Room 313

adventures in teaching creative writing

Archive for the month “August, 2012”

Post Secret Memoirs

In Creative Writing 1 this year, we’re starting with the genre of memoir. I think most students have plenty to say about themselves and their life experiences–heck, most people can talk about themselves easily. It’s a natural part of being human. The longest paper I wrote in undergrad was for a human development class, and I basically just wrote down the highs and lows of my life up until that point. I think it hovered somewhere around 14 pages. I should try to find it.

One way I introduced memoirs to my students was through the PostSecret website, which is updated weekly with people’s secrets from around the nation. Some secrets are funny; others are heartbreaking. And others are NOT appropriate for the classroom, so I tried my best to screen the ones I showed my students. Even with my careful attempt, I accidentally scrolled down too far, and some of them caught a glimpse of a secret that had something to do with a crooked penis. Whoops! The class roared with laughter, and I quickly closed the window. Such are the perils of the PostSecret site, but the students found it highly engaging. (Quick aside: I think some of the secrets on the website are completely fabricated or just plain rude or jokey and not really secret-y at all. But who knows? I digress.)

I also showed my students the TED talk by Frank Warren, the founder of the PostSecret website:

When we were finished, I invited my students to write about a secret. It could be old or recent, silly or serious, personal or attached to someone else. Did they have a secret meeting place? (One of my students did. She described a creek and little waterfall where she goes to escape it all.) Were they ever left out of a secret? Did they get away with something? I promised that I would not read these, and that I would not turn them over to our principal. At the conclusion of class, the waterfall student suggested that we all make our own PostSecret display. I agreed that it was a good idea.

After writing groups met yesterday, we had some extra time, so I gave students paper while two students helped to pass out markers, crayons, and colored pencils. I told them they didn’t have to make a secret poster if they didn’t want to. They were to remain anonymous, so they did not need to sign it. Looking back, I wish I had had students write down their secret in regular handwriting on a strip of paper. Then I would have collected all of them, shuffled them, typed them up, and then redistributed them to students. Then they could have written someone else’s secret in their handwriting. As it is, our current PostSecret display features students’ secrets written in their own handwriting, so sneaky people could probably figure some of these out. A few students wrote too small, and I should have made everyone use markers because colored pencil is too hard to read.

All day long at the start of my classes–whether it was Pre-AP English 2, Creative Writing 1, or Creative Writing 2–students were reading the PostSecret display. One English student remarked, “I want to take your creative writing class next year.” Bring it on!

Some secrets were cute and silly while others were sad and disturbing:

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Relish REVIEW

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen

An entertaining and moving tribute to the role food has shaped her life, Lucy Knisley‘s graphic novel memoir Relish is an homage to her caterer mother, fastidious father, and all the food in between–from apricot croissants in Italy to sinfully delicious McDonald’s French fries. Knisley concludes most of the thematic chapters with a related recipe–Americanized sushi, shepherd’s pie, sangria. (She’s created some fun supplementary recipes on a new tumblr called Crave This to promote the book. I’ll include one as an example of her art below.) As an added bonus, the memoir includes some photographs of the author and her family and friends throughout her life. I devoured this memoir, and you will too, especially if you enjoy food like I do. Relish will be available on April 2, 2013. (5 out of 5 stars)

P. S. I first learned about Lucy Knisley from her wonderful Harry Potter posters.

Little Match Girl

To review fiction literary terms in Pre-AP English II this week, I challenged my students to identify them in Disney’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.”

My sophomores are familiar with many literary terms already, but I did introduce foil to them. We also clarified whether a disease (like West Nile virus) is an external or internal conflict (it’s external), discussed how many viewpoints it takes for a third person narrator to become omniscient (2), and how to define climax without using the word exciting (when the big conflict of the story is finally resolved).

What I like about “The Little Match Girl” movie is that there is no dialogue. Students have to pay careful attention to the actions of the characters. The strings provided excellent background music, and could be revisited when we review tone and mood later on this year.

Most of my students had never heard of “The Little Match Girl” before, although they were familiar with Andersen’s more famous stories “The Little Mermaid” and “The Ugly Duckling.” Spoiler alert, for those of you who haven’t read/watched “LMG” either: My students were very upset by the ending of the movie, one of them even jokingly threatening to sue for making him feel so bad. I heard audible gasps as the LMG’s soul walked off into eternity with her grandmother. After school in the halls, I heard two girls discussing the film, saying they almost cried at the end.

I explained to some of my classes that “LMG” sets the tone for the depressing literature we will read this semester in Pre-AP English II:

  • Night by Elie Wiesel, a memoir by a Holocaust survivor
  • Antigone by Sophocles, a Greek tragedy filled with death
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, a classic American novel about racism in the South in the 20th century

My grandpa introduced me to “LMG.” He sent me a copy of the story along with an audio tape of his reading the story aloud when I was around six or seven. Thinking back, I’m realizing the other side of the tape was his singing the equally depressing song “Oh My Darling, Clementine.” I guess Bop wanted to introduce me to the harsh realities of the world. He grew up in abject poverty, but never talked about it. He also was a paratrooper during WW2, but he didn’t talk about that either.

Anyway, on the second day of “LMG,” we worked through potential themes of the story, then moved on to using Kylene Beer‘s strategy of Somebody Wanted But So to summarize the story in three sentences or less.

Thrall by Natasha Trethewey REVIEW

I got to read an advance copy of Natasha Trethewey’s upcoming book Thrall by signing up on NetGalley.com. Thanks to Mark Letcher for telling me about the website.

* * *

Natasha Trethewey, the newest U.S. poet laureate, uses Casta paintings and ekphrastic poetry to examine what it means to be mixed race, to be wanted and forgotten, accepted and disowned, in her forthcoming collection, Thrall. Throughout this slim volume she also reflects on the relationship with her poet father, who now lives in Canada. The best poem in the collection might be her “Elegy” to their tangled relationship. Occasionally this book felt like more of a history or humanities lesson than a collection of poems, but it was very successful overall.

Trethewey continues to favor structuring her poems with alternating indented lines. She also adds extra spaces between words where a line break would typically go. Plenty of poems employ two-line stanzas.

Term to know that appears at least twice in her poetry:
“A palimpsest is a manuscript page from a scroll or book from which the text has been scraped off and which can be used again” (Wikipedia).

My favorite poems:

“Torna Atras” is the most successful ekphrastic poem in the collection, made more powerful by looking up the painting online, but the connection she makes to her own father makes it even better

“De Espanol y Negra; Mulata” is also a fine ekphrastic poem, made better by viewing the painting (I guess copyright prevents these paintings from being included in this collection. Sigh.)

“Illumination,” the last poem, is about happening across someone’s annotations, highlighting of words (dark ink) on a (white) page (would be interesting to pair this poem with Billy Collins’ “Marginalia”)

Syllabus Deets

I think my school requires us teachers to have our students sign an agreement sheet for our syllabus. Parents sign this acknowledgement sheet too. Basically this allows you to enforce all the rules in the syllabus (as long as the principal approves the syllabus, natch). Anyway, a couple years ago, I started adding some further information on this agreement page. I have my students check boxes indicating whether or not they have access to the following:

  • computer
  • Internet
  • printer
  • cell phone

I teach in a very affluent district, but some of my students don’t have access to these things, so it’s good information to have. Since our district is becoming more multicultural, I’ve also added a line that reads

I speak another language besides English at home. (Lanuage: _____________)

Now I don’t get a lot of responses on that question, but this year I’ve learned I have students who speak Greek, Urdu, Russian, Vietnamese, Arabic, Spanish, and Chinese at home. Again, this is good info for me.

Some students, perhaps feeling silly or left out, still filled out the language line, even though they only speak English. Their humorous, out-of-the-box responses tell me that they are more on the creative side and might not always play the rules. Creative language responses included: cat, sign, Elvish, Redneck/broken Spanish/gibberish, American, Oklahoman, and dance.

Finally, since I’m a teacher consultant with the Oklahoma Writing Project, I also include a section in my syllabus explaining that I sometimes use student work in my presentations. I ask students to give me permission to use their work along with their first name only. 95% of my students grant me their permission, but the 5% that don’t feel comfortable with this pique my curiosity. Is that they don’t feel confident in their writing? Are they parents protective of their privacy? Plus, I really do respect their wishes and will not use any of their work in my presentations.

I hope you’ll consider adding some of these details to your syllabus this school year if you need them.

Weeding My Library

My mom is a bit of a pack rat. She’s not even close to qualifying for Hoarders. In fact, most of my parents’ home is spotless. But pull out a few drawers, nose around on a bookshelf in the study, and you’ll find stacks of month-old professional journals and so many pens they could never all be used in a lifetime. Mom has passed this preservation gene down to me, and I recently discovered my classroom library was in need of a major weeding.

I started my classroom library my first year of teaching. I relied on student donations, scoured second-hand stores, and used my gift cards at Barnes & Noble to build my library. I’ve now amassed around 500 books.

Earlier this summer my friend Heather saw my library and some its disintegrating contents and urged me to weed. (She also recommended the funny blog Awful Library Books.) So a few weeks ago before my eighth year of teaching began, I decided it was time to examine my collection. I knew I had a few books that were falling apart. It was time to let them go.

A handful of students answered my Twitter call for help in this process. I knew it would be easier for my students to get rid of books. In the past, I’ve usually just passed books on to another teacher who could use them, instead of just throwing them away. I gave them some guiding questions in their quest to weed books:

  1. Is it damaged?
  2. Is it falling apart?
  3. Will it ever be read?

They tossed all the discarded books onto a pod of desks. Of the 23 books they weeded for me, I only rescued one: a paperback of The Firm, which only had a crinkly cover, but was otherwise fine.

My library was then ready to receive some new acquisitions from the summer. I’m so glad I weeded my library. Will you weed yours?

Here’s my library before Weeding 2012. I don’t have a lot of space, and I needed to make room for newly acquired books from the summer.

Monster was missing its cover. Say goodbye, Monster! (Notice the AR sticker from when I taught middle school. That means this books is 7 years old!)

Since I teach 10th grade, most students have already read these books. Except for Dean Koontz. No one reads those. (They were donated.)

When a spine is damaged, throw the book out. Sayonora!

Can you tell that Prey by Lurlene McDaniel was a very popular book last year? I got a replacement for this broken book.

Pages falling out of Cut. Time to cut this book from the library.

The weeded books. Some students rescued a few of these, but most of them went into the dumpster. I replaced some; others won’t make a reappearance on my class library shelves.

Age Line

Even on my fourth day of class, I am spending time building community. I know 90% of my students’ names by now, so I don’t waste time calling roll. Instead, I told students that they would be forming an age line today: stand in a row from oldest to youngest. Since my room isn’t large enough to comfortably hold us (and because I have pods of desks in the way), we went out into the hall.

My students are sophomores, so they’re capable of performing this activity on their own. I don’t help them. I stand back, observe, and watch. I discover who my natural leaders in the class are. I discover if their peers will actually listen to them. I discover the wide range of students I have.

Once students have finalized their Age Line, I have them state their birthday aloud for the entire class. To keep things interesting for myself, I  moved oldest-youngest with some hours and youngest-oldest with other hours. In a couple classes, we discovered some students share birthdays, near-birthdays, and half-birthdays. One student announced that he was born on a Friday the 13th. Another student who is one of my tallest students actually turned out to be one of my youngest. And one of my students who I assumed to be on the young side (based on stories I’ve heard about his…life choices) is actually one of my oldest students. Finally, I discovered I have some 14-year-olds in my 10th grade English class. That’s good information for me to have.

Will you have your students form an Age Line early in the year? How could you modify this activity for your classroom? I’ve seen it done in silence before, but I like hearing the communication.

Reading History

I’m still learning how to upload YouTube videos. I don’t think I even have any editing software on my clunky old Dell. But I do have a web cam, so I decided to try out some vlogging. I just turned on the camera and started talking. Here’s my video on the different ways I’ve chronicled my reading history:

When I was recording the video, I wasn’t even sure if it would work. I apologize that my cell phone went off midway through. I also need to apologize to Geoff Herbach, whose last name I butchered in the video. I predict his book Stupid Fast will be greedily devoured by lots of my students this year.

On the First Day of English 2

This year I have 4 sections of Pre-AP English II. To start the year off right, I wanted my students to read and write on the first day of school. The syllabus could wait.

I’ve been a fan of Billy Collins since my junior year of college. He was was one of the keynote speakers at the Sigma Tau Delta national convention in Daytona Beach, Florida, in spring 2004. I enjoyed his insight, humor, and accessibility in his poetry. Afterward, I even got a signed book by him, which now rests on my bookshelf at home. Sorry, students! Get your own signed copy!

As I mulled over in my head what to read on the first day, I landed on poetry for its brevity and ability to pack a punch. I turned to one of my favorite Billy Collins’ poems: “On Turning Ten,” which has a clever allusion to Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” which English majors can appreciate.

As far as a writing component, I wanted to get to know my students. What were their attitudes toward English? What were their past reading and writing experiences? Did they like to read? What were their hopes for the year? Did they know of any strengths or weaknesses they had in the realm of English? Normally, these questions are answered in a letter I have my students write me as part of a summer assignment to get into my Pre-AP English class. I cut the entire summer assignment this year, though, for various reasons I could write about later.

I found myself returning to Billy Collins for inspiration. Some of the lines of “On Turning Ten” were perfect prompts for reflection about my students’ English prowess.

  • “The whole idea of it makes me feel”
  • “You tell me it is too early to be looking back”
  • “This is the beginning of”
  • “It seems only yesterday I used to believe”

I created a response sheet based on Collins’ poem with the plan to read his poem first (Just for fun! No analysis!) and then have students respond to his poem through reflection on their first day of class.

My students leveled with me. Some told me that English wasn’t even their favorite language. Others said the last time a teacher said they were a good writer was in first grade. Some claimed they loved to read, but AR (Accelerated Reader) destroyed that love in middle school. A few said they were good writers but had a difficult time finding the right words to say. One un-ironically said he enjoyed reading but wasn’t good at it. (I later found out he had a cognitive disorder, which inhibits his comprehension, but he is not on an IEP!) And of my 100-or-so English students, only 1 of them said she was interested in pursuing English at the college level.

Get to know your students. It helps you and them. What’s that cheesy saying? “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Emailing Parents in PowerSchool

Have I told you lately that I love Twitter? Where else can you network with phenomenal teachers from around the world?

Recently on Twitter, Jim Burke suggested to email parents before the school year even started, welcoming their students to class. I loved this idea, but I didn’t know how to do this. Our school has been using PowerSchool / PowerTeacher for at least four years now, and I wasn’t aware of a mass email feature. I decided to research this feature, and I happened across this website, which explained in detail how to do it. I was so excited! I shared the news with my colleagues, who also began emailing their students’ parents.

If you don’t need the visual steps, here’s what I emailed to my colleagues:

  1. Set up your Signature. Open up the grade book and click on the Tools menu and select Preferences at the bottom. Then click the Mail tab and type in what you want to appear in your signature. I included my name, classes taught, my Twitter name, and a link to my TeacherWeb page.
  2. Now select the class you want to email and click on Tools again. Now select Email Students and Parents. (Only parent emails are available.)
  3. A screen will pop up, allowing you to select multiple classes if you wish. Then click Next.
  4. Click the button next to Parents/Guardians to select all the parents.
  5. Type in your subject and message and click Send Now.
  6. ***There’s also another way to email parents. Click the class you want to email in the gradebook. Below, in the Student Groups window, right-click the Active students and select Email. The parents will automatically be selected. However, you cannot select multiple classes this way.

I heard back from 15 parents of my 148 students. I learned that one of my students would be absent on the first, taking a driving test. I learned one parent was very skilled in puns. And I learned that parents are very appreciative of teachers who communicate.

I hope to take advantage of this feature throughout this school year. It’s so helpful and easy, how could I not?

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