Sunday, June 30, 2013

Last Week's Quote of the Week: William Faulkner

Get it down. Take a risk. It may be bad, but it's the only way you can do anything really good.
--William Faulkner

We're all so afraid of making mistakes, of failing or producing bad work. So many writers claim that most of their work is so bad that they just throw it away, but they continue to do it anyway, every day. And they're the great ones. I think it's important to accept that we will produce bad work and "get it down" anyway, as Faulkner urges. All we can do is to get out there and blunder and trip along as best we can and have faith that every once in a while we will do something wonderful. Once again, writing wisdom as life lesson.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Online resources for teaching writing

A short list of web resources that I've found to be helpful. Please let me know of others!

About homeschool writing education in general. To quote the website, “writing prompts, online tutorials, books, programs, and tutors to help kids with their writing skills.”

A link from the previous page, if you haven't already guessed, specifically for reluctant writers. Lots of ideas about why some kids are reluctant writers, and activities (and links to other activities) designed with those kids in mind. Actually, the whole website is great.
A page from the Northern Nevada Writing Project, it lists cool and unusual prompts designed to engage the visual/spatial right brain for a change. It “celebrates approaches that are serendipitous and random...recklessly creative.” Links to writing-inspiring books, detailed ways to approach and use the prompts, related name it. There's a link on the page for left-brain writing prompts, too. The main website is a treasure trove of other ideas for writing.

He is part of the NNWP (see above) and has so many good ideas. I used his Mr. Stick with Tai to play around with haiku and story ideas. Lots of writer's notebook ideas, which I keep meaning to start using.

Loads of writing prompts and activities; the site seem geared towards adults/teens, but most of the activities and ideas can easily be adapted for kids. A great way to get yourself writing as well.

A list of publications that publish student work, because I know when to outsource the research.

Who knew? There are great teachers and teaching ideas in the UK. It's not writing-specifict, and it's meant for classroom teachers, but there are lots of cool ideas here. For example, check out the one about mindfulness and chocolate.

Both of these links to ideas for nature journals are technically about drawing rather than writing, but I see the nature journal as a great way to hone observational skills, both for writing and for, well, life. Also a good science (ecology, biology, that sort of thing) activity. I'm trying to turn it into a family activity, too.

Monday, June 24, 2013

When I am an old woman I shall wear a monokini

So this morning after swim practice, I saw a woman in the locker room on her way out to lap swim. She must have been eighty-ish. She had that hunched over old lady posture and plodding old lady walk. She was about as tall as my shoulder. and while I wouldn't say she was fat, her body--perhaps partly due to her posture--was round. Round in front, round in back, a soft, pudgy ball on balanced on soft, pudgy legs.

She was standing just outside the shower room, struggling with a brightly colored bathing suit. She'd managed to get it over her hips, and the back was alarmingly low. I could see the front of the suit swinging around below her belly. She seemed to be having some trouble positioning everything. I averted my eyes, a little embarrassed to have witnessed this. The next time I saw her, she was shuffling into the shower room dressed in this exact suit:

Imagine this woman 50 pounds heavier and 55 years older.

Flesh ballooned out of every opening and sagged over every edge. A gaily striped band of material stretched over her belly, which bulged like two wrinkly marshmallows on either side.

Better than when she was half-naked and the suit was dangling between her legs, but still shocking enough for me to have to make an effort not to stare.

My first thought was, "Wow, that's inappropriate."

But my next thought--and this is the one that stays with me--was, "Good for her. If she wants to wear that suit then more power to her." I was reminded of the poem "Warning" by Jenny Joseph:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people's gardens
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple. 

So which is it? Is she brave or blind? I guess we can't say for sure unless we know her. I just wonder what she thought when she chose that suit for herself. I don't think she could possibly have looked in the mirror and thought, "That's what it's supposed to look like." 
Did she lie to herself and say, "Oh, I can still carry that off." Was it like Botox or the wrong color hair dye (Ken Burns and Dave Barry, take note)? Was it vanity? Was it a desperate, pathetic attempt to turn back the clock, to pretend that she's still young and nubile? Should we laugh at her, or maybe feel sorry for her?
Or was she honest and did she just say to herself, "I like the stripes and I think it's cute I don't care if I hang out all over. I'm eighty fucking years old and I'll wear whatever the fuck I want, godammit, because I don't have to give a shit about what people think anymore."
I hope it was the second one.

P.S. There are people out there who think that old women (or whoever) should give a shit about what people think regarding their attire. I get that. Sometimes I wonder if I'm just fooling myself with my long hair and cutoff denim shorts. Do I look like I'm clinging desperately to youth? Or like I don't realize how old I am?

P.P.S. I think I would have felt far less sympathetic--even offended--if a person with an actual fashion model body were prancing around in a suit like that. I don't know why.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Few Resources: Books on Teaching Writing

In my pipe dreams, I will publish a book filled with fabulous tips on working with kids on their writing. In the meantime, here's a short list of fabulous tip-filled books:

Games for Writing; Playful Ways to Help Your Child Learn to Write by Peggy Kaye
A great way to coax kids into writing. Kaye has games to help kids with all kinds of issues, from handwriting (small motor skills/writing games) to fluency, grammar, style, and mental blocks. She includes step-by-step instructions, models, and possible variations, and indicates an appropriate grade range (K-3), although we all know what is appropriate can vary from kid to kid. But she knows this, too. Some of these can be stretched into longer, more substantial projects, if you are willing to think and plan a little.

Unjournaling by Dawn DiPrince and Cheryl Miller Thurston
Just a long list of prompts that are deliberately “NOT personal, NOT introspective, NOT boring.” Great for kids who are private and aren't necessarily ready to use writing as a conduit for deep thinking and sharing. For example:

“Use all five vowels (a,e,i,o,u) at least once in a sentence about gravy.”
“What if the shape round did not exist, except as the shape of the earth, sun, and moon? Looking at just your immediate world, how would your life be different?” You'd probably have to start by deciding whether round includes circular, or if it's just spherical, I guess.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Quote of the Week: Barbara Kingsolver

Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer.
--Barbara Kingsolver

Friday, June 14, 2013

Fathers' Day List Activity

Sort of a journal activity, in the list genre.

What makes Dad, Dad? That is to say, what's special about your dad? Some ideas:

What is special about Dad?
What do you love (or like) best about Dad?
What does Dad do that makes you laugh?
What is Dad good at?
What is Dad bad at? (as long as this is affectionate)
What do you enjoy doing with Dad?
What has Dad taught you to do?

Go for 10 sentences.
Brush it up--check grammar, spelling, etc.
Make it pretty--make a card, write it in calligraphy, type it on the computer and play with fonts and colors, draw a picture.

Happy Fathers' Day!

Quote of the Week: Natalie Goldberg

This is the practice school of writing. Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Some days you don’t want to run and you resist every step of the three miles, but you do it anyway. You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run … That’s how writing is too … One of the main aims in writing practice is to learn to trust your own mind and body; to grow patient and nonaggressive.
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Monday, June 3, 2013

Nature Observation and Description: Crash and Burn

Well, it's my own fault for not having planned carefully.

An evening expedition to the field overlooking the valley turned out well. The boys were well fed and excited to be going to Rancho instead of bed at bedtime. The light was beautiful, we saw deer on the path right away, and I had brought the laptop for Tai to type on. He went to town, figuratively speaking.

A morning observation was kind of disastrous. It was cold, we didn't have the laptop, he started complaining and I started nagging, and the project started to fall apart. One observation too many, maybe.

Then came revision. My mistake: I had only said observe and describe. I didn't suggest anything specific: look for colors and textures, note what's in the fore, middle, and background, notice how the light changes, notice what's the same and what's different at different times of day.

The original purpose was just that: observe and describe using sensory detail, metaphor, and live verbs. It wasn't (originally) going to be about accuracy, about making a point about how the same place is different at different times of day, about how the place makes a person feel, or about noticing how the quality of light affects a landscape. Those were layers that I added afterwards, and for which I had not prepared Tai.

So when I asked Tai to revise for these things, he balked. He balked for more personal reasons, too, but on a pedagogical level, it was my bad for not laying enough groundwork.

Nevertheless, the resulting three paragraphs with some sentences combined aren't bad. I was hoping for a sort of conclusion, but we may have to abandon ship before we get there.

So here's a better version of what we did:

Before Writing:
Do a couple of observation/sentence exercises.

Play with metaphors and similes.

Talk about how a place can be different at different times of day; how the feel of a place changes and what might cause those changes. Talk about favorite times of day. Plan to visit a place at three different times to observe and record how it changes. Look at paintings or photos that show such changes, note the similarities and differences, colors, imagined sounds, etc. Monet's haystacks are a good place to start. Notice light, shadow, level of activity. Talk about how things "feel".

Go Write
Your writer will write two or maybe three paragraphs about a place at different times of day. They can also write an additional "meta" paragraph--a paragraph about their paragraphs (or a conclusion, if you will). They should know this in advance. The goal is to convey "what a place is like" in two or three different states by showing (with specific sensory details and live verbs) what changes and what remains constant.

Pick a place (or have one ready) and take a field trip. Have prepared a list or a chart, if you think it will help: sounds, colors, textures, background, foreground, etc. With sounds, especially, it might be fun to note what's dominant and what's almost inaudible--this often changes dramatically.

Write. Your writer can make lists, fill in a chart, write paragraphs, whatever works. Tai made a list of sentences. Suggest that your writer to close his eyes to listen and smell. Encourage him to reach for a metaphor. Bring a camera and take photos or video.

Return to this place and do the same thing. Note what changes and what stays the same. Maybe after the second/third observation, use a highlighter to show what has changed.

Pick favorite sentences and observations. If there are no metaphors or similes, see if you can make one observation into one.  Congratulate yourselves on a job well done.

If your writer has written a list or a chart, now is the time to make those into paragraphs. Later this week, I'll post an idea about how to make this easier.

A general observation can help give shape to the paragraphs--make them more than a list of observations. For example, how does the place make the writer feel? Which time is the writer's favorite?

With the goal of sensory details, showing change, and possibly conveying "feel" in mind, have your writer go through the paragraphs or notes and decide if anything needs to be added, or could be dropped or changed.

Do a sentence combining exercise. See if that works with anything your writer has.

Maybe add an opening sentence in the front to locate your writer/reader: How did your writer arrive here? Where is this place? Where is your writer standing/sitting? What time of day it it?

Send the draft to a trusted reader who will ask questions and offer specific props, and not just praise your writer to the skies.

Make changes so that the piece will answer the questions, if you think the questions are good ones.

A closing paragraph, if you want one, can address what the writer likes/hates about the place, an observation about the nature of change (kind of sophisticated for an elementary school age kid, tough), an opinion about the project...something that answers the question, So What?

If you visited a park, try sending the piece to the parks department or to the city or whatever organization maintains the park.

Or your local newspaper?

A blog is an obvious choice if you have one.

Choose photos to accompany the piece, choose a cool font, arrange it all beautifully, and print and send it to a relative or friend.

Put it in your family nature journal.