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!

Thursday, September 5, 2019

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

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

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

by Grace L., age 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, August 9, 2019

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

Dear Parents, and Guardians of Animal School Students,

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


Principal Hank

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

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Essay Writing with "E IEI O" Structure!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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