Thursday, September 5, 2019

More Creative, Allegorical, Student Authors' Sequels to "The Animal School"

The parable "The Animal School," by George M. Reavis, consistently evokes creative responses from my writing students. Their enthusiasm for Reavis's story, which covertly criticizes the conformist, yet competitive curricula comprising many educational programs, does not surprise me; after all, my students epitomize the often underestimated, astute learners who aim to find passion and personal fulfillment in their studies. Grace and Joshua, two insightful middle-school students, responded to the parable with very different sequels, published below. Grace's sequel introduces a college scout who visits the school to assess scholarship candidates. The Eagle, who in the original story, performed the climbing curriculum his own way, defying the school rules, catches the eye of the scout not as a rebel, but as an innovative nonconformist. Joshua's sequel takes a darker approach to the topic: how schools foment unhealthy competition and dishonest, politically motivated schemes to fund their own system, at the expense of students' success and mental health. Please read these excellent stories and leave a comment for the promising authors below! 

A Sequel to "The Animal School," by George M. Reavis

by Grace L., age 12

One day, a college scout showed up at the Animal School, looking to recruit one student to receive a full scholarship.  All the students lined up, eager to prove themselves worthy. Nervous glances were exchanged when the administration announced the first event. 

“Climbing!” the administration broadcasted, as the elimination process began. Hours and hours of multiple subject tests went by before the scout declared he had enough. 

Silence filled the auditorium and the squeaks of the floorboard mapped out the steps to their fate. The microphone feedback whined, and the students shifted to the front of their seats. The scout, unbothered, flipped through his papers to declare his final decision.

“After extensively observing this school, I have reached a decision,” he states. “This year I will be giving the full scholarship to Eagle.” Confused looks filled the audience as they wondered if this was a mistake. 

Image result for eagleStill unbothered, the scout continued to state, “Eagle has shown a significant amount of talent throughout the climbing test. He was able to be impressively faster than all the other students in completing the task at hand. Meanwhile, he was able to be creative and unique in the way that he climbed the tree. To me, this shows a lot of integrity, and excellence. Eagle was able to take his gifts and use them to improve. I found his character to be unlike others, for he is unmoved by the fact that he is different. Everyone else had worked hard to be so-called ‘average’ at every subject. The college I have come here to represent would love to have Eagle, an individual, who has the ability to be creative as well as talented. To all the other students, keep working hard and soon you will achieve the level of greatness that Eagle has shown here today.” 

To this comment, mouths and beaks hung open as teachers’ eyes bulged. The student that everyone had been guilty of treating like an outcast had outshined them all. Slow claps began as Eagle made his way up to the stage, his face plastered with an expression that said, “I knew it all along.” 

Soon after this event, teachers questioned their purpose, and students questioned their goals. When the administration finally recovered from their shock,  they began to organize students into classes based on their talents and passions. Furthermore, the track and swim teams were created. In the end, Duck’s feet healed. 


Dark Days at The Animal School
(A Sequel to "The Animal School," by George M. Reavis)
by Joshua T., age 12

One day one at the Animal school, the head counselors decided to expand their acceptance. They had started accepting a variety of different organisms. The first to join was Clostridium perfringens, a form of bacteria. Even with these new organisms, the school decided to keep its current curriculum. The Clostridium perfringens was accepted early into this school due to their amazing performance in the SOT (Skilled Organism Test) and their stunning resumes. 

Clostridium perfringens, like other bacteria, were also able to travel through the air. Since the bacteria were enrolled in the wind-assisted flying program, this made them incredibly good at flying. They were also able to keep up with the fastest climbers by clinging onto the fastest climbers, ensuring their top scores. This was the strategy for most of the other events as well. The instructors were oblivious to this as they were always at the finish, awaiting the competitors. The competition was also oblivious as the bacteria were small and light. The Clostridium perfringens would jump off the animal they used, right before they crossed the finish line.
Image result for clostridium perfringens

Since the Clostridium perfringens always tied against the top animal in each competition, this pushed the top animal to train even harder to try to beat their time, staying after school or at lunch to practice. This was no use as the Clostridium perfringens always tied with them no matter what. Due to the animals training harder and harder, they pushed the limits of each subject. This forced the head counselors to push the standard even higher. 

Eventually, even the top animals had a limit and just decided to give up on trying harder. This was the same for all the other animals. If they couldn’t even beat the top animal, they would never be able to beat the Clostridium perfringens. This led to an increase in depression, drug use, and alcohol use. The school desperately tried to hide this, and they were successful. The Animal School was nominated the top school for 5 years straight after Clostridium perfringens joined. This led to more funding to make the school nicer and more recruiting of organisms even better than Clostridium perfringens. All this to hide all of the student depression and drug and alcohol use. The more the Animal School hid, the more funding and money they got. The school eventually opted out of government funding and became a private institution. Although the school had so much money, they never supplied mental health treatment for the students, fearing that their rating would drop.

Two years after the school had become a private institution, the school had 20 suicides, 75 incidents due to drug overdose, 121 incidents of fights breaking out due to alcohol use, and a 60% dropout rate.


Friday, August 9, 2019

Student Response to "The Animal School," by George Reavis

"The Animal School," a fable by George Reavis is one of my favorite prompts for middle-school students (click on the story title to read the short text, which I first read in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book). The story teaches a lesson about teaching lessons--to animals. The animal students find themselves in a school that forces them to learn athletic skills that contradict their natural abilities--like the duck who is forced to keep practicing his running on the track, and discouraged from focusing on swimming, in which he excels. Torn webbed feet and low self-esteem certainly won't motivate such a student. This fable is about teaching to students' strengths, rather than highlighting their weaknesses and setting them up for failure; it's about designing lessons to suit individual learners' needs; and it's about self-directed learning and the importance of nonconformity to inspire students to reach their full potentials. 

After discussing the story, I assign two possible writing prompts: 1) students can write their own story about an animal NOT mentioned in "The Animal School" who rebels against a teacher who ignores abilities and needs in favor of a "one size fits all" approach to education; and 2) students can write a persuasive letter to the head of the Animal School to demand changes in unjust curriculum requirements. Oliver, a 12 year old, found a unique way to complete both prompts and link them together. I was so impressed by the voice, humor, and description in his story, and by the clever letter that he wrote from the principal to the complaining parents, that I asked him to send me his final draft for this blog. Below is Oliver's tale of a fish who attends the Animal School, and makes waves, so to speak, first by beating his swan teacher's record in swimming, and then by questioning an oblivious teacher who tries to force him into risking his life by running on land. I hope you enjoy and admire his work as much as I do. Please consider leaving a comment for Oliver, below this story.

As a fish, I love swimming; I mean, it’s one of the only things I can do. Then came September 2, which was the first day of Animal School. I was so excited to meet new friends and learn new things. When the day finally came, my Mom woke me up early in the morning and brought me outside. 
“Sorry, son,” Mom apologizes, “I can’t swim you to school today, so I signed you up to swim with the duck family.”
“That’s fine,” I respond. 
“Okay. Have fun at school.” Mom hugged me goodbye.
I swam up to the surface to meet the duck family. The little duck was Kevin, who was going to be my classmate. We spent the entire swim to school talking. It was nice to have someone to talk to other than my parents. There weren’t really any other fish or animals around where I live. When we arrived at the school we were greeted by the principal. An old bulldog with tiny spectacles, he had a large head with a soothing smile. 
“Good Morning everyone, I am Principal Hank,” the bulldog announced. “I just want to say that today everyone's first class will be Swimming with Mr. Swanson.”
Mr.Swanson wanted to start the year off by assessing us. I thought it would go fine. Except there was one problem: we were being graded. This made me nervous, I didn’t know how he was going to grade us without a standard. What made me more nervous was that I was first. What if I was a slow swimmer, compared to the other water animals? Well, at least I knew how to swim. Jones the squirrel was scared out of his mind. He paced back and forth and winced at the sight of water. For the assessment, we had to swim along the shore from point A to point B. Mr. Swanson demonstrated his swan dive and finished with a time of 24 seconds. What if that was the standard? Do we have to beat that impossible time to pass?
 I was at the starting line. The instant I heard the word “go”, I swam as fast as I could. There was still a chance of beating the record. I shattered Mr. Swanson’s time with 16 seconds! I could hear the entire class cheering; Kevin was screaming his head off. A wave of relief came over me. I knew that no matter what, I would get a good grade. Kevin was next, finishing with a time of 21 seconds. Mr. Swanson was so shocked at this that he came over and high-fived Kevin and patted me on the head.
“What a relief! I think it's guaranteed we get an A. We did beat the Instructor,” Kevin laughed.
Swimming makes one less thing to worry about--or so I thought. The rest of the class was made up of land animals, except for an eel. Jones the Squirrel sank like a rock. When Jones finished, it was Fluffy the Cat’s turn. Fluffy screeched after putting a toe in the water. All of us saw the disappointment in Swanson’s face. Mr. Swanson assumed everyone was a water and land creature like himself. When he saw that only 4 out of 32 could swim, he gave the rest of the class a 1/20 while giving us a 20/20. The water animals felt awful for our classmates, so we all agreed that tomorrow we wouldn’t try, so the animals could get a good grade. It was unfair to grade like that, but before we could talk with Mr. Swanson, the next class was announced: Running! My heart sank to the back of my chest. 
Everyone is nervous on the first day of school, but this feeling was different. This feeling was dread.
“You can just talk with the teacher and you’ll be fine,” Kevin comforted.
“Al--Alright,” I respond.
Kevin walked with me to the teacher, Coach Jack.
“Sir?” I asked nervously. “Do I--Do I sit out for running class?”
“Do you have a doctor’s note?” Coach replied. 
I started to tremor and swim back and forth. “Umm, Sir—Sir… ”
“But he’s a fish!” Kevin talked for me.
“That means he is a water animal. Are you discriminating against his kind? Just because some fish can’t walk doesn’t mean all fish can't walk,” Coach Jack said sternly. 
“Are you crazy! All fish can’t run!” Kevin yelled.
“See what I mean? That is stereotypical. And watch your tone there, young man!” Coach yelled.
“I can’t run knowing my friend is going to fail because of a clearly oblivious teacher!” Kevin exclaimed. Coach Jack was swelling up with anger.
Before Coach Jack could say anything, the eel from swimming class joined in: “I can't either.”
“This is outrageous!” Coach Jack stomped. “You three just earned yourself detention after school!”
Coach Jack was in the opposite of a fantastic mood, especially when I stayed in the water. He constantly tried to drag me on shore to run. When the other students saw this, they knew something was wrong.
“What are you doing?” Jones the Squirrel questioned.
“He won't--won’t participate in running,” Coach struggled, trying to catch me.
“Stop, I can’t—I can’t breathe on land,” I protested.
“Stop with the excuses! I’m not in a good mood, just cooperate,” Coach responded.
“But fish can’t swim. Stop it!” Jones exclaimed.
“What is wrong with you children!” Coach Jack gave up.
The rest of the students were crowding around Coach, trying to protect me. Tim the Turtle hid me under his shell, while George the Eaglet snuck behind Coach.
George was always a bit of a trouble maker, and now was no exception. This time he was doing it to help me. George picked up Coach Jack with his talons and dragged him away.
“How does it feel?” George taunted.
This unruly event became the start of many complaints and, some might even say, a rebellion. Weeks later, Coach Jack was fired and everyone tried to forget the events that happened. Complaints were still being sent and the school seemed as if it were about to come to an end, until Principal Hank sent out a letter.

* * * * *

Dear Parents, and Guardians of Animal School Students,

We have heard your complaints about our educational system. The system comes with many pros and cons, so try to see the situation from our perspective. We believe our children should be well-rounded, instead of being like a one-trick human. This opens a plethora of skills and opportunities for the kids (not just goats). The most important would be for safety. Who knows when the children might have to climb a tree to escape? Maybe they fell into a lake where they could drown, or even fish could wash ashore. The skills taught at Animal School would prepare them for those situations. Safety should be a priority for a parent, right before happiness. Our children need to discover what they love. 
When I was a young pup, my favorite activity was running. I would always race to the top of a hill with my friends or play games like Tag. One day my friends and I raced around a lake. I was so scared of falling in the lake that I didn’t pay attention to anything in front of me. Ironically, I tripped on a tree root and fell into the lake. I started to kick my legs frantically and swung my arms, and I found myself swimming. I loved it. Even today I swim every weekend at that same lake. This is the reason I created Animal School, to help children learn their true potential. Perhaps I shouldn't have to push the kids to do the impossible. Next school year, I will implement new classes personalized for the students. Fish no longer have to take running or climbing, but will learn jumping out of the water. Ducks will be able to take modified running, and no longer need climbing. I hope this satisfies your complaints, but just remember to encourage your children to learn new things. 


Principal Hank

Clearly, Oliver thoroughly understands the messages of the original story, and I applaud his sequel, which is more memorable even than the original story!

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Essay Writing with "E IEI O" Structure!

          I have focused many of this summer's private lessons with middle-schoolers on strengthening their essay-writing skills. No amount of outlining or filling in graphic organizers has as much influence on my students as deconstructing sample body paragraphs based on my E-IEI-O mnemonic device for the five essential elements of every body paragraph:

          I provide examples of both weak and strong paragraphs, and read them aloud with my students. I then give them a checklist that calls their attention to each of the five structural elements above, to consider in terms of: vagueness versus specificity in word choices and examples; whether each sentence builds upon the preceding one; unnecessary repetition of words or ideas; clarity of assertions and examples; smoothness of transitions; inclusion of contextual set-up for quotations; and the overall power of the writer's insights. After this editorial exercise, which empowers them to fill the margins with notes guided by the checklist, I assign a single paragraph response to a short story or a poem. The students may write about the theme of the literary work, or focus on the style and power of the writing. Full of the desire to emulate the strong essay paragraphs that made them exclaim, "Ah, I didn't see that!," and the even greater desire to avoid emulating the weak essay paragraphs whose margins they filled with questions and critical words, they write. 

          Today I have created this example paragraph below, for students to emulate, based on a poem from my book, Writing Success Through Poetrywhich you will find on page 52:"Thirsty Plant and Cloudy Sky." This would be helpful for a middle-school student to read and study, along with the poem (so get yourself a copy of my book with a quick click on the link embedded in the title above). 

*                     *                    *                    *                    *                      *                       *

“E-IEI-O” Example Essay Paragraph About the Theme of a Poem: “Thirsty Plant and Cloudy Sky,” by Susan L. Lipson

Structure of a theme-based paragraph about literature
E-Establish theme
I-Illustrate theme with quotations from text, set up in context
E-Explain what illustration/quotation shows the reader
I-Interpret implications of the quotation that expand on established theme
O-Overall “take-away” lesson for broader understanding of theme

“Thirsty Plant and Cloudy Sky,” a poem by Susan L. Lipson, presents a metaphorical conversation between two personified friends--Plant and Sky--in which Plant offers comfort to his “blue” friend, but not solely out of love for Sky. Plant initially exhibits compassion: “Now sob, my friend; release a thunderous yell! Shared tears help friendships grow….” But then Plant adds quietly, “And ME as well--truth to tell!” The murmured confession of the ulterior motive alerts the reader that Plant may be encouraging the Sky’s sobbing--that is, rain--to quench his own thirst and boost his growth. Although the reader may doubt the Plant’s love for his friend, viewing Plant as a user more than a giver, no harm has actually occurred, only a mutually beneficial rain. Thus, the poem teaches a lesson about the codependence between friends and the importance of looking at the outcome of our interactions as well as the intentions behind them. 

Notice especially that the essay paragraph provides enough information about the poem it discusses that you don't have to read the poem in order to understand the paragraph. Also note how the "Overall sentence" broadens the topic established in the first sentence, and how the "Interpret line" offers an opinion based on "reading between the lines" (not based on the text itself, but on an opinion of what seems to be implied).

Monday, July 16, 2018

Use It or Lose It: Keeping Writing Skills Sharp Outside of Classes

          As in physical exercise, if you don't use your writing skills and creative energy for a while, you'll lose them (well, not exactly lose, but you'll definitely make it harder to regain your "literary fitness level" after a long hiatus). Here are three suggestions for exercises to keep your writing and critical reading skills active on your own:

  • Regularly practice critical reading by writing responses on sticky notes AS YOU READ, and sticking them throughout your books. Practicing active reading this way, even with your summer "pleasure reading," will sharpen your skills and keep you actively engaged in the reading experience for maximum mental fitness! This technique will keep you attuned to admirable writing techniques that you wish to enhance for your own works, too. Use sticky notes to enable you to flip back through the book later to review what specific passages compelled, concerned, intrigued, or inspired you. (This advanced "flagging" of important lines in literature will surely benefit you when you return to school to write literary response essays or research papers: you can collect in advance, so to speak, quotations that might illuminate themes or exemplify character- or plot-building, which you can easily find later, when writing an essay.) Note the exemplary writing techniques (figurative language, imagery, rhetorical beauty of the prose, etc.) that you wish to emulate, and note why you appreciate them; note hints of plot events to come and make predictions to sharpen your observational skills; note subtle secondary or symbolic meanings that underscore the theme, and note why these implications are important to you; note expressions or events that remind you of other works--in any art form--as well as related experiences from your own life. Active reading will exercise your powers of observation and analogous thinking, while simultaneously entering your subconscious to improve your own writing. Here is a link to an article to read and use for practice in developing your active reading skills:  
 Image result for books full of sticky notes
  • Use and make lists to generate ideas. For example, make a daily list of emotional observations, with any title you want. You might list: Things I Did/Noticed Today that Made Me Feel Relaxed; or People I Miss and Why I Miss Them; or What I Planned To Do Today and What I Actually Did; or What Made Me Angry/Disappointed/Sad/Lonely/Joyful Today, etc. Lists of your own devising can illuminate a lot about YOU to study and turn into stories, too. Also make lists of objects and/or people you notice, randomly, and turn them into parts of a story. The great Ray Bradbury advocated list-making to generate creativity; check this out: . Find lists of writing prompts and see what triggers you to write for 15 or more minutes. Here's a list for you: 365-creative-writing-prompts. And here's another great source for conjuring stories from lists (one sample page from the link is pictured below):
    Related image

  • Take a novel, short story, or poem that you haven't read (yet) and jot down the first line on a blank paper, or type it onto a blank computer document. Continue from that line to write a story or poem that uses the same tone and diction set by the line you borrowed. When you feel that you have finished a scene with a beginning, middle, and end, set it aside and read the work from which you borrowed the opening line. Notice how yours picked up on the language used to create your own ideas; notice any similarities and differences between the path of your work versus the work from which you borrowed. Now go back and change your opening line to make the story/poem entirely your own.
          Those are just a few ideas for exercising your literary muscles this summer. Feel free to share your thoughts for creative sparks or your results from trying these prompts, below.... 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Promising Middle-School Age Poets Explore Perspective with Humor and Innovation

          Here are the results of prompting my 11- and 12-year-old students to write poems with verse openers borrowed from another poem, by Kirsten Smith, from her poetry novel The Geography of Girlhood. The goal of this lesson was to explore perspective: how someone else sees us, and how they may underestimate or misunderstand our ways. I challenged my students to emulate the tone and format of Smith's poem by modifying her opening phrases to begin each of their own verses. This collection of four poems shows extraordinary introspection, innovation, intelligence, humor, and skills. And I must credit each poet for diligence in both writing and revising, and then sending the typed final versions to me for inclusion on my blog. These are some serious future authors here!

By W. D. MacLeod, age 12

[The prompt was to write a poem about how other people see me, starting my lines with the words To them I am, Because of meThey hope I will, and I will eventually.... It was a lot of fun to write, so enjoy!]

To them, I am the reminders and the redirections, and of course the exasperated “Williams!”s.  I am the kind of kid who not matter how bright he is
Lunch Box.

Because of me, they always must keep watch for me. They shake their heads and chuckle 

They hope that I will eventually get better, get my head out of the clouds.  “Get a wife!says my Dad.  “Write a list!” says my Mom.  But I won’t get a wife anytime soon, and lists…

I will eventually get better.  Maybe I will need a list or a wife, but one thing is for certain:
I Like It Up Here In The Clouds!

Zucchini Jeans
By Lucy M., age 12

To her, I am a nuisance.
I am an ant that steals from her,
A fly that buzzes around her head.

Because of me, she is always covering her ears
To save herself from the squeaky violin sounds
That come out of my room.

She tells me she hopes I would stop following her around 
everywhere she goes,
And she wishes I would stop calling her “Zucchini Jeans.”

And I will stop bothering and following her,
And I will also get better at the violin,

But what she doesn’t know is that I’m
secretly making weird noises to drive her crazy,
Because once she goes to college,
I won’t be able to do that.

           The following poets chose to write not about themselves, but about some other narrator who is misunderstood. I have found that some writers avoid direct introspection in their work, preferring to delve into personally compelling topics through fictional representations. 

Dirt Bomb
By Allison, age 11

To her I am a dirt bomb.
My paws are earthquakes on the wood floor.
My tongue is a leaky faucet, leaving drool everywhere.
My toys are land mines all over the house.

Because of me, she’s constantly cleaning mud off the floor.
She’s always scrubbing a trail of grass stains that never seem to go away.

She hopes that I will be a winner.
One who leaves the dog show with an actual ribbon,
not a “good job for trying” certificate.
But for now, I’ll just eat the certificates. 
I will eventually be the top dog in the show.
I will have gleaming fur,
and I’ll leave no messes, other than...
you know. 
When she wants to find me,
I’ll be at the end of a $100 leash,
marching up to the dog show’s door.

Image result for coexistence with animals
By Joshua, age 12

To us, they are small,
Inferior to our knowledge
And our thirst for innovation.
To us, they do not know
That we take their land
For the good of mankind.
To us, they are selfish.
We live here, too.
We deserve a part
Of this great useful

To them, we are invasive.
They were here first.
The land, trees, rivers
And beautiful nature
Belong to them.
We are selfish.
We only care for ourselves
And our filthy, yucky civilizations
That take up
Their beautiful,
Natural world.

To each other, we are selfish,
But we truly aren’t.
We just use this land
How it was intended to be.
Although you are selfish,
Although you are dumb,
I’ll be the better man/animal
And coexist with you.

Robin Hood
By Christopher W., age 12

To them, I am a criminal to be rid of.
I go around stealing from men who bathe in riches.
They won’t miss a penny.

Because of me, the poor are alive and well,
Going out to the bustling market with coins in their pocket,
Which without they might as well be dead. 

The wealthy are always complaining about me.
They hope I will eventually be caught.
Wanted signs here and there, the reward going up and up.

Commoners are my best friends,
They will not hand me over. 

They will eventually give up.
The poor need me and the rich know they have no choice. 
This prosperous era will not come to an end until I lie in my grave, 

For I am Robin Hood.