I find myself drawn to authors
Who write honestly about their lives.
The joyful, the horrific, the messy in-between,
Obsessive prose that consumes their lives,
Resulting in pages vibrating with voice.
I have many mentors,
but I have just one hour,
to write this Tuesday-afternoon-blog.
Time is ticking,
So here are authors who first come to mind:
Bill Bryson finds the humor in the subtlest of objects--
From him I learn to look for life’s minutia.
Anne Lamott finds light within the darkness--
From her I learn to find hope in the hopeless.
Erik Laarson finds stunning events from history
and infuses them with real, human emotions.
From him I learn that we live history.
And one day, we too will be pegs on a timeline.
Toni Morrison writes about lives so different from my own.
But are our lives really all that different?
Don’t we all travel down different pathways of pain?
Isabel Wilkerson writes about a Great African-American migration,
About the South when I live--
About the escape of those who felt trapped by it--
And she teaches me a history I should have learned in high school.
Pat Conroy rewrote his childhood over and over again
Hoping to make sense of it.
I don’t know if he ever did.
I don’t know if I ever will.
Ernest Hemingway, the opposite of Conroy,
Wrote simple, direct, and unadorned.
There’s so much we can say,
In just a few well-connected words to form a sentence.
Harper Lee, with just one book,
(I don’t count the second)
Never expected the success that came with Mockingbird.
She taught me that you write what you know--
And sometimes the whole world resonates with it.
Langston Hughes, my GOD, LANGSTON HUGHES!
Montage of a Dream Deferred,
Mother to Son,
I learned it’s okay to be jealous of a writer’s talents.
This list is short,
One day I'll add more,
Mentors who speak to me when I read their work,
And admire it from a distance--
As a fellow writer reading away, just traveling through.
“The hard silence between frustrated people always feels cluttered. But holy silence is spacious and inviting. You can drink it down. We offer it to ourselves when we work, rest, meditate, bike, read. When we hike by ourselves, we hear a silence still pristine with crunching leaves and birdsong. Silence can be a system of peace, which is mercy, easily offered to a friend needing quiet, harder when the person is one's own annoying self.”
Book 18 of my 52 Books a Year Challenge
Teachers abound in Yolanda’s prekindergarten class. When Joshua announces his need to create a house, Jazmin and Katie answer the call.
Joshua: I need to make a house.
Jazmin: I know how to do it. Here…let me do it for you.
Katie (interrupting): I can teach him. You do it like this (makes a house on her paper). You make a square.
Jazmin (angry) to Katie: That is not how you make a house!
Katie (defensive): Yes huh.
Jazmin: That’s a little one. I do big ones.
Katie (angry): That’s how you make a house Jazmin!
Jazmin: Joshua…look…this is how you make a house.
Jazmin (gives Joshua a blue crayon): Here..use this.
Jazmin and Katie confront each other in this exchange with Joshua. Jazmin is the “house-drawing” expert in the classroom and her classmates know this. “House-drawing” is part of her writing identity. And she is proud of her ability to successfully draw homes. Katie, who just learned how to make homes (mostly by watching Jazmin) intrudes on Jazmin’s writing territory. Homes are Jazmin’s domain and Katie is a trespasser. Eventually, Katie backs off and allows Jazmin to take charge. But this short burst of conflict reveals the power struggle that happens when young children take ownership of certain written symbols.
How do students negotiate power and identity in a writing classroom? In a classroom where peer teaching is valued and encouraged, interesting conflicts emerge. Students who create symbols that are admired by classmates relish in their classmates' desire to learn from them. But such peer teaching comes at a price. When kernels of knowledge are offered to others, and imitation becomes the standard practice of the learner, the peer-teacher becomes less defined, less identifiable. Jazmin is not the only house-maker in the class. Katie now joins her. Jazmin must battle to retain her authority and she is successful in this exchange. Joshua retains Jazmin's counsel and Katie backs off. Jazmin has held on to her power….for now.
In a fifth grade classroom Jack, Brandon, and Bo engage in a peer revision group. Each boy shares his writing and asks for specific feedback. Jack shares his alien story and wants to know what he needs to add to make the alien invasion more exciting. Brandon shares the next chapter in his growing graphic novel and asks the other boys to help him make it more funny. And Bo discusses his informational how-to about various skateboarding moves. He has five cool moves illustrated and labeled and needs ideas for other moves.
When the discussion dissipates I lean in and ask, “I noticed some great discussion happening in your group. What did you learn from one another?”
Jack, “I wanted the alien invasion to be epic. I already had about 1000 ships landing and the aliens taking over the Earth. And Brandon gave me a good idea about the aliens having these huge, ginormous eyes and whenever a human looked into their eyes the aliens would have mind control. So I am going to add all sorts of ways the aliens started controlling the humans. And turned them into their slaves!”
Bo, “And I got some new skateboarding move ideas. I already wrote how to do an ollie, a grind, a carve, a goofyfoot. But Brandon told me about a kickflip so I’m adding that to my book. And he also explained a McTwist to me. So I’ll put that one in there, too.”
I wondered, “What the heck is a McTwist?”
Brandon, “Oh, well when you’re up on a ramp, you like launch yourself up really high and hold your board and turn around like 3 or 4 times. I can’t do it yet. But one day…”
I ask, “So, normally you confer with Ms. D about your writing, but today you had a chance to talk with one another about your writing. In your experience, what’s the difference?”
Brandon, “Ms. D is a great teacher and she has a lot of great ideas to help you with your writing, but she doesn’t also get my humor. So, when I’m working on my graphic novel I don’t think she really knows how to help me make it funny.”
Bo, “And she has NO IDEA about skateboarding!”
The boys laugh until Jack speaks poignantly about the difference between a teacher-led conference and a conferring led by a group of peers. “Ms. D knows a ton about writing. A ton! And she gives us lots of great ideas about beginning a story or ending a story to keep readers into it. She’s really good at telling us places where she’s lost and where we need to add stuff. But there’s a lot of things she doesn’t know that Bo and Brandon know. Like, she really has no idea about skateboarding, but we do! So we can give Bo much better ideas about other skateboarding moves. That’s why we like meeting in groups. We can teach each other.”
We teachers don't have all the answers. That's why we need to make space for many teachers in the classroom. Sometimes, the best teacher for a boy writer is another boy writer.
This past month, as I scrolled through my Twitter feed, I saw a post by Tanny McGregor about sketchnoting. As part of Smokey Daniels’s new book The Curious Classroom, Tanny offers her beautiful sketchnotes to summarize the information contained within each chapter. Her sketches piqued my own curiosity. So, I began to explore. First, I started sketching myself.
Then, I watched Tanny’s and Shawna Coppola’s video from their #EdCollaborative talk:
As I watched the video, I sketched notes:
I started to bring sketching into my reading life as well. This past week I read The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. This book features 8 characters—4 mothers and their 4 daughters. Each chapter is told from the perspective of each. And within each chapter were slice of life stories. To keep each character straight in my mind, I decided to draw sketches as I read.
In my doctoral program at the University of Virginia I took a seminar on Comprehension. And the one thing that I took away from that seminar was the concept that comprehension happens during the act of reading. So, to have students write responses to questions after they finished reading a text doesn’t necessarily capture the thinking that happens while engaged in reading.
At ILA this summer I am co-presenting a session about Infographics with Katie Kelley and Lindsay Yearta. I’ve always thought of Infographics solely as digital acts. But I was wrong. Sketchnoting, when done by hand, is also a form of presenting information graphically. And I thank Tanny McGregor for teaching me this.
Last night, on Facebook, Mary Howard and Travis Crowder asked me to consider the following question: "At what point are students taught to write well?" I decided to post my response to this question (with a few revisions) on my blog.
First, I love the challenge of contemplating this question. And I'm sure I'll have more to add as I keep reflecting on it. I did my dissertation work in a pre-kindergarten classroom. Sixteen four-year-olds gathered together, day-after-day, and wrote. What did their brilliant teacher do to encourage this? The teacher:
So: "When are students taught to write well?"
Students are taught to write well the minute they step into a teacher's classroom where these conditions are fundamental rights for the writer.
This blog post was inspired by two Twitter followers: Tanny McGregor who introduced me to Sketchnotes and Dan Meyer who made a recent post about tips from presenters: http://blog.mrmeyer.com/2017/presentation-advice-from-14-of-my-favorite-presenters/.
Here are my tips--in graphic form!
Today I played around with Reflection in a Kindergarten Writer's Workshop. I have four categories of questions I like to ask writers at the end of a workshop:
A writer's act of reflection is actually a form of authentic assessment for me. Each reflection teaches me something about writers and gives me insight into their thinking. If a child is bored and yearns for the energy of friends, I need to make sure to position him in a space surrounded by friends who might give him the jolt he needs. If a child is nervous about writing, I need to know why and what I can do to help alleviate her trepidation. If a child feels happy about herself as a writer, what is happening to make her feel this way--and might she offer suggestions to peers to help them foster this feeling within themselves?
Primarily, reflection is a self-evaluative act so the writer can step back and think inward. But it's also an assessment act that teaches me something I need to learn from my writers.
I wonder: In what ways do you reflect with your students? How can we make reflection a daily part of their Writer's Workshop?
Last week I volunteered in my son’s classroom. They are working towards publication and his book replicates the structure of Alison McGhee’s book Someday. My son writes a page about what he imagines his life will be someday, and explains how he’s working towards that goal today. He has only written a couple pages so far, but his pages include: Someday I want to be a professor and Someday I want to be a published author. As I flipped through the pages of his book, tears filled my eyes. I looked over at his teacher and she whispered, “He wants to be just like his daddy.”
When I read his beautiful pages, the tears that formed in my eyes were tears of fear more than anything else. They were tears of trepidation. My son struggles in school. Born seven weeks prematurely, he has struggled since the moment he breathed his first breath. His twin brother, always impatient, forced him out of the womb before he was ready. I didn’t realize how hard it is for little boys to catch up to their peers when they are born prematurely, but our nine years with my son tell us that prematurity has a profound effect. He has struggled to keep up with peers since day one.
He’s in second grade now, and even though he repeated kindergarten, he still lags behind his peers in reading and writing. He didn’t start speaking until he was four, and three times a week he spends time with a speech teacher. When he’s confronted with new information he needs to hear it a few times before he understands. His spelling attempts reveal how he hears the words in his head. I’m a literacy professor so I know about levels and benchmarks and where children should typically be at various ages. I know he’s not typical. He has an IEP, and receives a variety of school services. Each year I sign forms that remind me he’s exceptional rather than typical.
The word exceptional is a difficult descriptive word to take when I think of it ascribed to my child in a school context. It fills me with worry for his future. No parent wants a child to struggle through life and I fear his exceptionalities might hold him back from being a professor, or author, or surgeon, or whatever dream that leads him to a passionate, fulfilling professional life. I worry that the adjective that defines him in school might define his identity. Will a lifetime of struggle in school exhaust him from reaching his dreams? Will he persevere?
Here’s the thing: My son is exceptional. Whenever someone passes by him walking a dog, he smiles and asks, “Can I pet your beautiful dog?” He holds doors open for strangers. He says “YES!” whenever I ask if he wants to try a new adventure. He can shoot out of a starting block in swimming and launch his lanky, skinny body across the pool faster than most. He can patiently put together a complicated Lego set. He says, “Thank you” generously. From his speech teacher to his reading interventionist, to his classroom teacher, to his Sunday school teacher, every single person who interacts with him tells us the same thing, “I absolutely love that sweet soul.” He is loving and warm and sympathetic and caring and funny and charming and handsome as hell. He’s….well….exceptional.
As I type this, my beautiful boy sits across from me at my wife’s childhood home. He’s playing on the ground while the ocean horizon illuminates his silhouette. He pauses for a moment and glances at me. My eyes float up above the screen to meet his. A broad smile stretches across his face. A smile stretches across mine. His heart is full and so is mine. So, instead of worrying about Someday I think I’ll stay here in the present for a while. I’ll focus on Today. Today my little boy is exceptional in so many ways. And that’s what I choose to embrace.
(This is Part 2 of Lessons Learned from the Slice of Life Challenge. I posted Part 1 yesterday. This challenge has been a powerfully profound writing experience for me. Thank you to the incredibly innovative teachers who envisioned this project and had the persistence to continue making it a reality year-after-year.)
Lesson 6: Writing is Art
Too often we think of writing as a science,
Sentences constructed with subjects and predicates.
Capitals at the beginning, punctuation at the end.
A collection of nouns and verbs and adjectives and adverbs,
Combined to fit in perfect, neat packages.
Well, to hell with that!
Writing is an art,
Art that is beautifully subjective.
And the best artists break the “rules.”
I want to read art that is:
Show me a teacher who values those qualities in writing,
And I’ll see a classroom of students writing like warriors.
Lesson 7: Choice is a Fundamental Principle of Writing
In this challenge, every day was a new possibility.
No one told me to write--
About this topic,
In this genre,
For this audience,
For this purpose.
I was the decision-maker.
Some days I relished in endless possibilities.
Other days I just wanted someone to tell me what to write.
But I know—choice is my job as a writer.
And that doesn’t mean choice is the easy way out.
Abundant choices provided some of my biggest challenges.
Lesson 8: I Didn’t Need a Rubric to Assess my Writing
I would have felt constrained if:
There was a narrow rubric hovering over my posts,
There were components I had to include in each piece,
I had to tell my story “across multiple pages,”
Points were taken off for not including “linking words”.
In an effort to raise the standards of child writing,
In what ways do the standards restrict child voices?
If standards were applied to my posts,
So many posts would have been silenced.
And, I would have never made it 31 days,
If each piece was judged by an outside, sterile, objective rubric.
I think it’s time for us to rethink our practice of using rubrics
To respond to student writing.
Rubrics don’t measure anything worth measuring.
Lesson 9: Writers Need Communities
What a gift it was to have the warm embrace of a writing community,
To have fellow writers offer encouragement,
To have fellow writers nudge me forward,
To have fellow writers excited about a published post.
To have a fellow writer say, “I see you.”
Writing is lonely.
For hours it’s the writer, the screen, and a collection of jumbled thoughts.
So, when those thoughts coalesced,
It’s was a gift to have the community respond.
Lesson 10: When We Write Meaningfully, Our Lives Bleed onto the Page
Ernest Hemingway said, “There’s nothing to writing.
All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
This month I saw blood across many blogs:
Husbands who passed away too soon,
Children growing up too fast,
Retirements soon approaching,
Worries about losing identity,
Fears about a country many no longer recognize,
Joys about joyfully exhausting work,
Hope about what tomorrow brings,
Happiness in a life well-lived.
We write because we have something to say.
And in a world where many feel like their voices are tempered,
This slice of life challenge let’s writers roar.
(As we approach the end of the #SOL17 challenge, I’m feeling reflective about the lessons I've learned from participating. My last two slices of the challenge are reflective ones. I've learned 10 important lessons from this challenge. Today's slice is Lessons 1-5. Tomorrow's slice will be Lessons 6-10.)
Lesson 1: Writing is Exhausting Work
Some mornings I woke up eager to write.
Some mornings felt laborious.
Some days I knew exactly what to say.
Some days it took hours to unscrew the cap of my thinking.
If this challenge were a marathon,
And I was completing the last mile,
I would be limping towards the finish,
Tired and exhausted,
But so satisfied that I ran towards risk and reward.
Lesson 2: Writing Requires Us to Form Habits
My typical #SOL17 routine was this:
I woke, took the children to school, made my coffee.
I sat, in my brown Lay-Z-Boy chair, and faced a blank screen.
Certain mornings, the writing flew out of my fingertips.
Other mornings I lingered.
On these mornings my fingers thumbed through photographs
In search of inspiration.
Occasionally, but not often, I wrote at night,
After my children went to sleep.
But my mind is foggy then and not as sharp as the morning hours.
It is, however, more reflective.
And some of my more personal pieces came out after the sun set and under a blanket of stars.
I formed a writing habit that I want to continue even after this challenge is over.
Lesson 3: When Teachers Write, We Learn Lessons to Carry into our Classrooms
If there were days I felt too tired to write,
There will be days my students feel too tired to write.
If there were days I struggled to draft,
There will be days my students struggle to draft.
If there were days I felt too blind to re-see my writing,
There will be days my students feel equally blinded.
Because I write, I better understand my student writers.
I don’t need a set of prescribed lessons telling me what to teach next.
I just need:
awareness of my own process,
observation of theirs,
thoughtful reflection and analysis,
and the knowledge that comes when I play around in different genres.
These are the important lessons I learn because I’m a writer, too.
Lesson 4: Writing Every Day Makes Writers More Aware of the World
Yesterday, as I walked my beagle Blanche, I observed:
The blossoms emerging from the dogwoods,
The blue jays and robins returning to the trees,
The creek overflowing from the thunderstorm the night before,
The sweet smell you can only sniff in a North Carolina and Virginia springtime,
The crack of a bat from softball practice in the ballpark behind my house.
The sights, sounds, and smells of spring in the South.
And, each sight, sound, and smell I experienced I whispered to myself:
Oh! I could write about that tomorrow!
When we write every day, the things we typically overlook,
Become writing possibilities.
Writing every day makes us more present and more aware of the world around us.
Lesson 5: Writers Need and Yearn for Response and Thrive when They Receive It
Each day, I felt a little nervous when I clicked “Post”
Worried about two things:
My heart raced a little faster,
Because I was excited someone read my writing.
I’ve come to depend on the energy I get from response.
Upset when I only got 1 or 2 responses,
Elated when I got 5 or more.
I didn’t realize how much importance I placed on an audience response,
Until I took this challenge.
Now I know:
This challenge is as much about reading and responding
As it is about writing.
All writers need and yearn for response,
And thrive when they receive it.
(Coming tomorrow: Part 2 of Lessons I've Learned)
It seems adults aren’t the only ones expressing rage these days at our government. Max, ten years old, is pissed off too.
In South Carolina where Max lives, a legislator proposed a bill that would require all public school students to wear uniforms. Democrat Cezar McKnight proposed the bill in January stating, “…peer pressure causes students to ask their parents to spend large sums of money to ensure they can wear designer clothes to school on a regular basis.” It also states, “…students have, regrettably, used particular articles of clothing on occasion to identify themselves as members of certain gangs, to the detriment of discipline and safety at their schools.” There’s a provision in the bill in which children who receive free or reduced-price lunches will be given five sets of uniforms.” Of course, the uniforms will be free as long as there is money in the budget. We all know how that typically works out for constituents.
Max heard about this proposal on the news and he immediately began to voice his rage to his mother. She offered a simple suggestion: “Well, the best way to speak out is to send a letter to the congressman who proposed the bill.” With a pressing purpose for writing, and an authentic audience to receive his ire, Max marched to the kitchen, grabbed a pencil, and wrote. His letter, written entirely by himself, is attached.
After a brief introduction, Max lays into the congressman with his concerns. First, he worries about his status amongst his friends. He needs to prove to them that he did, indeed, get a Miami Dolphins T-shirt for Christmas. After all, knowing which team has your loyalty is important in boy culture. It’s what you use to rib a friend for a loss or hate another friend for a win. For many boys, who they cheer for on any given Sunday says as much about who they are than it says about who they cheer to victory.
In boyland, your word is your bond. So if you tell friends you have something and they respond, “Prove it!”, you better damn-well prove it. Max knows this. And he pleads with his congressman to not make a liar out of him.
For many boys, verbal expression takes a back seat to physicality. A swagger says more than a speech. The wardrobe must match the attitude. “Nobody would know me,” is Max’s plea to not strip him of his identity.
We writing folks talk about the power of choice in writing topics, audiences, and purposes. Sometimes we forget how much those same foundational principles apply to all aspects of a writer’s life.
(The photo above shows the revisions to Chapter 2 of my new book When Writers Drive the Workshop. In this photo, I lay out my revisions to show the messiness of my process. When I teach revision to students, I display this photo. They see that, like them, I’m also a writer who struggles through his process.)
My revision process is exhausting and exhilarating.
It’s where my real writing begins.
And I take myself through a thorough process,
To make sure my writing is as clear as possible for readers.
First, I draft.
And my draft is awful.
It’s messy and disorganized,
Just like my mind,
But I got something onto the page.
Then, I print.
I take a yellow highlighter to the text,
Or a fat, purple pen and cross out.
I discover that some of my writing really was awful,
But some of my writing contains golden lines.
And those small nuggets give me hope.
Next, I revise old-school.
I take a pair of scissors
And cut chunks.
Some of the chunks are pages.
Some of the chunks are paragraphs.
Some of the chunks are sentences.
I spread those chunks onto a table and think.
I ask myself questions:
What parts should I keep?
What parts should I delete?
What parts do I need to move around?
Then I physically re-arrange.
I discover parts that need more thinking,
So I think,
Then write some more.
And write some more.
Eventually, I’m satisfied with the additions.
I print again.
Add those additions to the table.
Tape all the pieces together.
Number the pages.
Add figures and photos.
And put it all into an order that makes my writing clear for readers.
Finally, I outline.
I write the headings and subheadings,
Down one side of a page,
And ask: “Does this arrangement tell the story I want to tell?”
If my answer is, “Yes!” I publish.
If my answer is, “No!” I revise.
And my revision process starts all over again.
Last week, Tom Ashbrook, host of On Point on NPR, featured Billy Baker on his show to talk about middle-aged men and their friendships. Billy Baker wrote an article in the Boston Globe that touched a nerve: he lost touch with his male friends as his life fell into the same exhausting routine of family-work-family-work cycle. This this lack of friendship in middle age actually leads to poor health in the form of depression and loneliness. In essence, men need their male friendships to live a longer, healthier life.
I listened to this podcast and noticed myself nodding throughout—connecting to the various callers who, time and again, seemed to speak the story of my middle-age life. One caller, a father, talked about the exhaustion that comes from a morning of caring for children, a day of work, and an evening of nighttime responsibilities. When “free” time does come, an empty Lay-Z-Boy, remote, and a bag of Doritos substitute for friendship. Another caller bemoaned the jealously he felt for his wife who, along with her female friends, were better able to stay in touch, make plans, and keep them over time. We men are not good at keeping the social calendar.
I spent the better part of my 30s losing touch with friendships. An avid, active tennis player, I always played on men’s tennis teams. We practiced on Tuesday nights, played other clubs on Saturday mornings, and drank beer after each. It was as much a social endeavor as it was a physical one, and it between the playing we talked politics and our lives. But when my children arrived, I felt guilty leaving them on Saturdays and felt my wife, already exhausted with the twins, needed the break. So, I stopped playing tennis.
During this time, I also lost touch with many of my college friends—a band of fraternity brothers—who are spread out throughout the country. Many of them continued to find ways to gather together throughout the year, but I always felt strapped for money as I completed a PhD. So, I lost touch with them as well.
When I turned 40 in 2015, I decided to change all this. I was determined to regain the friendships that I let slip over time and recommit to fostering the necessary male friendships that I’ve realized I missed. I play racquetball regularly with a friend at least a couple times a week and in between sets we talk about our kids, wives, and work. I joined, with my daughter, a dad/daughter Y-guides tribe through the YMCA. This tribe is supposed to focus mostly on developing a strong bond between dads and daughters, but I’ve realized a wonderful side benefit—new male friendships. We meet 1-2 times a month, sometimes just dads, and I’ve developed friendships with guys across the different socio-economic-political landscapes that have diversified my friends. I travel with male friends from work to conferences around the world—realizing you learn so much about a person when you are with them, in a foreign country, and no one else speaks your language. And, I’ve reconnected with high school friends and visit them when I’m out of town at conferences in cities where they live.
But, the best part of this past year has been my reconnection with old college friends. Unfortunately, it took a difficult situation for me to find my way back to them. My friend’s wife died, all-too-young, from breast cancer leaving behind my friend and his two young children. He felt distraught and lonely. And we knew he needed the bond of brotherhood to surround him with hope. Twelve of us flew to his hometown, gathered around him, and consoled. Then we went out to bars, watched a baseball game, shared stories of our college days, drank heavily, and laughed until our stomach’s hurt. For one weekend we were in our early 20s again and it felt perfect. It reminded us of the importance of this time together and our shared history. We already have a date in July planned for our next gathering.
Indeed, I nodded when Tom Ashbrook and Billy Baker engaged in their conversation last week on the radio. But, I nodded with appreciation that I’m now spending my 40s reconnecting and recommitting to my male friendships. Hopefully, this will lead to a longer life—and a happier one.
On Point with Tom Ashbrook Podcast: http://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2017/03/23/men-middle-age-friendship
Billy Baker in the Boston Globe: Two Weeks as American’s Middle-Aged Loser: https://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2017/03/23/two-weeks-america-middle-aged-loser/sKBU5qarIzLVRubXLgYDsL/story.html.
New York Times: The Challenge of Male Friendships: https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/06/27/the-challenges-of-male-friendships/?_r=0.
Sunday morning, I give in to my greatest indulgence—the Sunday New York Times, delivered to my mailbox. I rarely buy myself expensive things and pride myself on being a spendthrift (my wife calls me cheap), but this subscription is the one extravagance that I gladly pay $36 a month to receive. It takes me a good 6-7 hours to read the whole paper (10-12 hours if my children don’t go outside to play) which equates to about $1 an hour of reading pleasure. Worth it!
I appreciate good writing, and opinion columnists for the NY Times are amongst the best. Today, I decided to analyze my favorite OpEd articles from this morning to discover the literary devices these writers employed to make their columns resonate with voice. Here’s what I found:
“You mused that a good role model would be Ronald Reagan. As you saw it, Reagan was a big, good-looking guy with a famous pompadour; he had also been a Democrat and an entertainer. But Reagan had one key quality that you don’t have: He knew what he didn’t know.
You both resembled Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloons, floating above the nitty-gritty and focusing on a few big thoughts. But President Reagan was confident enough to accept that he needed experts below, deftly maneuvering the strings.
You’re just careering around on your own, crashing into buildings and losing altitude, growling at the cameras and spewing nasty conspiracy theories, instead of offering a sunny smile, bipartisanship, optimism and professionalism.”
Dowd uses the analogy of two presidents as Macy’s Day balloons. President Reagan floated above the fray, but had smart handlers to helped steer him in controlled, measured ways. President Trump, on the other hand, is a balloon, full of hot air, careening out of control. Dowd’s use of analogy as a rhetorical device paints a clear compare/contrast picture for readers trying to make comparisons between two different presidencies.
2. Simile: An explicit comparison between two things using "like" or "as"
Trump’s Trainwreck by Frank Bruni
“Trump is indeed prophetic. Washington under him doesn’t resemble the same old swamp. It looks like a sandbox. There’s commotion aplenty, noise galore and not much evidence of adult supervision.”
Bruni compares Washington (under Trump) to a sandbox. His comparison connotes the petulance of a child in a sandbox, fighting for toys, throwing tantrums, pouring sand onto the group, and causing general chaos. Because I view Donald Trump as immature and “child-like”, Bruni’s comparison of Trump’s White House to a sandbox is an effective one.
3. Alliteration: A series of words in a row (or close together) that have the same first consonant sound.
Trump’s Triumph of Incompetence by Nicholas Kristoff:
“It’s sometimes said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Trump campaigns in braggadocio and governs in bombast.”
“Poetry” and “prose” and “braddaodocio” and “bombast” come together in an auditory-pleasing way. What a perfect combination of words Kirstoff pulled together to make his writing sing.
Trump continuously claims that the “failing” New York Times has fallen on hard times. However, since Trump’s victory, subscription rates for the newspaper has grown tenfold—adding 132,000 subscribers in just two weeks after his election. Another lie Trump perpetuates and yet, the fourth estate thrives! Opinion writers, often the bane of a politician’s existence, are more important than ever. Their clever wordsmithing, clear thoughts, and ability to create a smart perspective helps me better understand the circus unfolding before my eyes. So, as long as Trump is in office, I’ll continue subscribing—and continue appreciating the good writing I have the privilege to read.
A book by hospice chaplain Kerry Egan,
Who tells the stories of those she met,
As they transitioned from this life to the next.
Patients recall life stories:
Babies they gave away and regained;
Promises kept, then broken;
Bible passages that illustrated deeper stories
when impending death robbed their voices;
The fear of not being reunited with loved ones after death;
Lies on top of lies, shed by a shaman;
Appearing angels to ease the passage;
Shame from blame of a child’s death;
The duality of a fatherhood experienced twice.
On Living tells us more about life than it does about death.
To live without regret,
To say now what you’re saving to say at the deathbed,
Because you rarely get the chance to have that Hollywood soliloquy.
Every life is full of experiences that make us remember we are alive--
The fears, regrets, pain,
The risks, revelations, joy,
The heartbreak, the hardship,
The heart-felt, the companionship,
The promise of another day to revise the life we’ve lived.
On Living is an important reminder,
That we are not remembered by our deaths,
Rather, we’re remembered for the lives we’ve lived.
And if we want to be remembered,
Then we need to make sure our lives have meaning.
My childhood had a magical place
I visited every year.
It was dark and cold and wet,
But it was a “secret garden” to a boy and his siblings yearning to create.
This magical place was the basement of my Grandparents’ house.
They lived in St. Louis,
Midwesterners through and through,
With a Midwest mentality of honesty, kindness, and hard work.
Their basement was our playground.
Grandpa hung an eight-person swing from the rafters,
And we swung, swung, swung for hours.
Trying to reach the greatest heights we could in a place with low ceilings.
There was a small stage under the steps,
That Grandpa constructed with plywood,
And we wrote and performed outlandish plays,
For Grandma who always clapped and laughed.
There was a workshop in the far right corner,
Where Grandpa worked on crafts.
He made us a hat rack out of hockey sticks,
a Labyrinth box, and a Jacob’s ladder—wood blocks attached by a ribbon.
The smell of fresh sawdust dominated the space.
There was a glass shelf in the far left corner,
Knicknacks from their travels,
Criss-crossing the country in their blue van.
There was fish netting and shells, Spanish moss and trinkets,
And a large piece of cypress wood
That Grandma snuck out of the Everglades,
(that she tucked underneath the seats in the van
because Grandpa forbade her to take it)
And a lifetime of “I told you sos” when the wood brought with it,
Millions and millions and millions of bugs.
Oh, how I loved that place.
And wish, for one more moment, I could see it again.
To perform one last play with Grandma watching,
To talk with Grandpa while he was crafting,
To hear those laughs and feel that warmth,
One more time,
In that magical place.
When I sit down with a fresh page,
I feel a mix of:
I never quite know what I’m going to say,
How I’m going to say it,
Who’s going to hear it,
And when it’s going to be finished.
But I do know this…
When I write on that fresh page,
I am able to:
Teach what I know,
And speak in my own voice.
There is power that comes from a blank page;
A clean slate thirsty for chalk,
A whiteboard yearning to be colored with markers,
A small booklet beckoning for a title page and an Author’s note.
The power comes from my head,
And pulses its way down to a pencil, a fountain pen, a keyboard.
First letters, then words,
Eventually paragraphs and pages,
That come together to reveal something intimate,
Something worth saying.
The promise of a fresh page.
Last week, I visited a teacher's class and conferred with third grader Jorge (pseudonym) as he brainstormed words to use for an ABC poem. He wrote a list of letters down the side of his paper and already had the letter A completed: All the way down in Honduras is where I’m from. He asked me to help him with the other letters when I sat down to confer.
“I’m writing about Honduras. I’ve got the A, but I need to think of other words for the other letters.”
“Tell me about Honduras,” I replied. “I’ve never been there.”
“The food is amazing. We have these things called baledas and they are tortillas and they are filled with these smooshed beans and they are filled with cheese and sour cream. Oh gosh, they are so delicious.”
“Well, there you go, you have your B word. Somehow you can think of a way to write about baledas in your poem. What’s next?”
“I know, I’m going to look up Honduras on my Chromebook and get some ideas out of there.”
Jorge opens his Chromebook looks up information about Honduras. He sees several C words like Central America and Caribbean Sea. He decides he’s going to write about the flag when it comes to his F word. But when he contemplates D he turns to me, gives a serious look, and talks.
“D can be for dangerous. Honduras is a dangerous place. They don’t have rules over there like they do here. Over there, you can ride in the back of a truck. It’s legal. But we have to wear masks over our heads and bend down. You can get shot. My sister has a friend from school who was shot in the head and died.”
Jorge continues. “My mom says we’re never going back. She brought us here because she wanted us to have a better life. She snuck us across the border. She was pregnant with my brother when she came but she didn’t have good nutrition. She just ate ham. That’s why my brother has some problems.”
I ask, “Do you ever go back?”
“Every summer,” Jorge replies. “My dad makes enough money to fly me and my brother back in the summer and we spend the whole summer with him. My mom doesn’t go. She says she never wants to go back to that place.”
Jorge writes for bit, then talks again.
“I like Honduras better than America. The baledas are so much better over there. They are huge! But I don’t like the toilets. Every time you go to the bathroom, you have to go fill up a bucket of water and throw it into the toilet. I don’t like that. But, here in America, I don’t like the kids in my neighborhood. They keep calling me Mexican. I AM NOT MEXICAN! I am a Honduran! I hate when they call me a Mexican.”
I wonder. What happens now that there’s a travel ban in our country and a President who seems to disdain all sorts of brown people. Will his mother risk sending him over the border again? Will Jorge ever see his country again? Will Jorge ever see his father again?
I worry. Brown children, from various Latin American countries, are growing up in a country where their own President disdains them. And his behavior somehow normalizes discrimination. Jorge experiences it now in his neighborhood.
This is Jorge’s America—and it’s different from Donald Trump’s America.
My mother was a mother before she was a mother.
The second oldest of 14 children,
she rocked her mother’s babies,
just a couple years before rocking her own.
By age 6 she carried babies on her hip.
Carried them from room to room.
Snatched them up before ocean waves swept them away.
Fit the bibs and airplaned the food for crying, hungry mouths.
I wonder what it was like for her,
to be a mother before she was a mother,
to bathe, feed, discipline, comfort
when she still needed those things herself?
I imagine her in that muggy Florida childhood,
Spanish moss dangling from tree canopies,
orange blossoms blooming in Grandpa’s groves
dreaming of a different childhood when those afternoon thunderstorms
came barreling in to quench a thirsty ground.
My mother was a mother before she was a mother.
And she mothered for the first 50 years of her life.
First her mother’s babies, then her own,
until we left her all alone.
She had a 20-year reprieve until,
She moved closer to my aging grandparents.
Only grandma is still alive--grandpa died last year.
And my mother--who was a mother before she was a mother--
is now a mother for her mother.
Every Spring, the Lake Norman Mothers of Multiples organization hosted an Easter Egg hunt for all the local multiples in the area. My wife, who was president of the organization, made me wear this horrible, unbreathable, bunny costume each year because the other dads were "too tall" to fit into it. It didn't matter that I am 5'9 (average height) and there were plenty of dads shorter than me in the group.
My children didn't know I was the one in the stupid suit. So, as soon as they saw me approach, a look of terror filled their eyes. My daughter, Harriet, immediately began to wail. My sons rocked furiously trying to unshackle themselves from their restraints. Charlie leaned to the right in an attempt to break free from the giant furball. Ben leaned in, eyes agape, shocked into speechlessness. Here I was, a giant bunny with a mesh mouth and creepy eyes, joining them for a photo--a perfect set-up for a Stephen King novel.
Every year at this time, this photo becomes my Facebook profile picture--a photo that makes me laugh every time I see it--my favorite Kissel family photo of all time.
In the Author’s Chair, the author is the authority.
She sits in the chair,
She directs the response.
And the audience responds accordingly.
An Author may sit in the chair and say,
“Today I seek suggestions.”
He reads his piece aloud,
And the audience provides thoughts about revision.
The author ponders the suggestions and revises.
An Author may sit in the chair and say,
“Ask me questions.”
She reads her piece aloud,
And afterwards, the audience asks questions they want answers to.
These questions often tell an author what parts are missing,
And she uses those questions to fill in gaps during revision.
An Author may sit in the chair and say,
“Please recall a memorable line.”
He reads his piece aloud,
And the audience remembers a line from the piece that stood out.
This tells the author he picked the perfect word or crafted a vivid phrase.
And he needs to continue thoughtfully playing with his words.
An Author may sit in the chair and say,
“Help! I need ideas!”
She reads her piece aloud,
And the audience, acting as co-authors, gives her ideas.
Sometimes writers just need other perspectives, a jolt of ideas.
And the chair can be a powerful place to gather them.
An Author may sit in the chair and say,
“Find connections between my piece and yours.”
He reads his piece aloud,
And the audience considers how their pieces are connected to his--
How their lives connect to his life.
Because writing is a communicative act.
And it is meant to bind us together.
An Author may sit in the chair and say,
“Offer me some compliments.”
She reads her piece aloud,
And the audience lavishes praise on the author.
Because sometimes that’s what authors need to hear,
To keep them going, to keep them hungry, to keep them pursuing--
down the long, harrowing road towards publication.
He was sent to war in his 20s,
Plucked out of dental school,
Transported from the flat fields of the Midwest,
And plopped onto a ship in the middle of the Pacific.
A life changed when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
He was sent to war in his 20s,
Floating in the ocean,
First off the coast of Japan,
Then off the coast of Korea,
Fixing teeth ravaged by war.
He was sent to war in his 20s,
His life just beginning.
A wife back home waiting.
A baby born, soon another,
A family separated by war.
He was sent to war in his 20s,
A part of the Greatest Generation.
A man whose actions spoke louder than words.
Actions that taught me how to live a life,
Planning for writing shouldn’t begin by writing mini-lessons.
We must resist scouring the Internet as our first action,
or plucking lessons or strategies from professional books,
before soaking in the vista of our students’ written acts,
across the landscape of conference and observational
notes that tell us the story of their writing lives.
Planning begins after our writers initially feel their way into a genre--
after they have loitered awhile hearing the musical notes of poetry,
after they have marinated in the stories of characters transforming in texts,
after they have studied the information that teaches them something new,
or considered the alternative viewpoints of the opposition.
Planning begins after they have read texts, talked about the genres,
And dipped their toes into first drafts.
Planning begins as we talk with writers,
While they grind away at their process,
Crafting texts for audiences and purposes they imagine in their heads.
Planning begins as we listen to writers,
When they share their work aloud with us and others,
And direct the feedback they need from readers.
We must resist the tempting fruit that hangs from scripted mini-lesson trees,
That dangles before us on pinned-up Pinterest pages,
That pleads to be picked from packaged programs--
Forbidden fruit that teacher- and writer-proofs our instruction.
That fruit sure looks good sometimes, but boy is it bitter.
Planning doesn’t begin with the standards or programs or curriculum maps
that chart the course for learning,
without consideration for the human beings,
writing away in the classroom.
Plans emerge from writers.
The writers are the curriculum.
And we need to remember this if we’re going to make a difference
in their writing lives.
About the Author
Brian Kissel is an Associate Professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His focus is writing instruction. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Hattie and three kiddos: Charlie, Ben, and Harriet.