Writing Lessons

During the summer of 2015, I was writing what I had hoped might become a collection of short stories. One day  I took a break to write a letter to prospective students of the literary arts program where I teach.  As I wrote the letter,  I was struck by how differently I taught writing then as compared with the first half of my teaching career.

That might make a good book, I thought, and I jotted down about eight rough ideas for chapters.  The next day, I typed it up and did some research on publishing houses.  I contacted an education writer friend of mine for pointers.  Then I wrote out a more formal proposal, a fleshed out table of contents, coupled with a cover letter and shipped it all off.  That was June 30.  

On July 7, my cell phone rang. It was an acquisitions editor with Heinemann Press. They were interested in my book idea.  I was completely floored.  I thought I had just sold my first book.  

Not so.

During the next nine months, I rewrote that proposal six times.  My editor was interested in my idea, but I couldn’t frame the subject in a way that convinced the marketing department. Finally in March, I was offered a contract and started the process of writing.  

During the summer of 2016, I wrote daily,  and by the time  I was ready to go back to school in August, I had a 70,000-word draft finished. I revised that draft twice, and the final manuscript was delivered to Heinemann on January 3, 2017.  

Sometime in September, I will hold the finished book, Project-Based Writing: Teaching Writers to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose, in my hands, this book that happened while I was working on another book. This is the way life works, of course.  

I always thought my first book would be either a memoir or a collection of short stories. A teacher’s resource book just wasn’t sexy enough for my inaugural foray into the world of publishing, but here it is, and I’m so proud of it and stunned by the insights I’ve gained along the way. In no particular order, here are some of those observations:

Every teacher should write a book about her practice.  Like writing, the actual moves of teaching are enormously personal and idiosyncratic. My teaching strategies are mostly of the moment. Until I sat down to try to  articulate my practice, I had no idea what elemental steps figured into my methods. Even though I daily reflect on my teaching practice, it’s often done anecdotally with friends over BBQ nachos, and not as a serious reflective endeavor. Writing this book forced me to seriously look at what I do; some of it was nice, even fun, to look at. Some of it, I realized, didn’t work, but I got the opportunity to figure that out.  

I am a first draft disaster. I have never been a writer who thinks through a logical line or narrative arc,  then commits that to an outline. I just throw a bunch of sentences on a blank page and cry for several days.  I have to write bits and halves and parts before I recognize the whole. Once I’ve discovered that, I have to organize it in such a way that readers won’t want to toss it in the trash in disgust. Organization requires looking at big chunks of writing for patterns and commonalities, then arranging those chunks in a sequential way that helps a reader see the point. So I wish I’d learned how to outline earlier in life.   

Edu-speak makes me lazy.  There were so many times when I was writing this book I unconsciously lapsed into the convenient jargon of our ilk.  When I couldn’t find the right words to describe something real in my classroom, sentences like “Students benefit from innovative competency-based practices in a data-driven environment” were always hanging around like an old boyfriend– comfortable, willing, and only a keystroke away. Ugh.  Think about how much better those awful education classes would have been if the writers had just used regular words to describe learning. Why don’t we demand better writing from the books of our discipline?  

Keeping a source list is crucial.  In college, I hated compiling the works cited and consulted page after I finished a research paper; it just seemed so unnecessary.  I wasn’t vested in the writing I was doing and the stakes were low. (This is how, I imagine, most students feel about writing for teachers.)  But during the writing of this book, I realized the stakes were much higher.  People would be reading this book, I hoped, and I certainly didn’t want to unwittingly plagiarize someone else’s language. The problem I had was 1) I don’t typically write down the sources of cool things I find in books or online, and 2) there are books, essays, and stories I’ve read so many times, they’re ingrained in my mind to the point where I didn’t know where their words ended and my words began. Two weeks before the book was printed, I was horrified to discover I had not attributed a beautiful quote from a friend of mine.  Source list:  it’s a must.

No one really knows what you’re doing.  If I mentioned to friends I was working on a book, “that’s nice” or “how interesting” was the normal response, followed by silence.  The last thing anyone wants to ask is “what’s it about?” because then they’re on the hook to act interested while I nanner on for twenty minutes about some possibly esoteric topic.  So when you write a book, you are laboring completely alone.  You are working and creating and having bad days and good days and stonewalls and breakthroughs, yet no one knows you are doing anything at all. You might as well be lying on the couch watching SVU.  As is the case with all creative endeavors, I suppose.  As is the case with research scientists too. Only after the creation emerges can it be shared with others.

 

Advertisements

New Teacher Series/ Question 9: What are the best strategies for novels?

In the landscape of English-Language Arts, there are different camps for how to best teach the novel, so as with anything, you should read widely about strategies and find the ones that work for you and your students. While I’m a great believer in the power and beauty of classic literature, I believe reading should be a joy and a pleasure, and for some students, particularly what teachers call “reluctant” readers, the classics can be torture.  They become just one more irrelevant thing foisted on them by teachers.

Kids who don’t read well may not like to read because they haven’t mastered the skills to tap into the wonderment and magic of a novel. Maybe they didn’t have positive early literacy experiences; maybe they can decode the words but can’t comprehend the meaning; maybe they were forced to read boring texts and associate reading with suffering and agony. The list goes on and on.  But I firmly agree with J. K. Rowling, who said, “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t met the right book yet.”

Outside of an AP curriculum, where choices tend toward classic lit, I am a proponent of both the canon and the contemporary – whatever gets a kid to become a crazy-mad reader – comic books, graphic novels, genre fiction, poetry, whatever.  Reading is a skill, like writing, that improves with practice. The more a student reads, the better she becomes at reading.  The better she becomes at reading, the more she will enjoy the experience and become more proficient.  But the first step is hooking the kid, and that hook should be baited with a juicy bite. As he grows as a reader, his tastes and abilities may change.  There’s room for all levels and likes at the table of literacy.  But how do you get kids to willingly join you?

Here are a few tips to get started.

  • Read whole novels, not just excerpts. Teaching students how to analyze and read closely through the use of excised novel passages of no more than 750 words, about the length of a reading passage on the ACT, has become a trend. This practice is not teaching reading; it’s teaching the skim/scan/chunk method of test prep, and it should only be used in addition to reading whole novels.  This practice is like asking kids to appreciate a seven-course dining experience, but only giving them the soup.
  • Teach reading and analytical skills explicitly.   Using To Kill a Mockingbird to study social justice or civil rights is a defensible lesson, but developing reading and critical thinking skills is the primary objective.  Any novel can be used as the text by which students learn to analyze theme, characters, diction, syntax, and structure. Teaching a novel isn’t teaching content alone, but as a corrolary enticement to reading skill and practice.  Questioning, reacting, inferring, predicting, and analyzing are reading skills students will need whether they’re reading Jude the Obscure or  Unwind. 
  • Create a culture of reading in your classroom. Be excited about reading yourself. Constantly share with your students what you’re currently reading.  Share articles, blog posts, videos about popular writers and popular books with your students.  Talk about characters as if they were real people. Model what literacy looks like.  Have a classroom library, and create many opportunities for them to visit your school’s library.  Start an after-school book club. Demonstrate for them that proficiency in reading is powerful personally and politically.
  • Become proficient at Lit Circles and Socratic Seminar. The heart of both of these approaches is discussion.  When you, as a practiced reader, read something that sits your head on fire, you naturally want to share, talk about it with someone else, analyze the whys and hows.  Using Lit Circles and Socratic Seminars in your classroom gives students an outlet and a forming ground for discussing the themes, motivations, and conflicts in the text. The dialogue and debates that both of these practices generate mimic the conversations of practiced and sophisticated thinkers and readers.  I’ve used these two practices to great effect in my regular English classes with texts, both classic and contemporary.
  • Be a literary matchmaker. Know where your students’ interests lie, and then make recommendations to kids of books you think they will like. If students gravitate naturally toward Young Adult lit, use those texts to teach the skills they will need to develop and strength in order to read more complex texts in the future. I loved teaching the classics, but the language can be arcane, the syntax cumbersome, and the subject matter foreign to a reluctant reader.  Bait the hook with their choice of novels, then reel them in with deeper, denser, more challenging reading as they develop their abilities.  Help them create the text-to-self connections that make reading relevant and real to them.

 

 

Spring Break Observation Logs: Teaching Kids to Witness

On the Friday before spring break, my classroom has the kind of frenetic expectancy that exists between a lightning bolt and a thunder clap.  Kids are jangly and wrangly.  Into this fray, I wade.

“I have an assignment for you over spring break,” I yell over the din. They begin to groan.  Spring break is about breaking and springing, not working. I know. I get it. But this is so important.

“I’m giving you these little notebooks.” I wave a little notebook around. Perhaps the novelty shushes them. The notebooks are pocket size with 80 small pages.

“I want you to write down anything you see, hear, touch, taste, smell or feel during the seven days of our absence from one another. Everything. Everyday.”

They are intrigued.

I’ve been passing out little notebooks over spring breaks for about six years now.  In 2009, my AP Language class read Joan Didion’s masterpiece essay “On Keeping a Notebook” and were duly inspired to take up pen and paper and practice the art of observation.

The point is simple:  develop a habit of noticing things and writing them down.

This is not a diary or a journal of weight loss, profit margins, egg sales. I want them to cultivate a writerly habit that some of my students already have: compulsive recording. But even more important than the chronicling itself is the action that comes before the chronicling: the noticing.

Everything becomes a rich opportunity.  Every detail becomes a brush stroke in a story; every drifter or butcher or bus driver becomes a character.  Or they don’t.

There’s a snippet of the lyrics “knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door” in your head, and there’s a dog that looks like your priest walking down High Street. On the radio someone is looking for used tires and they want to trade a baby crib for them. Someone has scrawled on the bathroom wall: If your parents didn’t have children, it’s a good bet you won’t either.

It means whatever it means.

In a culture of high stakes assessment, common core cramming, and standardized breathing, this project is refreshingly simple. Teaching students to observe their world with no other objective than merely witnessing it is absolutely vital.

“I want you to look like a writer,” I say to them.  “Stick this notebook in your back pocket, the string of your bikini, the side of your backpack, and become obsessed with collecting notes, looking at the world like a writer would.”

“How will this be graded?” asks the front row handwringer.

“It’s a pass/fail assignment. You’ll get a 100% if every page has something on it or you’ll get a zero.”

“But what do we write?” says the still dubious cynic in the back row.

“Phrases that tickle your fancy, phrases your geography teacher says, phrases your grandma says, phrases you hear at temple, phrases your sister whispers in her sleep. Notes from a lecture, notes from a talk show, notes from the underground. Gossip you hear, gossip you make up. Sermons. Songs. Poems. Lists. Jokes. Riddles. Lies. Mysteries. Tall tales. Visions. Dreams. Revelations. Secrets. Graffiti. Facebook updates, Twitter shout outs. Headlines, bylines, hashtags, short lines. A toast someone gives at a wedding, a farewell someone gives at a funeral. A scene you see, a scene you think you see, a scene you make up, a scene you wished you’d see. Wishes you had when you were five, wishes you had last year, wishes you have right now. Disappointments that have hurt you, disappointments that have inspired you, disappointments you’ll never get over. Fears you project, fears you hide. Lists of things your friend carries in his wallet/purse. Lists of things you carry in your wallet/purse. Conversations you overhear at the coffee shop, at the gas station, on the street, in the cafeteria. Conversations you imagine two people having, conversations you have with imaginary people, conversations your parents have when they think you’re not listening, conversations your parents have when they know you’re listening. Description of people in Wal-Mart, descriptions of people at the bus stop. A dream you have while asleep, a dream you have while awake, a dream you have while someone else is talking. A new word you want to remember, a new word you make up. The names of your future children, future pets,  future company, future empire. Good titles for your life story, your novel, the Lifetime Original movie of your life. Any more questions?”

Didion says:  “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.”

Here’s to a spring break they’ll never forget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I Have No Favorite Books

A friend recently challenged me to name my ten favorite books, and I am ashamed to admit no such list exists for me.  Even though my reading past has been deep and wide, I have no favorite books.

The first book I knew was a small green Gideon’s Bible. I was about three.  One of my older brothers or sisters might have brought this home from school, and somehow I found it.  Even though I couldn’t read, I’d hunker down in the corner of a closet, run my finger over the tiny pages and whisper things in the dark.  This position of closet hunkering and prayer whispering has remained with me as an adult, my one nod to suburban mysticism.

When I was enrolled in Mrs. Blanton’s first grade class at Clintonville Elementary School, I recognized she loved reading, and specifically she loved Judy Edwards, whose grandmother had taught her to read. Judy stood up in front of the class one day and read a book to us.  I was floored. And jealous.  The next day, I stood up with a book I randomly pulled off the shelf and read it, making up elaborate subplots and tricky character developments based on the pictures on the page.  Mrs. Blanton sat at her desk and grinned.  (That day, in addition to discovering my affinity for prevarication,  I pledged my undying love to all those who teach and don’t tell.)

In elementary school, I plowed through Nancy Drew’s mysteries, Anne of Green Gables, and Heidi. I read to escape boredom and my fundamentalist pre-occupation with hellfire.  By sixth grade, Clintonville’s damp, basement library held nothing more for me.  My sixth grade teacher gave me James Michener’s Centennial, a 1000+ page mass-market paperback that crossed my eyes for the three weeks it took to read it.  I never picked up another Nancy Drew.

During the summers, Mom took me to the Bourbon County Public Library to check out books. The library was as sacred as the books it held – the air-conditioned shush, the musty smell, the severed elephant foot that served as an ottoman in the front hall.  I was not allowed in a certain section of the library.  I had been satisfying myself with the soft-core romance thrillers of Victoria Holt, but one day the librarian was at lunch, and a hippy intern was behind the desk.  My mother was in the car. I slipped into the adult section and pulled the first book I could find off the shelf. The hippy checked it out to me without question and stuffed it into my bag.  At home, in my room, I peeked at the book cover.  A half-naked woman chained to an iron bed frame.  Irving Wallace’s rape fantasy book, The Fan Club.  I read it front to back, twice, completely scandalized and hooked on trashy fiction.

In middle school and high school, I read books, wrote book reports detailing the plots of these books and got an A back for my efforts.  I read whatever I wanted.  Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Richard Adam’s Watership Down, Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, John Irving’s World According to Garp. I read and book-reported on dozens of books. It was a perfect arrangement.

As a junior in high school, I went to a summer program for nerds.  Every morning for four weeks, I met with a college professor and 10 other high school students to discuss Heart of Darkness and Tender is the Night.  At Bourbon County High School, my peers had little interest in discussing mutability or verisimilitude. (One of my favorite memories of high school English was Ms. Carter yelling at the back row of rednecks, “Sit back there and wear your dummy badges!”) In the summer program, we explored, discovered beyond-the-plot dimensions, and analyzed things that didn’t even exist on the page.  I’d never had a conversation about a book like that before.

When I enrolled at UK in 1985, I declared myself a bonafide English major and read the British-American canon with gratitude.  In a Southern Lit class, I encountered Alice Walker, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price, and Eudora Welty.   My senior year, I took a Kentucky Literature class with Gurney Norman and read James Still, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jim Wayne Miller, Ed McClanahan, Wendell Berry, and Breece D’J Pancake.  That there was poetry in the world written by tobacco farmers and short stories written about Wal-Mart was as big a revelation in my reading life as any other discovery I’d made. This discovery lead me to read with the desire to discover how the narratives were built, how stories worked, how I might learn to write from reading books written by people just like me.

From the Bible to mainstream romance to the canon to books written in my backyard, I have read for a variety of reasons, but basically, I just like to read.  Whether it’s Jeff Guinn’s Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde (which I finished last night) or Zadie Smith’s NW (which I am starting tonight), I am addicted to the decadent pleasure of lying on my couch and being somewhere else at the same time.

Reading is discovery, and as such, no book is any more of a revelation than another.  When I said at the beginning of this blog I have no favorite books, I should amend that to say: every book is my favorite.

Whatever book I’m reading at the time is the best book ever.