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!