Archives For Writing

I teach students how to write. I do not make them writers.

There is a difference.

I have taught the writing process for over twenty years. I have taught students at different grade levels how to write for a specific audience in a specific format for a particular purpose. For example:

  • Write a letter to your principal asking for an extra 15 minutes of recess. (persuasive letter)
  • Research Shakespeare’s use of biblical imagery in Hamlet. (literary analysis)
  • Imagine you are a citizen of the ancient city state of Sparta. What would a typical day be like? (narrative)writing

I know how to teach students to incorporate evidence in their writing. I have lessons on how to find the best evidence, and I have lessons on how to use a “stem sentence” to incorporate their evidence. I have lessons on how students should cite their evidence.

I can teach students how to use order in establishing a position in an argument, how to expand their ideas in analysis, and how to use sequence in telling a story.

I can teach students how to use a “formula” approach if they get stuck by having them:

  • Start with a question, a quote, a definition, or example;
  • Write a thesis with three points and then develop each of these points into paragraphs;
  • Restate their best idea in the conclusion.

I teach the writing process: draft, edit, review, revise, (repeat), polish, and publish.

After all these lessons, I am confident that my students can write better.

I am not sure they are writers.

This past week, I went to hear the writer Dani Shapiro (Still Writing, Devotion: A Memoir) talk about her creative process as a writer. I thought I might hear some new ideas or inspiration that could help me teach my students to become writers.

Ms. Shapiro was composed as she ruined any notion that I could offer my students more than I already did in class. She was gracious as she crushed my hopes for easy solutions. I scrambled taking notes, but fortunately, what she said that night is posted on her blog:

Are there steps that lead the writer to the page? Steps that we can take, teetering one after the next, that will somehow get us into that longed-for state of the page rising up, the world receding?

I’m sorry to say that after all my musing I was unable to come up with a game plan, for myself or anyone else. Honestly, I never really thought I would, because every writer’s path to the page is unique and fraught in its own special way.

As she spoke, the issues I had with Michael, a student I had in class this year, came to mind.

All year, Michael was compelled to write, but not the writing I required. He would hang around after class asking me to “quick read” a story.  (Note: they were very dark short stories). After an assignment, he would ask me what was my favorite part of an essay he had handed in. Before I could speak, he would read aloud his favorite line from that essay.

He took umbrage when I made a critical comment. He could not write on demand. He dawdled with all sorts of technology while others scratched out a timed essay. He hated turning in his incomplete work complaining “I didn’t get to say what I wanted” or “I just couldn’t get started.”

After class, I would correct the essays. Michael’s papers could begin like any other student’s paper. Pronoun antecedent issues. Capitalization problems. Missing apostrophes. I would write the usual blunt comments,”Get to the point!” in the margins. But I learned to look for that sentence, usually somewhere about 2/3 through his essay, for that sentence….and I would have to stop.

Everything Michael wrote before that sentence in an essay was in need of revision, but everything after that sentence in the essay was different, shaded…altered. He could write something that silenced the teacher voice in my head.

“I knew that was good,” he would say looking for my approval.
“Yes,” I would agree, “that was very good. I have no suggestions.”
That would please him, until the next writing assignment he would be forced to write.

As Shapiro states, there are no prescribed steps I can devise to “lead the writer to the page.” She could not help me develop a game plan to get my students “into that longed-for state of the page rising up, the world receding,” just as there was no game plan that made Michael a writer. I know he is on a unique path, and I know I did not teach him this path.

His path illustrates the difference, a difference I recognize between my teaching writing and my teaching a writer.

capt As the 10th grade English teacher, Linda’s role had been to prepare students for the rigors of the State of Connecticut Academic Performance Test, otherwise known as the CAPT. She had been preparing students with exam-released materials, and her collection of writing prompts stretched back to 1994.  Now that she will be retiring, it is time to clean out the classroom. English teachers are not necessarily hoarders, but there was evidence to suggest that Linda was stocked with enough class sets of short stories to ensure  students were always more than adequately prepared. Yet, she was delighted to see these particular stories go.
“Let’s de-CAPT-itate,” we laughed and piled up the cartons containing well-worn copies of short stories.
Out went Rough Touch. Out went Machine Runner. Out went Farewell to Violet, and a View from the Bridge.
I chuckled at the contents of the box labelled”depressing stories” before chucking them onto the pile.
Goodbye to Amanda and the Wounded Birds. Farewell to A Hundred Bucks of Happy. Adios to Catch the Moon. We pulled down another carton labeled  “dog stories” containing LibertyViva New JerseyThe Dog Formally Known as Victor Maximilian Bonaparte Lincoln Rothbaum. They too were discarded without a tear.
The CAPT’s Response to Literature’s chief flaw was the ludicrous diluting of Louise Rosenblatt’s Reader Response Theory where students were asked to “make a connection:”

What does the story say about people in general?  In what ways does it remind you of people you have known or experiences you have had?  You may also write about stories or other books you have read, or movies, works of art, or television programs you have seen.

That question was difficult for many of the literal readers, who, in responding to the most obvious plot point, might answer, “This story has a dog and I have a dog.” How else to explain all the dog stories? On other occasions, I found out that while taking standardized test in the elementary grades students had been told, “if you have no connection to the story, make one up!” Over the years, the CAPT turned our students into very creative liars rather than literary analysts.

 

The other flaw in the Response to Literature  was the evaluation question. Students were asked,  

How successful was the author in creating a good piece of literature?  Use examples from the story to explain your thinking.

Many of our students found this a difficult question to negotiate, particularly if they thought the author did not write a good piece of literature, but rather an average or mildly enjoyable story. They did manage to make their opinions known, and  one of my favorite student responses began, “While this story is no  Macbeth, there are a few nice metaphors…”

Most of the literature on the CAPT did come from reputable writers, but they were not the quality stories found in anthologies like Saki’s The Interlopers or Anton Chekhov’s The Bet. To be honest, I did not think the CAPT essays were an authentic activity, and I particularly did not like the selections on the CAPT’s Response to Literature section.

Now the CAPT will be replaced by the Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC), as Connecticut has selected SBAC as their assessment consortium to measure progress with the Common Core State Standards, and the test will move to 11th grade. This year (2014) is the pilot test only; there are no exemplars and no results.  The SBAC is digital, and in the future we will practice taking this test on our devices, so there is no need to hang onto class sets of short stories. So why am I concerned that there will be no real difference with the SBAC? Cleaning the classroom may be a transition that is more symbolic of our move from paper to keyboard than in our gaining an authentic assessment.

Nevertheless, Linda’s classroom looked several tons lighter.

“We are finally de-CAPT-itated!” I announced looking at the stack of boxes ready for the dumpster.

“Just in time to be SBAC-kled!” Linda responded cheerfully.

On the Studio 360 website, the following photo of a poem written by a 1st grader is posted as the best poem to celebrate National Poetry Month 2014. I would agree that there is something universally appealing about this child’s observations that were created with considerable attention to the way words sound…

first_grade_poem_embed

 

We did the soft wind.
We danst slowly. We swrld
Aroned. We danst soft.
We lisin to the mozik.
We danst to the mozik. 
We made personal space. 

The poem by this 1st grader is strikingly similar to Gwendolyn Brook’s short poem. She also pays considerable attention to the way words sound:

 

THE POOL PLAYERS.
SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

My students have always commented on the inferences that Brooks creates in her eight lines of verse in characterizing the seven pool players. They write about the pool players’ attitudes and their fatalistic approach to life. My students also comment on what is missing in drawing their conclusions. They are satisfied with providing interpretations in the “spaces” of the poem, filling in their own ideas what is not explicit. They agree with T.S. Eliot’s statement: “poetry communicates before it is understood.”

The unnamed 1st grade poet of the poem above communicates the slow, swirling, soft relationship between music and dance in seven short statements on six lines of verse. What does it matter if the reader may never understand if the personal space for the poet is made because of the room needed for the dance or the space made personal by the dance ? In filling in the “space” of the 1st grader’s poem, I like to think that line was probably added because of a teacher’s repeated plea to a room of dancing 6 year- olds:

“PERSONAL SPACE! Remember…PERSONAL SPACE!!”

Continue Reading…

Shakespeare would be 450 years old this year, April 2014. To celebrate this milestone the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust has a number of activities scheduled including performances and parades in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon the weekend of April 26/27:

Screenshot 2014-04-22 08.35.28

The birthday weekend brings together performers, artists, the local community and ambassadors from around the world in a vibrant celebration of the life and works of William Shakespeare. During the two day event, the town’s streets overflow with music, pageantry and drama and you are invited to enjoy a packed programme of special activities and great days out at the five Shakespeare houses.

Whatever activities they plan, I am sure Shakespeare would be honored to be the cause of merry-making and revelry. He would love to the be the cause of festivity; he would enjoy a celebratory bash. But the committee planning the events has been careful not to use the word “party.” That word would confuse Shakespeare because for all of his prowess as a dramatist and poet, Shakespeare does not know the word “party.”

In penning 37 plays and 154 sonnets Shakespeare is credited with contributing an estimated 1,700 words to the English language. In his verse, he used six different meanings to the word party. Using the Shakespeare Navigator, owned by Philip Weller, I researched how the word “party” was used in Shakespeare’s works:

party (n.) 1 side, faction, camp
party (n.) 2 litigant, disputant, side
party (n.) 3 side, part, function
party (n.) 4 participant, accessory, supporter
party (n.) 5 person, fellow
party (n.) 6 side, position, viewpoint

Note: none of these means “celebration.”

Perhaps this is not so much of a surprise since the word “party” as a noun was not used as an occasion for celebration until 1716, a century after Shakespeare’s death. The Online Etymology Dictionary records the first use of “party” as:

Sense of “gathering for social pleasure” is first found 1716, from general sense of persons gathered together (originally for some specific purpose, such as dinner party, hunting party).

“To Party,” the verb derived from the noun was not added until the Roaring 20′s”

“have a good time,” 1922, from party (n.)

Shakespeare was acquainted with the word “birthday” since it had been in use for at least two hundred years before he was writing:

birthday (n.) late 14c., from Old English byrddæg, “anniversary celebration of someone’s birth” (at first usually a king or saint); see birth (n.) + day. Meaning “day on which one is born” is from 1570s. 

He does note “birthdays” in plays:

Antony and Cleopatra: AC III.xiii.184.2 It is my birthday.
Julius Caesar: JC V.i.71 This is my birthday; 
Pericles: Per II.i.109 is It is her birthday, and there are princes and knights come
The Two Noble Kinsmen: TNK II.iv.36 You have honoured her fair birthday with your virtues,

Still Shakespeare chose other ways of expressing birth, as evidence by a particularly sad admission from Beatrice in Much Ado abut Nothing about the death of her mother in childbirth:

BEATRICE
334   No, sure, my lord, my mother cried; but then there
335   was a star danced, and under that was I born. (2.1)

So, members of the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, have a wonderful gala. Have a fabulous social gathering.  Celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, but please, do not party. 

Shakespeare does not know “party” that way.

April is Poetry Month. What should you do about this?
Take advice from Sir Philip Sidney and “Look in thy heart and write.”

Sidney composed “An Apology for Poetry”  (Defence of Poesie) in 1575, and in this essay maintains poetry combines the liveliness of history with philosophy, and this combination is more effective than either history or philosophy in inspiring readers. According to Sidney, poetry acts in a way that “awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought.”

Sidney himself was an accomplished poet who wrote a sequence of 108 English sonnets known as “Astrophil and Stella” where Astrophil is the star lover, and Stella is his star.

The first sonnet in the sequence sets the conceit; the meaning embedded in the last line (bolded):

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show
That she (dear She) might take some pleasure of my pain:
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay,
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,
And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite–
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”

writeMeaning? Stop thinking about writing a poem and start writing a poem. Your heart will guide your pen.

So, what to write during Poetry Month?

  • Write a poem and share on a website. There are hundreds of sites. (ex: poetry.com)
  • Write about your favorite poem and share the poem.
  • Write about a lesson on poetry you remember.
  • Write about a lesson on poetry you taught.
  • Write a post for #PoetryFriday, a platform where poets and readers of poetry share their writing.  Each week, a blogger is tasked with rounding up the #PoetryFriday posts around the blogosphere and hosting posts on his or her website.

As Sidney suggests, the best way to know what you think about poetry is to sit and write about poetry.
It’s April.
It’s Poetry Month.
Your muse is impatiently waiting.

Write!

Continue Reading…

17 minutesI was researching websites for the Film and Literature class when I first heard about the “17 Minute Rule;” a rule that suggests the real plot is revealed to the audience 17 minutes into any film.  Todd Pack’s Messy Desk Blog uses a number of examples to illustrate  The 17 Minute Rule:

George Bailey tells his father he couldn’t face being cooped up the rest of his life in a shabby little office at his father’s building and loan 17 minutes into It’s a Wonderful Life.

The rest of the movie is about everything that happens that stops him from leaving Bedford Falls and drives him to consider jumping off that bridge on Christmas Eve.

  • Luke’s uncle buys the droids 17 minutes into Star Wars. The droids are what leads Luke to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia and, ultimiately, the Death Star.
  • Buddy leaves the North Pole to find his real dad 17 minutes into Elf.
  • The shark eats the little boy on the raft 17 minutes intoJaws. It’s the second attack that forces the town to close the beach and go after the shark.
  • The Iowa farmer is thinking about plowing under the baseball field he built in his cornfield until Shoeless Joe appears 17 minutes after the credits in Field of Dreams.

This 17 minute phenomenon was corroborated on other blogs as well.  Writer and Director Nathan Marshall posted Screenplay Structure: Three Acts & Five Points Script Frenzy! blog where he also called attention to minute 17:

3) Page 17. Next time you watch a DVD, pause it 17 minutes into the film. Trust me—any film. What’s happening at that point in the story? Most likely, the essential character conflict has just been laid out. A teenage Indiana Jones runs to his father for help, but is shushed instead. Shaun convinces his girlfriend to trust him in Shaun of the Dead. Captain Renault asks Rick why he came to Casablanca. On page 17, your audience should realize what the film is really about. It’s not about finding the Holy Grail, Indy—it’s about learning to forgive dad!

The same was outlined on the  All About Screenwriting blog. In addition to explaining the rule, this post made the claim that the ratio of screenplay to minute of film is 1:1; and page 17 will be the 17th minute of a film. The site provides a basic outline for a screenplay of the average movie made today:

FADE IN: 

  • Between pages 1-5: The HOOK, something that grabs our attention and pulls us in.
  • Page 10: At this point in your script you should have the “MINI CRISIS”. The “MINI CRISIS” should lead us into…
  • Page 17: …The DILEMMA. Creation of the team and what the movie is about.
  • Page 30: The REACTION to the dilemma or situation.
  • Page 45: First “REVERSAL” of the 17 minute point. This point furthers the characters and pushes them deeper into the situation or the dilemma.
  • Page 60: The “TENT POLE” of the movie. Where the passive characters become active or vice versa.
  • Page 75: Second “REVERSAL” to the 17 minute point. To reaffirm what the story is about.
  • Page 90: The LOW POINT of action. The place from which our main character has to rise up from.

FADE OUT.

So when I noticed students picking up books for independent reading and discarding them after the first few pages, I wondered if they were giving the book a real chance. Could a 17 page rule apply to books student might choose to read? And, if the rule applied, would a student become more engaged once he or she reached page 17?

In a short experiment, I grabbed three books off the top of the book cart, and noted the following:

The Hobbit (The Dwarves and Gandalf invade Bilbo’s home)

“The poor little hobbit sat down in the hall and put his head in his hands, and wondered what had happened, and what was going to happen, and whether they would all stay to supper. Then the bell rang again louder than ever, and he had to run to the door.”

Little Women -Marmee gives  Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy their Christmas gifts with her words of encouragement to survive the difficulties of life.

‘We never are too old for this, my dear, because it is a play we are playing all the time in one way or another.Out burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City. Now, my little pilgrims, suppose you begin again, not in play, but in earnest, and see how far on you can get before Father comes home.’”

Lord of the Flies-The boys Ralph and Piggy discover they are on their own in a hostile environment:

“They’re all dead,” said Piggy, “an’ this is an island. Nobody don’t know we’re here. Your dad don’t know, nobody don’t know—”
His lips quivered and the spectacles were dimmed with mist.
“We may stay here till we die.”
With that word the heat seemed to increase till it became a threatening weight and the lagoon attacked them with a blinding effulgence.”

Yes, the rule was working for books from the canon. Later that same afternoon, I was working with a “reluctant reader” who had selected James and the Giant Peach as a guided reading text. I glanced at page 17 and noticed the wonderful passage where James finds the entrance to the giant peach.

James and the Giant Peach 

“Almost without knowing what he was doing, as though drawn by some powerful magnet, James Henry Trotter started walking slowly toward the giant peach. He climbed over the fence that surrounded it, and stood directly beneath it, staring up at its great bulging sides. He put out a hand and touched it gently with the tip of one finger. It felt soft and warm and slightly furry, like the skin of a baby mouse. He moved a step closer and rubbed his cheek lightly against the soft skin. And then suddenly, while he was doing this, he happened to notice that right beside him and below him, close to the ground, there was a hole in the side of the peach.”

Not every text has a page 17 moment…sometimes the dilemma is posed on page 16 or page 18 or 19. I suspect the rule holds up because the 17 minute rule/page 17 is part of a pattern in storytelling, and stories always follow a pattern.  Sharing this rule with students gives me another “tool” in my teaching toolbox, so when I see a student toss a book aside after reading only a few pages, I casually remark, “Did you get to page 17 yet? There’s a rule about page 17…. on page 17, something important always happens.”
I may get a quizzical look, but several minutes later, I have seen that same student engrossed in the text.
“The book got better,” says the student.
“Well, you got past page 17,” I respond.

I believe the author Stephen King would hate the language of the Common Core State Standards for one reason: unnecessary adverbs. His book On Writing has a section devoted to explaining why The adverb is not your friend.

Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. … With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

I have written about King and adverbs before. As I am implementing the standards in my high school English curriculums, I find myself agreeing with him.  Take, for example, the Common Core Anchor Reading Standard 1. The standard states:

Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1

The use of adverbs in this standard has led to more confusion, not less. The expression “read closely” was recoined as “close reading,” and that has resulted in parodies of teachers holding books up to their faces, mocking the standard. Why the writers of the Common Core felt the need to modify the action verb “read” at all is perplexing. Students must read to determine what a text says. That is all. The admonishment to “read closely” to determine what the “text says explicitly” infers the author is either trying to slip an idea past a reader or the author has been ineffective in communicating the idea. I am not convinced any author would appreciate this standard.

Moreover, the Common Core Anchor Writing Standards have the same problem, for example,

Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.2

I believe that every teacher requires students to convey “complex ideas and information clearly and accurately,” yet the language of this standard infers that students would be allowed to write distorted or inaccurate responses. The standard should read, “Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.” The adverbs are redundant, as King demonstrates in On Writing: (bolded words his choice)

Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose doestell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

The same editing should be applied to the Speaking and Listening Anchor Standards:

Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1

In this standard, the subjective nature of the adverb “effectively” creates the same confusion as reading “closely.” This standard could be made measurable if the emphasis was on the infinitive “to persuade” rather than on the timid adverbs “effectively” and “persuasively.”  How does one measure these terms, unless by degrees? An argument is either effective or not. Readers are persuaded or not. A standard is unequivocal. The present wording could lead to much equivocating if a reader has to determine the degree of “effectively” or “persuasively.” Try this rewrite: Prepare for and participate in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas in order to persuade.”

In addition, the Language (or grammar standards) themselves contain a distracting adverbial phrase:

Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.3

The phrase comprehend”more fully” sounds like a phrase from one of my student’s essays. I would equate the construct of “more fully” with “as a whole” or “the fact that” or the ubiquitous word “flows” found in my weaker writers’ responses. These are all phrases that receive a large NO! in red ink from me as I grade or confer. A reader comprehends or a reader does not.

King argues that writers must be deliberate in stemming adverbs in this selection from On Writing:

Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s — GASP!! — too late.

King is proved correct about the propagation of adverbs in the language of the Common Core. Adverbs pop up in the NOTES ON sections that follow the anchor standards. For example:

Notes on Range and Content of Student Reading

Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades. Students also acquire the habits of reading independently and closely, which are essential to their future success.

Notes on Range and Content of Student Speaking and Listening

Digital texts confront students with the potential for continually updated content and dynamically changing combinations of words, graphics, images, hyperlinks, and embedded video and audio.

When a reader removes the bolded words, the pedantic tone disappears. The implications that curriculum is “unintentional” or “unstructured” is removed. The confusion as to what reading “closely” means is removed. Don’t even get me started as to why “dynamically” is there, although I suspect the use is to suggest there may be some form of cool media out there that does not yet exist so the CCSS writers modified the adjective “changing” on combination with “dynamically” to cover future media constructs. The only adverb in this section that needs to be included is “independently,” and that should be an adjective. We all want independent readers, so be clear and say “independent readers.”

Stephen King has had an impact on my writing, and when I come to including an adverb I pause to think if that adverb is necessary. Would that the writers of the Common Core felt the same. The standards are riddled with adverbs. How did I find most of them? I used the “Find” option (command-F on my Mac) and put “LY” in the search box. How did I know that most adverbs end with ly?  Here, for your enjoyment, is my favorite adverb resource, a video from Schoolhouse Rock with the charming song about adverbs that remains emblazoned on my brain:

Consider how the advice from King and the lesson from this video can be used by teachers in stopping the flood of adverbs and in applying the Speaking and Listening standard in a classroom where “Digital texts confront students with the potential for updated content and changing combinations of words”….. NOTE: continually and dynamically not included.

 

theatre-stage-81d434 copyShakespeare’s sonnets are little one-act plays.
I learned this one year when I was teaching drama to grades 9-12 and I discovered Will and WhimsySixteen Dramatically Illustrated Sonnets of Shakespeare by Alan Haehnel. The short comic/poignant skits in the collection are an excellent way for middle school and high school students to be exposed to the Bard’s 154 poems.
Consequently, when I began the study of sonnets with my Advanced Placement English Literature students, I thought they might benefit from a similar technique. In addition, I considered that this could be an opportunity for them to write a narrative as required by the Common Core State Standards:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.3
Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

“Imagine a character in each sonnet is talking to you,” I explained, “you need to synthesize the ideas from the poem, and write that character’s story.”

Then, I handed out copies of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29:

sonnet 29

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

On the bottom of the page I restated one simple direction, “Write the narrative.”

The results were unexpected. While my students are good at analyzing poems, I was unaware that a number of them are born storytellers. In their retellings, they captured the spirit, and sometimes the exact language, of the poem. They found ways to expand on the isolation and alienation of the speaker and incorporate the shift in the speaker’s attitude from despair to one of acceptance.

For example, Melissa used a pivotal moment in the lives of high school students…asking someone to go to the prom:

After weeks of preparation and endless nerves the day has come to ask her to come to prom with me!
I wrote her a poem listing all the things I liked about her and read it to her under the starlight sky just at sunset.
I ended the poem with “thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings.”
My nerves ran through my body and I felt like I was going to pass out.
YES! SHE SAID YES!
I take her off to dinner and we planned for the night of prom. My dreams have come true! I am going to my senior prom with the girl of my dreams!

In contrast, Makayla began her narrative from the point of view of a frighteningly depressed teenager who observes others in a community park. The young girl’s attention is eventually drawn to one elderly couple, and their tenderness towards each other brings about an “epiphany,” a realization:

I inhale a summer thriving breathe and release the darkness out of my body. I turn to walk down the once sullen Earth path now as a gateway to sweet heaven’s gate. I take my phone out of the bag and dial my boyfriend’s number to make things right and explain myself to him. I pass the two elderly couple and smile.
In return I get a friendly, “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” and I respond, “Yes, yes ,it truly is, and I won’t beweep it again.”
As I near the running children, I pulled my bag off my shoulder and slipped it into a nearby trashcan. It’s time to change my state with kings.

Emma’s chose to use the point-of-view of an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s in this poignant tale:

He doesn’t know that me is right underneath all of this forgotten memory. I’m right here, but I don’t know who I am. I bury my face in my wrinkled hands and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries. I can’t change. Curse my fate.
When I look up he’s standing over me. “Your appointment is at four.”
I swear I didn’t know. When I searched his face for recognition, I knew that he did not see me. He doesn’t know who I am and neither do I. He doesn’t understand that I can’t control my fate. But I am not my forgotten memory, I am his wife. That much, I know.

Finally, Jen’s story was humorous, told from the perspective of a jilted bride:

I’m sitting alone on altar steps in my once-worn Vera Wang wedding dress that’s as deflated now as I feel. My supposed-to-be husband left me for some California-toned, bottle-blond chick bustier than Dolly Parton. (Curses her and her awesome figure. I swear she was created by Russian scientists.) I all alone beweep my outcast state….

….That son-of-a-bitch should not be in my thoughts right now. Well, maybe he should considering he was a 10 thousand dollar mistake. Dammit I looked good in that dress.
Sullen Earth, why me?

What started out as an educated guess for an assignment on my part has yielded great results. Moreover, my students have written narratives based on  “this man’s art.”

“We loved writing these,” was their collective response.
Of course they did….hard to go wrong with Shakespeare as their mentor.

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There is no surprise in reading the word “precision” in the language of the Common Core’s Mathematical Practice Standards. Mathematics requires precision:

CCSS.Math.Practice.MP6 Attend to precision.

Mathematically proficient students try to communicate precisely to others. They try to use clear definitions in discussion with others and in their own reasoning.

Writing requires precision as well. Proficient writers in every genre communicate precisely to others. Yet, one of the most difficult concepts to teach to students in recognizing the precision in an author’s craft. Word choice and punctuation are committed with intent by an author, yet, there are students who doubt these steps of precision made by an author. They believe that any text has stepped, as if full-formed or Athena-like, from the mind of an author. They think that novels pop into existence…unless, they are reading Toni Morrison.

Screenshot 2014-02-27 21.57.19

A “Wordsift” of precise language in Chapter 3 of “Beloved”; Denver and Sethe dominate as does the simile generator “like”.

My Advanced Placement English Literature students are currently reading Morrison’s 1988 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Beloved. This story confronts the horrors of slavery by fictionalizing the true story of Margaret Garner who, in a failed bid for freedom, killed her baby daughter rather than have her returned to slavery.

A look at the opening two lines to Toni Morrison novel Beloved demonstrate her power as a storyteller and highlight her precision with language:

“124 was spiteful. Full of baby venom.”

An quick analysis of the specificity of language in these two short statements reveals:

  • 124 is the address (setting) where Paul D arrives looking for the run-away slave, Sethe.
  • 124 is also a combination of 1and 2 and 4…the first-born, the second-born, and the fourth-born children of Sethe. The third-born child (3), the child named Beloved, is missing numerically. That child chooses to make her presence known in more ghostly ways.
  • Morrison is exacting in her selection of word choice from her opening personification of the house as spiteful (“having or showing a desire to harm, anger, or defeat someone; malicious”) to the incongruous pairing of the words “baby” and “venom”.

So, when I asked students to write about the precision in word choice Morrison uses to craft imagery in the novel in the first 100 pages, they had much to choose from:

“In describing the choke cherry tree of scars on Sethe’s back, Morrison writes, ‘See, here’s the trunk it’s red and split wide open, full of sap and here’s the parting for the branches’(79). A history textbooks do not give details of slave wounds like that.”

“Sethe and Denver even accept ‘the lively spite the house felt for them’(3) …. Morrison utilizes this personification to show how objects took on the role of companionship when Sethe and Denver were ignored by their community.

“Sethe describes seeing the sunrise as menacing with ‘red baby blood’ with ‘pink gravestone chips’(34)  instead of seeing the colors as warm and inviting.”

In making these and other observations, students called attention to Morrison’s specific use of dialect, alliteration, hyperbole, synecdoche, repetition, smilies, symbols as well as the differences in syntax to serve her purpose in making the reader confront the irreparable harm of slavery. The closer the students read, and they were “close reading”, the more appreciative they became of Morrison’s style. They became more appreciative of her power to select specific words in creating a particular image. They had no idea they could have just as easily be applying a mathematical practice standard (“attend to precision”) in their literary analysis.

Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993 in for her body of work that included the novel Beloved. In her acceptance speech, she addressed how precise language is used to describe; to depict [as if] by painting or drawing:

The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers. … When a President of the United States thought about the graveyard his country had become, and said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. But it will never forget what they did here,” his simple words are exhilarating in their life-sustaining properties because they refused to encapsulate the reality of 600, 000 dead men in a cataclysmic race war. Refusing to monumentalize, disdaining the “final word”, the precise “summing up”, acknowledging their “poor power to add or detract”, his words signal deference to the uncapturability of the life it mourns.

Morrison’s admiration for Lincoln’s precise language in the Gettysburg Address is a shared admiration. The speech is a suggested 9th/10th grade text for the Common Core Common Core State Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies. Moreover, educators should note the literary connection between the president who led the nation to abolish slavery with authors like Morrison who use their craft in pressing the reader to face the horrors of slavery.

Finally, the Mathematical Practice Standard #6 states that by high school, students will “have learned to examine claims and make explicit use of definitions.” There could be no better claim on the damage inflicted on humans in bondage than Morrison’s story of Sethe and her Beloved.  The last lines of the novel, “This is not a story to pass on” communicates “You [reader] may not pass [or avoid] this story.” She explicitly defines the experiences of those “60 million or more” and captures their love and their longing for familial bonds by writing precisely what they could not.

In New England this winter and in many other areas of the United States, we are experiencing the Polar Vortex, a phenomenon of cold-core low-pressure areas that strengthen during the winter. That is the scientific explanation for the record cold of early 2014.

A literary lens would suggest this uncomfortable freeze is akin to Dante’s ninth circle of Hell detailed in the Inferno section of The Divine Comedy. This last inner circle of Hell is reserved for those whose sins are related to treachery. The ninth circle is divided into four sections, and all sinners are trapped in the frozen lake, Cocytus. Satan himself is frozen waist deep in the lake with an icy wind ensuring his immobility.

That icy wind sound familiar? Looking at my dashboard this morning, I noted the following temperature reading:

photo (18)Welcome to Hell!

Robert Frost, a New England man himself, considered the destructive power of cold and ice in his short poem “Fire and Ice” (read here by Richard Burton)

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Frost’s association of fire with desire is recognizable. There are fires of passion or fires to make something “pure”. One symbol for knowledge is a lamp on fire, and a warm place by the fire is welcome during this recent freeze. Ending in fire may mirror the beginning, if one holds to the Big Bang Theory.

In contrast, his association of ice with hate creates a hostile tone. This association is also recognizable, describing someone as having  an icy heart or with ice in his/her veins leaves an unpleasant impression. The break-up song “Cold as Ice” by Foreigner lyrics state, “You’re as cold as ice/You’re willing to sacrifice our love…”. Economically, there is the dreaded “black ice,” a costly force of destruction on roads that sends thousands of vehicles to body shops annually. Scenes like these have played out all too frequently this year:

One final destructive power of ice to consider is the “melting” danger. National Geographic featured interactive maps in the story If All the Ice Melted  demonstrating what North America and the other six continents would look like if all the ice in the world melted. The result would increase the sea level by an estimated 216 feet.

Screenshot 2014-02-28 08.06.12

Frost’s short poem suggests that destruction by either ice or fire has the same result. However, I would like to point out that in the above-mentioned ice-melting scenario, my home would finally be waterfront, possibly with an ocean view!

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