Monday, March 9, 2020

Prompting Fictional Scenes in Response to a Novel by Jordan Sonnenblick

      Using NOTES FROM THE MIDNIGHT DRIVER, by Jordan Sonnenblick, for a writing lesson on how to convey a distinctive narrative voice, I challenged two middle school boys to write their own fictional scenes in response to the novel. We had read aloud and discussed the opening pages of Sonnenblick's novel, just past the point when the self-deprecating narrator, who is hospitalized after an embarrassing drunk-driving accident, discovers that he now bears a scar on his forehead as a reminder of his recklessness. I asked the students, Oliver and Ryan (8th and 7th graders, respectively), to write a future scene about the protagonist, Alex, having to explain his scar to someone he has a crush on, without revealing the mortifying truth about his uncharacteristically irrational behavior. The aim of the lesson was to maintain the humorous voice of the narrator while flexing their own creative muscles. Here are the outstanding results. I hope that Jordan Sonnenblick will read and enjoy these scenes! 

1) By Oliver T.: 

     I wipe my tears with my sleeve, realizing the severity of my scar. My finger rubs against the bumpy patchwork on my forehead. What will Alyssa think? I can’t get the thought out of my mind. I start thinking about cover-up stories: "My dad was driving when a drunk driver hit us head-on;” or “I was jogging and a car ran a red light and hit me." Probably not the last one, since I would likely be dead if that happened. I’m not sure what excuse to use; all I know is that I can’t tell her the truth. 
     Surprisingly, I kind of want to go back to the hospital. That way, no one will know what I did. Yet for some reason, one small part of me believes that the truth will reveal itself. 
I almost forget that Dad is driving me home. He is lecturing me about responsibility for the third time this week. I drowsily listen, trying not to fall asleep, or, at least make it look like I’m not asleep. 
    "You need to be more careful, always ask yourself before you do something if it is beneficial. Use that brain of yours. If you really are my child you should have at least some part of my intelligent brain," my dad lectures.
     He drops me off at Mom’s place, where my mother takes me up in a loving embrace. "I am so glad my boy is home," Mom says, squeezing me in a hug. "I hope you are alright."
     I know exactly what will happen next. Oh no, here it comes. I brace myself for my mother to change her tone and slap me on the cheek. She always does that when I mess up, but instead, Mother releases me from the hug and takes a good look at me. She looks at my tired, disappointed self and hugs me. "Go to sleep now. You still have school tomorrow," Mom says as she lets go of me.
     "Alright, Mom, Goodnight," I say, trying to have a cheery tone. I limp over to my room and collapse on my bed, exhausted from the hospital, but dreading tomorrow.
     In the morning, I walk to school, my head feeling much better than yesterday, and my confidence is better as well. After all, I spent the majority of yesterday thinking about what to say. Today, I finally decide to listen to the angel inside of me … sort of. Bending the truth ain’t so bad right? My plan is to tell Alyssa … 
     Thud! My shoulder rams straight into a pillar. I fall on my butt, wincing in pain.
     “You alright?” says a familiar voice. 
     I look up to see none other than Alyssa Stone. My palms start to sweat and my legs are trembling. I awkwardly get up and wipe my hands on my shirt.
    “Where’ve you been? You were missing for the past week.”
    “I was in the hospital,” I reply. “I was in an accident.”
    “What kind of accident?”
    “I was in a car crash,” I answer. Concern fills Alyssa’s expression. “But definitely not like too severe, but … well, like really bad but … I didn’t get injured too much cuz I was lucky but, like … Yeah.”
    I wince, cringing at my weirdness. My heart starts thumping.
    Alyssa raises her light eyebrows. “Uhh … well, alright, see you later. I gotta get to class.” Alyssa walks away, biting her lip.
    “Umm, see ya later … Alligator.”
    Oh my gosh, what am I doing? I quickly walk away and take a detour to my first-period class. That was really bad; I don’t know what happened. 
     A class period passes and the accident is still on my mind. I’m pretty sure Alyssa’s not looking for a guy that wrecks cars and murders garden gnomes. All I had to do was make a normal story and avoid the truth. Shouldn’t be too hard, right?
    Three periods pass, and before I know it, it is my lunch period. Time flies when you can’t get something out of your mind. I make my way through the lunch courtyards. My friends motion me to sit with them, but I ignore their invitation. I look through the crowded courtyard and meet eyes with Alyssa. I briskly walk through the sea of students toward her lunch line.
    “Hey,” I start, “sorry about earlier.”
    “Hello,” Alyssa replies, adding lettuce to her sandwich. “What happened when you ‘got injured really bad, but not too severe, but definitely not, yeah,’” Alyssa teases.
    I laugh nervously and start to blush. “It was a car accident.”
    “Oh my gosh, what did you do? Drive drunk or something?” Allysa jokes.
    “Yeah,” I respond.
    “What?!” Allysa jumps.
    “Only joking,” I quickly correct myself, with an awkward chuckle. “I was driving … erm, my dad was driving me home when a drunk driver ran a red light and went 50 miles per hour into our car.”
     “So that’s what happened to your forehead.” Alyssa points to my forehead. “It’s a miracle that you are alright. Is your dad alright?”  I quickly smooth my hair down.
     “Yeah, I just had a concussion and some alcohol pois—I mean food poisoning … and an upset stomach. My dad is fine.” 
     “What does food poisoning have to do with this?” Alyssa implores.
     “We were at a party, and … umm, their microwaved taquitos weren’t very good for my stomach.” I gulp.
     “So, you were coming home from a party and your dad was not drunk?” Alyssa replies with shock.
     “Umm, yeah, he doesn’t drink at all.”
     “Oh, sorry to assume. But I am just used to my old man getting really drunk at parties, and still wanting to drive home.” 
     I look to the side.  My mind is overflowing with questions and shock. That was pretty personal. She trusts me enough to say that? Does she like me, too? Should I say something personal back? What do I say back? If I just respectfully leave, it won’t be awkward anymore, right? I slowly back away.
     “Well, my friends are waiting for me right now. I’ll see you in English,” I awkwardly break the silence. 
     “Me, too,” Alyssa blushes. 

2) By Ryan H.

A Truth Too Hard To Reveal
I pick up some hot, crusty bread, placing it in a little bag that has the words ‘‘Bake ‘n’ Flake’’ across the center.  I smile at a customer as I quickly pull out the receipt, handing both items to him.
Pit-a-Pat, Pit-a-Pat, footsteps of employees and customers echo into the pleasant morning air as the aroma of sweet bread drifts under my nose.
Finger-combing the long strands of hair that cover my forehead, I glance around.  My eyes stop like an eagle spotting something interesting.  Amelia, I look at her, feeling a mixture of enthusiasm and eagerness as I steadily walk towards the table where she’s sitting at.
“Ahem, hi… Ummm... everything’s alright here?” I ask.
She always arrives in the campus bakery in the morning for coffee and mini-croissants, and I’m satisfied I have the morning shift.  I really can’t keep my eyes off her.
“Yeah, everything’s fine.”
I gesture towards her shirt that says “Class of “2020,” saying, “Hey, I think you’re in one of my classes.”
I stupidly grin and push my hair back.  Suddenly, her eyes change, they looked a little wide, maybe even concerned.  I swallow, pulling down a few strands of hair.
       “Where did you…” She paused.  “...get that huge scar over your forehead?”
       I gaze down, feeling her eyes dig into my forehead. “Ummmm… when I was young… I actually fell off a tree… and got a couple of scratches here and there.”
       “Oh, I’m sorry….my brother loved to climb trees as well.  He always fell off, too, but didn’t get too many gashes.”
       I quickly look away, realizing I have been staring at her light blue eyes so intently.     “Yeah, cool!” I blurt. “I mean...” Amelia looks at me, confused. “You know… I mean…uhhhh…It was nice talking to you, Amelia…”
       “You too—” she glances at my nametag—“Alex.” She quickly sits up and walks out as if in a hurry.
       Soon, my shift ends, and I see the bright yellow sun glistening in the warm afternoon through the windows of the bakery.  I scratch my head, as I head toward my sedan, looking back toward the table where Amelia had sat.  Where l had lied to her.  I rub my hand along the long, jagged, scar.  I let out a sigh as I step into my little car, taking my apron off and placing it on my bulging backpack.
       Screeeeeech!! I slam the brake as my car jolts to a sudden stop.  The student who was crossing the street backs away, shouting, “Man, are you drunk!? You could have killed me!”  He raises his hand, sticking up a nasty finger, baring his teeth, and cursing all the profanity I’ve ever heard in my life.
       I mumble under my breath, “No, I only kill garden gnomes.” I realize I’m not breathing.  I take a deep breath, feeling a throb on my forehead.
       The memory ripples over me like a vast wave, the time I had driven drunk and crashed, leaving behind a pile of crumbled gnomes and the zig-zag on my forehead.  I look down at  my white knuckles, as I grip onto the leather wheel.  How in the world would I have gotten a scar from falling off a tree?  And if I did, it wouldn’t be on my forehead, since that would mean I would fall on my head, and I’d probably be dead....

Monday, February 3, 2020

Prompted by Chris Baron's ALL OF ME, a novel-in-verse...

     After finishing Chris Baron's middle-grade novel-in-verse, All of Me, I wholeheartedly recommended the book to my small group class of seventh- and eighth-grade creative writing students. I read them a couple of Baron's poems that illustrated how the conciseness and preciseness of poetic words can engage readers and reveal characters in ways that simple prose does not: poetic novels compel readers to interpret the subtle implications within each carefully chosen poetic word, as well as within the spaces around those words. What is not said outright in a poem, only suggested, often conveys meaning and tone as much as what is said. The ensuing discussion, prompted by my questions, such as "So what can we guess from this poem about Ari's relationship with...," led to a talk about how real friends should respond to shared pain, and how awkward it can be to share or hear deep secrets; how the best role models practice what they preach, while the worst ones act like hypocrites; and how strange it is that we never see ourselves the way others do, and how we might be less hard on ourselves if we could. 

     I then read to them, as a writing prompt, a section from one of Baron's poems (on pages 96-97 of All of Me), in which the protagonist's best friend describes "how you're supposed to look at art" in a way that leaves her "face beaming with joy." I asked them to write a poem about how to look at poetry. Below, in their own handwriting, unedited, are photos of the drafts that five of my middle-school writers produced in class. I was so pleased by the thoughtful words that I asked permission to photograph their poems and post them here. Now, please read their poems about how to read poems--how "meta," right?--and then reread them once you have learned how to do so! 

Please leave your comments about what you have learned from these poets about poetry. They would love to know they've moved you in some way!

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Poetry Prompting Poetry: Inspiring Introspection by Sharing Deep Thoughts

  Evoking introspection by sharing thought-provoking poems enables me to catalyze growth for young writers, in terms of both their writing skills and their self-understanding. Evidence of such growth often arrives in the form of poetic responses to my own poetry prompts, as illustrated below:

THE PROMPT: Write a similar poem about unfair assumptions you've made.
About Assumptions
by Susan L. Lipson 

I read your scowl as a snide comment
about me,
and prepared to throw the book at you,
but then you revealed the grief between your lines,
and I reread that scowl as a grimace of pain,
about you.
Guiltily, I snapped shut the book of judgment,
which wasn't mine to read.


by Caleb T., age 11

I’ve had some trouble putting it out of my mind.
Quiet, thin-eyed = older.
Loud, wide-eyed = younger.
In between = middle.
I hope that no one hears
And thinks that I judge too much
The perceptions of people’s ages.

Assumptions  facts.

ANOTHER PROMPT: Use the bold-lettered words as a framework for 
your own poem on the same theme, or reverse the objects and subjects,  
changing "you" to "I/me" to show the opposite view.

Old Blanket
by Susan L. Lipson

To you, I was an old blanket,
Covered in teddy bears and hearts,
Warmth from younger days.
But now you see me as threadbare,
Unappealing, too babyish,
Something for the storage chest.
To me, you were my best childhood friend.
But now I know you as the one who
Discarded me for a new comforter.


Former Commander 
by Ethan C., age 10

To me, you were my commander,
Helping me with everything I do, 
Memories of the younger days.
But now I see you as a comrade,
Less cool, more average, 
Somebody just to be friends with. 
To you, I was like a soldier,
But now you know me as a fighter 
Who rose the ranks and went beyond you.

         Both of these student poets wrote their poems after a deep discussion of the various implied meanings of the prompt poem. Their sweet expressions of insightful nostalgia warmed my heart as they read me their final drafts with pride. Thanks for reading. Please leave encouraging comments for Caleb and Ethan below!

Monday, January 6, 2020

Apology to Readers Who Have Left Comments and Received No Reply from Me

Dear Readers,

It's 2020--the year of clarity (my vision-related joke for the New Year). I only today discovered, because a treasured former student wrote me a letter, that I have received numerous comments over the past months (and years) and never knew of them! I'd figured that no one bothered to leave comments. The truth, I now see, is that I ineptly set up this blog site and didn't enable the settings to notify me about comments awaiting moderation. I have just remedied this issue, and want to thank all of you whose comments elicited no replies from me. Please know that I have indeed read them today and appreciate your taking the time to praise and encourage my students, and to express your admiration for my lessons and your desire to share them with others.

Please keep reading and commenting. I will reply now, and pass on your praise to my dear students!

As always, inspiring awe for words and awesome writing,

Susan L. Lipson

P.S. Check out my other blog, too, if you haven't: see the link to the right of this post...

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Emulation Exercise To Prove to a Student that He IS a Poet

          Before he started private lessons with me, Ethan, a fourth-grade student, hadn't written or studied poetry. So I introduced him to Sharon Creech's brilliant, middle-grade novel-in-verse Love That Dog.  In that book, the narrator, like my student, is a boy who initially looks at poetry as merely a language arts class unit that is somehow related to his literary education. Through emulating the poems presented by his teacher, the fictional boy, Jack, soon finds his own style and voice, and discovers some important personal truths that he can now express poetically. Ethan enjoyed Creech's book a lot, and when I assigned him a prompt from my book Writing Success Through Poetry, he emulated Jack by emulating me. Adapting my poem's structure and style to express his own feelings about the intangible value of a personal treasure, he created "My Soccer Ball." His poem appears just below the prompt, my poem "Nana's Ring."

The very fact that Ethan willingly typed this poem and proudly offered it to me to post here--not to mention that he clearly understands the difference between tangible and intangible value--is proof enough of the benefit of encouraging emulation by young writers. Please feel free to leave comments for Ethan below.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Still Life Pictures that Paint Moving Character Portraits

         To portray a person to readers, whether that person is a fictional character or an actual human, a narrator or a protagonist presented by an omniscient narrator, avoid telling readers about him/her/them in opinion-based adjectives and judgment-laden revelations. For example, readers won't enjoy fully engaging with a character described to them as an "untrustworthy gossip" as much as they will enjoy figuring out that character trait for themselves within an implied description, such as: "Under the table, out of Amy's view, Nancy typed on her phone: 'AMY GOT DUMPED BY JOHN LIKE WE ALL KNEW SHE WOULD!' Then she typed a string of crying-laughing face emojis." The latter description of Amy's phone screen will make readers see Nancy's betrayal and decide for themselves that she is an untrustworthy gossip. The emotional impact of an illustrated tangible object--the phone and text message--has far more power than a merely "telling" phrase. 

          Using tangible objects to imply characteristics about a person is a fine way to "show, not tell" in a poetic prose portrait. Try it yourself with the following writing prompt:

          Arrange a “still life” picture of a person’s private space that evokes a mental character sketch through the implications of the assembled objects. Describe in detail such possessions as clues to reveal details, subtly, about the collector/character/narrator. Here is a still life picture of a corner of my own private workspace. What can you infer about ME from this still life portrayal? 

I have shown you implications about myself as a poet with a new book, and as a visiting author who conducts poetry workshops. I have shown you that I seem to value plants and views of nature, that I might collect rocks, that I need an overhead fan in my office, and that I probably read and highlight memorable passages, given the number of highlighters in the mug. The mug also reveals that my highlighting might be for students' papers, since it says, "Teaching is a work of heart." So, you can infer that I am a teacher. Furthermore, you can infer from the placard on the windowsill, which says, "To the world, you may be one person, but to one person, you may be the world," that someone values my presence enough to give me that gift, and that I value that expression of appreciation enough to want to see it as a daily reminder. (You can also infer, from the fact that I added commas above to my transcription of plaque's message, that I am an editor!) Do you see how that list of items gives us the basic bullet points to build a more layered character?

          But now, look what can happen when I show a character interacting with this collection of objects, to suggest some more psychologically intriguing characteristics that readers can infer--characteristics that will engage the reader and advance the plot. Let's imagine that a different woman inhabits my office, and each day, before she sits down to work at her desk, she picks up the placard and runs her fingers over the words 'but to one person you may be the world,' as she sighs wistfully. Then she dusts off the placard, sets it down like a holy relic, inhales deeply, and settles down onto her chair to start her day. Spin a tale from that daily ritual!  What if I add other objects to the scene, like a pile of wadded-up tissues beside a torn-up, hand-lettered envelope showing the character's name, "Nancy," inside a shakily drawn, red heart? Plots can build upon such subtle details. Allow your readers to play investigators or psychologists as they explore the worlds you lay before them. 

          Try setting up your own still life pictures to evoke a character and a plot. Experiment with adding and removing carefully chosen objects to focus on providing images that deepen your characterization and propel your plot. As in poetry, details should have a purpose; this exercise will strengthen your focus on meaningful word choices and keep you from bloating your prose (or poems) with unnecessary details. Now go write!

Thursday, October 17, 2019

What a Fourth Grader Learned About Superfluous Words

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     Today's featured student writing sample illustrates the benefit of teaching editorial skills simultaneously with writing skills: to enhance and encourage concise, vivid writing and a heightened awareness of word power. The writing sample also shows that students can learn even more from a writing or editing exercise when asked to recount it in a short essay, thus solidifying the understanding of what they have learned and why they needed to learn it. Such a self-directed, reflective component in a lesson enriches learning more than any teacher-led review.

     After teaching my fourth-grade student, Ethan, about the power of concise, vivid word choices, and about how to identify superfluous words to delete, I gave him some editing exercises. His eyes lit up when he realized how many unnecessary words he could scratch out of a bloated sentence without changing the meaning. Kids often love to cut out words, I've found, even more than they enjoy writing them; editing gives us power over words, even as it gives more power to the words themselves. Ethan's reflective essay paragraph (see the picture below), which he wrote after the editorial lesson, showed me that he truly understood the concept of "less is more" in writing. It also showed me that this young writer is rapidly learning to write memorable, moving words!