Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Humble Pie and Other Savory Figurative Expressions

While discussing idioms, a student asked me whether making someone "eat humble pie" could be a good thing. I said it could be good for the "eater," if the "server" doesn't embarrass him in a mean way, but rather, allows the "eater" to digest his mistake and correct it. I explained that the phrase is similar to "making someone eat their words," or take back what they've claimed and then apologize for offending people. In trying to find new ways to explain the old saying, I came up with this metaphorical line:


Creating memorable, original metaphors and similes is no easy task. While reading aloud with my students, I call their attention to masterful metaphors and spot-on similes whenever we encounter them in poetic prose. Sometimes I turn our analyses of apt expressions into lessons.

For example, in one lesson about writing fresh--rather than trite--words, I ask students to analyze the plethora of lively similes used by children's book author Bruce Hale in his "Chet Gecko" mystery series. Even though the series targets 8 to 12 year olds, the similes are even more appreciated by ages 12 and up, I've found. We discuss what makes Hale's figurative language memorable--their humorous, surprising comparisons, as well as the fresh twists on old sayings--such as: "It brought more trouble than a busload of candy-crazed chipmunks on Halloween night." I ask whether the opening phrase, "it brought more trouble than," sounds familiar--as in the old saying, "it brought more trouble than a barrel of monkeys." (Some kids recognize that saying, and some don't.) I then point out that the humor of Hale's chipmunk simile is doubled by his twisting of the expected old saying into a fresh, new version. Next, my students choose from a list of Hale's hilarious similes and metaphors a few lines to try rewriting in their own fresh words. 

Here are some samples by 13-year-old F.H., written in response to Hale's memorable lines:

Hale's simile: "The two bruisers advanced on us like a pair of tanks against tricycles."
F.H.'s version: "The two bruisers advanced on us like a shopping cart on Black Friday."

Hale's metaphor: "A buzz-saw voice sliced through the hubbub."
F.H.'s version: "An angry voice broke through the milk drinking contest for the lactose-intolerant."

Hale's simile: "Recess came, sweeter than a honey-covered fruit fly after a plateful of brussels sprouts."  (A gecko's perspective of sweetness, remember!)
F.H.'s version: "Recess came, sweeter than a burning of math text books."

A carefully written figurative expression not only has the power to amuse and/or broaden the reader's perspective, but also the power to develop the character of the narrator or character who uses those poetic words. F.H.'s last simile, above, shows us his narrator's level of love for math books--right? (Or maybe F.H.'s…)  

Anyone involved in teaching or learning about writing can benefit from emulating this exercise. As you read any story, fiction or nonfiction, note figurative expressions that you admire; copy them down; try to make them your own by altering the words as F.H. did. It's a great exercise of your figurative language skills, your humor, and your practice of "showing, not telling." And it will enhance your awe for words as it develops your own awesome writing!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Art Gives Birth to Art: Poetry Born of Photo Prompts

My students, when writing fiction, have heard me coach them with a lot of film references:

  • "Your words are the cables that connect the DVD playing in your mind with the DVD player in your reader's mind." (I used to say "video" and "VHS player," so you know how long I've been using this metaphor!)
  • "When you write dialogue, think of yourself as a film or TV director, and make your characters do interesting actions while they talk, actions that show us who they are. Like the old saying goes, 'Actions speak louder than words' sometimes."
  • "Be sure to add description and action to a dialogue to bring it to life like a movie in the reader's mind; otherwise, if you use only dialogue, it's like listening to a radio show, not a movie."
  • "Movies don't start with 'once upon a time'; they pull you right into a scene, and then allow you to figure out what's going on. Write that way, starting with a scene."
  • "When you switch speakers in a scene with a lot of dialogue, you indent to help the reader follow who's speaking; it's like a close-up shot in a movie, alternating from one person to another, during a conversation."
  • "You can show a character with greater depth, sometimes, via the reactions of other supporting characters. Like in a movie, when an actor says a line, and the others raise their eyebrows and nudge each other, the viewers question their first impression of the main character, which makes that character more interesting."
  • "If you rely on adverbs, rather than vivid verbs, to show how an action is done, you're not showing a scene."

My students also hear me comparing the editing process to sculpting or painting:
  • "Your first draft is like a piece of wood or stone that you've carved with a basic shape. Then you start editing, or sanding your sculpture, adding texture and changing the form in certain spots. You might chip off certain pieces and then smooth them over again. That's what I call 'editing for substance.' Finally, you polish the sculpture with shellac, or whatever polish you use--and that's the proofreading stage, where you fix the spelling, punctuation, and grammar mistakes and make the whole piece shine."
  • "Start your scenes like a painter starts filling a canvas. Add color with descriptions and actions. Add texture with words that convey a certain mood."
  • "When you overuse figurative language, it's like filling a wall with beautiful paintings that all compete with each other so you don't know where to look or what to focus on. One well-placed painting, like a strong metaphor or simile, will draw your eye and make you think, but too many will overwhelm you."

And when I teach poetry, I often give musical references:
  • "A poem is a song without music; its rhythm can evoke mood as much as its words."
  • "You can rap a couplet poem!"
  • "Repetitive phrases act like a song chorus, to make the reader remember the point of the poem."
In short, what I'm writing about today is this:

The appreciation of art prompts the creation of art--and vice versa.

That is why I not only talk about other art forms to teach writing, but also use those art forms as prompts. Today's exemplary student work was prompted by a photo of a boy blowing bubbles while sitting in a wheelchair. The poem, by P.K., age 11, reflects extraordinary empathy from the able-bodied poet. 

Popped Bubble

have courage
whereas I
have fear.
They have courage to fly away,
but I have a fear of standing up.
They have the courage
to face danger in the world,
but I have a fear
of confronting life.
can fly
as high as they like,
but nobody
will get in their way.
always get in my way.
They push me till I can no longer stand.
If I try, they will push me again.
They do this until
I am powerless,
I am a popped bubble
in a wheelchair.

Enough said!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Poem Prompt To Elicit Introspection about Friendship

I asked students to read a poem titled "Pen Pal," about a best friend whose identity is revealed at the end to be paper itself. We discussed the traits of an ideal friend, and how to show these traits via examples, not mere labels. (The full lesson is available on One of the exercises calls for students to write a mock “Wanted” advertisement, describing in as few specific words as possible, the best friend they seek. I told them not to use trait words, such as “compassionate,” but rather, to SHOW the traits they seek with examples (such as, “She always makes room for me when I need to express my feelings”). I also told them to make every word count, practicing the “economy of words” in their ads or poems. This was one of my favorites:

By K.E., age 12

*A person with an open mind, open heart, and open arms
*A person able to pick me up in my most shattered state
*A person who can glue me back together with kind, reassuring words
*A person who can accept any and all of my differences and can love them
*A person who will support me when doing the right thing, but argue against me when doing wrong
*A person who can see the worst part of me and never tell a soul
*A person who can sit down with me when I’m crying and weep next to me, even without knowing what’s happened
*A person who would be able to put everything down to rush to my side

If found, please contact me at 1-800-Find-Plz

Please tell K.E. which of her lines moved you most by leaving a comment below.

Friday, November 8, 2013

An Eleven Year Old's Passionate Response to an Equally Passionate Essay in TEEN INK magazine

This essay response made my eyes teary as my student read it aloud, not only because it is extraordinarily well written for a 6th grader, but also--and even more importantly--because of the heartfelt connection between a preteen and a teen via passionate words.

In the informal essay, “Of My Generation,” [TeenInk author] Amal Oladuja talks about the lives of today’s generation. The tone of this essay is very unique. It is sarcastic to most parents who might be reading, but something kids can relate to their own lives. A sentence says, “I am expected to thrive academically, eat healthily, sleep regularly, exercise frequently, socialize freely, converse openly—al the while managing my time efficiently.” When an adult reads this, he/she may have a reaction like: “This is really what our children think of their lives when we try so hard for them?!” But that is exactly what parents are doing wrong. They try too hard to make their children meet the perfect expectations of society. Instead of thinking of the child as a person, they think of them as a tool.

The tone of Oladuja’s essay suggests that life is something he has no say in. Almost every paragraph starts with a commanding verb: “I am expected to, I’m supposed to, I’ve got to, I belong to…,” and so on. Also, the way the writer puts everything in an extreme compare/contrast situation hits every reader hard with different emotions. Personally, I can relate to this essay. It’s true, being a perfectionist, trying to be someone I’m not, being social, and getting straight A+’s is sometimes nearly impossible in our constricted time. Reading this essay made me realize that the “Stillborn Generation,” as Amal Oladuja calls it, may never be able to think for themselves or “breathe a suggestion.”

If you are a parent or teacher reading this, what have you learned from this young writer?

If you are a kid yourself, can you relate to this pressure, and how would you like to see our attitudes toward education change in the U.S.A?

I highly recommend the publication TeenInk for thoughtful kids ages 11 and up.


Thursday, October 31, 2013

Word-Spinning with Euphemisms, Slanted Words, and Partial Information

My lesson on "The Power of Words To Manipulate Readers," was one of the recent favorites of all of my students, because it allowed them to play with words and see how they could “modify” or “spin” facts to soften harsh realities and control the reader's perceptions. The full lesson is available on my page at ( Students wrote for each other a brief, direct description of a criminal's life story, and then they rewrote that story with euphemistic descriptions to make the criminal sound like a hero, without actually changing the facts. This verbal manipulation was a challenge my students met and enjoyed, a challenge that taught them the subtle power of words to alter a reader's perspective. It also taught them the importance of critical thinking and critical reading to avoid being unwittingly manipulated by alleged nonfiction articles.

Here are examples of the "straight stories" versus the "spun stories":

The Life of John Carlton, by D.S., age 10 (He wrote both parts of his story.)


John Carlton Smith, also known as The Smashing Smith, was illegitimately born on September 22, 1935 to an unemployed migrant worker from Cuba, Jason Cortez Smith, and an immigrant from Mexico, Cortina Carlton Hermana. Both illegally immigrated to the United States, but were allowed to stay because their son, John Carlton Smith, was now an American citizen. From what records exist, it seems that Smith was a good student when he was young, getting accepted into Harvard University. However, his grades fell rapidly, and, in his second year, suspended for "destruction of private property and public property belonging to the State of Massachusses.” He was forced to hand over his name, signature, and photograph to help the police track him down if he ever began illicit activities again. It seems that, after both his father and mother died, John quit college and bought a passage to Calcutta, India, under a 2 month work visa. After the two months were up, John, having joined a multinational ring of drug dealers and thieves that frequently paid visits to the Louvre in Paris, and the Metropolitan in New York. He smuggled 82,108 tons of heroin and opium before he was arrested and tried by authorities in Afghanistan. He died of a heart attack on September 23, 1999 while serving out a lifetime sentence in Afghanistan.


John Carlton Smith- (22 September, 1935 – 23 September, 1999)
John Carlton Smith was born to a Latin-American heritage on September 22, 1935. His parents, Jason Cortez Smith and Cortina Carlton Hermana, were both immigrants from the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico. They worked on farms in various locations across America, eventually meeting each other at a farm in the heartlands of America. Despite the fact that he had to transfer schools multiple times, he was able to maintain a spotless record through the first year of college. He attended the prestigious Harvard College. He maintained the spotless record even until the beginning of his second year at Harvard. That year, he had the honor of meeting with state officials, even giving his name and photograph to them. After his mother and father passed away, John decided to take a break from college, and headed on a ship bound for Calcutta, India. He planned on staying only two months, but ended up being employed by a multinational drug company that serviced millions of people worldwide. He also took up the hobby of collecting valuables, such as antique oil paintings, vintage items, and other such goods. He frequented museums like the Louvre in Paris, and the Metropolitan in New York. He carried over 82,108 tons of medicine and valuables before he was retired by government officials. He was invited to stay at a government facility in Afghanistan, and graciously accepted the offer. Sadly, he passed away while staying in the government facility, leaving us because of a heart attack on September 23, 1999. We all miss this man, who influenced thousands of people from the young generation, and thousands more to come.

The Story of Joseph Tissue, by B.C., age 13 (He wrote the straight story, and I "modified" it.)


Joseph Tissue was born on 1943. He is known as one of the most dangerous gangsters of all time. He robbed several banks, killed hundreds of people, and had one of the largest cocaine factories in the world. He also killed Franklin Roosevelt's cook, Pop Lolli. However, all legends and great stories must come to an end. Joseph Tissue was finally arrested in 1973 and was hung in 1975.


Mr. Joseph Tissue, born in 1943, grew up to become one of the most awe-inspiring community organizers of all time. Several banks awarded him sums of cash, and hundreds of people gave their lives for him. Tissue directed one of the world's largest drug companies, serving people worldwide. President Franklin Roosevelt's cook, Pop Lolli, laid down his life for Mr. Tissue and stories about Mr. Tissue spread. In 1973, his followers finally forced him to take a break from his busy working life for two years, at which time they invited him to hang out for the last time.

The Story of Vandals, Michael Fu and Jake Smith, by B.C., same as above (I wrote the straight story, he spun it.)


Two students at Everton Middle School, Michael Fu and Jake Smith, sprayed graffiti all over the new handball courts, depicting violent scenes from graphic novels, logos of skateboard companies, and hateful profanity directed at various teachers. Police tracked down the vandals at school the next day and arrested them, charging them with "malicious destruction of property." They were taken to the local juvenile detention center and booked for their crimes.


Artists of Everton Middle School, Michael Fu and Jake Smith, painted handball courts with their Manga heroes and skateboard sponsors, and even special notes and comments to some of their favorite teachers. However, due to their growing fame, including with government officials, they have been taken in personally for signatures and photograph signings.

The whirling maelstrom of spun words continues in my classes as I keep using this lesson to teach kids the power of words: how they influence people and how they influence us. The students doing this lesson with me also analyze editorials in search of slanted words meant to affect your opinions. If you want to try the "word-spinning" aspect of this lesson yourself, either download it from the link to TeachersPayTeachers (printed above), or simply try spinning your own stories from actual news briefs. Feel free to share your results in the comments below!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Prompted by Poignancy: More Students' Works!

I offered some middle-schoolers this poem as a writing prompt: "Listen," by Miller Williams, which ends with the line: "I've had some trouble putting it out of my mind." The poignant poem recalls a narrator tricking his dog into playing fetch with a snowball, and then feeling guilty about watching the poor dog run in circles to find the disintegrated snowball on the snow-covered ground. I suggested that my students write a poem or short story with Williams's same last line, to capture a similarly poignant event. Here is the moving poem that J.C., a 7th grader, created with this prompt.

"If Only"
by J.C., age 12

I was reading a book when it happened
Didn't feel like leaving my book to find nothing
Figured it was the wind
The forest of branches around my house trying to break in

But still the tapping persisted
The rapid knocks only growing faster and faster
And finally when I heard a tortured cry
Did I care to go see
There, with its wing at an awkward angle, a baby bird, crying pitifully
Drumming the sliding glass door

I brought it to the vet
They later told me the bird was gone
Told me he--for it was a he--
Almost made it
If only we had 2 more minutes, they said
If only you could have driven a little faster, they said
If only I didn't ignore it, I said

I've had some trouble putting it out of my mind

Another prompt for middle-schoolers was my own poem, "Aah!," which explores the many ways that exclamation is used, with different tones depending upon the context eliciting the "aah!" I suggested that students find a similar exclamation, often uttered in various tones that convey different scenes. Here is what 11-year-old S.V. wrote:

By S.V., age 11

“Wow! Thanks so much!”
Who could that be?
A little girl finally getting the much-longed-for, glamorous, pink tutu?
Or was it…a teenage girl who just won the dance contest for which she had practiced so, so much?

“Wow. You have got to be kidding me.”
Who could that be?
The same little girl who just realized the tutu wasn’t for her?
Or was it…the teenage girl sadly discovering that actually, she had lost by one point?

“Wow! I can’t believe it!”
Who could that be?
The beaming little girl hugging the new, even more gorgeous tutu that her parents just gave her?
Or was it…that teenage girl who found out that the judges had miscalculated and that she had won?

Wow…I didn’t know “wow” could be said that many ways!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

THIS ANGERS ME: The Advocacy of Sensationalism Over Integrity

One of my private writing students was assigned by his high school English teacher to write a personal narrative about a challenging event in his life. He wrote about almost winning an academic team competiton, and I helped guide his recounting of the event. He used vivid descriptions, authentic dialogue, and showed the excitement and tension that he and his team experienced, even though he did overwrite a bit. According to the rubric used by his school teacher for grading, I would have given him a score of B+. But his school teacher gave him a C- because "winning a competition is not enough of a problem." The teacher said he was looking for a stronger, more dramatic climax, something "more compelling."

But this event WAS dramatic to this sheltered 13-year-old, and he was graded not on his writing, but on his lack of depth of experience! His teacher suggested that he rewrite the story and add some bigger problem; and when our mutual student pointed out that such a revision would mean fictionalizing his memoir, the teacher told him that he didn't have to make things up, just "embellish." Such embellishment of so-called memoirs is what discredited famous "NONFICTION" books like A Million Little Pieces and Three Cups of Tea. I am profoundly disappointed by the mixed message given to my student in his school.

We do not need to raise more tabloid-level journalists or phony college-essay-writers who make up personal tragedies that end up securing "sympathy admissions" to colleges. If you ask someone to write about his life, judge his writing, not his life. Lying is for fiction--and rightly so.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Inspiring More Than Requiring

As an author, as well as a private writing teacher, my aim is to inspire awe for words and awesome writing, and to create meaningful connections between minds. Such connections enable us to see the commonalities more than the differences among us, in terms of perceptions, values, realizations, and passions. Such connections remind us that like-minded, potential friends are always within our reach, as represented by the authors (and characters) whose words resonate in our minds. Such connections help us to not take ourselves too seriously, as if we alone have our particular challenges to overcome and no one can possibly understand. Connections through words can establish fellowship among people, and mitigate loneliness and apathy. I view my lessons as my earnest attempts to teach students how to think and how to convey their thoughts clearly, instead of how to absorb others' facts and ideas without deeply pondering them, and then regurgitate those adopted ideas within predetermined formats.

To parents who mistakenly hire me to teach their kids how to write for better grades or test scores, I say that my mission is to enlighten students: to shed light on the power of words, and to lighten the load of stress that kids feel due to the quantifying of quality in language arts education. That means I nourish their minds with poetry. That means I help them grow through reading and writing fiction as well as nonfiction, essays and memoirs, speeches and private reflections. I don't care that much if my student receives a 5 or a 6 on his school's writing assessment. I care far more about whether that student knows how to assess his own personal Best in qualitative terms.

To kids who have shared with me a graded piece of writing from school, to ask if I concur with the grade, I respond directly to the matter on the page, not the letter scrawled in red ink across the top. If pressed by a student or parent for my opinion regarding a grade received, I often disagree with school teachers--and sometimes even surprise students with much lower assessments of their school work based on what I've seen from them in my classes. I once recall such a surprised student then surprising me by looking vindicated by my assessment of her teacher's far-too-generous grade. "I kind of thought the same thing," she explained, "because I saw a lot wrong with my essay, but I ran out of time and had to turn it in." That comment was my "mission accomplished" message for the day.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Student Work! A Touching Poem About Swishing Away Stress

A young teenage student responded to a poetry prompt called "Shredding the Cloak of Angst," about choosing to combat stress with an activity that either ignites our passions or soothes our souls. In the poem (which I wrote), the stressed-out writer decides to walk away from the blank computer screen awaiting her typing, and from her household and community responsibilities, to turn up her favorite music, and simply dance without thinking, dancing with her soul as well as her body. J.Z., in his poem below, finds that kind of healthy release in playing basketball. His poem shows clearly how stress-relief doesn't have to mean escaping into unhealthy patterns, but rather, redirecting oneself into fulfilling, fun activities that re-balance us.

by J.Z.

To throw out the cloak of anxiety
The one that is invisible,
Growing heavier day by day,
Crushing down my soul,
While the crying basketball
is getting softer and softer,
above the ground,
To free myself from its devastating touch,
I get my basketball shorts,
My shiny, black basketball shoes,
And turn on my ipod,
to the most pumped up songs,
I close my eyes,
then BOOM,
Im a new person
ready to shine on the court,
As I take a great sigh,
I blow off the dust in my soul,
I began to bounce the ball
On the golden ground,
Over and over again,
As every piece of dust in my soul has vanished,
I jump for my shot,
and swish, goes the net.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

This She Believes: Reflections from a Seventh-grade Student offers an enriching program on its website called "This I Believe," a collection of short personal narratives in which authors of all ages share memories associated with poignant, often life-changing realizations. I have purchased one of the This I Believe book collections for use with students as writing prompts. Most of the essays elicit thoughtful analyses and essay-style responses, followed by introspection, and finally culminating in the students' own short memoirs about what they believe, as a result of the events they recall. I would like to share a touching narrative by a seventh-grade student (names have been changed):

By K.E.
January 2013

I believe that everyone needs friends.

When I was in 5th grade, I was friends with the popular girls. One person had warned me to stay away from the popular girls. I guess I forgot that part at the time.

I heard that the supposed “leader” of the popular group was Anna. I had walked up to Anna, confronted her, and told her, “My name is Kay. Could we be friends?”

After a month or so, I had been accepted into her clique. She treated me like her other minions, bossing us around and making rude jokes about us in front of our faces. Every time I had that feeling to just punch her in the face, I told myself, “Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.”

One day, Anna left her jacket at school. Cassie, one of Anna's friends, offered to bring Anna’s jacket to her house, since they lived near each other. When we came back to school the next day, Cassie had forgotten to give Anna her jacket. We learned that day that Anna disliked Cassie a lot. She scolded me, telling me that Cassie was not the right person to give her jacket to, telling me that it was my fault. Her other followers didn’t want to be in trouble with Anna, so they nodded in agreement.

I stood up for myself and I told Anna to quit it. “It wasn’t my fault. It’s your fault for leaving your jacket at school.” At the end of the day, I went to the afterschool program. Anna and her clique were there too.

They grouped up on me and told me all the bad things about me. “You’re ugly.” “You wear glasses.” “You’re mean and pushy.” They beat me up with their words.... Finally, when Anna came to finish me off, she told me it was my fault. I had screwed up. I was the reason everything went wrong in life. It was always my fault. I had been crying for about an hour, and her words made me cry even more. The thing that scarred me was when I leaned forward to hug her, but she backed away like I was a disgusting alien. The pain of being rejected, beaten up, and unwanted left me silent for many months. I didn’t speak at school unless I was called on. I ate by myself at lunch time and shot baskets alone at recess.

The one person who came and rescued me from my prison of torture changed my life. I will always remember Ron. One day, I was shooting hoops at the afterschool program, and Ron came over to me and asked me to play with him. I said, “Won’t your friends miss you?”

He replied, “Nah. They don’t notice me anyways.”

When Ron said he would leave his friends just to play hoops with me, it really changed me and turned me around. He was the only one I sat next to at lunch. He always smiled at my sarcastic comments, and laughed when I told a punch line wrong.

All of these people changed my life, and they helped me to strengthen my mind.

My student showed obvious introspective ability in her memoir, and pride in sharing it with me. When a writing lesson can do "double-duty," it truly creates memorable words.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Given a prompt of the first line from a Robert Cormier book, Fade ("At first glance the picture looked like any other..."), I asked this student author to write the opening of a story as rich in mood-setting details as Cormier's, with a distinct narrative voice. His classmates and I enthusiastically listened to his intriguing opening, and our responses and critiques inspired him to continue writing. For a few weeks, he added scene after scene, and we welcomed and gave feedback on each installment, prompting him to look up details about animal populations in Texas, and to consider continuity issues from scene to scene. If you had sat in on one of our critique sessions, you would have thought you were listening to a group of professional editors at times! The group involvement in developing his story was marvelous, and his motivation to keep going with it pleased all of us who had the pleasure of serving as his audience. I am sharing an excerpt here:

By A. R., 8th grader

At first glance the shed looked like any other deserted shed. Its grey roof was about to fall in and the walls were wearing away. From the window in my uncle’s mansion, the shed seemed miles away. After seeing it yesterday when I came here, I had asked Uncle Dylan about the shed.

“The shed and some of the land around it was bought by an old geezer. He come limpin’ to my front door with a thousand bucks. I was in a good mood that day and gave it for a hundred because it was useless anyways,” Uncle Dylan had replied.

“Then what did he do?” I asked immediately.

“He limped into the shed then walked towards the direction back to town and came back with a big ‘ole bag. After he went into the shed, we then never saw him again.”

I was now very puzzled and curious and I questioned, “Never again!?”

“Nope, never, and I am fine with that,” Uncle Dylan replied, and he went back to reading yesterday’s edition of Houston Chronicle.

Now in the room I was staying, I stared at the shed wondering where the man was. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a red fox. It sniffed its way up to the shed. I imagined myself as the fox, curious about the shed and the ‘Geezer’ who had bought it. Suddenly, a person with raggedy clothes walked out from the shed with what looked pistol with a long barrel. He looked at the fox and shot it.

I stood there with my mouth open. Rubbing my eyes, I thought I wasn’t seeing right, but there the fox was with its blood oozing out on to the ground. The shed looked so close to me now as if I could see every detail of the fox’s limp body and the gunshot wound. What was very weird was that I didn’t hear the gunshot at all!

The old man came out again with a pitchfork this time, stabbed the body of the fox, lifted it up, and took it inside. I now had a crazy thought. Was this person going to eat the fox! Isn’t that illegal? I thought, Oh, wait this is Texas. Nobody cares about the law.

What should I do? I pondered. I had to tell someone now. If I told any adult, they would freak out and send Uncle Dylan with his rifle to shoot him. So I decided to tell none of the adults, which only left my cousin, Joe. I went out of my room and into the hallway. I started to think about what I would say if he didn’t believe me. Well forget that, I have to find Joe’s room first in this four-story mansion. It was only second day of my visit during my summer vacation here and I had not gone into all of the 26 rooms in the mansion. I ran around all over the house, checking every unlocked door. Finally finding his room on the top floor at the end of the hallway, I came in panting like a dog after chasing a bunny. I quickly took in the details of the poster-covered room. There were a lot of Sherlock Holmes movie posters and half of them were falling off the wall, and a lot of odd equipment on his shelves. What caught my eye was his only window, facing directly at the shed like mine did, which had a long sleek telescope next to it. Joe looked up from his Hardy Boy’s book and stared at me with a raised eyebrow.

“You won’t believe what I just saw. There was old person who came out of the shed outside and he shot this fox and…” I said in a hurried voice.

“Again!” Why is he doing this?” Joe quickly got up from his bed and went to the window.

I became even more confused and worried. “Excuse me, what do you mean by again? Has this happened before?” I questioned, still trying to catch my breath.

“Hold on a sec. I will explain everything.” Joe took out a blue notebook that had The Shed Investigation written across it. “June 20th, 11:30 A.M., Another animal shot by ‘Geezer’.” Joe muttered to himself as he wrote it down on the notebook.

“Hey! I want my question answered,” I demanded, now reconsidering the idea of not telling an adult. Joe counted something on his notebook and then looked up, smiling as if he was going into a daydream.

“What are you smiling about? This isn’t a joke, Joe!”

Joe, still smiling, said, “Dominic, I know this is not a mere joke. I am smiling because I found a lead.”

“So you think this is a game. Oh great, I now have a crazy cousin.” Frustrated, I sighed and slumped onto his bed.

“No! This is definitely not a game, and I am not crazy either. Just answer these questions and I will tell you everything.” Joe took out his blue notebook and asked, “Did he use a pistol with a silencer to kill the fox?”

“Now that you say that, I think the pistol had a silencer because I couldn’t hear the gunshot.”

“Okay, now explain the fox.”

“Um…the fox was fairly sized and was red, so it was a red fox and…that’s it.” I answered wondering how this had anything to do with the man killing the fox. Joe wrote this down on his notebook.

“Okay, so now I will explain.”

“Finally!” I exclaimed.

“So I will refer to the old man as the ‘Geezer’. The Geezer has been shooting animals that have been roaming near the shed. I noticed this two weeks ago and so far I have recorded 15 kills and four animals have been killed today and three yesterday. I had theorized that he was killing the animals for food. The animals range from bunnies to coyotes to foxes. But now since he has been killing more than what a person could eat in a day, I ruled that out. He has been killing bigger animals more often since more of them are being attracted to the shed for some odd reason,” Joe stated as he occasionally referred to the blue notebook. I grimaced at the idea of eating a fox or a coyote.

“What if he is storing up food for the winter or something?” I theorized.

Joe rose an eyebrow, “It’s the middle of June, not November! And you call me crazy.”

I rolled my eyes, “Whatever. Just trying to help out.”

“So anyways...back to more productive talk. There must be a reason he is doing this and we can’t be sure what it is without investigating ourselves,” Joe concluded.

I thought about how we were going to investigate the Geezer when Aunt Stephie interrupted me.

“Come everyone, lunch’s ready!” Aunt Stephie yelled from another room. I had forgotten how hungry I was in all this confusion and worrying after the incident. We decided to have a satisfying meal before heading out to the ordeal. After eating spaghetti and chicken nuggets, we went all the way upstairs again. I wondered how Joe could go up and down the many staircases constantly. We went into Joe’s room again, and I waited while Joe sought through his room for something.

“Ah…ha!” Joe then pulled out a silver pistol.

My mouth fell open and stared at it with fear and awe. “How…how…did…did…you get…get that!” I stammered.

“Oh yeah, you’re from the ‘city’. This is rural Texas, man. Everyone has guns, including sophomores,” he said as he spun his pistol around his index finger. I rolled my eyes.

“So your parents know that you have a pistol?” I asked.

“Yeah, my dad gave me this for protection from things like evil bunnies or paranoid bears. I took one clip for now,” Joe shrugged as if the gun was no big deal.

I thought, What has become of this world? We started to go downstairs to get ready to spy on a lunatic man with no spy gear whatsoever, just Joe’s pistol with one clip of ammo. At the bottom floor, we encountered my mom and her sister in the kitchen, sitting at the table.

“Are you guys going out?” Aunt Stephie questioned, and Joe nodded. “You took your gun, right?” Aunt Stephie asked.

Mom’s mouth fell open. “A gun!” my mom gasped.

I know, right! I wanted to say, but I didn’t because it would make my mom more reluctant to let me go outside.

“Yeah, we gave Joe a pistol for protection when he’s going out, because there are dangerous people and animals in the woods sometimes,” Aunt Stephie said casually.

“Well, I don’t think Dominic should go; Joe should go alone,” replied my mom.

“Aw, please mom, can I go? I haven’t gone outside since I got here. A teenager like me needs some fresh air from time to time,” I begged with my best puppy dog eyes.

My aunt agreed and tried to help out, “Yeah, it’s fine, let him go. Joe has never had to shoot at any person. He only used it once on a bunny to test it out and he missed anyways.”

“But Steph, when we were young Mom and Dad would never let us touch guns, or any type of weapon,” Mom said.

“Well Dylan has lived in Texas his entire life, and a lot of it was in this house, so he knows the area. He says it is a good idea for Joe have some kind of protection on him,” Aunt Stephie explained. I sighed because I knew this was going to go on forever. In the end, Joe would go alone and I would be stuck inside the house for two weeks.

To my surprise, my mom agreed reluctantly, “Okay, fine. But be careful Dominic!”

“Okay, okay, I will Mom. Whatever you say.” I rolled my eyes, but I still had goose bumps.

Joe then spoke, “Mom, I smell cookies, don’t I? Could you give us some of your cookies, in case we get hungry?”

“Sure!” my aunt said cheerfully. She opened the oven door with her oven mitt and a chocolate smell filled the room. Aunt Steph slid the tray out, full of fresh warm chocolate chip cookies. Joe took the cookies, thanked his mom, and finally started out the door.

“Have fun, guys,” my mom called, with little enthusiasm. I turned around and nodded, as I walked off the porch. After we closed the door, I went into stealth mode and tried to hide myself in the grains so the Geezer wouldn’t see me. I looked up at Joe who was staring at me with a raised eyebrow like I was crazy.

“Hey, there are dangerous people around here with guns,” I reasoned.

Joe shook his head and muttered, “You should have stayed home like your mom said.” He walked off unconcernedly, and I had run to catch up with him.

“So what is the plan?” I asked.

“We are gonna knock on his door,” Joe declared as calmly as ever.

“What! But he has a gun!” I exclaimed so loudly that the Geezer probably heard me.

“That’s why I have one too.” Joe turned around and un-tucked his shirt to reveal his pistol.

“And what if he doesn’t open the door?” I questioned.

“Well, let’s see what happens. I want to get a peek inside.“

“So, what are you going say if the old man, sorry…I mean, the Geezer, does open the door?” I asked.

“You’ll see.” Joe smiled slyly.

“I still don’t think we should knock because he might shoot us right when he opens the door,” I insisted, shaking in fear.

“Oh, I see now, you’re scared!”

“No, I am not! Who said that?”

“Whatever. If you’re too afraid, go back and wait for me,” Joe smiled.

I stomped ahead of him. We both stopped at the rotting wooden fence.


We ignored the sign and hopped the two-foot-high fence. "So back to the plan: you go hide in the grains right there and keep watch in case he does shoot me,” he commanded, pointing to the area right outside the fence. My stomach lurked at the thought of that. Nevertheless, I hopped the fence and lay down. After I gave Joe a thumbs-up, he went up and rapped on the door. Nobody answered. Fifteen seconds went by… 30 seconds… 45 seconds… nothing. Joe then went to the side of the shed and kicked it three times. BANG! BANG! BANG!

Suddenly the front door flew open.
* * * * * * * * *

You have just read a preview of A.R.'s upcoming novella: THE MYSTERY OF THE SHED.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Exploring Nonconformity as a Writing Theme

Nonconformity as a theme appears throughout literature for young people. To encourage innovative thoughts, deep analysis, and creative joy, novelists and poets and biographers who write for kids often present nonconformist characters as role models. I remember learning the word "nonconformist" from one of my favorite children's novels, A Girl Called Al, by Constance C. Greene. I rediscovered my joy in that book when I lent it to one of my elementary school students and we then ended up discussing the novel like two excited girls in a book club! As I pointed out to my student the line in that novel in which I first discovered one of my favorite words,"nonconformist" (a word she promptly added to her vocabulary list), I realized that my older students who were coming for lessons after hers, were both working on the same theme, via poetry prompts.

One of my middle-school-age students studied and wrote about a poem I gave her, by Shara McCallum, "The Perfect Heart," which introduces a little girl desperately hoping to please her teacher by cutting out a perfect heart using red construction paper. The girl displeases her teacher, however, because she somehow missed the directions and cut out hearts a different way, yielding what she considered imperfect hearts, which she ended up crumpling into a large pile of wasted paper. The teacher berates the poor girl as "wasteful" and "rude," rather than encouraging her nonconformity and praising her different-looking hearts. Readers naturally root for the sad girl who has been sent outside of the classroom as a punishment, and in rooting for her, root for nonconformity, too. My student's prompt was to write her own poetic memoir of a time when she differed from others in her approach to a task. She wrote about the day she solved a math problem, on the board, in front of the class, using a "more efficient," advanced method from a section of her textbook that she had not been assigned to read yet, although she had done so on her own. Her teacher examined her work, smiled as he realized that she had obviously read ahead in her book, and then proceeded to teach her method since most of the class seemed capable of understanding it as she had. This student's nonconformity affected not only her own progress, but the progress of her fellow students. She took McCallum's sad tale of repressed nonconformity and responded with her own tale of celebrated nonconformity.

My other older student that day had studied and written about a poem from TeenInk, by Farah Momen, a teenage poet. The poem, "Against the Grain," recounts Farah's experience as a little girl wiping off the classroom tables with her classmates after school. Farah's teacher instructs the kids to wipe carefully, with the grain, but Farah, noticing that the "grain" is only an image on plastic, sees no point in treating the table as though it is wood. She wipes against the grain because she can finish more quickly and proceed with more important tasks. She refuses to conform because the directions seem illogical to her. My student wrote an essay in response, using a list of quotations about nonconformity to add support for her thesis: "Society will always try to conform people into sameness because they will be easier to control; however, there will always be people who resist this pressure because they see another way to achieve success."

After meeting with both of these students, I came up with a nonconformist's dream assignment: Write a story in which Shara and Farah, the two poets, meet up as teenagers and discuss their shared experiences in a fictional scene that enables both of them to come to a shared realization about nonconformity. I gave this assignment to a third middle-school student, who immediately began writing after reading both poems, clearly inspired by each girl and wanting to connect them in a world of her own creation. She turned them into randomly assigned writing partners in an English class, and led them into a discussion that would surely have sparked a friendship if the two poets actually had met as teens.

Isn't it amazing how one word, one concept, can have such a pervasive influence on writers, readers, and even teachers!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Student Work To Share with You!

The following short story opening by an 11-year-old student/author, and the story-in-progress that resulted (28 pages at my last count!), evolved from a writing prompt that required Ronin and the other boys in his small group class to alter the first line of a popular YA book and launch their own story. I gave them the choice of a story by Robert Cormier, featuring a retrospective, first-person narrative style, and a story by Michael Grant, featuring a cinematic, first-person narrative style. Ronin chose to alter the first line of Michael Grant's GONE (a captivating first book in an equally exciting series, by the way). If you like what you've read by Ronin, let me know in the comments and I'll ask Ronin whether he'd like to share more of this compelling tale.

By R.B., age 11

One minute my Maverick SmartJET was flying on a windy day, and the next minute it was dropping. Dropping like a stone. The change was so sudden and silent that I did not have the slightest clue about what happened. My engines just stopped. I had stalled.

There was only one thing to do. I quickly radioed the airfield and Coast Guard, due to the fact I was flying over the ocean. I was close to the beach, yet not close enough to swim there once I crashed into the ocean, assuming I wasn’t crushed to death when I hit the water. I had to keep calm.

I had equipped my plane with a button to switch from landing gear made for runways to pontoons made for landing on water. I made sure that the pontoons had deployed, but as soon as I put my head out of the cabin, the air rushing by pulled my skin taut against my skull. I instantly withdrew my head, taking deep breaths. This would be one heck of a crash. I scrambled into the cabin, taking the controls. All I could think of doing was correcting the rudder to prevent an unstable crash. I had only 100 feet to go… 90…80…70…60…50…40…30…20…10…5…and just like that, water engulfed the private plane, sending chills through my skin… and everything went black.

When I woke up, I was in what seemed to be the back seat of a helicopter belonging to the coast guard. My head ached, and my teeth were chattering.

“You did a good job,” the pilot said when he saw I was awake. “Thanks to the pontoons, the plane bobbed to the surface. It’s currently being brought to the shore by boat. Right now, we’re flying to the airfield. How are you feeling?”

“I’m all right, I guess,” I replied uncertainly.

As if on cue, the airfield came into sight. I was perfectly safe, but one question bothered me: why had my engine stopped?

To be continued...

I will also be posting work by some of my other students in the coming weeks. Please know that I will happily share your kind words with them if you post them here!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Writing Instruction Resources for Sale Online...

You can find some ready-to-use, skills-focused writing exercises, whether you're a teacher or a student, on my new online "storefront," sponsored by Go to:

And please let me know if you or your students use my handouts to write something worth sharing here, on my blog! I'll be happy to consider posting your work if I inspired and guided it with one of my online resources.

Friday, May 31, 2013



5 cups of fully visualized CHARACTERS--avoid the pre-packaged “Trite” types

1 generous pinch of CONFLICT baking powder, to enable ingredients to blend and stick together

2 cups of PLOT broth, the more fluid, the better, for the smoothest batter (add ¾ cup of SUBPLOT broth to enrich flavor)

4 cups of SETTING, or settings, depending on quantity of Good Writing desired--use the “Multi-sensory” brand

1 cup of sifted THEME yeast, to make story rise to a higher level--mix in gradually

8 heaping Tablespoons of VIVID VERBS--the “Active” brand (Avoid using fatty “Passive” products of the “to be” variety,including: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, has, have, do, does, did, go, goes, went

8 heaping Tablespoons of COLORFUL ADJECTIVES--the “Showing” brand--never use adjectives manufactured by “Opinions, Inc.” or
the “Vague Co.”

10 Tablespoons of DIALOGUE--fresh, not frozen or stale--and you may substitute for nonfiction recipes 6 teaspoons of QUOTATIONS, depending on taste

10 teaspoons of SMOOTH TRANSITIONS (connective words and phrases--without any lumps or excessive and’s or then’s

20 teaspoons of PROPER PUNCTUATION--to improve flow and texture

3 cups of mixed FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE spices, according to taste, of the following varieties: similes, metaphors, irony,
hyperbole, personification

2 cups of “Proofreader’s” icing

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix first 5 ingredients ahead of time--the order of mixing is your preference--and allow to marinate before adding other ingredients.

Add to the pre-mixed batter the remaining ingredients, sifting out any of the non-recommended brands before blending. The batter may be difficult to stir at first, even after removal of undesirable ingredients, but earnest strokes, additions and deletions, will achieve the best consistency. Taste the batter, and ask a person with good taste buds to taste the batter, before you bake. Stir further, as needed or recommended by respectable taster.

Bake fully (no half-baked literary loafs, please!) until golden, at 375 degrees. Once cooled, spread onto loaf the “Proofreader’s” brand of icing, then have an assistant spread a second coat of “Proofreader’s” to achieve maximum glossiness.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Recorded Raindrops Drumming in a Gutter: A Poetry Prompt that My Students Loved

After a downpour of rain during a group lesson, I walked my students out the door and noticed sounds emanating from our rain gutter--the sounds of a raindrop percussion section. I'm not exaggerating; the beats sounded like a jazz drummer playing in a nearby studio. I ran and got my phone so that I could record the rain's "gutteral" music. The recording awed my musician son who thought I must have doctored the recording to make it sound so much like a drummer. I decided that the recording would make a great writing prompt for my students (ages 10-13), who would listen to the music and write metaphorical poems about it.

Once they had listened twice to the recording, I provided metaphorical models to help them get started. I read them my own poem about fluffy clouds as "mashed potatoes on blue gravy,/ stirred by wind"("Cumulus Potatoes"), as well as a poem by Frederick Morgan, "The Busses," in which yellow school buses stopping from house to house on a rainy street become "a stream/ dark and serene in China,/ down which sleek goldfish dart and gleam." Then I told them to start writing. Here are some of the amazing results I got today (so proud of my students!):

The Gods' Party
by A.Y., age 11

The gods must have had a party with tap-dancers that whirled about in the heavens,
A drummer stood nearby pounding out a fierce beat,
The sweat of the dancers and the drummer poured down onto the Earth,
Tapping out a beat just like the beat of the dancers and drummers,
As night fell, the gods partied harder and harder and harder,
The dancers danced faster and faster and faster as the gods partied,
The sweat of the dancers poured down faster and faster,
The sweat pounded harder and faster,
Creating a fantastic beat on the metal tube.

Man of Raindrops
By D.S., age 10

Walking home,
a rainy night,
running from awning to awning
I hear distant drums,
out here
tapping out a rhythm
No one is here,
but still
a drum beats on
I run
to another dry spot
the sound is louder,
beckoning for me to come closer
metallic ringing notes
I turn
and see
in the sheets of rain
a shimmering drummer
He walks to me,
then disappears into
the gutter.
I realize that
he, a raindrop, is the one
speaking to me
through his music.

Dancing in the Gutter
By K.G., age 11
(This poem is supposed to be indented to form a raindrop, but Blogger wouldn't allow me to paste it that way!)

tap dance shoes
On the cold, metal tube
Tappity-tap-tap, tappity-tap
Tap tap tappity-tap, my watery feet
Coming down to the ground, to create
A beautiful rhythm, tappity-tap-tap
Tappity-tap, the last beat comes out
loud and quick, as I strike my
finishing pose, TAP

Nature’s Drummer
by B.C., age 13

Nature’s drummer
Plays with a steady beat
ts tss
ts tss
His drumsticks rain down
On his hi-hats
With perfect rhythm
And they start to get faster
Ts ts ts
Ts ts ts
Ts ts ts
But suddenly
The sound starts to mumble
Plob plob plob
The gutter is now full.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Former mountains

Sand as crumbled mountains...a cyclical perspective...
See the blog post below, titled "Aim To Change the Way Your Reader Sees the World."

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Aim To Change the Way Your Reader Sees the World

Do you want a goal for laboring over word choices, to justify the time it takes to come up with that perfect description? How about aiming to change the way your reader sees the world in some small way? Now that may sound like a lofty goal, maybe even overdramatic to you; however, I achieved that goal during a private lesson the other day, according to my 8th-grade student, B.

I opened my lesson by explaining to B that "literal language says just what it means, nothing more; whereas figurative language means more than what it says." She smiled and replied, "Huh...I never thought of it that way, but you're right."

Then I presented some examples of figurative imagery. First I asked her to read this sentence aloud:

The sand is like crumbled mountains, dissolved by lapping waves.

I asked, "If you read that sentence without the simile, you have a literal description of sand being lapped by waves, right?" She read it softly to herself and nodded. "And if you substitute the simile 'like coarse brown sugar' for the crumbled mountains simile, how would the sentence change?"

She wrinkled her brow. "Hmm. Well, it would describe what the sand looked like. But it's not as good as the first simile."

"Why not? It's a sweeter image, right?"

She chuckled. "Yes. But it's not as descriptive as 'crumbled mountains.' It only says what the sand looks like, but not what it's...what it's LIKE."

I prompted her further: "Okay, elaborate on that. What else, besides how the sand looks, does the image of crumbled mountains suggest to you?"

Her eyes lit up. "Time passing! It takes a long time for mountains to crumble." I was still nodding happily as she added, "Erosion!"

"Yes, yes! So it makes you think of sand a-a-as..." I led her with my rising tone.

"As pieces of mountains, not just...sand."

"Yes!" I then gave her a short metaphorical poem I wrote as an expansion of the same image. "Here. Now read this poem, please. 'The Sands of Time.'"

She read it aloud:


Former mountain fortresses,
eroded by the sea:
the children now rebuild your grains
into tiny castles,
still threatened by the tides of change.

"Ooh, I like that," she murmured.

"From fortresses to tiny castles, eh?" I asked, smiling.

"Yeah. I never would have thought of that. That's really cool."

I was beaming, I'm sure. "Thank you. I'm glad you like it. Okay, so how does figurative language affect a reader's perception of a scene?"

She explained, "It makes me see a new perspective, something I might not see it on my own." She paused. "Like, I'll never look at the sand at the beach the same way after reading your poem."

"You've just summed up the very reason I write, B! So that I can change the way people see the world, even in a small way!"

Now she was beaming, too.

Handing her a selection of gorgeous landscape photos torn out of an old calendar, I asked her to write her own unique perspective on one of the scenes, focusing not on how it looks, but on what it looks LIKE. "Write your own metaphorical poem." She selected a photo of rolling green hills and wrote a first draft about Mother Nature covered by her thick green blanket, slowly shifting under the grassy fabric over time--a peaceful napping earth. I will remember her metaphor when I go hiking over the green hills near my home tomorrow morning!