Survival Is Insufficient

Saturday night at midnight, the 22 young writers in my first block class will launch  into the National Novel Writing Month, known as NaNoWriMo, a thirty-day gauntlet to write 50,000 words of a novel. The past two weeks, we’ve crafted character charts, tested out working titles, designed book covers, and written popping taglines and loglines. We’ve plotted dozens of scenes and sequences to sustain us through the month. We even read about the habits of novelists. On Monday, we talked about different plotting systems, and I told them about visiting William Faulkner’s home in Oxford, Mississippi. My favorite part was seeing the plot of his 1954 novel A Fable sketched out on the wall in his study.  As we prepped  for this gauntlet, there’s been a palatable excitement in my students. They’re nervous about whether they can do it, but excited about the prospect of challenging themselves.  

I’m glad they’re looking forward to it. This week has been difficult. The school district where I teach has been 100% virtual since August. We’ve had two will-we-or-won’t-we board meetings on Facebook Live, and finally, on Monday night, the board said, enough.  We’ll be virtual until January with some targeted intervention services for kids who are really struggling. 

With the exception of a group of protestors who are still pushing for a return to in-person school, there was a collective sigh of relief that passed through the district. We are in a rhythm online now. Students are showing up; they’re participating. Parents have called me and sent encouraging emails; they’ve had their child up, fed, and ready to roll at 8 am.  It’s not ideal, but it’s better than the nightmares we’ve all heard from teachers in other districts teaching hybridly. 

And yet, Tuesday morning on Zoom, it seemed to dawn on my students they wouldn’t be back with their friends for the rest of the year, which in high school time seems like forever. They seemed weary like I’d never seen them before. 

The days are getting shorter; it’s getting darker earlier. This week, the remnants of Zeta moved into central Kentucky, and a cold steady rain has been knocking fall leaves to the ground.  Our state’s COVID-19 cases have exploded. On television, political ads are relentless. The most contentious political election of my lifetime is four days away. No one knows when any of it will end. 

All of these stressors coalesced this week. Several asked to stay after class and talk about the pressure they were feeling. Two students told me they’d reached out to our school’s mental health services. Another student told me she feels like all she does is school all day. She goes to bed overwhelmed and gets back up the next morning to do it all over again. 

This summer my book club read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a novel that follows the Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians, as they travel around the United States after a pandemic has wiped out most of humanity. The Symphony visits outposts and settlements, performing Shakespeare, keeping the arts and humanity alive in a world dominated by merely surviving. Kristin, one of the performers, gives voice to a line that has haunted me during our own COVID lock down: “Hell is the absence of the people you long for.” Another theme of the book and the reason that the Symphony keeps traveling and performing even though it’s dangerous to do so is summed up by Dieter, one of the actors, who quotes Star Trek: “Survival is insufficient.” 

This year has been too much about merely surviving. This week, two different teacher friends sent me this article: “Your Surge Capacity is Depleted.”  It was published in August, a lifetime ago.

I, too, am overwhelmed. 

Which brings me to NaNoWriMo. 

Yesterday I met with each of my students for ten-minute Zoom conferences to discuss their writing goals and to field any last minute questions, to quell any anxiety. It was a long day, sitting in front of my computer for four straight hours, but it’s an important part of what I do. Touching base, keeping connected. 

One of the last students I met with was Marie, a passionate, energetic, and totally game ninth grader who has never done NaNoWriMo. She was slow to come up with an idea and told me she didn’t even like plotting all that much, but in the last two weeks, she got an idea for a novel that featured two of her favorite things: the 80s and child actors. 

The Zoom doorbell rang as she connected to the call. I clicked Admit to move her from the waiting room. Her audio connected slowly, then her blank video feed stabilized, then opened. I fiddled with my USB port, waiting for my wireless headphones to connect.

“Hey.” Her voice was small and far away. 

“Hey Marie. What’s up?” I smiled into the webcam. 

She waved. She was sitting on her bed in her bedroom. 

And there, on the wall behind her, were rows upon rows of index cards taped above her bed. My heart caught in my throat. 

“What’s that on the wall behind you?” I said. 

“My plot.” 

Every year, my students jump into NaNoWriMo together in Room 303 on the third floor of Lafayette High school. But on Saturday night at midnight, 22 writers, separated from each other and isolated in their homes, will be sitting in their bedrooms all across Lexington. They will open their laptops and join each other and thousands of other writers all across the US to create something in spite of it all.

Survival is insufficient. 2020, we’re coming for you. 

Some Things I Missed This Year

I am a high school teacher, and during a normal year, the May insanity is, well. . . insane. I teach in a performing arts program, and there’s a whirlwind of end-of-the-year ceremonies, performances, shows and showcases. 

In the first week in May, for example, my seniors’ parents host a literary arts banquet. We go somewhere special, eat a tasty meal together, and after dessert, all the seniors read a piece of their work. I give out awards, make a sappy speech, and we watch a slide show designed to make parents cry. We take pictures and go home satisfied that this is just the first of many good-byes before the final one.  

Around the third week in May, we have another banquet for all the arts areas. It’s a giant, swanky affair at the Hyatt Regency downtown. The seniors and their parents dress up, we eat a great meal, and after dessert, two students, chosen by the faculty, give the keynote addresses. Then, we give out the SCAPA medallions, our director gives a sappy speech, we take pictures and go home satisfied that this, too, is another step toward the final goodbye. 

In my class, we have another tradition: they sign the podium. I bring donuts for one last time, and they stand around the podium, reading what other writers have written in years before them and trying to sum up their experience in a witty epigram.

And then there’s prom. And the final play. And the final dance performance. And the final recital. And with each one of these ceremonies, it moves the seniors closer, bit by bit, to the one with pomp and circumstance, the final walk toward graduation. 

In the week before graduation, our seniors practice their walk-in, sitting in the gym in rows, memorizing their assigned seats. Our principal and class officers write their speeches, the chorus and band practice their final performance, the senior class advisor and the counselors check and recheck the diplomas, stacked up in some secret location until they’re loaded up and transported to Rupp Arena.  

And on that day, all the Lafayette seniors arrive in the back parking lot of Rupp off Manchester Street.  Most get there early, ready to line up. Faculty, armed with bobby pins to secure mortar boards, take selfies and give out high fives. Then, in the hot, dark tunnel below the arena, the students wait for their turn to walk up into the light.    

The faculty, in our black gowns and stoles, start the procession, leading our students in. There’s such a feeling of elation, a nervous, joyous chord that binds us all. When the graduating class steps onto the floor of Rupp, family and friends in the stands erupt into applause, screaming and cheering, amid screeching air horns. 

If the high school experience is about anything, it’s about traditions, the familiar unfolding of the school year. And there’s that familiar assurance that after Spring Break, we’re hurtling toward the end, accelerated with each ritual, toward the passing of another class. Another crop of citizens is turned out into the world. In a normal May, there’s an approaching finality. We know it’s coming. We see the last day as it arrives. 

For seniors, it is all held preciously in their hands. For teachers, who participate in this protracted goodbye every year, it is bittersweet, but it’s part of the rhythm of our world. The passing of another year is a comfort, an assurance that the world is tripping along as it should. 

But this year none of that has happened.

None of it. 

This Friday, under the slim overhang of the bus entrance sheltering us from a cold spring rain, I stood with the ten other SCAPA teachers and our director, masked, gloved and six feet apart, ready to see our students. Our seniors had been told we would be there to give out their graduation goods.    

The first car appeared, and then another and another. Students and their parents lined up in their cars. We brought them their packets, stood outside their windows and posed for pictures. We clapped and waved. In the rapidly dropping temperature, we passed out yard signs, senior awards, medallions, scholarship checks, and diplomas. For two hours, we cheered and laughed and cried. 

And then they drove off into the rain. 

When I think of the countless hours of practice, the rehearsals, the drafts written, the feedback given, the early mornings and the late nights that artists and performers give to their craft, this ending—all our ceremonies stripped down to a hastily- snatched picture, a wet yard sign, a tearful goodbye through a car window—fills me with grief.  

I grieve they were not just denied a graduation, but that their final build up was interrupted, their final bow never taken.  One of my seniors recently wrote, “This was not the senior year we expected, nor the graduation we had hoped for, but in the end, it isn’t the graduation ceremony that matters. It’s the friendships we made, the lessons we learned, the community we built together over the last four years.”  

I hope she’s right.

Because tonight I’m grieving. To those not involved in education, graduation and its loss may not seem profound; it’s just a long, drawn out ceremony after all. But it is much more.

It’s the opportunity to say good-bye. In a dozen different ways.

I wanted the Class of 2020 to have the chance to be bored by sappy speeches and eternal picture taking and crying parents and graduation practices and screeching air horns. I wanted them to have had the joy of enduring the May insanity, that I will never again take for granted. 

The Last Day For A While

I turned on my lights. I powered up my computer. I made coffee. Then I sprayed down the door knobs, the light switch, and wiped off all my tables.

Downstairs in the English hallway, students were singing, laughing, typical shenanigans.

It felt like a normal Friday.

My students trickled into Room 303. They were quiet.  Shayda told me her knee was flaring up. She’s a ballet dancer. “But it doesn’t matter right now anyway. Our show’s cancelled.  Dance SCAPA’s cancelled. Everything’s cancelled.”

Erica, who was sent home yesterday by the nurse with a fever, bounded in, looking fit as a fiddle. “It was just seasonal allergies, guys! I’m not going to die.”

Soon the bell rang. The PA system squeaked on, and our PE teacher Mrs. Howard led our school in its Mindful Minute, a contemplative practice we’ve been doing every morning since August.

“Breathe in. Calm,” she said. “Breathe out. Relax.” I planted my feet on the floor, put my hands on my knees, and closed my eyes.

It had been exactly one week since the first coronavirus patient had been confirmed in Kentucky:  a 27-year-old WalMart employee from a small rural town about 30 miles from Lexington, where I teach. It was a week of will-we-or-won’t-we. A week of rumors. A week of jangly energy in the cafeteria. A week of “Have you heard anything?” when teachers congregated in the halls.

Just yesterday as I drove home through downtown Lexington past Rupp Arena, it had been announced that our girls state basketball tournament, which had already started, would be suspended indefinitely. People were standing in clusters on the sidewalks, looking dazed. Girls were hugging and crying as they boarded their busses to go back to their hometowns.

Last night, we finally got an email from our superintendent: we would be out of school for three weeks. Friday would be the last day we’d be together for a while. Districts all over the state were making similar decisions about how to best serve their students, how to deliver instruction, how to keep kids engaged, safe, and fed.

I opened my eyes. A lot of my students had not come to school, but those who did were ready to go.  We spent the first 20 minutes or so discussing how surreal everything felt. I tried to answer questions as best I could, making sure they knew that everything I was saying right then might change by tomorrow.

My students are smart consumers of current events. They are politically and culturally engaged. Nobody was panicking. Nobody was crying. But I knew they were shaken a bit.  It felt like the last day of camp had arrived, and we weren’t ready for it.

“Let’s do some poetry,” Evelyn said.

“That’s the spirit.”

We started off with storyboarding Matthew Zapruder’s poem, “Birds of Texas.” Then we read a bit from Gregory Orr’s essay, “The Four Temperaments,” on the story, structure, music, and imagination of poetry. Then I opened the podium up for an anything-goes-poetry reading.

Everyone in the room shared. They read poems about grandparents and eyes and lust and death and sardines.  My colleague Mr. McCurry popped in and read a poem from his first book of poetry, which was launched today, Open Burning.

We snapped and read and clapped. We made jokes about the apocalypse.

“I won’t see you guys again until April 6. Let’s take a selfie!” I said.

“Coronavirus!” we all yelled.

“I’m already missing you guys,” Erica said.

The bell rang and it was time for them to leave. We bumped elbows, and I promised to see them on Google classroom Monday morning.

I don’t know what the next few weeks are going to look like. I don’t know how we’ll make up the lost time. I don’t know how to plan for any of this.

“This is us against the coronavirus,” our governor has reminded Kentuckians this week in his twice-daily press conferences. “We will get through this, and we will do it together.”

But my kids and I were all going our separate ways, to hunker down against the looming pandemic.  We had been doing our innocent, every-day school stuff that we love – and suddenly we are not. Maybe it’s just a brief interruption. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe a mystery of COVID-19 is that it’s not clear whether it’s causing us to pull together or pull apart. This is somewhere we’ve never been before.

If teaching has taught me anything, it has taught me the power of community. And even though Americans may pride ourselves on our independence, our rugged individualism, community is the thing that will serve us well in this moment. When we sacrifice, when we love each other, when we give grace, and when we do it together, we can thrive.

And let’s not forget about poetry – and art and dance and song and theatre. Poetry takes on new meaning as well, as we walk out into this strange territory. Poetry becomes how we stay connected. It becomes life.

“Be well. Take care of each other,” I yelled after them.

When I left school later that afternoon, the sun was shining. Yellow jonquils and purple crocuses were everywhere.  Spring had sprung, and it seemed like a normal Friday afternoon.

Except it wasn’t.

Fifteen Ways to Look at a Mentor Text

“What’s he building in there?” Tom Waits asks in a scratchy voice as haunting as it is evocative while watching his neighbor  in “What’s He Building” I often use this voice to invite kids to take a peek at the internal structure of a mentor text.

“What’s he building in there?” I thrust a highlighter and an essay under the nose of one of my students.

“You’re weird,” she says. Eye roll.

“Thank you,” I say. Curtsy.

In English class, we often read for meaning instead of looking at how the text is “built.” As they read, it’s important for students to get in the habit of asking not only what, but how as well. Why did the author make these choices and not those? How did the author settle on this framework and not another?  Students need to see every piece of writing as an artifact of someone’s decision-making.

To start this process, I hand students a copy of any text (essay, vignette, blog, etc.) and some highlighters, and I instruct them to get in there and root around. Look at how the writer built this. Dismember the sections, look for patterns and arrangements, figure out how the composition was composed. It’s a very open-ended activity, but I do offer students some questions to guide them.

Fifteen Ways of Looking at a Mentor Text 

Name: _______________________________________________________________________

Title of Mentor Text : _____________________________________________________________

Author of Mentor Text: ___________________________________________________________

Type of  Mentor Text (essay, blog, tweet, article, etc):_______________________________________

 

Directions: 

In this exercise, don’t analyze the text’s meaning, but examine how the writer “built” the text. As you read, look at how the writer puts the text together 

  1. Before you read the text, just look at it. What do you notice? (For example, Is it a long or short text? Does it have a long or short title? Are the paragraphs long or short? Are the sentences long or short? Are there subheadings? Are there pictures? Are there infographics? Charts?) 

 

After you read the text through once, go back and “deconstruct” how the author built the text. You are looking for the internal structure, kind of like looking at the walls, joists, windows, doors, or floorplan of a house.

  1. How does the writer begin the text? Do you think the beginning is effective? Why or why not? 

 

  1. How does the writer end the text? Do you think the ending is effective? Why or why not? 

 

  1. Are there facts in this text? List just a few. 

 

  1. Why do you think the writer uses these facts? (For example: to support, to explain, to inform, to convince, etc?) 

 

  1. Is there a story in this text?  In one sentence, describe the story the writer uses. 

 

  1. Why do you think the writer uses this story? (to contextualize, to give an example, to support, etc?) 

 

  1. Is there a thesis statement in this text? Is the thesis actually written in the text or does the reader have to infer it? Write what you think the thesis statement might be. 

 

  1. Are there argumentative claims in this text? List a few of the claims the writer makes. 

 

  1. Why do you think the writer uses these claims? (For example: to support, to explain, to inform, to convince, etc.?) 

 

  1. Do you notice any organizational patterns? (For example, are there “sections” or “chunks” in this text? How would you label these sections?)

 

  1. Why do you think the writer uses these patterns to organize the text? 

 

  1. Does the writer blend story, information and argument? If so, how does the writer move between story, information, and argument? 

 

  1. Does the writer use transitions to keep the reader moving from section to section? If so, why do you think the writer uses these transitions?

 

  1. How does the writer keep the reader reading? How does the writer engage you? What “craft” moves does the writer make? 

 

 

Here’s a LINK to these questions in hand-out form.

Teachers, Remember What It’s Like to Be 17

It’s Labor Day, and I’m on my back porch catching up on school work. Cup of coffee in hand, cats at my feet, I open Google Classroom and the first student assignment I read is Kailie’s analysis.

I do not actually know if the 1985 hit song “Sussudio” by English musician Phil Collins is a “good” or “bad” song. I am forever blinded by the light of emotional attachment, with this track being one my dad played for me from a very young age. Which is odd in itself– my father, who cringes at the sound of Wham! and spent his 1980s buried in Van Halen cassettes, is a fervent appreciator of “Sussudio.”

In one raw, unfiltered moment of memory, my senior year comes rushing back to me. My life-long friend Leslie and I are in her living room, MTV on full blast, and we are Molly Ringwald-jump-dancing and scream-singing, “I feel so good if I just say the word, su-su-sussudio.”

Leslie and I thought ourselves some edgy sorts because we loved Duran Duran, The Clash, and Flock of Seagulls. So ardent was our identification with these reckless, poppy 80s Brits, that if Sting had been our English teacher, we would have been wet-bus-stop-waiting every day.

But there’s something more than just the memory of a song. I remember the joy and sorrow that marked so much of high school. I remember being free and being scared. Wanting to grow up and wanting to stay small.

Leslie and I had lost one parent each- my father to leukemia in ’82 and her mother to breast cancer in ’83. As Cold War babies, we knew the world was an uncertain place. We were sick of high school with all its petty rules, but scared to death about what came next.

Even though every adult in our life was telling us to think about the future, we wisely knew The Moment was to be savored. So there we were, just for the moment, delirious, sweaty, out of breath, and that song – we never had any idea about who or what Sussido was – told us if we’d just say the word, we would feel so good. Such fizzy pink pop. Such mindlessness. It didn’t matter. It felt good to be young and alive.

I tell every first-year teacher this: Teaching high school is a non-stop memory of your own adolescent pain.  Which is why, principals, when you’re hiring new teachers, instead of asking what John Maxwell quote best exemplifies their classroom management style, ask this question: do you remember what it’s like to be 17?

Do you remember how everyone told you to just be yourself, but you didn’t have any idea who or what that was? How every inspirational speaker they drug us into the gym to listen to told us to be unique and different when all we wanted to do was to blend in enough to not get singled out for anything?

Do you remember what it was like not to understand polynomials but everyone else seemed to be getting it, so why raise your hand?  Do you remember avoiding the loud girls in the hall because they might single you out, to make fun of your hair, your shoes, your teeth?

Do you remember what it was like to have every adult telling you the decisions you made in the next two years would determine the rest of your life? That if you didn’t make the right decision, you’d be screwed. If you didn’t go to college, you couldn’t get a good job. If you didn’t get a good job, you wouldn’t have a family. If you didn’t have a family, you’d end up hustling aluminum cans at the scrap yard.

Do you remember what it was like to no longer be a child, but not yet an adult? How one moment you wanted to crawl back into your bedroom and play with action figures and the next moment you were taking the ACT and filling out college applications? Leaving your parents? Leaving your childhood?

I’m reminded again that teaching is dependent on our ability to remember the answers to these questions. So, thank you, Kailie, for taking me back and helping me remember what it’s like to be standing on the edge of the rest of your life, thinking every decision is life or death. I wish I could go back and tell my 17-year-old self that everything’s going to be okay, but I can do the next best thing: I can extend that grace to my students. I can make my classroom a safe place to feel free and to feel scared. I can make writing an exercise of self-discovery and solace. I can act with wisdom when my students act like five-year-olds one minute and thirty-year-olds the next.

That we recognize ourselves in our students is invaluable. When they remind us of who we once were and who we are now, we can reach out again, through joy and pain, and help each other along the path. We must allow them to see us, not as authorities on life, but fellow travelers on this journey. Treat them with the same kindnesses with which we wish some wise teacher would have treated us. Strive every day to remember what it’s like to sit in that cramped school desk.

 

 

Working Our C.O.R.E

At the beginning of each school year, I spend one full class period explaining how my classroom works. Logistics like bathroom passes, cell phone use, make-up work, Chromebook usage, and so on. However, after I lay down the operational parameters of Room 303, I want them to wrangle with some group norms that will really make this class sing.

A word about what I teach:  my writing classes operate like writing studios populated by working writers. Because my students are working both independently and interdependently in this class, establishing group norms is important. Writers can be very focused on their own work to the exclusion of anyone else, but in a cooperative learning environment, such as a writing community, setting base line expectations and boundaries is critical.

Each year the class comes up with a list of expectations that every member of the class, including me, should strive to emulate. This year, after listing all the brainstormed behaviors, expectations, and descriptors on the board, it was time to boil the list down to a few essentials.  After a lot of discussion and deliberation, the class circled around four adjectives:  open minded, empathetic, respectful, and considerate.  As the class negotiated to fit the rest of their descriptions under one of these four umbrella terms, one student looked up and said, “Hey, it spells CORE. That’s our acronym.”

Indeed, it was.

C.O.R.E. has become our group norm for this academic year, and I’d like to discuss what each of these looks like in our writing class.

Considerate: Being considerate means being thoughtful, concerned, and mindful of others. This behavior is particularly important in a writing workshop, where we are working with sensitive, often personal, subjects written by young writers. Under this term, my students listed “be kind,” “be nice,” “be a good friend,” and “help others.” Other students suggested no gossiping, no name calling, no back stabbing could go under this category. While being considerate includes compassion towards others, it also means to practice self-consideration or self-compassion. So many young writers tend to preface their work with apologies, i.e., this is awful, I’m stupid, I’m a horrible writer, this is trash. This behavior is the same as name calling, only directed at yourself. Being considerate of one’s self and others contributes to the “we are all in this together” connection that is the cornerstone of all functional, thriving communities.

Open-minded:  This was a dark horse norm I didn’t see coming, but students listed things like, “check your bias” and “seek to understand other’s viewpoints.”  Several students listed behaviors important to writers: “listen to other’s ideas,” “be open to new ideas” and “be approachable during workshop.” Of course, the real test of this norm will be when a student is asked to give feedback on, for example, an essay that argues for a position he doesn’t agree with. He must learn to respond to the writing itself and not to his opposition of the ideas expressed. In a writing workshop, it’s imperative that students are open-minded enough to consider an argument they don’t agree with and still be able to give the writer good feedback on her technique, craft, and form. I also want the student who is on the receiving end of feedback to be open minded, weighing and considering all the feedback even though she’s the final arbiter of her work.

Respectful:  In the last ten years of using group norms, I can’t remember a single class that didn’t include this word.  It is absolutely vital in any classroom.  Under this word, students listed behaviors such as “If you listen to music, wear headphones,” “If you want to conference with another student, go out into the hall,” and “Don’t disturb other people.” But they also listed things like “turn your drafts in on time,” as well as cleaning up after themselves as a way of showing respect to each other. Another angle of respect that made it on the big list was “what’s written in Room 303, stays in Room 303,” and “if it’s not your story, don’t tell it.” Confidentiality is an essential part of respecting one another enough to maintain a vault of safety around the stories we tell each other. Self-respect is also a necessary part of this norm; each student must respect her contribution to the group and recognize that by not participating she’s essentially disrespecting the group by withholding her own unique gifts and viewpoints.

Empathetic: We had a fairly robust conversation about including empathetic after we already had respectful and considerate on the list, but ultimately we decided these descriptors were indeed different things. The ability to feel other people’s emotions and to imagine what someone else might be feeling is especially important as you want each member of the community to feel connected emotionally to one another. Empathy is also important in order to imagine what another person is thinking in order to give them feedback on a creative project. To give helpful feedback, you want to attempt to understand what the author or poet was attempting to do. You want to strive to see what the writer sees in order to give him feedback he can use to improve the original vision he had for the piece of writing.

C.O.R.E. may not work for your class, but the activity of students arriving at norms that set social and emotional boundaries for the whole group creates investment and community when you need it during those uncomfortable and sometimes awkward first days of school.

 

A Deer Killing Story: Moving from Experience to Narrative

Over two decades of teaching writing, I’ve discovered most student writers (and most adult writers) have trouble distinguishing what details matter and what details are extraneous during a first draft.  They may not know what details matter because they don’t even know why the story they’re telling matters.  Figuring out the significance of a memory is one of the initial steps in crafting a successful narrative about that memory.

Including everything they experienced without interpretation keeps the memory or story at the level of an anecdote.  It’s a yarn untouched by the powerful tools of narrative; it’s an un-interpreted experience.  How did this happen?  Yes, we need to know that, but “why did this happen?” is the most critical question a student can ask of herself. When students interpret their experience and recognize its significance and meaning, they begin to shape the narrative in a way that creates a greater degree of both personal and public use.

Here’s an example:  A boy decides to write a personal narrative about killing his first deer. So what? For the record, as a teacher in rural Kentucky for 15 years, I have read approximately 12,893 deer killing stories. Everybody has a “I shot a deer” story. But it’s the student who writes the “I shot a deer and here’s how it changed me, or here’s what I learned, or here’s why it was an important memory” that raises the experience to the level of a narrative through interpretation and witness.

When I worked as site coordinator for Rural Voices Radio, a National Public Radio program featuring students writing about place, I received hundreds of these hunting essays as we put together the program that would ultimately become, Sweet Home Kentucky.  The representative deer hunting story we chose for the recording was one that perfectly rose above the “then this happened, then this happened” story to become a beautiful narrative about loss.

In “POW!” by tenth grader Travis Dixon, he and his cousin, Jack, go deer hunting on a nearby farm. During the drive, Dixon says he is a “nervous wreck” and is glad when a Kid Rock song comes on the radio, so he can take his mind off of what he is about to do. They arrive at the farm and hunker down behind some hay bales to await their prey.  Unfortunately, they have no luck.  As it grows dark, they decide to go home.

As they drive away, however, Dixon spots a “big beautiful doe with a small fawn” standing in the creek below them.  Dixon commands Jack to stop the truck.  “My heart was racing with fear and guilt for what I was about to do.” He sticks his gun out the truck window (“illegal” he says) and shoots the doe, aiming high to avoid shooting the baby.  “You got her,” his cousin says. “Good shot.”  The deer runs about 500 yards and then drops in a briar patch.  The fawn, however, “just stood there in shock.”  Dixon and his cousin follow the blood trail and find the deer, “still alive and bleeding profusely from the bullet wound.”  Then Dixon comes to a critical point in his narrative. “My cousin did something that will stay in my mind forever. He cut her throat, and she died.  I just about cried for what I had done. I had taken this fawn’s mommy.”

It’s on this last sentence that the story turns. There’s no indication the speaker has made some revelation to put down his gun, become an animal rights activist and eat vegan for the rest of his life. In fact, if the essay had included those details, I would have been disappointed that this beautiful story had trivialized itself into a sermon.

No, actually, something more powerful happens. It’s evidence of a personal epiphany – that he recognizes the magnitude of what he has done and the emotional and personal weight of killing an animal. And with that last sentence, Dixon pulls together the narrative elements that move this story from being merely a retelling of chronological events and shapes it into a narrative.  By layering in the details of his fear, the long day of waiting for the prize, the illegal shot taken out the truck window, the quick and decisive moment of his cousin slicing the throat of the doe, and the vision of the baby fawn transfixed in fear, Dixon frames the story into a narrative that evokes the experience for the reader, moving us to feel the same loss and guilt. In fact, we experience the moment because Dixon sifted and selected the details guaranteed to move us to his inescapable purpose.

 

A Renga for Room 303

From our window looking out onto the world

Last year, our poetry unit focused on imagery and language.  This year, we focused on form and function and looked at some different forms like sestinas and pantoums.  Most of my students had some experience with the haiku as a form, but only two had heard of the traditional Japanese form of linked verse called a renga (pronounced“reng-guh”).This form encourages collaboration:  one student writes a traditional haiku of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, then gives it to another student who writes a “waki,” a response of two seven-syllable lines. Traditional themes for rengas are often about nature and love, but we were inspired by “Renga for Obama,” a collaboration of 200 poets curated by poet Major Jackson and published by the Harvard Review, as a way to celebrate, elegize, commemorate, and memorialize something we all shared: our classroom.

(If you want to inspire your students, I suggest you watch the doc-u-reading of  Crossing State Lines: An American Renga, a collaboration of 54 American poets in a “poetic relay race”of ten lines each about America. It’s a marvel.)

For this activity, we used long strips of paper and spent the last twenty minutes of class, writing haikus and passing them around the room to someone who would respond with a waki. There were lots of giggles and threats not to “ruin” their haikus with a wacky wakis. Also, lots of syllable counting on fingers

That afternoon, I sat down to read them. Clear patterns and themes emerged. There were a lot of inside jokes, allusions to shared experiences, and references to a suspected ghost that haunts our room (referred to currently as Toast Ghost Malone). They referenced our third-floor perch with the birds, our view high above Lafayette, and the fairy lighting I have strung around the room. But also the theme of safety, warmth, coffee, creativity, frustration, and beauty materialized.  Here are a few of their rough drafts:

 

Scribbles of pencil                                                                  

Minds crowded with ideas

Angrily erase

 The birds outside chirp on roofs

listening to compositions

  

Small, oblivious

the way we wish we could be

safe in the bright sun

 Underneath the fairy light

the sound of writing pencils

 

Here is a safe place

hidden in coffee heaven

robins and donuts

 Tucked away from the outside

creative machine working

 

Walker cracks a joke

Sarah loves Luke Bryan and trucks

Sarah Grace wants tape

 Here we speak with Welsh accents

‘Welcome to Alabama’

 

The smell of coffee

Hypnotizes us to think

This may be a cult

 Chanting, heaving, laughing sounds

Passer by-ers squint and frown

 

Toast Ghost Malone is

A sister, a father, and

Caregiver to all

 He knocked over the desk laughing

Then stood over our heads, pecking

 

Where is my pencil?

Who took my pink princess pen?

Oh, Toast Ghost, not again

The ghost continues to haunt

The gentle end of March wind

 

All journals worn, torn

Pencils break with ambition

Coffee and tea stains

 Wire bird cages, plastic

Autumn leaves in Christmas lights

 

Surrounded by books

A whiteboard full of wise words

Coffee mugs and art

 Laughing through our deepest fear

Ideal conditions now

 

The bull inside my head

Open the gate, watch it run

Stampede, let it roar

 Watch the crowd erupt with joy

Their screams are heard from miles

 

We are a safe space

On the third floor, oh the stairs  

Free from harsh judgement

Laughing through our deepest fear

Of the mad poets in here

 

People think we’re crazy

They hear us screaming through doors

I bet they’re jealous

 Of our own personal ghost

And kick-ass coffee machine

 

Blank, but untethered

Safely confused until some

Startling explosion

 The caw of a careless crow

Perched outside our large windows

 

That great creative

Spark, in the form of a bird

Like a phoenix

 A birth and rebirth in tandem

When every mind comes alive

 

Yellow world outside

Sat on a muddied rainbox

Stones now falling from our tongues

Each of us speaking our mind

Words full from colorful lands

 

Refuge from the world

Why I want to come to school

The ghost is pretty cool

 Toast Ghost Post Malone stealing

Pencils and also fridges

 

The table thing was an

Accident I swear you guys

Stop mentioning it

 I just wanna hang with you:

The cool kids, coffee, and toast

 

Toast ghost feel welcome

To our sweater vest abode

Please, bring disco pants.

 Feel free to bring your own mug

We have plenty of coffee

 

But you gotta pay

Like twenty dollars, man, you know,

Pay rent or get out

 Ah, not  the rent thing, again

McDonalds won’t hire ghosts

 

We are safe in here

Wearing vibrant reds and blues

Refuge from the grey

 The windows are frozen still

Please don’t come in here, we’re shy

 

Safety in numbers

Spilling community tea

Secrets always safe

 Underneath the twinkle lights

The trees know all our sins

 

Soft orbs shedding light

On each other, igniting

Pens and crisp paper

 Fire and lightning, knowledge

Truthful clichés, warm coffee

 

The warmth of being

Accepted by your peers and

Smiles fill the air here

 There is only truth and joy

Comfort to be found in here

The Theory of Omission

In his essay “Writing by Omission,” John McPhee (2015) quotes Ernest Hemingway who, in his 1932 nonfiction book Death in the Afternoon, describes his theory of omission : “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

In a 1966 interview with George Plimpton in the New York Times Book Review, Truman Capote also endorses this theory, while reflecting on his non-fiction masterpiece, In Cold Blood. “I suppose if I used just 20 percent of all the material I put together over those years of interviewing, I’d still have a book two thousand pages long! I’d say 80 percent of the research I did I have never used.”

When I assign a non-fiction text,  I like to challenge students to infer, from what they read in an essay, what the author didn’t use. Inferring what a writer left out is a great exercise to illuminate the power of a writer’s choices. This exercise is also a great way to start a discussion about choice:  how do you know what to cut out and what to leave in?

In this exercise, I want students to examine and make a guess about the part of the iceberg that isn’t visible. Make some guesses about the 80 % that never made it into the essay.  What was left out? Why do you think it was left out? What facts, research, stories, or studies must have been known by the author but doesn’t appear on the page?

I use an essay like Tom Philpott’s “How Factory Farms Play Chicken with Antibiotics,” about the use of antibiotics in the poultry industry.  In its original form, published in Mother Jones magazine, the essay is accompanied by 10 pictures, 4 bold-faced blurbs, three infographics and one video clip. There are 54 paragraphs and around 4700 words.

Philpott introduces Bruce Stewart-Brown, Perdue’s vice president for food safety, who serves as sort of an informational guide for the whole essay. Speaking in first person, Philpott starts us in a scene: “The massive metal double doors open and I’m hit with a whoosh of warm air. Inside the hatchery, enormous racks are stacked floor to ceiling with brown eggs.”

As students read, I ask them to keep a running list of ideas, information, facts, figures, studies, research, etc., that the writer must have known, but has clearly left out. Students demonstrate what they think was left out through collecting textual evidence, and they make some guesses about why the author omitted it.

In this essay, Philpott breezily moves back and forth between narrative, information, and argumentation.   Students immediately notice that he has omitted the USDA guidelines for poultry production, much of the history of poultry farming, and the relationship Philpott has with Stewart-Brown.

The next conversation we have is why. Why does he leave these elements out?

“He doesn’t need it,” Leslie said. “He’s paring it down to the essentials.”

“The essentials of what? The story?” I ask.

“He doesn’t need it for the story he’s telling,” she said. “He’s only putting in stuff for his reasons.”

“His reasons?”

“His purpose, what he’s trying to tell the reader about,” she concluded.

This activity goes a long way to show students that not every ingredient they’ve laid out on the kitchen table of their research has to go into the soup of their argument; only those ingredients that’s going to make the dish delicious and nutritious, only those elements that support purpose.

This activity has two benefits:  it illustrates the power of choice and it also illustrates Hemingway’s theory of omission.  The most powerful essays are the ones that feature the dignity of the iceberg.

Generating Questions That Lead to Claims: 24 Hours with a Camera Crew

My students don’t remember an entertainment landscape that didn’t include around-the-clock reality shows.  More than 750 reality shows aired on cable television in 2015, 350 of which were brand new. From talent contests to quirky families to dating hopefuls, reality shows appear to be scripted, but in fact, they aren’t written until all the footage has been shot. During the editing process, the director and editors look for patterns, storylines, opportunities for tension and arcs as they create the narrative.  All scenes that don’t support the narrative end up being cut away, which is one way I often explain writing revision to students.

For the purpose of generating writing ideas, last week I asked students to pretend they had a camera crew following them around for 24 hours. Students recorded everything they did for the previous 24 hour days by jotting down a word, a clause or a phrase.  Instead of writing just “work” or “school” or “homework,” I asked that students write a short description of what they were actually doing as if a camera crew was shooting footage.  What was the scene? Who was in the scene? What were they doing?  

The key to this activity is to ask students to look at their own life as if it were a reality show, looking for questions, patterns, significant moments, and meaning.   Watching as an audience or an outside observer allowed students to create distance and objectivity. I also asked students to use a third person pronoun to refer to themselves instead of using “I” and always write “the subject, ” as in “the subject made a tuna fish sandwich.”  Once students compiled this list, we pretended to be producers looking at 24-hours of footage for a controlling question or a claim that could be proven or challenged by the reality of this footage. 

In the documentary film “Sherman’s March,” filmmaker Ross McElwee’s burning question at the beginning of his quest was:   how did Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s military approach during the final months of the Civil War effect the South today?  But right before McElwee embarked on a road trip to follow Sherman’s footsteps, his girlfriend dumped him, and the march took on a very different pursuit, namely as Vincent Canby’s 1986 New York Times review states:   “Is romantic love possible in an age of supermarkets, fast food, nuclear arms and the sort of lightweight camera and sound equipment that allows anybody to film his own life?”

In Elizabeth Barrett’s 2000 Appalshop documentary “Stranger with a Camera,” she states her controlling questions in a voice over throughout the story of Kentuckian Hobert Ison and filmmaker Hugh O’Connor: How is a camera like a gun? Can filmmakers show poverty without shaming the people they portray? What are the responsibilities of any of us who take images of other people and put them to our own uses? What is the difference between how people see their own place and how others represent it?

After students recorded their 24-hour camera footage, I asked them to look over their scenes and extract a broad controlling question. This question could render a multitude of great starting points for informational and argumentative texts.  Wording their claim or counter claim in the form of a question helps students see the subject from various angles.  A question requires students to assume a pursuant stance in order to answer it. Documentary film makers often call this a controlling question.  It’s the question that clarifies and focuses the shooting, production, and arrangement of the film. Here are some of the questions my students extracted from their 24-hours of “footage.”

How does one’s differing forms of entertainment influence their completion of everyday tasks? Can reading and music have a positive effect on procrastination and completion of school work? Do certain daily activities affect the quality of sleep?
How sleep deprived are high school students? Does high school wear down students? Is there really a life outside school for students?
Can being antisocial be crippling?

 

How does one balance dreams and reality and what is the price of trying? Does engaging with passion breed discontent for other things?
Are teens not reading books anymore? Are teens depressed? Are students riddled with anxiety?
Does a church community benefit a student’s overall day? Does politics have to lack good humor across party lines? Are messy people good at anything?
Why do we sometimes avoid things that make us happy? Can someone be social, yet not? Why is fiction such a great escape?
When does obsessive become too obsessive?

 

Can a person have a relationship with God without being religious? Can someone talk like a prick and walk like a good friend?
Is sloth bad? How does participating in a sport affect a high schooler’s life? Are stereotypes about teenagers accurate?
How can you balance school with everything else you want to do? Can a busy high school student still be content and relaxed? How does one withstand the mind-numbing grind that is high school?
Are teens too attracted to technology and their phones? Are we expecting too much from students? Why do some try to replace human interactions with non-living things?

Notice there’s a disproportionate number of questions dealing with fatigue, expectations, procrastination, technology, introversion, and social anxiety, all topics that weigh heavily on teens today.  I did this activity on the first day back from Winter Break, so we were all dying a little inside which explains the dark undertones of these questions. However, these questions make great starting places for both argumentative and informational texts, writing that is pulled directly from their lives.