Room 313

adventures in teaching creative writing

Archive for the month “January, 2013”

Fiction vs Nonfiction

My first year of teaching high school English was as much a learning experience for me as it was my students. I had three classes of Pre-AP English 2, and Daniel was one of my students. We have stayed in touch off and on, and he recently reached out to me on Facebook, asking if I’d heard of Common Core because he’d recently read an article about CCSS on NPR.

Here’s what Daniel wrote:

“I would agree with you that nonfiction and fiction need to be balanced. However David Coleman’s quote makes me think that common core does not recognize fiction’s value. Yes fiction can help one understand themselves but it can also help them understand others. Fiction frequently explores different issues and gives them a foundation for discussion. (To Kill a Mockingbird, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Hamlet). Stories are a tool for rhetoric. Stories exercise the imagination. Innumerable influential people were story tellers and I think we are much better for that. I could write a lot about each of those statements, but the point is that fiction has an important place in english classes and the world.”

Daniel is going into the medical field. Perhaps he is a future Khaled Hosseini or William Carlos Williams: doctor by day, writer by night.

What are your thoughts on the fiction-nonfiction debate in Common Core? How is your school reacting?


New Library

My school recently had its soft opening for its new media center/library. It’s most impressive and more than doubles our previous space. We are now a 5A-size school, and our former library was designed for a 2A school.

Our librarian weeded out many old nonfiction books before the big move, and students have noticed. “Where did all the books go, Mr. Stephenson?” they have asked me. I support our librarian’s decision to weed. She cut books about computer repair from the 1980s and craft projects that have not been checked out in 10 years.

Check out a 1-minute video tour and some pics below. I’m experimenting with my iPhone, which I used to record the video and take the photographs.







Inaugural Poets

Four years ago I remember Elizabeth Alexander reading her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Obama’s first inauguration. My first reaction to the poem was a little like this:


As I reread and studied the poem, though, I grew to like it more and more because it speaks to our identity as Americans. Just hearing a poem read aloud once is not the same as pouring over it on the page. Of course, I’ve heard poems before that I liked right from the start, but sometimes poems grow on you.

Alexander is only the fourth poet to read at a presidential inauguration. And earlier today, the fifth inaugural poet, Richard Blanco, read his poem. According to The New York Times, Blanco wrote three poems for the inauguration, and Obama’s team selected the one for him to read to the nation. (I want to know what the other two poems were!)

The inaugural poets and their poems are:

  1. Robert Frost, “The Gift Outright” & “Dedication” (Kennedy, 1961)
  2. Maya Angelou, “On the Pulse of Morning” (Clinton, 1993)
  3. Miller Williams, “Of History and Hope” (Clinton, 1997)
  4. Elizabeth Alexander, “Praise Song for the Day” (Obama, 2009)
  5. Richard Blanco, “One Today” (Obama, 2013)

Frost is the most well-known of the five, one of our nation’s greatest poets. Kennedy asked Frost if he would recite a new poem for his inauguration, but suggested he use “The Gift Outright,” a poem he’d already written, as a backup. Kennedy even went so far as to suggest a revision of the final line of the poem. Frost wrote “Dedication” specifically for the occasion, but the the sunny, snowy day kept him from being able to read the words (Frost was 86 at the time), so he recited “The Gift Outright” from memory, including the modified, final line. That’s why Frost has two poems listed.

Angelou is best known for her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which I still haven’t read. I own a copy. Maybe I’ll read it this year.

Williams was an Arkansas man like Clinton. I have not read any of his other poems, and I don’t think I’ve come across any of his other poetry in anthologies or literary journals.

Alexander was the second black woman chosen as an inaugural poet. She has quite a few poems available on her website. You can also follow her on Twitter.

Blanco as a gay Latino expands the diversity of the inaugural poet. Named after Richard Nixon, at 44, Blanco is also the youngest poet ever selected. He’s on Twitter as well, and some of his poems, including a chapbook, are available online. Here’s a word cloud of Blanco’s “One Today” I created with Wordle:


During this semester, try incorporating one the inaugural poems or poets into one of your lessons. April is National Poetry Month, so that’s a good time to introduce your students to one of our nation’s historic poets. I’ll probably use “One Today” in my sophomore English classroom. I’ll post about how it goes when the time comes.

Blackout Poetry

Over Christmas break, I received a message from a high school graduate, urging me to check out the poetry of Tyler Knott. He writes a variety of poems, but I found myself drawn to his blackout poetry. A recent favorite is “Look on the happy side of all things.” Notice how Tyler adds punctuation in his typed version of the poem.

I bet you’ve figured out how blackout poetry works. Austin Kleon collected his blackout poetry of newspaper articles in Newspaper Blackout. This accompanying video demonstrates the stages of the blackout poetry process.

Last year when we experimented with blackout poetry in Creative Writing 1, I gave all my students the same article from the Wall Street Journal about being lovesick. Some teacher in our building had ordered the newspapers but was not using every issue, so I scavenged, and my students and I had a pretty good time.

This year our school’s librarian happened to be weeding her collection of books in preparation for the big move to our new library. This was great timing for blackout poetry. I grabbed three books for blackout poetry. They were all nonfiction: one was about dog training, one was about whales, and one was religious. I had an office aide rip out some pages from each book, and I gave a pile of pages to each table group. We had already examined Tyler Knott’s poetry, so we were prepared. Students placed a blank sheet of paper beneath their book page and set to work with their markers. The room soon fumed with the smell of 24 Sharpies, and a few of us (myself included) cried out in frustration when we accidentally marked over a word we meant to keep. Some students had the foresight to mark their keepers with pencil before launching in with permanent marker.

Even if you don’t teach creative writing like I do, you might be able to incorporate blackout poetry into a lesson in your English class. One idea I have but have yet to try is to give students a page from a novel we’re studying and have them create a poem from an important scene in the novel. Now I’m not suggesting you have student deface their novels with Sharpies. You’d have to make some copies of some of the novel’s pages. I don’t think that would be breaking copyright because those copies would be for classroom use and would constitute a tiny fraction of the overall book.

Finally, if you have some weeding to do in your own classroom library, consider ripping out some pages of your weeded books before you completely thrown them away.

Here are some of my students’ poems:

I decided to go
early in the morning
before the rest wake.
Fleeing to a tide
they shall never know,
running to the shore.

Men like football. Some-
one has to win. Great success-
es are full of praise.
~Catherine (who turned her blackout poem into a haiku!)

He didn’t deserve mercy.
He got a chance.
I had a pickax:
death, executed, slaying,
dead at 6:45 p.m.

An angel appeared.
Believe it without fear.
Things are different than before.
There is something worth living for.

He tore the bars away.
Gone, he left with a simple, lovely tune.
Now you’ll notice
a family so near–heartache.

Human history:
The combination of technology and manmade war.
Such marvels and other deadly unseen carcasses
board other forms of life which share the planet with us.

2012 Reading Reflection

Looking back on the past year, I wonder how I read 75 books. Teaching high school English keeps me busy, and I devote more time than I care to admit to TV (Chopped, Parenthood, The Big Bang Theory, Homeland, The Good Wife, SNL, Happy Endings, Elementary to name some series). Part of my secret is that I read quite a few poetry collections (14) and graphic novels (18). I recorded four picture books toward my goal, but I read more than that. During a drive to Kansas and back, I listened to a John Grisham audio book, and I checked out and listened to two YA audio books from the Edmond library over the summer.  I also occasionally read with my students, but that is rare because most of the time, I’m having book chats with students during their 10 minutes of SSR at the start of class. Aside from those tricks, I simply carved out time to read–sometimes before bed, on weekends, on vacation. Almost anywhere I went, I brought a book with me.

According to Goodreads, I’ve grown in my amount of books I’ve read over the past five years. I think this chart also demonstrates my devotion to Goodreads, which I did not use much in 2008. I have been keeping a Word file on the books I’ve read since 2005, but now I’m pretty faithful to record my books in both the Word file and on Goodreads. I also keep a graphic reading history in Publisher and print off the titles to tape onto my classroom door. Each time I finish a book, I chronicle it 3 different ways! That might be too much. I could probably just use Goodreads to create my graphic reading history. Maybe I’ll try that this year to save myself some time.


My pages show growth as well, which shouldn’t be surprising.


Goodreads also gave me the option to see how I rated the books I read this year. Shout out to Claudia Swisher for giving me the idea to write about my ratings. (You should check out her blog!) Of the 75 books I read, I gave only 1 a score of 1 (“didn’t like it”). I gave 7 books a 2 (“it was ok”). I gave 19 books a 3 (“liked it”), 37 books a 4 (“really liked it”), and 11 books a 5 (“loved it”). That means my overall average rating for a book this year was a 3.67, which I think is excellent.

ratings_2012The above chart also shows that my longest book was Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City and that I categorized my books in a wide variety of genres/shelves. Currently on Goodreads, I’ve rated 620 books with an average overall rating of 3.59, so my 2012 ratings are close to my overall average. I’ve written 252 reviews for those 620 books, which I also think is pretty good.

I’ll wrap up this reflection by copying and pasting my 2012 book record from my Word file. I’ve selected 2 books from each of 4 different time periods to highlight as outstanding reads. I was very happy with most of the books I read this year, and I look forward to another year of reading in 2013.

2012 Reading History

Spring 2012


  1. Scott Card, Orson. Ender’s Game. © 1985. 324 pages. Sci Fi / YA / Annoying.
  2. Dawson, Mike. Troop 142. © 2011. 150 pages. Lad Lit / Graphic Novel.
  3. Garcia Marquez, Gabriel. In Evil Hour. © 1979. 183 pages. Multicultural literature.
  4. Fey, Tina. Bossypants. © 2011. 275 pages. Memoir / Humor.
  5. Garfield, Simon. Just My Type. © 2010. 331 pages. Nonfiction.
  6. Macaulay, David. Black and White. © 1990. 30 pages. Children’s book.
  7. Janeczko, Paul. Requiem: Poems of the Terezín Ghetto. © 2011. 94 pages. Holocaust poetry.
  8. Rosenthal, Amy. Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. © 2005. 225 pages. Memoir.
  9. Grisham, John. The Associate. © 2004. 434 pages. Legal thriller.
  10. Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars. © 2012. 313 pages. YA: CRF.
  11. Whaley, John Corey. Where Things Come Back. © 2011. 228 pages. YA: CRF.
  12. Borden, Louise. His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg: Courage, Rescue, and Mystery During World War II. © 2012. 131 pages. History: Children’s Book.
  13. Kohn, Alfie. Feel-Bad Education: And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling. © 2011. 204 pages. Education.
  14. Greenberg, Jan, Ed. Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by Twentieth-Century American Art. © 2001. 73 pages. Poetry & Art.
  15. Kooser, Ted. The Blizzard Voices. © 1986. Poetry: Historical Fiction.
  16. Kooser, Ted. Bag in the Wind. © 2010. Children’s Book.
  17. Kooser, Ted. House Held Up By Trees. © 2012. Children’s Book.
  18. Sepetys, Ruta. Between Shades of Gray. © 2011. 341 pages. YA Historical Fiction.
  19. Kohn, Alfie. The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards.© 1999. 237 pages. Education.
  20. Carson Levine, Gail. Forgive Me, I Meant To Do It: False Apology Poems. © 2012. 80 pages. Poetry.
  21. Applegate, Katherine. The One and Only Ivan. © 2012. 304 pages. Children’s Lit.

Summer Break 2012


  1. Wilson, Maja. Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment. © 2006. 109 pages. Professional.
  2. Morrison, Toni. Home. © 2012. 146 pages. Historical Fiction.
  3. Handler, Daniel. Why We Broke Up. © 2011. 354 pages. YA: CRF.
  4. Brosgol, Vera. Anya’s Ghost. © 2011. 221 pages. YA: Fantasy / Graphic Novel.
  5. Backderf, John. My Friend Dahmer. © 2012. 199 pages. Memoir / Graphic Novel.
  6. Kohn, Alfie. The Homework Myth. © 2006. 198 pages. Education.
  7. King, A. S. Please Ignore Vera Dietz. © 2010. Audio / 336 pages. YA: CRF / magical realism.
  8. Crawford, Brent. Carter Finally Gets It. © 2009. 300 pages. YA: Lad Lit.
  9. King, A. S. Everybody Sees the Ants. © 2011. 279 pages. YA: CRF / magical realism.
  10. Hinds, Gareth / Homer. The Odyssey. © 2010. 249 pages. Classic / graphic novel.
  11. Chast, Roz. What I Hate from A to Z. © 2011. 64 pages. Illustrated / Humor.
  12. Pyle, Kevin C. Take What You Can Carry. © 2012. 176 pages. CRF / Historical Fiction / Graphic Novel.
  13. Anderson, Jeff. Everyday Editing: Inviting Students to Develop Skill and Craft in Writer’s Workshop. © 2007. 158 pages. Professional.
  14. Ferguson, Craig. American on Purpose: the Improbably Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot. © 2009. 268 pages. Memoir.
  15. Palacio, R. J. Wonder. © 2012. 313 pages. YA: CRF.
  16. Tovani, Cris. So What Do They Really Know?: Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning. © 2011. 156 pages. Professional.
  17. Herbach, Geoff. Stupid Fast. © 2011. 311 pages. Realistic Fiction.
  18. Martin, Walter & Paloma Muñoz. Travelers. © 2008. 81 pages. Art / Photography.
  19. Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. © 2003. 396 pages. History.

Fall 2012


  1. Fies, Brian. Mom’s Cancer. © 2006. 115 pages. Memoir / Graphic Novel.
  2. Koertge, Ron. Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses. © 2012. 87 pages. Fairy tale poetry.
  3. Trethewey, Natasha. Thrall. © 2012. 78 pages. Poetry.
  4. Knisley, Lucy. Relish. © 2013. 173 pages. Memoir / Graphic Novel.
  5. Duffy, Carol Ann. The Bees. © 2011. 84 pages. Poetry.
  6. Thompson, Richard. Cul de Sac: Golden Treasury. © 2010. 197 pages. Comic Strip.
  7. Thompson, Richard. Shapes and Colors. © 2010. 127 pages. Comic Strip.
  8. Thompson, Richard. The Mighty Alice. © 2012. 128 pages. Comic Strip.
  9. Knisley, Lucy. French Milk. © 2007. 193 pages. Memoir / Graphic Novel.
  10. Anderson, Jeff. 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know. © 2011. 266 pages. Professional.
  11. Ronson, Jon. The Psychopath Test. © 2011. 272 pages. Nonfiction.
  12. Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. © 2010. 328 pages. Nonfiction.
  13. Heard, Georgia, Ed. Falling Down the Page: a Book of List Poems. © 2009. 45 pages. Poetry.
  14. Scieszka, Jon. Knucklehead: Tall Tales & Mostly True Stories about Growing Up Scieszka. © 2005. 106 pages. Memoir.
  15. Bracey, Gerald W. Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality. © 2009. 259 pages. Nonfiction.
  16. King, A. S. Ask the Passengers. © 2012. 293 pages. YA: CRF.
  17. Forney, Ellen. Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me. © 2012. 237 pages. Graphic Novel Memoir.
  18. Kittle, Penny. Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers. © 2012. 169 pages. Professional.
  19. Grisham, John. The Appeal. © 2008. Audio.
  20. Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. © 2008. 285 pages. Nonfiction.
  21. Regnaud, Jean & Emile Bravo. My Mommy: is in America and she met Buffalo Bill. © 2007. 118 pages. Graphic Novel / Memoir.
  22. Ryan, Kay. Say Uncle. © 1991. 76 pages. Poetry.
  23. Hicks, Faith Erin. Friends with Boys. © 2012. 211 pages. Graphic Novel: CRF & Fantasy.
  24. Ruddell, Deborah & Joan Rankin. A Whiff of Pine, a Hint of Skunk: a Forest of Poems. © 2009. Children’s poetry.
  25. Lee, Nelle Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. © 1963. 384 pages.  Literary Excellence: Historical Fiction.
  26. Chaltas, Thalia. Because I Am Furniture. © 2009. 352 pages. YA CRF: Novel in Verse.

Winter Break 2012


  1. Yang, Gene & Thien Pham. Level Up. © 2011. 160 pages. CRF/Fantasy: Graphic Novel.
  2. Moore, Alan & David Lloyd. V for Vendetta. © 2005. 265 pages. Dystopian Graphic Novel.
  3. Gregorich, Barbara. Jack and Larry. © 2012. 92 pages. Historical Fiction Novel in Verse.
  4. Bingham, Kelly. Shark Girl. © 2007. 276 pages. YA CRF Novel in Verse.
  5. Zuniga, Lauren. The Smell of Good Mud. © 2012. 92 pages. Poetry.
  6. Bragg, Georgia. How They Croaked. © 2011. 161 pages. Nonfiction.
  7. Urban, Linda. Hound Dog True. © 2011. 148 pages. CRF Elementary.
  8. Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink. © 2007. 276 pages. Nonfiction.
  9. Juster, Norton. The Phantom Tollbooth. © 1961. 256 pages. Classic Fantasy Elementary.
  10. Newman, Lesléa. October Mourning: a Song for Matthew Shephard. © 2012. 91 pages. Historical Fiction Novel in Verse.

Jack and Larry REVIEW

[Spoiler: This book involves a dog and thus involves a dog’s ultimate death. This should come as no surprise for anyone over the age of eight. The way Larry dies is important to this review, so I’m going to reveal that information here.]

This sweet based-on-a-true-story novel in verse will entertain young fans of baseball and dogs alike. The Jack in the title is John Gladstone Graney, a Canadian who played major league baseball for Cleveland in the 1910s. Larry is the bull terrier who becomes the team’s mascot and the charge of Jack when the team’s manager says so. This book follows Graney’s quest for fame and glory with his team and the antics and support that Larry provides.

The poems are free verse, easy to read, titled, and make use of deliberate and sometimes seemingly random indentations. For example, on page 53, she writes:


After some of the poems, a gray box with additional information in prose appears like a parenthetical aside. These boxes worked okay for me, but they sometimes brought me out of the story. I wonder if they could have been converted into poems themselves or included in the back of the book as a Notes or Appendix section. One of the boxes featured an excerpt from a newspaper article, which could have been formatted to look like an actual newspaper article. I think this book could have made use of a more multi-genre approach or used a variety of poetic forms for greater depth.

The only photograph of Jack and Larry is on the cover of the book, which was somewhat disappointing. Whenever a book touches on history, I always find myself wanting more photographs. I wonder how many more are actually even available.

Like most books involving dogs, Larry dies. While wondering off through a city as was his custom, a stray dog attacks him. It’s incredible to me that Jack didn’t watch Larry and take better care of him. He just sets Larry loose to do his business and entertain himself. As a dog owner, I was shocked by this. Gregorich praises the bond and love between Jack and Larry, but I can’t see a responsible, loving dog owner letting his dog roam the streets of a strange (or familiar) city all by himself. This story definitely comes from a different era. Gregorich does not go into great detail about Larry’s wounds. She simply writes,


Jack and Larry is a good introduction for young readers to the novel in verse format. Fans of baseball will find this historical book interesting, but dog owners might be disappointed in some of Jack’s actions. Gregorich makes sure to point out that Cleveland made a poor decision in naming their team the Indians…


…but she never acknowledges that Jack’s irresponsibility led to Larry’s untimely death.

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