Thursday, December 26, 2013

Late Christmas gift idea: Rory's Story Cubes

Happy Boxing Day!

Here is the link to a product/toy that encourages the kind of creative storytelling I described in my previous post:

It's a set of nine cubes about the size of board game dice, and one of those tiny plastic hourglasses. Each side of each cube has a little graphic on it : an elf, a house, a cell phone, a flower, a sad face, etc., for a total of 54 sides and...I don't know how many combinations. Lots.

You roll the cubes and then make up a story in which every image appears. Which is nice because you don't need to be able to read or write to play.

So: Once upon a time, there was an elf who was sad because he lost his cell phone. He looked all over his house, but couldn't find it anywhere. One day, a magic talking flower appeared...and so on.

There are different versions which feature different themes: "Enchanted", "Actions", "Voyages", for example, and the instructions, after laying out the official rules, encourage players to make up their own rules--gotta love that.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Story Structure, Brontes, comics

see this and more at

Tom Gauld is my new favorite artist/cartoonist. His book "You're All Just Jealous of my Jetpack" is available for purchase. Great Christmas present idea.

My other favorite is Kate Beaton (this particular sample is not so appropriate for, uh, younger readers):

more at

She has a book out, too. It's called "Hark, A Vagrant". Get it.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Winter Love Poem: "Oranges" by Gary Soto

I think I first read this in the early or mid-nineties. It was in a high school textbook, maybe, or an anthology meant for teenagers. I love the innocence and the earnestness of the speaker, and I love how sensory/sensual the poem is. It could be a film. Imagine: the lamplit porch, the girl's face--you can  just see the couple's breath in the air as they walk down the street. The bell in the drugstore, the nickel in the speaker's pocket, the orange fire in his hands at the end. Happy December.

by Gary Soto

The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
Cold, and weighted down
With two oranges in my jacket.
December. Frost cracking
Beneath my steps, my breath
Before me, then gone,
As I walked toward
Her house, the one whose
Porch light burned yellow
Night and day, in any weather.
A dog barked at me, until
She came out pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge. I smiled,
Touched her shoulder, and led
Her down the street, across
A used car lot and a line
Of newly planted trees,
Until we were breathing
Before a drugstore. We
Entered, the tiny bell
Bringing a saleslady
Down a narrow aisle of goods.
I turned to the candies
Tiered like bleachers,
And asked what she wanted -
Light in her eyes, a smile
Starting at the corners
Of her mouth. I fingered
A nickel in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn't say anything.
I took the nickel from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter. When I looked up,
The lady's eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all

A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl's hand
In mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Your Turn, My Turn: Writing Stories Together

We’ve all played this game: take turns writing (or telling) a story, one sentence at a time:
Player 1: Once upon a time, there was an ogre who lived in a castle.
Player 2: He had fifteen trunks of gold in the dungeon.
Player 1: One day, a sixteenth trunk fell out of the sky, but it did not contain gold.
Player 2: It contained a dinosaur!

It makes the blank page a little less threatening, makes room for (and even rewards) non-linear thinking, pumps up fluency.

Here are some ways to fiddle with it to make it more (or less) academic, more (or less) linear, and more (or less) predictable: 

1) Leave off the last couple of words of each sentence: 
Player 1: Once upon a time, there was an ogre who lived in a--
Player 2: --coffeeshop, because he LOVED coffee. One day--
Player 1: --he got a little out of control and ate up all the coffee beans. All that caffeine made him crazy, and the next thing he knew--

2) Make a standard requirement for every sentence.  This can be a good way to practice a specific grammatical or writing principle. Take conjunctions:
End each sentence with a conjunction: 
Player 1: Harry charged down the street, waving his hat and shouting because
Player 2: ...he was trying to catch the bus. He had almost caught it when

For these games, it helps to have a list (of conjunctions, prepositions, adverb phrases, whatever) handy.*

3) For a little more variety, make “requirement” cards beforehand labeled with parts of speech, number of words, vocabulary, silly requirements, whatever you want to focus on. Each player draws a card before his/her turn and must include whatever is on the card in their sentence. For example, if I draw a card labeled “adjective”, I must include an adjective (or more) in my sentence: He was rich, but lonely. Or I draw a card labeled “avid/Beyonce” and write: “The ogre was an avid Beyonce fan.” Maybe you’re working on sentence variety. A card labeled “two-word sentence” might yield: “Oh, no.”

4) Or use more global parameters and make it a cooperative game. For example, the story must include a setting, a protagonist, a problem, and a solution; all characters and places must have names (Frank the ogre lives in Tinkerbell Castle); the story must include a ninja, a hurricane, and a broken refrigerator; and it must be only twenty sentences long. That’s a little advanced. Maybe just start with one or two parameters. If your story fulfills all the requirements, you both win.

5) Make it rhyme. Or in rhymed couplets. Or do it in iambic pentameter. The possibilities are endless.

Sometimes even taking turns is difficult. I've found that dipping into my store of photos and paintings helps supply subject matter. We tell the story of someone or something in the picture.

*Conjunctions were tricky. Tai had a hard time ending sentences with conjunctions--we had to start off orally--just telling the story. He would say a sentence, and then pick a conjunction from the list. Then he'd say the sentence again with the conjunction at the end:
Tai: Once upon a time, there was an ogre who lived in a castle...(picks unless from the list, starts over:) Once upon a time, there was an ogre who lived in a castle, unless
Me: it was a Tuesday, when he went to stay at his mother's house in the city. On Tuesdays, he travelled 100 miles(pick a conjunction: if)
On Tuesdays, he walked 100 miles to the city if...
Tai: ...he was feeling good. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Quote of the...month: Mark Twain on Jane Austen

There are several anti-Austen quotations attributed to Mark Twain. Seems he hated her work with a rather violent passion. Here is my favorite; it always makes me smile:

I haven't any right to criticise books, and I don't do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.
 - Mark Twain, in a letter to Joseph Twitchell, 1898

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Poems: "At the Musee des Beaux-Arts" and "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus"

See? Two canonical poets followed my advice, which was to write about a piece of visual art, in this case, Brueghel's The Fall of Icarus.  Two poems about one piece of art. I love all three.

The Fall of Icarus by Pieter Brueghel

At the Musee des Beaux-Arts
W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
William Carlos Williams

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

HuffPo: 6 Ways that Writing Can Improve Your Health

As if it weren't already a good thing.

Three More Ideas about How to Combine Visual Art and Writing

  • Write what would be in the imaginary speech bubbles coming out of people’s mouths. Would it be different from thought bubbles?
  • Choose one person in the piece and write from his or her perspective--what or whom is he looking at? what does he appear to be saying, thinking or feeling? what is he wearing or doing? What is his or her place in life? This could be a poem, a story, a diary entry...
  • Make or find a 1-inch picture frame, place it on the picture and describe only what can be seen through the frame. You can do this in writing or orally, or both. See if others can place the frame in the right position after describing your part, or reading your list/paragraph. Oooh--for an extra super hard challenge, try a Jackson Pollock painting!

Coming soon: Some poetry about art.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Poem: Homage to My Hips by Lucille Clifton

Homage to My Hips
Lucille Clifton

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don't fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don't like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,   
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!

I don't think this poem really needs any comment, do you? I just love it.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Halloween Costumes and the Drug War

Feeling proud of myself because I made a snake costume for Kenzo today--I went to the store and bought fabric and everything. He was going to be a shadow until day before yesterday and then changed his mind. I kind of liked the shadow idea better because it's abstract and cool and original, plus he was going to use Tai's old Grim Reaper costume (I made that one too, because I'm just that good, natch). 

Tai is going to be a gangster. Sigh. We spray painted one of his Nerf guns black, and he's going to sag his pants, wear a wallet chain and a big hoodie and push his hat sideways. It's actually pretty funny. He's even going to wear striped boxer briefs because he figures if you can see his underwear over his pants, it should be interesting to look at. His hoodie covers his butt, though, so it doesn't really matter--it's just for authenticity's sake. I got him a big chain to wear around his neck, but he said no thanks.

He's also going to wear a bandana around his face--Old West bank robber style--that has the bottom of a skull on the outside. So much for authenticity. 

Why does the idea of a gangster costume bug me so much? More than, say, a cowboy with a gun or a Marine with a gun or a 1920's gangster with a gun? Because it's racist? Because it's violent and contemporary? I don't think he even understands what it means to be a real gangster.

The irony is that it's Red Ribbon Week (Say No to Drugs!) at his school this week. It's so awful. Each day has a theme: 
  • Do the Macarena during lunch on Monday because Heey, Macarena! (Ay!)
  • Wear boots to school on Tuesday to Give Drugs the Boot! or was it Stomp Out Drugs! or Kick the Cocaine Habit! or maybe it was Who Cares! 
  • Wear you clothes backwards on Wednesday to show that Drugs Eff You Up So Much You Can't Put Your Clothes On Right! 
  • Scare Away Drugs! on Halloween and wrap a teacher up in toilet paper at recess to make her into a mummy because Drugs Are Afraid of Mummies! Also, Dead People Don't Do Drugs!
  • Wear Red on Friday because Bloods not Crips!

 Or whatever. Who knows. How this is supposed to help kids not do drugs is totally beyond me. Tai's sweatshirt was on backwards after school today and I asked him if he knew why everyone was supposed to wear their clothes backwards. He said no. I don't think anyone knew, actually. 

School has its benefits, but this ridiculosity is one thing I could do without.

In case you're wondering, they were supposed to Dance Away Drugs! by doing the Macarena. Seriously. And they were supposed to Turn Their Backs On Drugs! by wearing their clothes backwards. Ugh. It makes me want to tear my hair out. Now I'm glad that Tai is going as a gangsta. I should have found him a hoodie with a big marijuana leaf on the back.

Addendum (11/3): Come to think of it, if I were drugs, I'd definitely run away from a crowd of people doing the Macarena on a Monday afternoon. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Playing with Art, Writing, and Thinking: See-Think-Wonder

You can do this with details in a picture, or with the picture as a whole. It works for “stand-alone” individual pieces of art, or for art as a way into a larger concept such as perspectives on a historical event or social issue (see below)...lots of possibilities.

1. Describe what you see--and only what you see--not what you think is happening: The girl is on the ground with her feet in the air. Her mouth and eyes are wide open. = Seeing; The boy tripped the girl. She’s surprised. = Thinking
2. Based on your descriptions, describe what you think: I think that the girl is surprised. I think the boy tripped her because her feet are still in the air, his foot is extended near her feet, and he’s pointing and laughing at her.
3. Start wondering: I wonder why he tripped her? I wonder if they’re friends or enemies? 

This is a great way to get kids to separate observation from opinion. Asking, “What do you see that makes you think that?” during the “Think” stage helps them practice backing up their claims with evidence.

If possible, the “Wonder” stage should really push beyond what’s already in front of them. “I wonder if he tripped her?” is really  more of a “think” question, especially if there’s evidence in the picture to support an answer. “I wonder why he tripped her?” pushes beyond.

Play See-Think-Wonder with photos of the civil rights movement:

While we’re on the subject, here are links to more photos:
 and a fascinating site about the visual coverage of the civil rights movement:

If you're on the un-schooling side of the spectrum, this could be a great way to find a path to follow. You don't have to know much as the parent--just google images of whatever subject you want to learn about, play the game, and wander with the wonder (forgive the silly wordplay).

I used to use this technique when I taught Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (historical context: Harlem Renaissance), as well as Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (historical context: Vietnam War). Two of my favorite books, by the way. But because I used these resources each year, I could get elaborate: kids listened to music, examined photographs, read poetry, looked at lists of period slang/jargon, saw clips of movies and newsreels. Such a great way to make deductions, use evidence, learn about a time period, and enrich your experience of a book.

The name of this "game" (See-Think-Wonder) comes from a terrific book called Making Thinking Visible (Ritchart, Church, and Morrison) which is full of ways to, well, make thinking visible--to really help kids understand how they think, and how to think. It's for classroom teachers, but it takes a close look at what thinking is, and how it happens and I highly, highly recommend it.

Well, this post ended up being kind of a rabbit hole for me. But a good one.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Quote of the Week: Mark Twain

Even the best writers don't always trust their talents:

"I like it only tolerably well, as far as I have gone, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn the manuscript when I am done."
- Mark Twain, to his editor, while writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Pictures and words

There’s a reason why they say that a picture is worth a thousand words. I’ve found that using visual art is a great way to launch a conversation, inspire writing, and teach analytical thinking. 

Find a photograph or painting with a lot going on in the way of action and/or facial expressions. National Geographic has tons of great photos to download and print, or just to look at. Art books are nice (you can get them at the library) if you want something bigger.

Here are some pieces that I like:
Bruegel the Elder: The Dutch Proverbs

I ended up sticking with Western art simply because that’s what I’ve been able to find the most of. There are plenty of very cool Asian, Native American, South American and African art pieces with lots of detail and action, but it seems that expressive crowd scenes with high pixelation are the domain of European artists. Haven’t given up, though. Also, here's where art books from the library come in handy. Yay, libraries.

Veronese's Wedding at Cana. Thanks, Wikipedia.

There’s so much you can do. Here are a few ideas to start with:
  • Take turns describing what you see: observe details like colors, textures, light and shade, in addition to what is actually happening. 
  • Make up a title (best if you don’t show your student the title first). Make up titles for different parts of the scene if there is a lot going on. 
  • If you want, you can play a grammar game: list the verbs you see happening. List the nouns, and then the adjectives that describe them. List the adverbs. 
  • Describe imagined details: sounds, smells, sensations, tastes.
  • Make up a story about one person, about the whole scene...pick one interaction and tell what has happened just before the moment in the painting, and what will happen in the next moment(s). 

More on what to do with art coming soon.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Audience does make a difference: Wired magazine says so.

Actually it's not Wired per se, but Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think, excerpted in this month's issue of Wired. Titled "Thinking Out Loud", it's about how the Internet as a public forum has contributed to social, civic, and academic advances. More people than ever are writing because it's easier to reach--or even just to imagine--an audience. The built-in audience of the Internet is causing people to publish, and once published, enabling them to find each other. Even if most of what's out there is drivel, he argues, there's more good stuff, too. And the smart people and good ideas are connecting with each other in a way that they never have before.

In the middle of the article, he mentions a number of studies that prove that having an authentic audience makes thinkers and writers jump up. From pre-schoolers to college students and presumably beyond, people tend to think and express themselves with greater care and clarity when they present their ideas to an audience that matters to them, as opposed to an audience that doesn't matter, or no audience at all. So glad he agrees with me. Definitely worth a read.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Spelling, creativity, audience, purpose, and laughter for extra credit

Here's a thought: If you're going to have your writer make up sentences for their spelling or vocab words, go for who can be the funniest or the weirdest and still convey the meaning of the word.

I guess that's obvious. But especially in regular school, it's often just about writing the easiest, shortest, most obvious sentence so you can get the darn thing turned in and get credit for it. It can get so boring and awful for everyone. If kids are trying to be funny, they're writing for an audience besides the teacher, and they're writing with a purpose beyond showing that they know how to use a word correctly. They're writing to entertain. The results have to be better than the alternative.

This is not exactly the same thing, but when I taught high school, I sometimes gave partial credit for wrong answers if they made me laugh. I hated giving short answer quizzes and getting them back completely empty, which wasn't unusual since so many kids didn't do their reading homework. It got so depressing. So I started telling kids to write something no matter what, and if it was funny or creative, they'd get a point or two for trying. And then we'd all get to laugh when I read the best answers to the class. It was better than crying.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Poem: "Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes

I came across this poem in a Langston Hughes collection that I bought for a friend the other day. I can't remember how long it's been since I've thought of it--ten years, at the very least. I used to teach it as part of a poetry unit to 10th graders. Or maybe it was a one-time thing to 8th graders in summer school.

Anyway, I like this poem because it's simple and straightforward. I like its tone, and I like to imagine the speaker, a bent old black woman. And when I say old, I mean wizened and ancient, though I don't know why, exactly--Hughes could have envisioned someone my age, for all I know. It's also a great teaching poem--metaphor/extended metaphor, voice, part of a unit on parent-child relationships, "life lessons"...endless possibilities.

Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Here's something weird (maybe). This poem also makes me uncomfortable. The language reminds me of Uncle Tom, and it makes me see racist and/or stereotyped portrayals of uneducated, simple-minded black people dispensing hard-won, folksy wisdom: Mammy, Uncle Remus, Uncle Tom...but of course that's not what Hughes intended. Right?

I bought the collection for a friend because he's a black man who grew up in Oakland, and he writes poetry, and Langston Hughes was a black urban poet. Which is completely ridiculous, because that's really all they have in common that I know about. On the other hand, isn't it true that ethnicity in this country often correlates with a shared experience? If someone bought me a book of poetry by an Asian American woman, would I be intrigued or insulted? I suppose it depends on the spirit of the gift.

I had forgotten the immediacy of Hughes' poetry, how rooted it is in place and time. My friend tends to like poetry that Makes Sense of Life--the huge picture--more than snapshots that evoke a feeling or an experience and then just leave you with it. He likes poetry that has closure. Hughes' poetry does, and does not. So I ended up keeping the book for myself.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Elements of Story II: Plot Structure and Lab Reports

How’s this for a serendipitous connection? Yesterday afternoon I posted about the importance and ubiquity of story structure, and last night, Tai and I found it in a lab report.

Backing up a step or two
Tai is actually back in school, mostly because of family stuff. But I’m keeping up with this blog because I still have ideas, and in fact, I got to apply one to his homework yesterday, which was “Write a 5-6 sentence conclusion for the science experiment”. Remember those? 

Tai’s teacher is actually doing a pretty thorough job with the scientific process, having conversations about variables and recording data and using the data to support a conclusion. The hard part is that the experiments seem to be about things the kids already know intuitively, so it’s hard for them--well, it’s hard for Tai--to separate what he thinks he knows from what his data shows him, because it often matches on the surface.

For example, what is the relationship between rate of evaporation and surface area? If equivalent volumes of water are poured into different shaped containers such that the surface area of the water varies with each container, from which container will the water evaporate the fastest? 

Kids worked with a beaker, a bowl, a dish, and a graduated cylinder, whatever that is. Having several years of life experience, Tai and his friends predicted correctly that more water would evaporate from the dish than from the other containers because duh. And lo and behold, their “hypothesis came true”--language that makes me cringe (though Tai insists that this is what his teacher has told him to say). A hypothesis is not a wish. Also, a hypothesis is not a prediction--something I didn’t catch until now, I have to admit.

The writing part
Tai’s homework was to write a conclusion to a lab report about this very experiment--minimum of 5 or 6 sentences, please. Tai complained about this for 30 minutes, during which he went through about eight variations of the following tortured conversation with Tad:  

“Use the data to show that you’re right.”
“But the data is already there in the chart. Anyone can see that I’m right.”
“Pretend they can’t see the data.”
“But that’s stupid. What’s the report for if they can’t see the chart?”
“Pretend you’re telling Jiji (my dad, Tai’s grandfather) about it on the phone.”
“He already knows the answer. Plus why would he even care about evaporation?”

Which is totally beside the point. But that is one problem with school, isn’t it? No authenticity. On the other hand, sometimes you have to practice on stuff that seems meaningless so that you can use those skills effectively for more meaningful stuff:

I just love that clip. Such a life lesson.

Finally Tai managed to scrawl furiously:
“My hypothesis came true because the water in the dish evaporated the fastest. It had the least water in it.” 

At which point Tad gave up and asked me to come and help.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Elements of Story and what I learned

Lots of kids like to write stories. But sometimes those stories go on forever, or they’re super short,  or they're sort of...not really stories, or they’re all the same, or whatever. So it’s worth it to try to stretch kid writers by taking a look at the elements that typically go into stories, and to let them experiment with those elements. 

Lest you reject this as too much like yucky fourth grade language arts requirements, let me make a case for learning the elements of story. They are a good thing to understand as a reader, as well as a writer. Stories typically have a common structure. Once you know the pattern and can recognize it in a variety of contexts, you can start building (filling) a reservoir of models to support a critical stance. Kids can start seeing it in their own lives. They can start seeing it in commercials, start understanding how advertisers use it to hook us. They can appreciate its complexities in literature and film. And see and appreciate when authors and filmmakers deviate from the structure. Not that any of this is necessary, but it makes life richer and more interesting. 

Background Information (Just the facts, ma’am.)
I Googled “elements of story” to check my facts, and it turns out that there are conflicting opinions as to what, exactly, the elements are. Everyone seems to agree on setting, characters, and conflict or problem, but after that it all falls apart. Some people say that plot is an element, others break out exposition, rising action, climax and resolution, still others include climax and resolution in the plot but drop everything else, and even other others skip plot altogether and go with theme.

Keeping in mind that one of the goals is to write a story, I’m going to go with 
  1. setting (where and when)
  2. characters (who)
  3. conflict or problem (what/why)
  4. rising action, or steps toward solving the problem (how)
  5. climax
  6. resolution

Even though the last three all go under the umbrella of plot (maybe even the last four, since the conflict is what drives the plot), it makes sense to me to think of them separately to make sure they all get recognized in the story.

These elements are pretty self-explanatory, and it shouldn’t be tough to present them directly and go through, say, a fairy tale or a fable, to make sure your writer can recognize them. 

Two elements, conflict and climax, can get a little knotty. I think it’s worth examining the complications, so if you don’t mind the detour, skip to the end. If you first want to know how to do something with your writer/reader, just keep reading. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

If a tree a new quote of the week!

If I am sitting outside a Starbucks using their free wi-fi but haven't bought anything to eat or drink, is it stealing?

What if I am sitting inside the Starbucks?

And now, the quote:

Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint on the broken glass.
--Anton Chekhov

And with that, he shows-not-tells, beautifully, why "show-not-tell" is so effective. The broken glass, especially. Love that.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Thank you, Joan

Dear Joan, 
What can I say today but thank you?  There is such a lot to thank you for. 

Thank you, first, for the always open door of your classroom, Room 119. Thank you for showing us what great teaching looks like. For leading discussions from a student desk. For getting students out of their desks and on their feet. For introducing them not just to John Steinbeck, William Shakespeare, and Franz Kafka, but also to Ella Fitzgerald, Edward Hopper, and Diego Rivera. 

You were a master of your craft, but you worked tirelessly to improve both your practice and your profession--and you brought us with you. You got us to conferences and seminars which inspired us and moved our practice forward--and still you could see more for us. Many of us led our first teacher in-service workshops, presented our first seminars, and published our first journal articles with your encouragement and your guidance. 

We spent hours with you in 119, working on a piece of writing, defining the purpose, refining the tone. “Let’s just poke at it a little,” you used to say. When I write, I feel you sitting next to me. I hear your voice in my ear. 

But you were more than just a visionary teacher and 119 was more than just a classroom. It was also a refuge. 119 was a place where students and colleagues could trust you with their stories, their lives. Broken hearts, broken families, hard-won successes and hard choices--you allowed all of that messiness in and walked through it with us.

You taught us how stick up for ourselves, how to ask for what we wanted, how to manage difficult people: “Just throw some love at them,” you said once. You taught us how to throw parties. How to snap asparagus, mince garlic, chiffonade basil. How to play poker. How to smuggle tequila into Shoreline Amphitheater. How to chat up an art gallery owner. How to apologize to an angry girlfriend and then where to take her out for dinner. 

You were right about so much. You always knew you were right, even when you were wrong. Thank you for laughing with us and for allowing us our victory dances when you did made a mistake. You must have known we couldn’t help it--it was like tripping over a diamond. 

Thank you for exhorting us to Be. Nice. “Do you know what that means?” you asked a teenager about to drop a spitball into the mouth of his sleeping friend, “It’s not just about treating others the way you want to be treated. It’s about treating others the way they want to be treated. Be. Nice.” 

Be Nice is why you were our fairy godmother. Thank you for conjuring up exactly what we needed, even if it wasn’t always what we’d asked for. A bouquet of sunflowers. A lesson plan. A bag of trail mix for a ravenous pregnant woman. A therapist recommendation. A phone call. A hug. Thank you, Joan.

Thank you for making a family out of what could have been just a loosely-knit group of friends and colleagues, teachers and students. Thank you for wedding and baby showers, for Everybody’s Birthday Party, for Derby Day, for Oktoberfest. Thank you for adopting me and countless others, and making each of us feel like your favorite godchild or your favorite cousin. Thank you, Joan, for truly seeing each one of us, and for embracing us with boundless generosity and joy. 

You taught us that in a proper thank you note, one must give a gift to the recipient of the note. The gift should be a glimpse of one’s life--so that the reader can enter into it. So here it is. I am standing at the podium in Memorial Church at Stanford in front of a crowd of people, a place I never thought I would be. I am wearing a brand new black dress, and I’m worried about smudging my eye makeup. The afternoon sun streams through the stained glass, and I can see the sky, blindingly blue, through the windows flanking the organ. The dome above is all light and angels. It’s beautiful.

Amidst this beauty, I imagine being back at your house with you on your deck, watching a piece of light filter through the leaves of the trees you loved so much, listening to you tell me about something that makes your heart sing. I wish we could be all together again, Joan. 

Maybe we are. Not in the way that we wish, but here together all the same.

Thank you for loving us, Joan. We love you, we miss you, and once again, with all our hearts, we thank you.

A return. And some thoughts on the writing process

I thought at the end of August that I was back, but it turns out I was not. One would think that the modest goal I set for myself of one writing-related quote per week, plus maybe a poem, would not be too much to ask, especially since my kids are now both at public school. But it was.

On the other hand, once I returned from points east, I got swept up in--consumed by--preparations for Joan's memorial services and with writing a eulogy for her. Which meant that I spent hours drafting and revising my remarks for Joan's "official" memorial service.

Some of the best writing teachers in the Bay Area were going to be in attendance--people whose books I've read, people who have shaped my own philosophy on the teaching of writing. Plus a whole mess of Joan's smart friends and family, several of my former colleagues--brilliant English teachers all--some exceptionally bright (much brighter than I) former students, and of course her amazing husband--all of whom loved Joan and her legacy in a way that only she could inspire...loved her somethin' fierce.

No pressure.

So here's the Writing Process protocol:
1. pre-write
2. draft
3. revise
4. publish

Step 3 actually gets repeated over and over and over until you're at deadline and you have to go to step 4 or you'll be fired, embarrassed, or have points taken off your grade.

Step I: Prewriting
Actually I did about a week of pre-pre-writing. Just thought about it. Had some interesting ideas for organizing principles: maybe center the piece around her classroom, which was an extension of her. Maybe use her phrase, "What's the so what?" (What does it all really mean in the end?) as a metaphor for her very meaningful life. Sentences percolated.

Okay, on to true pre-writing. Put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard in my case.

Lots of writing teachers and programs suggest starting with a mind map.
courtesy of
I've never trusted mind maps, because I need to dump everything out of the bag before I start sorting it. I can't do words and phrases because I start "hearing" sentences and stories. Also drawing takes too long. Maybe it would be different if I were writing something with a pre-determined structure. An evaluation or a request or a story or something.

So no mind maps. Usually I go with freewriting--just writing whatever comes to mind, and then using the best/favorite ideas as a launchpad for a more finished piece.

Freewriting over a period of about a week got me several stories, some interesting organizing principles, some great sentences, and nothing compelling. Three pages (single spaced!) of nothing. Just a lot of words that sounded good together but had no emotional power.

Step II: Draft
I grouped sentences with similar themes together, took out redundancies, and still nothing.

I Googled "how to write a eulogy" to see if I was missing something. But most websites said the obvious. Some articles suggested purpose: to remember the deceased, to offer a personal perspective on the deceased, to praise the deceased, to "brighten an otherwise dark time".
Others made suggestions: go beyond biographical information. think of fond memories, collect stories, describe what you loved about the decased, list the things the deceased loved to do, insightful things the deceased said. Well, duh.

The problem with Joan is that there was so much information. So many stories, so many quirky expressions, so much personality. Hence the three pages.

I spent almost a week spinning my wheels, just adding to my three pages.

Finally, a good friend said to me, "Write from the heart." Which is a cliche, and which so many of those eulogy writing websites had already told me. But hearing it from my friend, who was heartbroken along with me and who trusted me, felt different.

So I took a look inside my heart, as it were. What's in there? When I think about Joan, when I read what I've written, what do I feel that I need to tell people? I thought.

And just like that, I knew. I needed to thank her.

Ta-daa. The organizing principle and the emotional core. Everything fell into place (sort of). It was miraculous.

Step III: Revising
Drafting was just a matter of picking my favorite bits and re-framing them as paragraphs of a thank-you letter. Easy-peasy. On to revising, which involved

  1. Choosing what order to put the favorite bits in.
  2. Re-arranging them.
  3. Adding a story.
  4. Taking the story out.
  5. Taking a field trip to the church to see what it looked like so that I could accurately describe it in the eulogy.
  6. Calling my best friend, reading it to her, and listening hard to what she liked and what she had questions about. 
  7. Deleting a few sentences.
  8. More re-arranging.
  9. And some more.
  10. Another story added and deleted.
  11. Reading it to Tad.
  12. Keep this paragraph? Take it out? Keep it? Take it out?
  13. How about this word? Keep it? Change it? Keep it? Change it? ad nauseum.

Sorry to make that list so long, but that's what it was like. Every time I thought I was done, I thought of a new way to change and possibly improve it. One of the favorite things anyone has ever said to me was a friend who I had asked to speak at Joan's high school memorial. She texted me the night before, saying, "I can't stop revising." So true. It's like picking at a scab.

Step IV: Publish
I stepped up to the podium with a eulogy that was easily twice as long as the other speakers' eulogies. It was 100 words longer than Robert Muldoon's eulogy for Seamus Heaney, which I had read and done a word count of earlier in the week (590 words). I spoke too softly for the mic and got a lot of whiny feedback for the first couple of paragraphs. According to Tad, I spoke too softly throughout, and he had to strain to hear me. Oh, well.

But it was still great. I made people cry, reportedly. I know I made them laugh. I was proud of the piece, and I think Joan would have been, too.

All this to say that the writing process is a messy one, and not the neat little 4-step package that writing teachers (myself included) often try to teach. Pre-writing and drafting, especially, are idiosyncratic processes, and don't work in the same ways for most people. Gotta try to remember that.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Cool Websites and Apps, and an idea from the Stanford d.School

Finally back from...wherever it is that I've been. Sacramento, Chincoteague, Bethesda, mourning. My friend Joan died a week before the Adventures in Homeschool Conference, and I spent that week in a bit of a tailspin. Then off to present my Reluctant Writers workshop and Poetry Haters workshop at the HSC, and off again to the East Coast to stay in rented houses with Tad's family on the humid, mosquito-infested tourist trap that is Chincoteague Island. The beach was great and I enjoyed spending time with everyone, but I will never go back to Chincoteague ever again if I can help it. 

One great thing about my Reluctant Writers workshop in particular was that I got suggestions for some very cool apps and websites. 

The Book Creator, an app which helps you make and publish e-books from your iPad, can be found here:

FutureMe lets you write an email to your future self. The tone of their FAQ page alone makes me want to use this service; what founders of a company publish their Amazon wishlist to potential users? These guys: 

Speaking of missives to one's future self, this video mashup of a grownup being inteverviewed by a video of his kid self (does that make sense?) is hi-larious. I mean actually laugh out loud funny. And smart. That boy was smart. I also love the portrait of Van Gogh in the background of the grownup. 

Fanfiction for kids! Here are two relevant websites:
The first site is a bonafide kids' fanfic site; the second is basically a place to publish kids' writing online. The fanfic website has pages for kids' books (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, for example) but there's no guarantee that all of the posts are kid-appropriate.

The Stanford d.School (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford) does this thing with colored post-its, and a new homeschooling friend of mine used it with her 8-year-old reluctant writer to put together a presentation:
  1. He dictated his thoughts, ideas, and "learnings" on the topic he'd learned about (sharks, maybe?)
  2. She put the ideas on post-its.
  3. I missed exactly what happened in this next part--maybe she classified and categorized the ideas, or maybe they did it together--but in any case, the ideas got on different colored post-its depending on whether they were "main ideas", subtopics, details, etc. I love this. It's such a great way to work on thinking and organizing--and you can do it multiple times and change which color post-it an idea goes on depending on the point you want to make.
  4. The post-its get organized on a wall, with main ideas on big post-its, or on top, or whatever, and topics, subtopics, details, etc. arranged below or around the main ideas. This makes things visible, touchable, and changeable. Once you get the structure that makes the most sense to you, you can write it or speak it. Or see what your next step of the project will be, if it's an action or design project. Very cool.

It's a little like paragraph puzzles. Have I talked about that yet? Maybe not. Well, look for it in the future, and then I'll add a link.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Another Poem: Four "Addresses" by Peter Davis

Four "Addresses"
Peter Davis


This poem can turn invisible and it can beat up bad guys! When people
read this poem it is like a laser shooting bad guys right in the stomach!
This poem knocks bad guys on their bottoms! And if you need a force
field you can get one from Dr. Defense who lives in this poem and
makes a number of bad-guy-fighting tools and weapons. Sometimes
giant robot bad guys try to kill this poem by bopping it on the head,
but this poem doesn't allow that and sends ninjas and wiaards out to 
reverse time and destroy the robots. Dr. Defense jumps up and kicks 
everyone in the face and he, like, flies through a window and then, like
this poem explodes!


These things can wait. This is a very good poem and you'd be very
myopic to lose sight of this beauty simply because some of your baser
needs are asserting themselves. I'll keep this short, but you should
exercise some control, okay? Stay with me here. Allow this poem to
carry you beyond yourself, transcending your mortal flesh as you wed
yourself with the potentially infinite.




How this found you I don't know, but this is a good event, a good
omen. Not because it's mystical or mysterious, but because you're actu-
ally reading this poem and I have actually written it. I know that this
poem is a sort of prison too, but it's a much, much more beautiful one.

I don't know what the difference is between poems and prose poems, but if something declares itself to be a poem, and if you find it in The Best American Poetry 2012 as I did, then I suppose it's a poem.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Poem of the...month: Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins

In memory of my dear friend Joan Owen.

Picnic, Lightning
Billy Collins

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident 
(picnic, lightning) when I was three.                                                                                                                                         --Lolita

It is possible to be struck by a meteor
or a single-engine plane
while reading in a chair at home.
Safes drop from rooftops
and flatten the odd pedestrian
mostly within the panels of the comics,
but still, we know it is possible,
as well as the flash of summer lightning,
the thermos toppling over,
spilling out on the grass.

And we know the message
can be delivered from within.
The heart, no valentine,
decides to quit after lunch,
the power shut off like a switch,
or a tiny dark ship is unmoored
into the flow of the body's rivers,
the brain a monastery,
defenseless on the shore.

This is what I think about
when I shovel compost
into a wheelbarrow,
and when I fill the long flower boxes,
then press into rows
the limp roots of red impatiens--
the instant hand of Death
always ready to burst forth
from the sleeve of his voluminous cloak.

Then the soil is full of marvels,
bits of leaf like flakes off a fresco,
red-brown pine needles, a beetle quick
to burrow back under the loam.
Then the wheelbarrow is a wilder blue,
the clouds a brighter white,

and all I hear is the rasp of the steel edge
against a round stone,
the small plants singing
with lifted faces, and the click
of the sundial
as one hour sweeps into the next.

Billy Collins

She had the eye that the speaker gains in the last two stanzas, but always. She saw the beauty and the marvel of life--in everything, really.

I am updating here, because I've been thinking about this poem.
On my first few readings, I thought those last two stanzas were about being more present, more alive to the moment, more cognizant of the sensations that tie us to this life. But on subsequent readings I began to think that maybe they are about what it's like to die--maybe the tiny things he sees in the compost are details of death as well as life--for what is compost but a life-giving mixture of dead and rotting plant life with alive and kicking bacteria? Maybe the rasp of the steel edge is Death sharpening his scythe. Maybe the blue, the white, the singing flowers are the ecstasy of death, a vision of another world. And isn't the sweep of time inextricably connected with death? Maybe I'm pushing this too far.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Another quote of the week: Mary Oliver on poetry

For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed.
--Mary Oliver

What lovely imagery--and what a beautifully constructed sentence. Totally geeking out right now.

This is from her book, A Poetry Handbook, which is basically about how to read poetry. And a little bit about how to write it. I totally recommend it, even though it's kind of a school-y thing for a grownup to read.

I remember my first poetry class in college--Modern Poetry with I Forget The Professor's Name my junior year. I was already pretty good at close textual analysis (if I do say so myself) but this class really opened my eyes. The professor looked at all of these different elements--meter, rhythm, diction, syntax, form, imagery...stuff I really kind of knew about already but had never had them systematically named and unpacked for me.

 It's kind of like cooking. Having the right tools and learning how to use the properly can make all the difference. Everything is easier and more fun. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Quote of the Week: Terry Pratchett on writer's block

There's no such thing as writer's block. That was invented by people in California who couldn't write.
--Terry Pratchett

Not sure exactly what he means, but you gotta love that attitude.

I should point out that Terry Pratchett has published something like fifty books and is one of the best selling authors in Great Britain, keeping company with J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, John Grisham, Alexander McCall Smith, and J.R. Tolkien. He's an interesting guy. Obviously not prone to writer's block.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Poem-y moment of the week: "Fog" by Carl Sandburg

Remember this one from grade school, then middle school, then possibly even high school?

I love the quiet simplicity of this poem. I love the surprise of the little cat feet, and the transformational quality of that line. The fog becomes the cat, just that easily. And then it is the cat, or maybe the cat is the fog.

Carl Sandburg

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking over
harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

I quoted the first sentence on a handout for a poetry workshop I'm leading in a couple of weeks at the Adventures in Homeschooling Conference in Sacramento, and Tai happened to see it. "Is that something someone actually wrote," he asked, "or did you just make that up?" I wish.

I found the poem in its entirety and read it aloud to him. He was silent a moment, and then said simply, "I like that poem."

My heart swelled right up with...I don't know what--something good--for my poetry-liking boy.

But he wasn't finished. Then he explained to Kenzo--who had also listened to the poem and was now prowling around on little cat feet--about "haunches": "You know what haunches are, Kenzo? You know when Athena (our cat) is sitting or crouching? Right here (he squatted and pointed to his thighs), those are her haunches."

Kenzo squatted experimentally and looked down to check.

What an important line, that one with the haunches in it. It gives us the cat, alive. And that word, so muffled and soft and heavy-light, simultaneously grounded and ready to rise, so foglike, so watchful-catlike. You do kind of have to understand what haunches are in order to feel that poem all the way through.

Just the day before, Tai told me that poems had to rhyme and have rhythm, so it's interesting that he saw "Fog" as a poem. Maybe because I found it on But maybe not. I'll have to ask. At the time, I was just happy that he liked it.

It's not surprising, really. It's a great poem. It's short. It's evocative. And Tai is a cat fan and we do live near San Francisco. Though I have to say that the fast-motion stuff in SF and along the coast is a little different from the kind of fog that Sandburg probably imagined.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Celebrity Fashion Disasters as Writing Prompts

As promised in the last post, I tried out the "let's make snide comments about celebrities and their dresses" idea with Tai. Results are in and they are mixed. I didn't see the kind of voice, humor, and...liveliness that I was hoping for--a lot of his comments were literal and obvious--but hey, he's a beginner, it was fun and I think there's potential for development here.

For your viewing pleasure, I've included some of the pix and commentary in this post; click here to see the whole slide show. We skipped a few that either didn't inspire or that we actually liked. For example:

courtesy of

I love that Tai thought the jacket was just fine. And now without further ado, Tai's commentary on celebrity fashion disasters:

Lucy Liu:
She looks like a rose garden. Photo courtesy of

Lady Gaga:
She looks like a woman canible [sic]. Photo courtesy of

Someone I've never heard of:
She is a pink centaur. Photo courtesy of

Someone else:
She is wearing wallpaper. Photo courtesy of

Justin Bieber: 
A minion in a construction helmet. Photo courtesy of

and Beyonce:
A volcano! Photo courtesy of

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fashion policery, imagery and vocabulary

I was indulging in a little HuffPo fluff reading about celebrity red carpet fashion (fashion risks: success or stumble?) when Tai snuck up behind me and said, "What's that?" So I explained the concept to him and he stood beside me as I clicked through a few slides.

About this one he said, "She looks like a milkmaid going a-Maying."

Courtesy of Huffington Post

That's one sleek and sexy milkmaid (HuffPo called this one a Success), but I get his point and I love that he said "a-Maying". Where did that come from? How many times can he possibly have heard or read that term?

You'd think that playing celebrity red carpet fashion police would be a very girly-girl thing to do, but both of my boys loved it. They had something to say about everyone:

That dress looks like her pants are falling down.

She looks like a criminal. 
(Sorry, Beyonce fans. Wondering if it's the skin tone, stripes, or shades. Hope I'm not raising a racist.)

That's just...weird.

So I'm hatching an idea that involves finding slideshows like this--they're everywhere on the web--and writing comments about each slide. We work on refining the imagery and similes, and go for really apt description. This will be a do-it-together activity so we can be funny and snarky together (who can come up with the most creative critique or the spot-on-est description?), maybe with a pint of ice cream or a bowl of popcorn. Probably the fashion blunder photos will provide the best fodder. As always, we'll need to start with a couple of good model sentences.

If celebrity fashion doesn't appeal, I'm sure there are variations: tricked-out cars or bikes, home decorating disasters, bad hair, hats.

I'll try it this week and report back.