My Words Are Powerful

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I don’t often get riled up by politics but with the recent election results, I couldn’t help myself. I went through various stages of depression, disbelief, and anger over the fact that our country is so divided and chose an individual who represents morals and philosophies so opposite from my core beliefs.  It wasn’t until I met with a student, whom I tutor, that my frustration transformed into rage.

My student is in fourth grade and we work together on developing his reading, writing, and word study skills. He is curious and hard working and hopes to be a professional tennis “superstar”. This is why he studies at home, so he can practice almost 8 hours of tennis each day. During last week’s session we were discussing possible topics for an upcoming research project. I wanted this to be completely his choice and on an issue that interested him. He asked me, “Ms. Sarah, how did you feel after the election?” I wasn’t sure how to respond to this. As a former public school educator, I tried to avoid any conversations around my personal beliefs or political stances. But with this simple question, I couldn’t help but tell him, I was sad and really disappointed by the results. Within an instant, he poured out so many emotions and reactions. His family is Pakistani and of the Muslim faith and even though he was born in the United States, after Donald Trump was elected, he couldn’t shake a lurking sense of fear within him. He told me, “My mom told me what Donald Trump has said about Muslims and immigrants and people he doesn’t want in this country. I’m really afraid.” 

I left my tutoring session just so upset and infuriated by the injustice and our current national situation. How wrong it is that a child should feel unsafe by the people elected to be in charge of the government? That an American born citizen could feel that their country is not really theirs! What’s even worse that the results of an election did not ignite a sense of pride or wonder but created a cloud of worry and fear. A ten year old should not have to grapple with these feelings of uncertainty or hopelessness. Driving home, my heart beat quickened and I could feel words pooling on my tongue. The words action, action, action kept repeating over and over again. How can I, a simple writer and teacher, do anything that might matter?

And then I remembered my seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Harder who started me on my own writing journey. “Your words have power. You need to share them and use them.” she had told me. People don’t know what I am thinking or wondering unless I tell them. I use my blog and my personal writer’s notebooks as a way to process my own thinking but rarely do I direct my words to a specific audience, let alone a targeted person. After last week, that all changed. I went home and immediately went to my laptop and furiously typed a letter to my Senators and Congressional representatives. I insisted that they look beyond the lines of their party and change the rhetoric to reassure that this country belongs to ALL. I felt a need to demand a response as my representative. Within 30 minutes I had three freshly printed letters to be mailed to their district offices. This is what I wrote:

Dear Sen. Cornyn,

I am a concerned citizen in Houston, TX. With the recent news of the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency, there is much angst  across America.  While you represent the Republican Party, you also hold the responsibility to represent me, one of your Texan constituents. And I am writing out of utter embarrassment and anger of what the election and the discussions that are taking place in our government.

I am a teacher, Senator. I work with children in elementary students and with children who are not just of privilege and wealth but many diverse students. In fact many of my students are African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims, all who are left feeling hurt, confused, and attacked after this election’s results. As a teacher, I feel it is my responsibility to not just educate but comfort my students and reassure them that our country is good and wants the best for them. How can I do that when the rhetoric from the Republican Party and Donald Trump is one of hate? How do you help students who are afraid of the outcome of their own government? How do we comfort our children to know that our government and the people we elect are here to take care of us and have our best interests at heart?

I want you to know about one student I teach whose family is Pakistani and are of the Islamic faith. His parents are amazing citizens, well educated, and both remarkable doctors. Today, his mother told me that her 4th grade son has been crying and up all night this week, out of fear for what will happen to him because of his faith and his ethnicity. He may not fully understand what is happening in our country but he hears the news and the words about “registering Muslims” and “illegal immigrants”. Even though he was born here, he is hearing language that tells him, he does not belong.  This is not right and this is not what our country was built on.

And so, I am asking you to look beyond just the lines of your party, Senator, and consider the welfare of our youngest citizens. What message do you want them to carry with them into the future? How are YOU going to change the rhetoric and reassure Texans that this is their America. I am asking you today to use your influence to think about the  young Americans who are hurting or are scared right now after this election. I want you to think about what YOU will do to reassure us, who do not feel like this America belongs to us anymore. You have an enormous responsibility as our elected official and Senator. I trust you will make good choices.

God Bless,

Sarah Jerasa

I don’t want to just stop here. My writing has almost become the fuel to pushing me to want to be more aware and more involved in the decisions that impact not just me but my family. My words have power and it’s not just power in communicating to others. Instead, I believe, that my words have an ability to ignite me to push beyond my comfort zone. I know what I have to say matters not just to me, but to so many others. I hope that my voice only gets louder and louder and louder so our leaders and elected officials have no other choice but to listen. 

 

 

When A Lesson Doesn’t Work

I write a lot of creative writing lessons for the students I work with. I have a large collection of tried and true lessons that are sure to get some amazing writing. But like a chef who might cook the same food over again every night, those lessons become worn and tired. I am constantly on the look out for new lessons to test out and see what kind of writing emerges.

Sometimes lesson don’t work. Like at all. And you know it as you watch the lesson fall apart in front of you. Your face becomes red and your mind begins to sprint, you think, “What can I do to fix it?”. This has happened to me, numerous times, and I hate it. It makes me second guess my natural instinct as a teacher and sometimes I feel hesitant to take the necessary creative risks with my writers. However, there are those times when a lesson can be tweaked, revised, and eventually saved from the graveyard.

13 Ways Poetry

I initially had come up with this idea after hearing a fellow creative writer talk about a project he did with 3rd graders after reading Wallace Steven’s “13 Ways to Look at a Blackbird”. In his class they read the poem and focused on how the author had 13 different ways to look at one object. Then they created inkblot paintings similar to the Rorschach Tests often using in psychology. They then wrote 13 ways to look at an inkblot.

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I was intrigued that 3rd graders could be able to analyze such a complex poem, find inspiration for their own writing, and incorporate art as well. I thought for sure, if 8 year olds could do this work, then my 6th graders could take it to another level.

I began crafting this lesson by first really examining the poem to determine what our focus for our writing could be. It wasn’t just that Wallace Stevens wrote about a blackbird 13 different ways, his writing was about the meaning a blackbird held, situations a blackbird might interact in, and the symbolism it represented. In addition, the structure of the poem captivated me as well. Short, rhythmic stanzas that invited curiosity and wonder. And so, I wanted my students to read this poem, brainstorm elements of nature, and write a series of short poems to describe their natural object in unique ways. Sounds simple right? I thought I had this totally figured out and had high hopes that this might be the pinnacle of my teaching this year. I envisioned people asking me on the street about the earth shattering poetry my students created from this lesson. However, the exact opposite happened. It flopped. Royally flopped. And at first I couldn’t figure out why.

My teaching schedule has a long break in between classes where I often try to catch up on work or plan for upcoming lessons. But this time, I needed to reflect on the disaster I just witnessed. I eventually figured out these key issues:

  1. The Students did not connect with the text. As much as I used every ounce of my enthusiasm and dramatic movements, the kids didn’t really get or care about this poem. It was so long that after the first four stanzas their eyes wandered and their attention went elsewhere. They didn’t see the beauty or awe that I did and I needed to figure out a way to get them on board. The poem is good but did I need to read aloud all 13 stanzas to make my point? Could the students still get the point that Wallace Stevens describes in many ways with just four stanzas?  I needed to narrow in the students’ focus to retain all of their attention with this poem.
  2. My sample writing was not clear. After my class brainstorms, I will often model with the class and come up with a quick sample of a piece. Usually the kids are able to help me craft a piece with me but this time, even I struggled to come up with a good example. This made me realize, “If I had trouble coming up with a solid example to show the kids, how can I expect them to do it in a short period of time.” This meant that I needed to spend my own time thinking and doing the writing myself. I had to come up with a solid example and do the hard work that I was asking my students to complete.
  3. The brainstorm was not structured. To me, the biggest part of a writer’s workshop is doing some kind of brainstorming to help get the creative juices flowing. When I invited the students to brainstorm about their natural object to look at in different ways I only gave a vague series of guiding questions about their object. I assumed they would all be on board and know what to do. No at all. Rather, they looked quizzically at their papers and struggled to put down anything. They needed a concise format that would help them generate ideas.

After much reflection, the lesson dramatically changed. I switched the focus of the lesson to looking at an object in new ways never thought before. I pared down the poem to just four stanzas to notice the language, structure, and format of the poem. I created a brainstorming format for students to generate ideas using thinking stems. I went through the process myself, brainstorming my idea. My chosen natural object was the moon.

  • moon is… taunting, bully, constant reminder, revealing of secrets
  • moon could be…. a friend, the answer to a hidden secret, a hole in black blanket
  • moon does…whisper, shines, nags, beacons, yells
  • moon means…peace, guidance, tranquility, freedom

And lastly, I wrote and created an example to share with the students. This would be my modeled piece of writing pulled directly from my brainstorm and inspiration from Wallace Steven’s poem:

 

I. Among the midnight sky the moon sits on its throne

as her subjects shine. 
II. The moon whispers
reminders of my 
hopes and dreams. 
A beacon for my secrets. 
III. The forest lays still.
Yet the moon eerily watches. 
IV. It felt like winter all summer long.
As the crisp dew waited
for the sun to return
and the moon to retire. 

The changes I made did make a difference and it was clear in the students’ writing. Instead of surface level descriptions from my earlier class, these new pieces had developed a true voice and deep thought. This revised lesson did work better and I could tell from the drastic decrease in confused hands raised wondering of what their writing should be. Instead, after having clear examples and ample opportunities to process, my students were ready to write.


Fire by Molly 

I. On the forest floor, 
the fire burns the wood
it sits on. 
II. It flows with the wind
and lights the way as a 
source of light but also
destruction. 
III. The canvas is empty 
until the red paint of fire hits it,
to create a masterpiece. 
IV. It whispers and floats up to the 
world above. 
It grows as the wood
withers below. 
V. The fire remind me of
all my nightmares and
sorrow of the day
that has past. 
VI. It shares and spreads my word
throughout the trees that is the
source of its happiness. 

Clouds – by Joy

I. Clouds are our protector. A veil covering us from the darkness of the land beyond. 

II. The white spirits against the blue infinite.
Ghosts of white,
Pure in every way. 
Angels in the fog. 
III. Stalkers of disguise.
Protectors of invisibility.
Companions that come back, 
friends of no sin. 
IV. Gateways to a hidden world. 
A world of calm, 
Where chaos is banned from invasion.
Unity’s home,
Where division is unheard of and unknown.  
V. Clouds, 
The symbols that there will be and is more,
The reminder that there is no limit. 


I never like to admit when something doesn’t work. I felt like this was such a tremendous learning experience for me as a writer but especially as a writing teacher.
When have there been lessons that have failed for you? How have you reflected and recovered from them?

Why I Write.

I have not always been able to identify myself as a writer. Growing up I often enjoyed curling deep into my comforter to write pages and pages of ideas and stories in my Trapper Keeper notebook. These pages and stories were not something I openly shared and I wrote exclusively in secret. I feared the criticism and opinions of others and therefore I wanted to keep my words close to me. And while I did this, I never thought I was actually talented at writing. School essays would be assigned and I would be paralyzed, unable to think of what I could write that would be considered “good enough” or fit the strict format decided by my teachers. My papers would bleed red ink and sit at the bottom of my backpack with corrections and question marks.  I felt pretty worthless when it came to writing because I didn’t know how to do it to get the approval or grade I needed. And therefore, I self-classified myself as being novice or inexperienced.  Really anything but a writer.

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What makes someone a writer? I get asked this question a lot and it is something that I wonder myself. Am I a writer? I enjoy writing but I haven’t published anything you could buy in Barnes & Noble, I am not paid to write professionally,  and I certainly do not carry MFA in my pocket. I do however, teach creative writing with the Houston non-profit, Writers In the Schools and I write in my writer’s notebook essays, poems, and stories almost daily. My students often ask me at the beginning of my residencies with them,  “Are you a writer?” and for some reason I stutter slowly as I reply, “Yes”. Why is that? Why am I not able to proudly pronounce myself as a Writer?

Perhaps it is the fact that I went to school to become a teacher and for almost 10 years was paid as in this profession. It was a role I identified with since it consumed most of my daylight hours from September to June. But writing, that was my hobby and what fed me when I needed to be brought down to reality. Even as a young adult, it wasn’t something I shared with anyone, it was my restorative spa with a reservation for only one. So how I could I proclaim I was a writer when I had other identities that were easier to explain?

I often tell students, “You are writers! You write and therefore you are a writer!” and many times they don’t believe it right away. Mostly this is because in our society we view roles such as writer, doctor, lawyer, artist, as requiring some external validation. Obtaining a degree, passing an exam, selling a painting, or publishing a book. When adults spew these impressive achievements it convinces others yes, I am deserving of this title but unfortunately it can also diminish the smaller yet to be recognized accomplishments. If we want our students and young writers to believe in their identity as writers, shouldn’t we as adults consider the emphasis placed on these credentials to defining roles?

What I believe is this: I write because I have something to say and when I write my thoughts, feelings, and ideas down it makes me feel more understood. I realized how much my writing mattered when I started blogging and submitting writing, taking writer’s workshops, and  sharing my stories with my students. And I have found that the more I write, the more powerful my once quiet voice becomes  and the more confident I am to say, I am a writer. And each time I am asked, my words are stronger when I reply, “Yes”.

 

Writing Metaphorically

I remember writing as a kid and feeling so special when I could insert figurative language in my own writing.  I especially loved similes. I couldn’t stop comparing objects, feelings, colors to other things. When I drafted the perfect simile it was like being the cool kid in the cafeteria getting curly fries for lunch when everyone else had bland peas & carrots sitting on their plate. My writing sparkled. Similes were easy, I had a calculated the magic formula to make my writing pop. But metaphors were a totally different story. Of course I knew what they were but I could never really see a point in using them. In my mind, metaphors were silly and it had no purpose in my own writing.

Sadly, I feel like many young writers have similar sentiments when it comes to using metaphors and other forms of figurative language. They are difficult and complicated to do correctly. Yet as a reader, when I read a powerful metaphor it becomes a constant firework in my brain. An image I cannot release. Which is why I had to figure out a way to help the young writers I work with through Writers In the School see the power of metaphors.

I collect poems, almost in a hoarder-like fashion. I stuff them into drawers or notebooks until I can use them for a lesson. I had come across the poem, “How To Eat A Poem” by Eve Merriam months ago. I loved the play of language and the imagery used. The idea of comparing reading/writing a poem to eating a piece of fruit was so genius that I needed to figure out how this poem could be the star of a lesson with my middle school students.

How To Eat A Poem   By Eve Merriam

Don’t be polite.

Bite in.

Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that

may run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.

For there is no core
or stem
or rind
or pit
or seed
or skin
to throw away.

I struggled to figure out how to tackle this poem and make it relatable for students. I thought about the rich metaphor the author used and the powerful actions described and realized that the biggest connection here was how the author used visually appealing actions to compare the action of reading or writing a poem. And with that I knew I needed to emphasize the descriptive power of verbs and actions.

I began this lesson by asking students to describe writing to me but to use the small actions that make up writing. Students responded, “Put down letters”, “Create ideas from your brain”, “Tell stories for people to read!” I wanted students to see the action of writing as not just one thing but a collection of smaller movements, helping them to slow down their writing as they described. Next, we analyzed the Eve Merriam poem and really highlighted the words and phrases she used to describe writing / reading a poem. What I noticed is that the students hung onto the visuals they had in their mind; the juice that may run down your chin or It is ready and ripe, whenever you are. These strong connections to our mentor text would help build the foundation for their writing work.

I strongly believe that spending time doing purposeful brainstorm can make or break a writing lesson. Therefore, I wanted to help the students to go through the steps to help them process their metaphorical thinking. On their paper, I asked students to brainstorm with me as many visually appealing actions they can think of:

Diving into a deep pool

Cracking an egg open into a bowl

Jumping into a leaf pile

From this list the students circled 3 to narrow down their choices and together we discussed the smaller actions and emotions that make up their chosen action.

Diving into a deep pool –> fear of bellyflopping, adrenaline rushing through my body, jumping off the edge, flying, splashing water covering me, holding your breath. 

Allowing students the brainstorm time to go through their actions and break it into smaller movements and/or feelings gave them immediate words, phrases, and even themes to jump into their metaphor writing. I then asked the students to think of the following pormpts: How I could compare writing to diving into a deep pool? What am I doing as I write that could also be described as diving? What emotions do I have when I write that I might also have when I dive? As a class, we came up with my modeled example

When I write, I am diving

deep

head first

feeling the rush of words, phrases, and images

splash directly into my face.

I can barely grasp for air

as each word is etched onto my paper. 

I wasn’t sure how students would receive this lesson and so I provided them some options for writing metaphorically and suggested they compare reading, writing, or another passion they have to one of the actions they brainstormed. The results were astounding as students compared writing to waterskiing, running a race, and even eating a slice of pie. This metaphorical tool not only looked impressive, it elevated the students’ writing to a completely new level.  Just think, if we pushed young writers to use this type of figurative language in their everyday writing the possibilities would be endless.

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Comparing a nightmare to diving into water. 

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Comparing writing to bowling.

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Comparing reading to eating a popsicle. 

 

 

Observations in a Kindergarten Workshop

IMG_4172Before we get started, I think it is imperative to explain that I am not by any means an expert in primary instruction. In fact, when I was in my Masters Education program, the thought of doing a practicum in a Kinder or 1st grade class shook me with a trembling fear. I’ve always been comfortable in my upper elementary or middle grade classrooms, a place where your shirt sleeve is not a kleenex and random stories about finding a sock in a pillow aren’t discussed. Primary classroom is a world that is beyond unfamiliar to me.

That being said, I have also had a feeling that in order to truly understand the development of a young writer, I need to know what the writing journey is for students younger than 4th grade. Which lead me to my son’s school, a quaint Montessori school nestled in the bustling neighborhood west of Houston. While my son is only in the toddler classroom, their primary teacher is a fascinating educator who truly understands what it means to meet children where their abilities are and allow discovery of language to take form. I was honored when she invited me into her space to observe her kindergarten writers at work.

Here are some of my take aways from these amazing kinder writers:

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#1. They get EXCITED about their ideas. I’ve seen kids get excited but the energy I observed was like fireworks exploding on students’ bottoms as they came up with ideas to add to a class story. When the group had just read “Stuck” by Oliver Jeffers and asked what kinds of things might be thrown into the tree, one girl had to jump up to show how the character might toss a bathtub into the tree. When asked if that element would be put in her own story, she smiled a tooth fairy wonderland of missing teeth and said, “You bet!”. During independent writing time, the room was buzzing of students sharing their writing with their table-mates, describing each detail of their illustrations or their written words. Because this group has varied levels of writers, some with strong word development and other who relied on using only pictures to write their pieces, the teacher used her individual visits to support each writer where they were.

#2. Spelling is a big deal….a very big deal. In my writer’s workshop I cared much more about the quality and development of the ideas that my students created rather than some of the conventions such as grammar and spelling. While these are important elements to successful writing, it always came secondary to the urgency of putting ideas to paper quickly. Spelling to me was something that came later.

However in a primary classroom, spelling is everything. Countless writers felt stuck as they carefully crafted each and every word, sounding out each part slowly to hear the letters. As I walked around the writing space, hands grabbed my pant legs, like a New Yorker hailing a cab, to get spelling help.

“How do you spell fish?”,

“Is this spelled right?”,

“Can you read this to me?”

My typical response when faced with these questions has been, Don’t worry about your spelling or my classic phrase, Keep going and do the best you can. The difference between my upper elementary students and these savvy primary writers is that they wouldn’t let me off the hook and just repeated their question as if I hadn’t heard it. Supporting these students required tools and luckily their teacher was prepared. In the Montessori classroom, they do not use traditional alphabet charts but instead use letter cards or a movable alphabet where students can select letters to create a word. montessori-27One student who wanted to write the word fish slowly sounded out each sound and carefully selected each letter from the box. Once confident that she had the letters she wanted, she used her movable alphabet as her guide to write down the word fish on her paper.

#3. To a kinder writer, revision is optional. I’m naive when it comes to revision and students. I thought that anyone over the age of 7 that repulsed the thought of revision. I’m not sure why. Perhaps I had this vision that primary students were flexible and saw their writing as an ever evolving piece. Not quite. When one student excitedly shared his story about play dough exploding all over his sister with me, he pointed to all of the action in his illustration and his carefully written string of words at the top of his paper. His words were clear to him but confusing to me as they smashed all together resembling just one very long word. During our conversation I said to him, “I see you read part of your story to me and you said a lot of words. But when I look at your writing, I have trouble seeing each individual word. Do you think you might go back and find spaces to make those words easier to find?” This student looked at me and said, “No. I like it this way.”

IMG_4173I was taken aback, mostly because this author was determined in the way he wrote his story. He liked it that way and he didn’t want to change it. I admired that about this student. Not one to let go, I thought of a different approach. “Do you see the writing that your class did together?” pointing to the large chart paper that was written earlier, “I can read each word because there’s a bit of space in between the words. Can you go over there to see how much space we had between each word?” And with that, this writer measured the space to determine about a finger’s width was used. I continued saying, “It looks like you are ready to work on another story. This time do you think you might try putting in a space like that in between your words?”. And off he went to eagerly work on the second part of his story. At first I thought it was all for nothing and that he would write another long string of consonants and vowels, but to my surprise ten minutes later he returned, proudly showing me his new story with spaces.

#4. Author’s Chair is magical. As a writer, I am trepidatious about the thought of sharing my ideas and words with others. I scan the audience, worried that my words are simply not good enough. With these young writers, the idea of getting a stage to share is the gold medal they’ve been waiting for. And so, as other students gather from their work on the large carpet, a feeling of excitement sprinkles through the room. Writers sit patiently as they describe their story and read it to their peers. All eyes and attention are on the author. Because Montessori is a multi-age classroom, not every student is the same age nor works on the exact same activity together. Instead there is an ongoing flurry of activities that take place in other parts of the classroom and so, this gathering is the sharing of the work that has been accomplished. During my visit, the students’ writing was the focus.

There is a definite change in the air as these young writers share their pieces. They no longer are looking for correct spelling or asking, “Is this idea good enough?”. In front of their peers they are eager to tell their great story and showcase their detailed pictures. Without prompting, their classmates raise their hands and are intrigued with compliments and comments. No one is negative and everyone’s work is celebrated.

I’m not convinced that I belong in a primary classroom but my brief time observing has taught me that writers of any age behave in similar ways; they gather ideas, they draft, they are sometimes are willing to revise, and after all is said and done, they share. While the end products may look slightly different depending on the age of the author, the process is the same. I am so excited to see what amazing writing these young students have in store for us to read.

 

Using Poetry to Teach Narrative Writing

Teaching poetry to young writers has a certain magic. With poetry students suddenly realize that they can break rules, use powerful words, and in very few lines deeply connect to their reader. Somehow writing poetry can simply unlock buried emotions and memories the way no other genre can. Even for me, when writing fiction or a narrative I feel I need to be wordy and explain everything. Young writers feel the same pressure and often want to get into the “and then” rhythm. (Ex. I went to the store and then I picked up some fruit and then I paid for it and then I went home). Or young writers will have a story idea but aren’t quite sure where the story should begin. So to them they start where everything starts, One day I woke up and got out of bed. These habits are hard for young writers who want to explain everything and yet lose their reader in the process.

I have often struggled with helping young writers overcome these crutches. However using poetry can be a powerful tool to assist young writers to realize that they can start a story in the middle of action and that not every step must be told for a reader to understand. Poems in their design are snapshots or moments hanging in the air. However using a collection of poems to tell a story uses a collection of snapshots for a reader. Books such as “Love That Dog”  by Sharon Creech, “Out of the Dust” by Karen Hesse, or “Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson all use a collection of free verse poems to tell one story. I particularly like “Brown Girl Dreaming” as it is autobiographical on the author’s journey to discovering writing but also her experience living in the North and South during the 1960s and 1970s. With each poem the reader gets a small flash and peek into the window of Jacqueline Woodson’s life.

Reading

I am not my sister.

Words from the books curl around each other

make little sense

until

I read them again

and again, the story

settling into memory. Too slow

the teacher says.

Read faster.

Too babyish , the teacher says.

Read older.

But I don’t want to read faster or older or any way else that might

make the story disappear too quickly from where it’s settling

inside my brain,

slowly becoming

a part of me.

A story I will remember

long after I’ve read it for the second, third,

tenth, hundredth time.

“Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson (c)2014

Alone, this poem packs a punch revealing a vulnerable memory about Jacqueline’s childhood. With this poem nestled among so many other chronological memories from her past, it becomes another harmonious note in her biographical ballad. Which leads me to ask the question, how can teachers help young writers use poetry like this to write narratives? 

IMG_1279 As a teacher when introducing a new genre or style of writing, it is our job to expose them to many examples to serve as our mentor texts. Using a book like “Brown Girl Dreaming” during a daily read aloud can provide clear examples of the types of writing your students will be doing. I often will have a visual chart (a.k.a. anchor chart) for our class to jot down elements and characteristics for the genre we are studying, poetic narrative. These anchor charts are on display in the room for students to refer to and for us to continue to add as we write. During a study of poetry, pausing to examine poetic narratives can be a good way for your class to see a purposeful goal in publishing. Rather than just publish a random collection of poems, working towards a poetic narrative can be a unique twist for students to explore.

One of my favorite prompts to extract powerful writing from young writers is to use the “I remember when” prompt. Start off by asking your students to write as many “I remember when” memories. Their writing can be focused on just one memory or several but the key is that they write for the entire duration of the quick write. Tell your kids to write until their hand hurts – that always works! I typically give my students about five minutes and I also write along side with them. Challenge your students to come up with memories that evoke strong emotions; sadness, fear, anger, anticipation, courage, etc. Rather than just focusing on “happy” moments, other emotions tend to pull out deeper and more substantial memories for writing. Allow students to share these “I remember when” moments and to see which ones might fit best to craft as a poem. Having a series of memories strung together, students can start to see what narrative story is being told. It is then easier for students to identify which additional memories, emotions, or reactions need to be written in order to fill in missing parts.

If you are looking to get more information about the book, “Brown Girl Dreaming” check out this interview with Jacqueline Woodson on NPR.

http://www.npr.org/v2/?i=348992638&m=349464193&t=audio

How are you using poetry to help young writers tell their stories?

This American Life Writing Inspiration

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/172/24-hours-at-the-golden-apple?promo=1#play

This weekend I decided to head out to the gym (which is rare on a Saturday morning) and get a chance to listen to my favorite radio shows. Lately most of my car driving time means I listen to a lot of NPR news and the Diane Rehm show.

Image(Is anyone else totally shocked to know that she does not look like the crypt keeper despite the way her voice sounds?!). However, my Saturday line up included Car Talk, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and the ever amazing talent of Ira Glass in This American Life. I cannot get enough of this show and frequently find myself hoping I could be featured alongside writer David Sedaris and comedian Mike Birbiglia in the latest trio of stories.

This week’s episode focused on a 24-hour diner in Chicago, The Golden Apple. This bustling and busy restaurant was a revolving door of people from all walks of life coming in to get a bite to eat, meeting friends, or to just have a sense of order and schedule in their day. Ira suggested as he introduced the scene, what if every person that came to visit the diner was interviewed and their stories told? And so, he did for 24 hours he and his writers interviewed each and every person in the diner.

In such a wonderful way, the producers on this show are able to make you feel that you are in this diner. You can smell the burnt coffee and see the waitresses who are exhausted from their all night shifts. I had such a clear mental movie playing in my head as the interviewer described a fellow patron as “a guy who looked like he could use 6 more hours of sleep.” Without saying this, I envisioned dark circles under puffy eyes. I imagined scruffy facial hair that had no intention of being shaved soon. “A pale haze of cigarette smoke” quickly inserted the distinct smell of tobacco and stale fabrics.

This notion of going to a place to just find stories is so captivating to me. How rarely do we actually get to know the people we interact with on a daily basis? The person serving you coffee at Starbucks, the man sitting next to you on the bus, even the woman who lives next door to you. Moving to a new city has made the anonymity of the people around me even more apparent. I only know 4 people in Houston, however I have interacted with hundreds and know nothing about them. I want to know what is their story and what makes them tick?

I wonder about creating this challenge for young writers. What if they were to interview people around them and get their stories? This exercise reminded me when I was a fellow with the Central Virginia Writing Project and we went to a homeless shelter. Our purpose was to help these men and women take steps to get a job and to talk with them and get a story. I remember the man I sat with. In my mind I just classified him as “homeless” but he had such a powerful story talking not about his current situation but about his family and more importantly his sister’s birthday party when he was young. This conversation humanized him for me and his story was important.

While there are many safety concerns for having students interview random strangers there are ways to be able to have them experience the feeling of taking away the label we put on people and getting to know their stories. Think about the people students interact with but don’t really know. The custodian who cleans up the milk from the floor, the cafeteria lady who serves their breakfast, and even their bus driver. What if we asked our young writers get to know these people’s stories, what is valuable to them, and have them connect with other human beings.

I wonder about the impact it would have. How are you getting the stories of others?

Heart Maps in 2nd Grade

I had the pleasure to meet 2nd graders in Ms. Howland’s classroom today. What an amazing group of young writers! They were so eager to soak in any information and share how much they knew. Ms. Howland is so lucky to have some remarkable students. Today I chose to introduce Heart Maps to these students as a way to introduce writer’s workshop and gather ideas about writing. I was first introduced to Heart Maps after reading “Awakening The Heart” by Georgia Heard. The notion of having students examine what is truly close to their hearts as a way to generate writing topics is so smart! However not knowing these students I wasn’t exactly sure how to introduce this strategy to them.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking around starting writer’s workshop to students I will be working with through Writers In the Schools. Not knowing what has been introduced before and what writing language has been used, has stressed me out. In addition, I recently discovered that I would be working with 2nd grade, 3rd grade, and 4th grade. Clearly 2nd graders being the most terrifying to me. I’ve never worked with students that young before and not knowing what would be appropriate frightened me. I needed a dry run and Ms. Howland’s class was my crash course on 2nd grade!

I recently had come across this remarkable text, “Rocket Writes A Story” by Tad Hills and fell in love with its quaint illustrations but more importantly its clear message about the writing process. I thought this might be a perfect book to read to Ms. Howland’s 2nd graders and start the discussion on what do writers do?

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A summary of this great text can be found here

I asked this question before we began reading this book and they had so many unique answers. It’s really clear that they knew that writers spell correctly, have neat handwriting, use pictures, etc. However, I was surprised that they didn’t know about what writers wrote about. I keep forgetting that they are only 7 and haven’t had a chance to write like older kids have. My hope is that after today (and getting to work with them in the future) we can work on getting a chance to write and create real stories. As we read this book I asked the students to be on the look out for what makes Rocket a writer? Keeping their brains on task was quite a challenge but it was clear that their year in 2nd grade has been full of new vocabulary and exposure to how readers and writers operate.

My focus for reading this book was to gather clues about what makes a writer and understanding that sometimes writers get stuck, as Rocket does in the story. I particularly like this page where his teacher, the Little Yellow Bird asks Rocket some simple questions such as, “What do you like to do?” “What have you seen?” “What inspires you?”. These questions would be the basis for our heart maps. Image

We talked about how writers like writing what matters to them and what is close to their hearts. We looked at how Rocket wrote what was important to him, his new friend Owl. On chart paper I drew a large heart and wrote down 4 main ideas that we can use for our heart maps: what you love to do, people/animals you love, what has happened to you, and what inspires you. These ideas would help guide the students as they filled in their heart maps. I filled in my heart map as I talked out loud about what was “close to my heart”.

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The students had such enthusiasm as they eagerly asked questions about whether they could put specific things on their heart map. One student’s face lit up when I informed that anything could go on their maps as long as it was really important to them and could be something they could write about. I wanted to make sure that I emphasized what could be used for writing because sometimes students can get carried away with putting down their favorite things. This was a tool that we would be using as writers to help inspire us and write stories.

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Even without a template or outline, these awesome 2nd graders got started right away. Thank goodness Ms. Howland was there to remind them about making their shapes large enough to fill the page. Clearly I’m used to the older darlings who make everything double the size it should be!

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I was so impressed how students used word walls and the prompts from the anchor chart to help them fill in their maps. One student was very clever to write “shooting arrows” and I asked him a little bit about his heart map. He said that he likes to shoot arrows but not to worry because they have plastic caps. I asked him if there something that has happened when he’s shot arrows before and if he thought he could write a story about that. He nodded quickly as he added more to his heart map about rocks.

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When modeling this tool, I tried to show students that they could use pictures and words to make their heart maps. Some students didn’t want to waste any space with illustrations, how ever some students took time to create detailed images to represent what they love. Later after students have completed their maps, they can take time to use color and really make their maps come alive.

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I can’t wait to see their finished maps and ways we can use it during their writing workshop! A huge thanks to Ms. Howland for letting me crash her classroom for a morning! Wahoo Wa! 🙂

I’m teaching creative writing…now what?

This summer I  moved to the hot humid land of Houston where I knew few street signs and felt like my dog had more friends despite her slobber and dirty paws. I left an amazing school where I taught 53 remarkable 4th and 5th graders and had the ability to teach the way I truly wanted to. I thought I wanted to take a break from being in the classroom after nearly pulling out my hair and thinking I was on the verge of a stress-related heart attack. But now that I had moved to Texas, that idea seemed like a huge mistake.

I found myself walking up and down aisles of stores during the back to school sales wishing I had a reason to purchase multiple packs of glue sticks or crayons. My Pinterest board was overflowing with new ideas for classroom management and adorable anchor charts for reader’s workshop. I knew that the lingering reality was upon me, I needed to find a teaching job.

Now I am a creative writing teacher with Writers in the Schools. I’ve been told that I will be teaching 4th graders at a nearby elementary school. The pressure is on. What to do first? What do I plan? How do I not look like an idiot from Indiana? I started with getting a public library card and jumping head first into picture books to use as mentor texts as my source of inspiration for upcoming lessons. Do you have a favorite picture book you like to use when you teach writing?