Two Reasons to Teach Like Everyone’s Listening

If I had one bit of advice to give to a young teacher, it would be this: teach like everyone is listening.

I teach writing. Because writing is a skill that must be practiced instead of learned, my classes are 90% student-centered, with hands-on, practical work.  I rarely lecture or use a Powerpoint or worksheets. However, I still serve as the expert in the room, and as such, occasionally I’m called upon to unravel some mystery of technique or to explain some quirk of grammar.

I was doing that last Friday when I experienced the sublime – at least for a moment.

We were studying three-act structure and screenwriting plot points related to Finding Nemo.  I said, “A famous writer named Joseph Campbell believed there was only one story that we tell over and over in different ways, and all stories have the same plot points, whether it’s Finding Nemo or the Bible.”

For some reason, this sparked their attention.

“Really?”  Duncan said.  “The Bible? In eight plot points?”

“Yes,” I said.  I turned to the board and started breaking down the biblical narrative with the same terms we’d been  discussing related to Finding Nemo – inciting incident, midpoint, crisis, etc.

There are few more transcendent moments in a teacher’s life than when she’s standing in front of a group of students, explaining something, and everyone in the room is so silent that even the proverbial pins are paying attention and refusing to drop.

“Wow,” my cynical senior peer tutor said to me after class. “I think I heard angels singing.”

In 19 years of teaching, I’ve had only two dozen or so such moments. This one was the perfect conflation of genuine interest, novelty, and a student challenge.

In movies about teachers, the students-rapt-with-attention scene happens all the time, but real teachers know differently.  The most talented, engaging teachers battle for their students’ attention against daydreaming, texting, budding romances across the room, late-night Netflix binges, high-carb lunches, or just boredom.

In the class I just mentioned, I have 40 freshmen, after lunch, in the last block before school gets out. That they were even sitting in chairs boggles the mind.  But in that moment, when every eye in the room was looking at the board and every ear was tuned to my voice and all the gears were turning and all the lightbulbs popping, I could have taught forever.

And recreating those teach-like-everyone’s-listening moments (or at least pretending) might be the key to longevity in the classroom.

Yes, you’ll be interrupted by the PA system. The counseling office will call your room every five minutes. Some scandal on Facebook will preoccupy the whole class. Snow flying outside your window or a fight in the cafeteria or Mercury in retrograde will derail your best plans.  Even though those two girls in the back row will not shut up and everyone is a squirrelly, fidgety hot mess – teach as passionately, as sincerely, as supremely as if everyone was hanging on the edge of his or her seat listening.

And there’s a second reason you should teach like everyone’s listening- ultimately, everyone is.

A wise teacher knows that everything she says in her class room is not merely communication between a student and a teacher, but between a teacher and a student and his parents and the community and the administration and the policy makers and maybe even the Internet.  While he should teach as though there’s no one else in the world but those kids at that moment, a wise teacher should always envision the parents of those children kneeling by their chairs wanting you to love their child as much as they love them.  A wise teacher should envision her administrators, who truly want to protect and advance and graduate successful, smart, kind students, lining her classroom walls, listening. A wise teacher understands that what she says in her classroom may be repeated at home, which will be repeated at the water cooler or the beauty salon or at church.

So when you’re frazzled and the kids are nuts and your patience is whittled to a quarter width of a 0.5 mechanical pencil lead, how do you keep this focus as if everyone were hanging on your every word?

  • Believe that the subject you are teaching is the most fascinating stuff in the universe. Obsession is contagious.  If you believe what you are teaching is worthy of their attention, they will start to believe it to.
  • Focus on the 5 or 6 kids who are listening. Pretend your little clique of listeners is the most important audience in the world.   The rest of the class will eventually fishbowl the spectacle.
  • Pretend your classroom is the subject of a CNN documentary every day. Cameras are lining the walls, Wolf Blitzer is reporting on your every move, and Anderson Cooper is just waiting for 3:15 pm so he can interview you about your educational prowess. You are a celebrity.  Give it all you’ve got.
  • Ask yourself while planning a lesson: if I were a student in my classroom, would I be interested in this lesson? If the answer is no, scrap the lesson for something more engaging or riveting.

Even though kids aren’t always listening, teach like they are.  Even though parents and administrators and the public aren’t in your classroom, teach like they are.

The Lost Art of Talk

One Friday, our school had an unusually long lock-down drill.  A lock-down is a drill, similar to fire and tornado drills, where teachers and students go through the steps they would take in the event of an active shooter or a hostage situation.

We have these drills about once a month. I’m lucky to have a classroom in our 75-year-old building that is attached to a long, narrow closet.  After my students hustled in and sat down, I turned off the light, and because the drill went on longer than normal, the kids started telling stories.  The moment took on a summer-camp feel. We were sitting cross-legged in a small, tight circle in the dark.

There was 100% engagement around the circle. No side-bar conversations. No one was checking cell phones.  After one kid told a story, there would be laughter or questions or a small moment of lull, until another kid said, “Yeah that reminds me about once in fourth grade…,” and we were off again, a “real or imagined narrative” rolling out naturally, first-draft fresh.

“We should do this every Friday,” somebody said.

“Can we?” another student asked.

“I like that idea,” I said.  It felt subversive, but I knew I could defend this practice in the scope of my curriculum.

I teach creative writing at a large urban school, but anyone who teaches anything anywhere on the planet could do this activity.  Oral Tradition Friday (which has morphed into just Oral Friday, with all the attendant high school snickers and winks) hits every speaking and listening standard for social studies and science classrooms as well.   Oral Friday has been going on now in my freshman and sophomore classes for two years, and it is, by far, the most successful, engaging lesson I “teach” all week long.

Professional Growth Fridays in my junior and senior classes developed along the same pattern.  One Friday, I had assigned a very technical, informational article about how writers select a point of view from which to write a story. My students had annotated the text and were prepared to discuss it.  But the weather was perfect and little birds were begging us to come outside. So I told my students to leave everything in the classroom including their painstakingly annotated margins, and we went outside, sat in a circle and discussed point of view. Specifically, we talked about how the article applied to their own writing choices. Now, we do this every Friday.  One student is elected to find an article about the professional or technical side of writing, distribute it to the class, and lead the discussion as it applies to their work.

  Sitting around in a circle talking is not a new instructional technique.  But it seems to happen less and less frequently.  The demands of covering standards and integrating technology have crowded out the oldest curriculum trick in the world – tell a story, have a conversation, talk face-to-face with another human.

When I was growing up as the youngest child in a family of five, we always ate dinner together and seemingly— although my memory may have taken a few instances and extrapolated them into an every dinner staple—afterwards we had what my father dubbed “roundtables.” I don’t remember many of the topics, which tended to center around current events, University of Kentucky  basketball, the weather – we were farmers— but I remember the feelings it gave me: the feeling of struggling to figure out how to say what I wanted to say and the more important feeling of being taken seriously by an adult when I talked.

Talking to students is a powerful instructional tool, but allowing students to talk is an even more powerful one.  Make your classroom a place where students can talk about ideas, practice the art of spoken persuasion or storytelling, or inquiry. I have elected Fridays as the day we talk because Fridays, as every educator knows, holds magical powers. The weekend stands within reach. The sun shines a little brighter.  Use the charming force of that day to initiate learning that doesn’t appear to be learning.


The No Grade Experiment: An Update

As those of you who read this blog know, I recently embarked on a no-grade experiment with my SCAPA Literary Arts students for 12 weeks.  We are now on week nine, and the results have been interesting.

The unit in which we embarked on this experiment is the novel unit, which requires four weeks of plotting, thinking, developing, sketching, and storyboarding, and eight weeks of execution:  actual writing day-in-day-out, putting black on white. It’s a ridiculous timeline and everyone knows it, but we are pushing ourselves for the experience and the practice.

From the outset, I conceded this unit might be difficult for the people whose writing process resisted plotting.  Writers generally fall into two camps: plotters and pantsers – those who plot, and those who write by the seat of their pants.  But even the non-plotters in the class agreed that they wanted to know something about it, and the class was very excited to receive James Scott Bell’s craft book, Plot and Structure.  This is a nuts and bolts book on structure— no theory, no literary hoo-ha, just plain carpentry aids.

Each night students read one chapter, and the next morning, I would give them a five-question quiz to assess their comprehension of the reading, then we had a discussion and completed an activity that would allow students to apply what they had learned from the chapter to their burgeoning novel.

It was the same format I used in the first unit on the short story. We read a craft book, students took five-question comprehension quizzes, then we discussed the chapter, and I gave them an application exercise.

Here are the scores from the previous unit when grades were actually being given.

Quiz 1 11 out of 21, or 52% 10 out of 21, or 48% 7 out of 21, or 33%
Quiz 2 7 out of 21, or 33% 14 out of 21, or 67% 5 out of 21, or 24 %
Quiz 3 3 out of 21, or 14 % 18 out of 21, or 86% 7 out of 21, or 33 %
Quiz 4 3 out of 21, or 14% 18 out of 21, or 86% 8 out of 21, or 38%
Quiz 5 5 out of 21, or 24% 16 out of 21, or 76% 7 out of 21, or 33%

This chart represents what most classrooms look like. About 80% proficiency overall.

Even though I wasn’t recording grades (they already had a 98% A guaranteed), I continued to collect data to see if the lack of pressure  to “make” a grade actually impacted their performance either positively or negatively.

Here are the scores from the novel unit when grades were not going to be given.

Quiz 1 13 out of 21, or 62% 8 out of 21, or 38% 7 out of 21, or 33%
Quiz 2 12 out of 21, or 57% 9 out of 21, or 43% 6 out of 21, or 29%
Quiz 3 15 out of 21, or 71% 6 out of 21, or 29% 6 out of 21, or 29%
Quiz 4 10 out of 21, or 48% 11 out of 21, or 52% 8 out of 21, or 38%
Quiz 5 14 out of 21, or 67% 7 out of 21, or 33% 5 out of 21, or 24 %


When no grades were on the line, the pass rate for quizzes dropped, on average, from 72% to a 39%.  But then I noticed something very interesting.  On every quiz, I had 5-7 kids who got 100% each time.  I looked back at the quizzes from the previous unit and realized those two charts were virtually identical.  For about a third of my students, grades are a non-issue.  They did their absolute best whether they were being rewarded externally for it or not.

Of course, you might say that quiz grades aren’t really a great measuring stick for actual learning, and I would agree with that, but I noticed the same results when we completed hands-on activities and exercises that were student-selected.  After reading the craft book, the tools that the students indicated they needed prior to writing the novel were:  a plot summary, a timeline of events, character profiles, and some kind of plotting device, like a story board or intensity scale, that would allow them to lay out the beats of their novel.

There was more buy-in with these activities. In fact, 50% of the students completed these activities with some degree of accomplishment and 45% either didn’t complete these activities or completed them in a manner that would have been deemed failing. I only had 1 student who turned in nothing.  And there was still those 5-7 kids who did the activities with aplomb, going above and beyond the requirements, turning out activities like they were vying for the Pulitzer.

And maybe they are.

Conventional wisdom dictates that without a paycheck at the end of the week, we wouldn’t be driving to work every day.  I can’t wait to query these high-flyers to find out why they excelled when no grades were on the line.

There are other considerations, of course.  It could be that those 30% are the true writers in the group, that they would write if the world were burning down, if they were locked in a closet with only a piece of charcoal and blank wall on which to write their story.

It could also be that those other 70% just aren’t mature enough to be self-motivated or to handle the kind of freedom that would allow them to direct their own path.  Or it could be that they were going home every night and writing reams and reams of poetry, the genre that they truly love.


In November, we started writing our novels, and they are keeping spreadsheets and “state of mind” calendars to chart their word count and their disposition o’ the day.  I will be updating you with their progress in a future blog post.

Stay tuned!

Flash Fiction: Sharp Stories in Small Packages

This weekend I delivered a session on flash fiction at the Write Eastern Kentucky Conference on the campus of Morehead State University and decided to share some of my plans here.

While the length of most fiction is determined by the guidelines of the journal or magazine to which you plan to submit your work, a generally accepted word count for a traditional short story is 2000-8000 words while a piece of flash fiction can be as small as 100-1000 words.  Most of my student’s flash fiction pieces are between 500-750 words, which is about two-to-three standard 8 ½ x 11 pages, double-spaced in 12 point type.

Unlike vignettes, which tend to be impressionistic or slice-of-life narratives, flash fiction pieces are complete stories with a beginning, middle and an end.  Because of the economy of the form, every word, every image, every shred of characterization needs to be exact to deliver the narrative arc precisely, resulting in a full story. My students tend to embrace flash fiction because the stories are simpler, clearer with fewer characters and one central conflict.

There’s no room for exhausting exposition or tangential descriptions that tends to bloat student writing anyway.  Because of the demands of the tiny frame, students can’t spin off into pages of backstory either.  They have to have a clear vision of a simple story: How do I establish time/place immediately? Who is my main character? What does my main character want? What stands in the way of the main character’s desires? Does she have a distinctive voice? What is the climax and resolution?

I typically start my flash fiction unit with a simple and often-used prompt: Write a 500-1000 word story about two people, who are attempting to do something together, yet become trapped in a small space and each want to do something different than the other.  For example, two siblings traveling home over Christmas when a freak snow storm traps them on the highway. One wants to try to get home for Christmas; the other wants to abandon the trip altogether. What happens?

While I like to see students wrestle with structure and framing in a longer, traditional story, I often use ready-made story shells when teaching flash fiction. Because the narrative framing is already there in a story shell, students can focus on the smaller details of diction, selection of detail, verbal precision, and the power of image in characterization.

Here are a few of the story shells I like to use when teaching flash fiction.

  • Stories in songs: Country music was once known for the story song, but many pop, rock, and R & B songs have simple, narrative stories in their lyrics.  The website Lyric Interpretation and Listal’s Songs That Tell Stories allow students to pick a song which offers them the essential elements of the narrative as a shell to develop into the flash fiction piece.


  • Stories in poems: An About Education site has a collection of ballads that also provide students with a story frame that they can use to develop into small, insular works of fiction. After reading the poem, students delineate the character, conflict, climax and change necessary to create a full story.


  • Stories in arts: Students can also distill the stories from art. This is a great cross-curriculum activity for humanities as well. The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art has hundreds of pieces of art works that can be used as the start of a simple story for a flash fiction piece. Using the character and conflict in the art as a starting point, students can render the full narrative in a small story.



  • Stories in memories: At the beginning of the year, I have students jot down 25 stories or anecdotes that are often retold or repeated by their family. These tend to be funny or sad or bittersweet or haunting. The anecdotes generally have one or two characters and there’s almost always a conflict.  With a little fictional tweaking, these personal stories can develop into great flash fiction pieces.

While Short Shorts and Flash Fiction and Sudden Fiction have been around since the late 80s and early 90s when the genre seemed to spike, I am partial to the flash fiction on Flash Fiction Online for sci-fi, fantasy and horror flash models that students will enjoy.



Family Isn’t Always Blood: A Visualization Exercise for Personal Writing About Friends

Most high school students identify more deeply with their peer group than with their family.  They value those people who are in their life by choice, not by blood, but students are often self-conscious about writing about how much they cherish someone in their peer group.  This activity is designed to place them in a hypothetical situation that is both safe and secure where they interact with one of their friends.  The writing that is produced in this sequence rarely becomes a draft of an essay, but often students discover something about themselves or about the other person that leads to an thoughtful and meditative piece of descriptive writing.

To start this activity, I ask students to answer the following 20 questions that will generate a list of people.


  1. Who are you most likely to confide in?
  2. Who are you most likely to get fashion advice from?
  3. Who is your teacher?
  4. Who knows where all the bodies are buried?
  5. Who makes you feel alone when you are with them?
  6. Who has betrayed you?
  7. Have you been Friendzone? And if so, by who?
  8. Who was your best friend in elementary school?
  9. Who was your best friend in middle school?
  10. Who is your best friend now?
  11. Which one of your friends will not make it to thirty?
  12. Who is the clown in your circle of friends?
  13. Who is your Frenemy?
  14. Who is the rule maker in your circle of friends?
  15. Who’s the most irritating person in your friend circle?
  16. Who’s the last person you shared a secret with?
  17. Who makes you laugh the most?
  18. Who truly gets you?
  19. Who would not be happy for you if you won $43 million in the lottery tonight?
  20. Who would you gladly die for?


After students answer all 20 questions, I ask them to add five more friends’ names and imagine it is a guest list for a party in their honor.At this point in the lesson, I ask them to sit up straight, place their hands neutrally on their desk or in their laps, close their eyes, take a few deep breathes to clear their minds and listen to my voice as they imagine this scene. My script:

“Okay, let’s get started.  Close your eyes and imagine it’s a beautiful day outside. You’re walking up a long drive way to a very large house.  You can hear lots of people inside, and you hear music.  As you walk onto the porch, the door swings open and someone beckons you inside.  You are led to a giant dining hall where an enormous table is laden with bread, meats, fruit, cheese, and drinks of all kinds. Seated around the table are all your friends who are happy you have arrived. This party is in your honor. You are seated at the head of the table.  Everyone is eating and laughing and having a good time.   You feel completely happy, safe and whole.  Look around the table again.  Take a few minutes to look around the table, and now let your gaze naturally fall on someone.  Focus on this one person and look at them closely. How do they talk? How do they laugh? How do they chew, eat their food, hold their fork?  What are they wearing?  Really observe them, listen to them.  Now open your eyes and describe this person.”


Students then write for about five minutes, describing this person.


“Okay, close your eyes and return to this scene.  As you observe this person, he or she gets up from the table and comes to stand next to you.  “Is there something you want to say?” he or she says, and you say, ‘Yes, there is something I want to say to you, but it’s too noisy in here.’  And this person says, ‘Follow me.’  He or she walks out of the room, motioning for you to follow.  You walk out of the dining hall into a long hall. At the very end of the hall, you see a plain wooden bench under a big window.  The person motions for the two of you to sit on the bench. You do.  You are very close to this person. Your knees are almost touching. ‘Now,’ this person says to you. ‘What is it that you want to say to me?’  Open your eyes, and write down what you would like to say to this person.”


Students then write for about five minutes, describing in first person what they would like to say.


“Okay, close your eyes again and return to this scene.  This person has listened thoughtfully to everything you’ve said to them.  He or she says, ‘There’s something I’d like to tell you also, but let’s go outside. It’s such a beautiful day.’  The person motions that you should follow, and you both walk out of the house and down the driveway and into a beautiful field full of tall grass and wildflowers.  Then you and this person face each other. The wind is blowing gently. You can feel the sun on your arms, and this person says, ‘There’s something I want to tell you also.’ Slowly open your eyes, tune into what this person wants to tell and write.”


Students then write for five minutes, describing what they believe this person would say to them.  This is often the hardest part of the writing. Sometimes the information they hear is buoyant; sometimes it is damning.


After this activity, I have students put away the writing they generated and write a brief vignette or personal essay about the person they focused on. The writing is always deeper, more complex and rich after the visualization because they’ve spent time with this person in the unguarded, mutually beneficial and communicative environment of their own brain on the page.

Literary Sweatshops, Part II: FAQ about High School Creative Writing Workshops

What are my responsibilities as a workshop reader?

    • Be a receptive reader, and let the writer know her manuscript affected you. For example:“I laughed here . . .”  “I almost cried when. . . ” “I could just see this . . .” “You made this place come alive” “I identified completely with this person”  are all phrases that are appropriate responses to written work.
    • Be an interpretative reader, and let the writer know how you “read” his manuscript — “This is what I saw happening here — ” “You made me hate this person when he said –”
    • Be a specific reader, and let the writer know precisely where the writing is effective or ineffective, where it achieves its purpose, and where the writer might improve it or try something else These are not helpful comments:  “It was great — I wouldn’t change a thing” or “I don’t like stories about puppies” or “I think you should set this story in 1920 instead of the future.”
    • Always, in both spoken and written comments, be kind, understanding, and supportive. We are all on this creative road together.         

What if I hate the manuscript?

Find something to like – – the subject matter, a metaphor on page five, the description of the setting, an image.  In your written comments, try to begin with something positive and then move on to problems you see in the manuscript.  As a reader, focus on the writing and the craft; do not judge the rightness or wrongness of the characters themselves or the morality of their choices.

What if the author is such a good writer that I can’t find anything to criticize?

Telling an author what she did that worked is as beneficial than telling her what did not work.  Focus on responding as a reader, telling the author the effect the manuscript had on you as you read it, maybe giving an interpretation or summary of what is going on. Point out sentences or sections you especially liked, telling why specifically.

What if I don’t know what to say when it comes my time to talk about an essay?

    • Try to understand what kind of story the author is trying to tell. Make notes on the manuscript as you go, and tell the author what you understood about the story she is trying to tell.
    • Refer to the notes you have prepared to give to the author when the time comes to discuss the piece. It is up to the author to do with those notes as she will.
    • Give the author the kinds of practical comments you wouldliketo receive in a tone and manner in which you would like to receive them.  Learn to communicate constructively without being rude, sarcastic, or overly funny.
    • Say what you think about the piece even if it might sound silly or wrong. You have to practice to get better at this. Listen to others in the workshop who seemed to have a handle on this, and learn from them.

When the time comes for my piece to be workshopped, I’m afraid they will attack my “baby”?

It is not easy to have something as personal as writing criticized by a group of people. I’m not sure what advice to give here, other than it gets easier with practice.  One thing that can help is if we are all gentle with one another — not in the sense that we withhold criticism, but that the tone and manner we use to criticize makes it clear we are FOR the writer’s success.

 Do I have to take everyone’s advice?

No. As the author, you are the final judge of your manuscript.  You decide whether to revise or edit, whether to take any of the advice your classmates or teacher give you.  It is recommended, in any case, that you put your manuscript aside for a while, then go through it and see which of the suggestions feel “right” to you.  You may end up not using any of our suggestions, but perhaps we have shown you something about your manuscript that you may not have considered before.

Remember, have faith in yourself and trust your own voice. Writing takes a lifetime, not one year.


Literary Sweatshops: Cultivating Civility in a High School Creative Writing Classroom

In the real world, writers read each other’s works and give critical feedback to each other.  The feedback given to the writer can be invaluable as she seeks to improve the piece.  When several writers get together to discuss a piece and give feedback to the author, the exercise is often formally called a “writing workshop” and the activity itself is called “workshopping” a piece.  This activity might also be called a writing critique or critiquing, but the activity remains the same:  giving helpful feedback to the writer.

Hosting a writing workshop is a wonderful activity for modeling civil discussions and cultivating the kind of generosity and support that is necessary to be part of a functional artistic community.  (Being able to communicate kindly, directly and clearly is also a plus when it comes to being a human as well.)

My classes are held every day for a 90-minute period, so when my students are ready to get feedback from the larger group, we are able to workshop two longer pieces or three short pieces in a day.  I have fifteen students, so we devote one full week to workshopping.  The week is more enjoyable when students have written different genres; when we have fifteen short stories to barrel through, the week can get monotonous.

How does it work?

First, students sign up for workshop slots during the week that I’ve designated as “workshop week.” I have a sign-up sheet stapled to the bulletin board, and it’s their responsibility to sign up for a time slot. Other teachers have rolling workshops, which can occur at any time, but I’ve found it to be more efficient if the class works toward the workshop week as a deadline date for their first draft.  Without a deadline, many student writers, who haven’t developed an internal discipline, never get around to finishing a project.

If Sarah reserves a time slot for her short story to be workshopped on Monday,  Sarah then sends me her draft via email Sunday night, so I can make enough copies for each student to have his/her own copy of her story.  Sarah would also attach an author’s agenda to her piece, detailing what specific elements she would like feedback on.

Different teachers may deal with the distribution in different ways, such as posting the pieces online and having all the students read the work and come to class prepared to discuss, but I have found workshops run more smoothly when students 1) have the story in hard copy directly in front of them during discussion, and 2) immediately discuss the story after they’ve read it and made notes on it.

By this time, I would have already reviewed the rules for writing workshop, and I would have given them the FAQ for Writing Workshops, so students would know what to do when they get Sarah’s short story, but here are the basic instructions I give students:

  • Read the piece—completely, slowly and thoughtfully—one time.
  • Read the piece through a second time and make notes all over the hard copy, specifically addressing the concerns the author has requested you respond to.
  • If there is a proofreading error that is consistently wrong, mark it once and make a note of it, but it’s not necessary to line-edit every single grammar or usage error.
  • During the discussion, students need to listen to one another, so the same comment is not made over and over.
  • During the discussion, you are not responsible for providing any “fixes” to the issues of the story. That’s the author’s job; merely pointing out that the dialogue seems neutral and the characters seem flat is adequate.  Providing prescriptions for how to develop the characters is not necessary.
  • During the discussion, stay on the page, stay with the story and the characters. You are not there to debate the ethics of one of the character’s occupation, for example.  Do not embark on some random discussion about socialism merely because there is a character in the story who is a Socialist.
  • During the discussion, the author remains silent and takes notes on the comments she finds helpful.  (Note: I ask the writer whose piece is being critiqued to remain silent throughout the discussion and take notes on comments she finds helpful.  Some workshop models allow the writer to interact with the class, but in my experience, high school students have a tendency to want to justice their creative choices instead of listening to a reader’s honest reaction. The writer’s explanations and justifications sometimes derail a lively discussion.  However, if there is a point of clarity that needs to be made by the writer or if a workshop member asks the writer a direct question, I do allow the writer to clarify or answer the question.)

I usually allow the discussion to continue until I feel like the group has said all that they want to say about the piece, and then I would ask the writer if she has any additional questions or comments she would like to make.   All the hardcopies are then passed down to the author to aid in her revision process.

Poetry Boxes: From Concrete to Abstract in Poetic Persona

In Naomi Shihab Nye’s beautiful poem   “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” she says that “poems hide” and that we must “live in a way that lets us find them.”  At the end of the poem, she urges:  “Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us/we find poems. Check your garage, the off sock/in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite/And let me know.”

In my writing classes, I urge students to live in a way that lets them find their stories and poems:  to be open, hopeful, observant, humble, and awestruck by the world.  For this poetry box activity, I want them to image a life that exists in the cast-off items that one might discover in the garage or the sock drawer, to create a life from those items, and to imagine a narrative relationship between the items and this fictional character.

When I ask students to write, they often want to write about the big abstracts (LOVE DEATH FEAR JOY WAR), but I am continually urging them to pay attention to the little concretes.  To shore up my argument, I invoke Anton Chekov who said, “Don’t tell me about the moon. Show me the glint of light on broken glass” or Tim O’Brien who beautifully describes the big abstraction of War by saying, “And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.”

And so we start with the concrete. I plunder Goodwill stores and antique haunts for things I can stuff in a gift box and wrap up.  Six or seven things go in each box, including one natural thing in the collection, such as a pebble or a pine cone.  I put in old pictures, charms, trinkets, glass and several item of ephemera. Then I wrap the boxes in whatever gift wrap I have stashed about.

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Once students select a box and before they open the box, I ask them to write about what they think is in in the box.  I give them about two minutes of writing time for this.  Then they open the boxes and catalog each item and describe it as objectively as possible.  I urge them to look over each item and detail it exhaustively, using both sensory details and cultural or social associations.  This usually takes about ten minutes.

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Once all the pieces have been placed on the table in front of them, cataloged and described, students write a character sketch about the person who owned these items.  I give them about seven minutes to write a fully-fleshed out profile of this person.  After they do this, I ask three or four students to share their character, using the artifacts as evidence for particular personality traits and/or lifestyle choices they have given their characters.

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Then I ask them to focus on one particular item in the box, the one thing in the box that was the most precious to their character. “What is the item that this person carried with them through every move,  every bad marriage, every child, job, house? What item was this person holding, in her hand, his wallet, her purse, his backpack, when he or she died?”   They select the item, and I ask them to jump or wade out into a poem that tells the story of this item and its relationship to the fictional character who owned it.

Most the poems that are born in this activity eventually become swallowed up by something longer – a piece of flash fiction, a short story, the beginning of a one-act.  I might tweak this assignment in the future to start with the items first and ask students to write from the items or about the items instead of developing the character first.  Students become attached to the character and the story leads from that.

There are a lot of variables that could be used with this lesson.  You could give students boxes and ask them to create their own “artifact box,” collecting five or six items that are emblematic of their own life, to generate writing for a memoir or vignette.   Some teachers have used the idea of items in a box to create “Me Musuems” for first-of-the-year ice breakers or to use boxes as a means to analyze literary characters.


Dear Universe, Please Give Me Stories to Tell

give me bizarre encounters with strangers

As with most high school populations, I have students of all spiritual stripes – believers, seekers, dreamers, hopers, doubters.  So, when I stumbled upon a prompt for prayer in Georgia Heard’s wonderful book Writing Toward Home, I thought it would meet my diverse group wherever they were. All prompts in Heard’s book draw on the past and the introspective, on reminiscences and musings to generate memories for drafting memoirs or vignettes. But for this prompt, Heard suggests the writer call out to the universe and ask for some kind of blessing, for simplicity or courage or wit.  

To launch a long day of drafting vignettes, I introduced the idea of writing a prayer, and my students were intrigued.  I explained that while a prayer may or may not be religious, it’s true power lies in the petition itself, the framing of a supplication.  The power of prayer lies, I suggested to them, in the clarity and self-awareness required in the act of asking for something.

Their prayers overwhelmed and touched me.  I have posted some of them below.

Dear Universe, Please give me stories to tell. Give me bizarre encounters with strangers and hilarious absurd misfortunes, give me whirlwind romances and heartbreak so devastating I can fill a whole notebook with it.  Give me journeys to unfamiliar places, allow me to get lost for days, to break rules and try new things, meet new people. Give me grief, rage, infatuation, regret, fear, shame. Give me stories. Amen.                               

Please fix these broken walls I’ve smashed in anger for I felt incompetent. My writing just gets by, it’s nothing great. I lack inspiration, a set muse. The foundations of my inner house crumble. There is not a front door, only a worn frame.  Ideas do not linger long in the cold and I find myself chasing after them only to find they’ve disappeared. Gone.  I sit in silence.  Waiting. Waiting for what will never come.  Please help me fix my house. Help me find my muse.  Create a warm friendly place where ideas will want to grow and prosper.  To anyone who will listen; to anyone who cares; I pray for my inspiration.

Thank you God for all the gifts you have given me and for Jesus and the sacraments, and the Oreos, and other sacred things.  Thank you for letting Stanford lose, I really appreciate it.  But God, I want to ask you today for something important. I need inspiration, a continuous stream of it, so I’ll never have to stare blankly at a piece of notebook paper ever again.  Also I could use a good notebook, so I don’t have to use a single piece of paper again. And I’m not trying to be a nag or anything but where were you at Notre Dame’s last game?! I mean, come on, it’s your wife’s team, we really needed you. Don’t disappoint me at the BYU game. Amen.

Give me the strength to get over myself. Fill me with humility, with graciousness, with anti-ego and radiance. I have been blessed in my life and want to bless others. Give me the strength to communicate in a way that is meaningful. Wrap my knuckles and tendons and fingernails in lubricant, not so I can pleasure myself, but can pleasure others with pen or key strokes.  I have lived happily in my life and want to bring happy to others. Give me the strength to be satisfied in my life, but still look to the heavens.

 Lord thank you for all that you have blessed me with. You have given me a pen. You have given me a paper. You have given me a support system. You have given me a head full of thoughts. You blessed have blessed me infinitely. Forever I am yours for this. Just one or two quick questions: Do I have what it takes? Can I make a living off this? Thank you again for those blessings. Amen.

I am afraid of losing the desire, the juice that keeps me writing. I am afraid that it will be finished with me before I am finished with it. Please, make sure that it never goes away. I love the desire, the motivation to write. If it leaves me, I will not know what to do.  It keeps me inspired and driving. Will you make sure that it never goes away? Will you make sure that the feeling of contentment that I feel when I sit down at a keyboard or stare at a piece of paper stays with me until the end? 

Writing the Vignette: A Lesson Plan for Generating Memories from Place

generating memories from a top-to-bottom space

This lesson takes about 30 minutes to complete, and it has three parts: visualizing, listing, and writing.  The objective is to generate memories from a specific place.

In E.B. White’s luminous essay “Once More to the Lake,” White writes about taking his son on a vacation to a lake in Maine that he visited with his own father during the summers of his youth. White recalls his memories of the lake, the cabin, the local restaurant, and the summer weather in clear, sharp prose. While his writing is a model for eloquent, simple style, he also tells us a thing or two about recalling memories. On reminiscing, White writes: It is strange how much you can remember about places like that once you allow your mind to return into the grooves which lead back. You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing.

For some reason, my students, who range from 14 to 18 years old, have as difficult a time remembering their childhood as many of the adult students I teach during summer workshops.  While it might seem unbelievable to adults that someone who is only 10 years removed from their 6-year-old self would have just as hard of time remembering those moments as someone who is 40, this experience has proven true in my classroom over and over.

In order to help my students of all ages to “return into the grooves which lead back,” I ask students to draw on the physical realities of a place before trying to mine that landscape for significant memories.

Visualizing: First I ask students to close their eyes and visual a small interior space from childhood—a bedroom, a porch, a hall, an attic, a kitchen.  The space should be a place they can imagine walking through and noticing things to the left and right of their walking path.

I say: “Imagine you are walking through this space. As you walk, stop often and look to your right.  Notice the individual items there –the floor, the walls, the paint, the light switches, the tables or bookcases or lockers, the plants, the windows.  Are there animals or people there? Now look to your left; notice the individual elements there – the walls, the floors, the ceiling, the furniture, the hardware, the plants, the animals, or people.”

Listing: I spend about three minutes having students silently visualize this space with their eyes closed before they ever start to write anything. Then I ask them to get out their writing notebooks and draw three vertical columns on a clean, fresh page.

I say: “Okay, we are going to walk through this space again, but this time with our eyes open and taking notes about the things on either side of us.  Imagine yourself at the bottom of this space. Maybe you are standing at one end of a hall or at the door of a room or on the edge of your grandmother’s front porch.  Walk through this space again slowly, and starting at the bottom of your page, jot down all the items that you noticed as you walk through.  Write down all the things you notice on your right in your far right column. Write down all the things you notice on your left in your far left column.  Leave the middle column open.”

Writing: I give students about seven minutes to list as many things as possible. I encourage them to fill both columns, from the bottom up, with items without describing them in too much detail. The list is only to serve as a reminder of the physical items that were present when a memory was made.

I say: “Now that we’ve recreated two lists of items that would be in this space if you were to return to it and walk through it, I want you to write, in the center column, the memories that you associate with this place. You might want to list, number, or bullet these items or you can just start describing the memories that you have of this space.   Once you have filled up the center column, continue on to the back of this page using the whole page to explore the memories that this space holds for you. If you get stuck, return to the three columns and put yourself back into that space, using the items that you noticed as you ‘walked’ through to jog your memory.”

I give students 20 minutes to write.  During this time, I creep around the room, peering over their shoulders to see what memories have surfaced.  I often jot down two or three lines that startle, surprise or tear my heart out to read to the class later when I wrap up the lesson.

This writing activity may or may not lead to a finished piece, but students have resurrected something from their past that they might choose to write about in the future.