anderson's 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know as a part of my quest to develop further in my practice as a teacher and a writer.  I'm finding his advice very helpful.  I neglected to write about his first THING, Motion, figuring that an entire blog post about it wasn't going to be very helpful in the long run. (I'm probably going to regret that later.)  In summary, he exhorts that writers must write every day, and that quality writing most often stems from a quantity of bad writing that the writer has done just to fill up that most frightening of abyss's - the blank page.
     The last post was about his second thing, Models, and it's really begun to take hold of my thinking and planning as a reader, writer, and teacher.  I find myself making lists of the texts he and other thought leaders have mentioned and even adding my own as I come across them.  Example, while at the library with the Niece and Littlest Nephew today, I made them practice hunting for specific books in the library by call number (I'm the evil-est aunt ever) by giving them a list of model texts and picture books I wanted to look at.  One of the books really stood out as a gem in my mind.  Rick Reilly, a national sports columnist and humorist for Sports Illustrated and various national publications, had a book of 100 of his columns published called Hate Mail From Cheerleaders.
     If you aren't familiar with Reilly's writing, this book is a simply wonderful introduction to his snarky, big-hearted voice.  The columns are short, but wonderfully engaging reading. Yes, his audience are sports fans, therefore, the majority of them have a sports theme.  But, what's wrong with that, I ask you?  He most often uses the vehicle of different sports, teams, events, or celebrities as vehicles to make larger points about life.  I teach sixth grade, and out of the seven that I read while at the library, I've already tagged for use four of them as short model texts.  Witness:  who wouldn't like to  learn how to describe characters with an opening like this?
"He was a UPS truck of a man, 6'4", maybe 250 pounds, 55 years old, with a chin you could use to crack open coconuts." (Reilly, p.112)
     I'm in love with Reilly's accessible voice and stories of events and people, big and small, but always full of heart and wisdom and humor.  Again, a GEM!
     Speaking of FOCUS, I should get some in this blog post, yes?
     Jeff Anderson's Third THING is FOCUS.  He talks about it in the most practical of terms, and gives some great ideas for helping students find ways to narrow the focus of their writing.  For narrowing the description or scope of a scene:  Write only about what you could see through a paper towel roll tube.  Answering questions about the audience and purpose of your writing can help you narrow it.  The demonstration of the "slice" of a story that you want to tell - using the analogy of a pizza.  The whole pizza is a big topic, like "My Best Friend", one slice of that pizza might be "Gayle's Menu of Laughs; From Silent Shaking to Raucous Guffaws".  He introduces ways to narrow the focus of non-fiction writing through Hayakawa's Ladder of Abstraction to simple vomiting words onto the page for five minutes around a general topic, picking one phrase from that and focusing a free-write on that phrase, lather, rinse, repeat until a sufficiently narrow focus is discovered.  He talks about maintaining your focus from lead to conclusion and finding threads or patterns to use as lenses to focus a series of writings.
     That's as far as I've gotten, and I'm not nearly done with this section yet.  It's dense with activity and suggestion and my brain is fairly bursting with ideas from the reading so far.  But how can I start putting it into practice to model it for my students?  Once again, Write Club to the rescue!
     This week, Write Club is electronic since many of us are out of town.  The prompt was sent out via email, and it's perfect for this post.  Another page from the ever-inspiring SARK was sent out and it is up to us to respond as we wish.  A rainbow-colored bouquet of circles/dots with short prompts in them (and outside them as well) was sent out, and we have been asked to choose one or a combination of them that inspires us and write.
     First, I narrowed the 25 topics down to several that I had general ideas for, the short list looked like this:
  • Lost
  • Imaginary Friend
  • Invented Life
  • Treeclimbing
  • Travel Moment
  • Grief Lesson
  • Clown Reunion
     I wrote a few brief lines down about each to see if an idea would jump out at me or if any of them would refuse to coalesce on the page.  Sure enough, Clown Reunion and Imaginary Friend refused to fully form into solid thoughts. Next, I chucked Grief Lesson because I'd just written about that same emotion in my last post about my grandmother's blue pitcher.  Treeclimbing was rejected for the same reason - the story was too close to that same area of my life.  I knew I needed to write something different - something not so childhood memoir, and more contemporary viewpoint/opinion.  For that reason, Travel Moment hit the road too.  I had Invented Life and Lost left.  I free wrote about both for a few minutes.  All my Lost ideas came down to personal memoir or were too fuzzy to pinpoint, but an interesting idea popped out of my free-write for Invented Life.  I had been writing about my life as a writer, when I started writing about karma and the life I felt I was owed.
     I took the phrase, "the life I am owed", and went to town on it.  Here's my first draft of this poisonous little piece:

A Blip In My Karma
by Jessica Wisniewski

     The rational part of me – the part that realizes karma and destiny are altogether lovely but frightening fairy tales used to scare us into behaving as adults – fades from existence after ten minutes in stopped traffic.  A hot day, a car full of melting groceries, an overripe bladder, and traffic-snarling road construction send the level-headed pragmatist on vacation, and invite all manner of crazy thoughts and conspiracy theories to roost in my mind and feed upon my growing ire.
     Perhaps it was fate intervening when I chose not to block an intersection that fed into our clogged vein, and instead waved the overlarge pickup truck to go ahead and enter the line ahead of me.  My act of charity earned no recognition from the driver of the pickup, but it did receive an angry horn BLAT from the car behind me.  I felt a tiny seed of resentment take root against that massive, double-wide, wide-bed, extended-cab gas-aholic monstrosity in front of me, now blocking my view.  The shadow head of the male driver talked animatedly to the curly shadow wife sitting next to him in the passenger seat.  Not even a wave for a thank-you?  The nerve.
     The license plate of the truck didn’t look like any license plate I’d ever seen before, and creeping a bit closer, I noticed that it was from the US Virgin Islands.  The Virgin Islands?  I’ve been to the Virgin Islands, and this Bubba Truck didn’t look as though it would fit on a single road I travelled on there, not to mention – what was it doing in ILLINOIS? Wouldn’t the driver have to have shipped the truck to the continental US from an island?  How much would that cost?  It sounded expensive. Psh.  Rich people.
Finally noticing the forest through the trees, I saw that they were vanity plates (OF COURSE!) that said KARMA.  Karma.  Really.  A tiny bumper sticker, practically lost on that sea of metal, intimated that the driver lived his live POSITIVELY.
     I was pretty positive that Mr. and Mrs. Karma in their Island-Hopping Bubbamobile had some karma coming to them, all right. The rational side of me fought to the surface of my bubbling anger and squeaked, “They are probably perfectly lovely people!”
     Shut up, you.  Get back where I stuffed you.  I’m in charge now, and in this newly minted universe where KARMA is more than just a vanity plate, I’ve decided that this tank in front of me will lead the way to my home where Mr. Bubba Karma will parachute gracefully out of the driver’s seat and offer to carry my dripping groceries inside.  Indeed, Mrs. Karma and I will have a lovely conversation while he lugs bag after bag up my steps to my kitchen door.  We’ll laugh and make a date to have coffee someday soon or come over for umbrella drinks by their pool.  Eventually, we’ll become the greatest of friends, and be invited to join their family at their estate in the Virgin Islands over the holidays. 
     Oh, Mr. and Mrs. Karma, Bubba and Rowena, the times we’ll have!  The laughter!  The inside jokes!  The fruity drinks! Your children will become like my own and our photo albums will be full of each others’ smiling faces.  Indeed, when the end of our lives come, we will look back at the rich lives we have lived in friendship and be amazed that we deserved such truckloads of blessings.  All because of one fateful traffic jam!
     Or not.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Imitation: The Sincerest Form of Learning Writing

This week, I'm reading Jeff Anderson's 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know to prepare myself for a new year of students.
It's fascinating and well-written, full of common-sense, broken down to its component parts instructions on running a great writing workshop.  It gives great examples and advice and better yet, lots of samples of mentor texts.  I think, probably, "mentor texts" will become the component of my practice that I focus the majority of my preparation on this summer.  The use of great writing as examples to study, name the strategies the writer used, then imitate and integrate into your own writing is as organic as learning gets.  Notice, Interact, Name, Experiment, and Reflect are the steps Anderson takes with his students using model texts.

I'm lucky enough to be a part of our faculty Write Club (First Rule of Write Club: We talk about what we write), started by my friend and colleague, Christy Rush-Levine.  If you know Christy Rush-Levine, have ever been one of her students, or even discussed books, reading, writing or pedagogy with her, you know why she's the head of our Write Club.  She's a phenomenal teacher and learner who is ALWAYS on the lookout for new mentor texts and passages to share with her students.  She does the same for our Write Club, and I've decided to take this opportunity to put this process in action for myself.  If I want to put my students through it more effectively and often, I'd better be prepared to model the process a LOT.

THE MENTOR TEXTS (Read):   Last Friday night, she provided us with two examples having similar opportunities for inspiration.  The first is a poem by Ted Kooser, titled "Abandoned Farmhouse".  The second was a short memoir and prompt by the author and poet, SARK about an old dresser that she had grown up with.

WHAT I NOTICED (Analyze):  Both pieces focused on inanimate objects that seemed to tell the story of the people who had owned them, indeed, their stories were the histories of these people.

NAMING THE RULE (Name):   It was a way to tell a long history without focusing on just one person's view.  It was a way to evoke a sense of place and nostalgia without a narrator's bias.  It was a way to connect to your reader through a shared or remembered experience - that sense of nostalgia that old and well-loved objects can evoke.

MY FIRST DRAFT (Experiment): 

That pitcher was where I first tasted red Kool-Aid and iced tea. Heavy ceramic crockery, cheap as chips when Grandma bought it back in the 50's. It had grown up with my Dad and with his children too.  The sky blue ceramic glaze has faded a little and taken on a bit of a greenish cast, but it is tall and heavy and feels important in my hands.  A responsibility to pour out everyone's drinks given only to the child with the steadiest hands.  Never chipped or cracked, it sits on my counter top now, holding spoons instead of Kool-Aid, but I get to see it every day.  When my grandmother died and we had all collected at her home after the memorial, Grandpa had taken all the grandkids to the basement, filled to the ceiling with all of the history of her life, collected in things - dolls and afghans and quilting materials and corn husks to be dyed, a giant floor loom, scraps of cloth, paints and glues and pictures and glass candy dishes and...everything.  There it sat.  In the ledge of the basement window, looking as if it wanted to escape to the yard to pour lemonade for visitors cooling themselves under the magnolia tree on a hot summer afternoon.
"Take whatever you want," Grandpa said.
I snatched up the pitcher and took it with me out to the magnolia tree, where I sat and remembered.

TALKING IT OUT (Reflection): One of the best components of Write Club is that we read aloud what we've written and offer immediate feedback to each other - what we like, where it took us, where we think it might go eventually.  When talking about this first draft, Christy remarked that it should be a poem - indeed that with a touch of revision that it WAS poetry.  I agreed.  Mark remarked on the line about it sitting on the ledge of the basement window, waiting to escape - how that painted a clear picture - definitely something I'd keep.
In just reading it aloud, I knew that I wanted to change the order of things - that the chronology of my writing was not powerful enough, and that I had not strongly evoked my grandmother's memory in the blue pitcher's description. There were pieces that I'd missed saying: things about how she gently admonished us to be so careful when we poured, and that it was a symbol of how graciously she kept her house for visitors.  All things I wanted to change to make it stronger.

THE REVISED SECOND DRAFT (More Reflection to Come, I'm Sure):

The Blue Pitcher
by Jessica Wisniewski

You take anything here you want
Grandpa growled sad and low
His gray suit rumpled after the memorial
May is hot in Southern Illinois,
but the basement was coolly indifferent,
piled to the ceiling with
The History of Her:
dolls and afghans and 
quilting materials and corn husks to be dyed, 
a giant floor loom, 
scraps of cloth, boxes of ancient sewing patterns,
paints and glues and pictures and 
glass candy dishes 
and...everything, just there.

There it sat.
The blue crockery pitcher.
Out of place,
It belonged in the kitchen, welcoming,
Out of time,
How long had it been down here? Since,
Out of sight,
Had he put all of her things down here? Too painful,
On my mind.

On the ledge of the high basement window,
Yearning toward sunshine weakened
By thick dust and blocks of glass
Looking for all the world like it wanted to escape
to the sideyard where it would welcome the guests
stopped to cool themselves
in the shade of the magnolia tree.
Heavy ceramic crockery
Cheap as chips when she got it
It stands tall and heavy
Good for keeping cool 
the lemonade
the iced tea
the Kool-Aid
the friends old and just met.

It had grown three generations of Thompsons
And its sky blue glaze had faded 
to a slightly more institutional blue-green
But it always felt important in my smaller hands
A gentle word or two 
Reminders to keep steady and
be polite to our guests
The handle was strong, 
like the soft power of her hands. 
Like responsibility to friends 
met so solemnly and graciously.

You take anything here you want
His sadness filling the empty silence
I snatched up that blue pitcher
escaped to the magnolia tree
where I sat
and remembered.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Let's Get Back to the Nazi Dinosaurs, or An Interrogation Worth Having...

I promised myself that, along with all the professional reading and YA reading I wanted to do this summer, that I would make time to write things that bring pleasure to me.  Apparently, my subconscious was not about to let me forget that promise, as I tossed and turned with snippets of dialogue weighing down my mind last night until I finally got up to write it down on my yellow legal pad.  A new piece for middle grade about a young boogeyman (girl) who is miserable in her job as an evil spirit.

Today, I started my professional reading stack for the summer with a re-read of Kylene Beers' and Richard Probst's newest book about teaching reading using the new Common Core State Standards.  I was reading the section about the use of questioning as a strategy to get students to read more closely and engage with the texts they are given.  Most questioning that teachers do is monologic (meaning they already know the answer or are guiding students in a certain direction to understand a specific facet of the text).  I'm as guilty of this as anyone else.  "I've already seen the light at the end of this tunnel, kids, now let me help you see what I saw!"

The problem with this, of course, is that students aren't asking their own questions and engaging with the text that way.  When that happens, it's called dialogic questioning.  That's what we really need to be striving for.  Of course, free form questioning and discussion can take some interesting turns.

It reminded me of a conversation I'd had with students in my ninth hour class this last year.  We were reading the amazing novel "The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963" by Christopher Paul Curtis.  We had just read the passage where the main character, Kenny, is lamenting his choice of friends as more and more of his toy dinosaurs go missing when he plays with this "friend".  The two are having the "Greatest Dinosaur War Ever".  The following is a word for word transcript of our discussion of Kenny's statement: "It was always a struggle to see who got to be the American dinosaurs and who had to be the Nazi dinosaurs."

Me:  (posing question to the class) What is odd about what Kenny just said there?

D:  Dinosaurs don't have wars!

J: Dinosaurs can't be Nazis! (murmurs of agreement)

Me: Why not?

S:  (with perfect confidence) Because dinosaurs weren't around in World War II

Me:  Good. In fact, dinosaurs lived long before both Americans and Nazis existed, right?

A:  Dinosaurs and men didn't exist at the same time.

L:  What about cavemen?

A:  Nope.

S: Yuh-huh! I saw lots of movies with people and dinosaurs in them together.

Me: Actually, those are fictitious.

D: Yeah, that's right! Didn't we come from monkeys or something?

Me: Well, I...

J: I didn't come from no monkey!

Me: Okay, let's bring it back to Kenny and the Nazi dinosaurs...

J:  My mom told me that I didn't come from no monkey!

Me: (sensing that this could get ugly, but not able to stop the train) Okay, well, what you're referring to is called Darwin's Theory of Evolution, but there are also people who believe in another theory called Creationism...ummm....

S: Why don't I have a tail?

Me: Soooooo, back to the Nazi dinosaurs...