Tag Archives: Writing process

The Teacher, the Story-teller, the Writer: Guest Post by Milree Latimer

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by author-educator Milree Latimer

Teaching might be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.

John Steinbeck

To write fiction, one needs a whole series of inspirations about people in an actual environment, and then a whole lot of work on the basis of those inspirations.

Aldous Huxley

Some days when I reflect upon my years as teacher, then as an elementary school principal, a high school vice- principal, and a professor of education–I see a thread. As William Stafford writes in his poem The Way It Is “There’s a thread you follow. It goes among/things that change. But it doesn’t change…/While you hold it you can’t get lost…/You never let go of the thread.”

There has been a thread throughout my teaching days, one that has manifested itself in my life now as a writer and published author. It’s been there all the time. A long gaze back reveals how I have grounded myself, the children and the teachers with whom I’ve worked, in the flow of story. There is a natural quality in the life of teaching that feeds the story-teller.

The narratives and chronicles of the educator’s life fed my yearning to write.

•••••

“Come, tell me your stories.” I said. The children in my kindergarten class and I gathered on the carpet. We told stories to one another: made-up tales of adventure, show-and tell chronicles of the life of a five year old, once-upon-a-time boldness.  It was 1963.

“Whenever I’m asked what advice I have for young writers, I always say that the first thing is to read, and to read a lot. The second thing is to write. And the third thing, which I think is absolutely vital, is to tell stories and listen closely to the stories you’re being told.”

~John Green

••••

“Let’s find a story together, draw it, write it, tell it.” I said.  I set my over-sized journal on the classroom easel. One by one they talked about what their story might be that morning – there’d been a snowstorm, white drifts were accumulating at the windows. Together we thought aloud. “A weather report for school announcements!”  They wrote, they drew, they told their stories. It was 1967. It was first grade.

••••

“You had the ball in your hands, Mark with few seconds on the clock–Tell us what that was like” I said.  It was 1974. Mark was an eighth grader.

“Anyone who is going to be a writer knows enough at 15 to write several novels.”
~May Sarton

••••

“Tell me what you hope for. Tell me what happens in your classroom that astonishes you. Tell me how you came to this, to be a teacher. Begin your educator’s biography this morning, write the last chapter when you retire.” A class of soon-to-be teachers at a Faculty of Education. September 1990.

•••••

The Graduate class was entitled “Reflective Practice.” The assignment: “What do you do; why do you do it the way you do; what do you hope for? A philosophical and personal portrait.”

A student’s response moved me. He wrote from a deep place within himself.  His was a narrative revealing his journey, his was a reflective piece of writing that inspired.

What truly set the path to my personal exploration was a question asked of me in one of my first courses taken at the Master’s level. When asked ‘who are you,’ my immediate response was ‘a wandering soul searching for answers.’ That answer came from somewhere deep inside…. I realize that there are many aspects of my life that I need to connect…I have to reflect on what it is that I actually do and the reasons surrounding that. (Tyrone Perreira, June 2004)

••••41n7v0p5fxl

Four characters in my novel THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND, are a composite of graduate education students with whom I worked from 1996 till 2004.

I held the images of those students as I wrote the story of Casey MacMillan, Professor of Education. The conversations that wove throughout the chapters represented some I may have had with my Master of Education students.

Casey gave air and space to her words. She believed that spoken thoughts and responses needed time to establish their own significance rather than being run over by too-hasty support or worse, ill-considered questions.

 As the author of Casey’s story, I discovered my experiences engendered a quality of truth within the story.

Professor Casey, the main protagonist taught about love, loss and the human condition. Even though she locked away her emotions within her life, her teaching bore a wisdom that connected her with her students.

When I wrote Casey’s story there was a direct line between myself as teacher and myself as author. A conversation between Professor MacMillan and her doctoral student Rob exemplifies this link:

Rob opened his briefcase reached in and pulled out a manuscript–his thesis. Her hope for all her advisees and her grad students was that they discover their own energy of possibility.

“Here’s what I really want you to see.” Rob said. He leaned forward and slid a page across the smooth mahogany table.

When she finished reading the page, she placed it on the table slowly, carefully–Resting her chin on her hand she began: “It’s a radical approach to tell your own story as your thesis. Saying that, it’s not impossible…difficult yes. (P. 99 Those We Left Behind)

••••

“Capturing shards of memory, writing specific scenes, I began to discover…” (Floyd Skoot, 2008).

There is a thread that I hold. Writing is my inner life moving me into the open a passage to the page where I am exploring, imagining, and remembering. I connect to my experiences, I hold the thread, I never let go.

Writing is a coming home. Like Toko-pa Turner (2017), I remember myself home.

Resources:

Skoot, Floyd, (2017). The Wink of the Zenith. The Shaping of a Writer’s Life. University of Nebraska Press.

Turner, Toko-pa, ( 2017). Belonging. Remembering Ourselves Home.

Her Own Room Press. Salt Spring Island, British Columbia.

Milree Latimer is a writer who spent most of her life as an educator and professor. She has an undergraduate degree from McMaster University, a Masters of Education from The Ontario Institute For Studies In Education, and a Doctoral degree in Education from Penn State University. An expat Canadian, she lives among the mountains in the Pacific Northwest of the United States with her husband Jerry and their three cats. She is currently at work on her next novel.

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On Writers’ Testimonies & Why We Need Them

If I want to call myself a writer, I better start writing. Seems simple enough, right? I’ve read tons of quotes from writers who say the best way to begin is just sit down and bleed on the page. But I struggle.

As I was trying to write this post, with my dogs barking incessantly at an invisible squirrel in the backyard, and The Walking Dead booming from the bedroom tv where my husband languished with flu-like blahs, I thought of all the tweets last week for the National Day on Writing (fantastic inspiration and ideas there).

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I thought of why I write:  to think, to feel, to clarify, to play with language, to vent and heal and commit to change. All the reasons that everyone else writes. I am not unique.

Or am I?

Recently, I’ve been reading and re-reading the writing of Donald Murray. (Learning by Teaching: Selected Articles on Writing and Teaching is my bible as a writing teacher. Huge thanks to my friend Penny K. for the recommendation!) But I’ve also delved into Murray’s Shoptalk: Learning to Write with WritersIt’s a collection on quote on writers about their craft. Murray states in the preface that he began collecting quotes on writing when in junior high, filling twenty-four three-inch-think notebooks with at least eight thousand quotations. His motivation? He just wanted to know how writers wrote. Murray explains the importance of writers’ testimony:

     Many people have the romantic notion, encouraged by those writers who feel comfortable in the magician’s robes, that writing is an instinctive matter of talent, an art, not a craft, and therefore cannot be explained.

     But writing is not an unintelligent act. Writing is a craft before it is an art, and writers can and do discuss their craft in terms we can understand. There are good reasons teachers and students of writing should hear what writers say about their craft.

     . . . I bring writers into my classroom through their written testimony. As writers of today and yesterday–female and male, young and old, poets and novelists and playwrights and nonfiction writers–talk about their feelings and their problems while writing, my students discover that their natural responses to writing are often the same as experienced writers.

     This is vital. Students facing a writing problem will often find they have to solve it by starting over and will fell they have failed. When they read the testimony of experienced writers, however, they discover that they too act like writers and this increases their confidence in designing their own solutions to their own writing problems. School often teaches unnatural, non-writerly attitudes toward writing–know what you want to say before you say it–and students need to see that their own instincts are the instincts of published writers.

     Students also need to see that writers are not looking back at a finished text but are in the act of confronting the blank page–or looking at the world before their is a page; trying to get started; trying to keep a text on tract or following it off track; working to make a text clear to themselves and to a reader. Writer’s counsel isn’t distant, detached from the act of making; it is immediate, speaking to the writer in the middle of making, a master sharing the tricks of craft with an apprentice at a common workbench.

I need these reminders–for myself and those I hope to take on the identity of writer, other teachers and students alike. Murray explains:

Too often we defend writing as a skill, saying writing should be taught so that students can fill our a job application or write a better letter asking someone to buy a cemetery lot. Writing is a skill on that level, but it also a craft and an art; it satisfies an essential need of the human animal.

So how do I share more writers’ testimonies? How do I help satisfy the essential need of the humans in my care daily?

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Here’s some ideas:

  • Share some quotes on writing by writers. There’s lots of insights in that link and even some nice images like the one above.
  • Share Poets & Writers and follow on Twitter, too. I love their weekly update.
  • Read and share articles from NY Times Writers on Writing. This one by Amy Tan is a favorite and makes a fantastic mentor text to write beside.
  • Think, write, model, talk, share, and repeat with writers every single day. Let them know they are not alone in their pursuit of putting meaning on the page.

When I brought the barking dogs in, and before the tv went off and the zombies faded out in the bedroom, I heard a line that gave me pause. It went something like this: “This place is a canvas, and we are the paint. We were sent here to create. We did.”

I don’t know about you, but I think that relates to writing. I write to paint my world in the swirl of language, to create images and goals and imaginings, to figure out what I feel and think and know. I write because it feeds my need. I am human, so I write.

Amy Rasmussen writes most often sitting at her newest DIY project, a desk she repurposed from a vanity her paternal grandfather made for her grandmother over 70 years ago. She lights a candle and listens to Michael Bluble radio on Pandora. And when she gets stuck in her head or on the page, she reads. Follow her @amyrass

A Lot of Dancing, Please — Guest Post by Billy Eastman

My beautiful and vivacious and pernicious six-year-old daughter frequents a Kindergarten class. She pretends her way through life these days; it’s a problem. But, a problem I refuse to address. Because, one day, that problem with vault her to success in something.

Violet uses a wheelchair. She doesn’t use it all the time. Most of the time, she traverses time and space with arm crutches — but at school, she uses her wheelchair so she doesn’t become fatigued from chasing other small people around.

The other day, an adult at Violet’s school admitted something to me:  she caused Violet to school hallwaytip over in her wheelchair in the hallway (Don’t worry, no daughters were harmed in the making of this short narrative). Really, Violet wasn’t hurt, but the big person was distraught.

I thanked her. For tipping my daughter’s wheelchair over in the hallway. You see, they were dancing. An educator was dancing with Violet in her wheelchair. They were spinning and twirling and tipping and falling. I prefer that.

So, this is what we should prefer in our classrooms as well:  possibilities, no limitations, risk and reward, fear and excitement, falling down, getting up and saying “I’m OK, and some dancing (at least on the page). A lot of dancing, please.

Random undiscernibly identifiable adult:  please continue to dance with Violet in the hallways.

Teachers:  dancing is better than walking in straight lines with bubbles in your mouth.

And, this clearly applies to reading, writing, and thinking—which is what I was writing about this whole time.

Billy Eastman is a curriculum coordinator for English Language Arts and World Languages and Culture in League City, TX. He enjoys talking with folks and finding ways to make smart ideas happen. Follow Billy on Twitter @thebillyeastman

 

Mini-Lesson Monday: Great Sportswriting is Worth Two Reads

In fifth grade, I attended a writing workshop with sportswriter Paul Daugherty at the helm.  A columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer, he encouraged we wee ten-year-olds to think about how we might revise more quickly and do our prewriting in our heads.  He spoke about his experiences writing half a story while watching a game unfold, sometimes being tempted to write the ending before the ending had even occurred.  At age ten, I found him eloquent, mysterious, and inspiring–I decided then that I wanted to be a journalist.

Although I dropped my journalism major after one year in college, I still enjoy Daughterty’s columns in the Enquirer and occasionally Sports Illustrated.  And as an adult, I see his process in his product.  The craft of Daugherty’s writing is one of the things that made me enjoy sportswriting, and now, strong pieces about America’s most-loved athletic pastimes are some of my favorite things to read.

So, when Tom Romano sent me this piece from the New York Times, I thought immediately of how students would love the “metaphorical, descriptive” writing “with quotes and assertions and a great final line.”

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Tom Romano’s great description of this piece in the Times.

Objectives: Identify patterns in the author’s writing to characterize his voice; find where the author cites evidence that supports his claims; infer the writer’s process; apply concepts of writer’s voice and strong argument writing to your own nonfiction pieces.

Lesson:  I’ll distribute copies of “Twitchy, Sweaty, but Triumphant” by Michael Powell for students to read, but I’ll also have the piece projected on the Smart Board so kids can see the great accompanying photography.

Because ’tis the season of moving past narrative and into nonfiction writing (in which we often harness the power of narrative, by the way) students will have already been immersed in a study of making claims supported by evidence, crafting a clear and purposeful structure, and maintaining a voice and style that defy the conventions of a five-paragraph you-know-what.  This article will serve as a mentor text that features all three, plus some insight into that long-ago lesson I learned from Paul Daugherty: the speed of a sportswriter’s process.

“We’ve been studying a variety of nonfiction pieces that have great style as well as strong claims–commentaries, columns, and speeches.  And here’s another example of those traits in this sports article.

“As you read it, look for the writer’s voice and the way the writer makes claims and supports them with evidence, as we’ve been doing throughout this unit,” I request.

We take ten minutes to read through the article, annotating quickly and noting writerly moves that jump out at us.  I model on the document camera, noting what I see–the unnamed players throughout the first paragraphs of the piece, creating a universal scene; the sheer entertainment of his vocabulary (words like gluttonous, beatnik, facsimile that you wouldn’t expect in a sports article); his unique turns of phrase.

I then ask students to share in table groups what they noticed about craft and claims.  After they share and we debrief, I return to the article.

“One of the things I find fascinating about sportswriting is how quickly it has to happen.  The turnaround is so quick–we spend a few weeks polishing pieces of this length, but these writers only have a few hours.”

(In keeping choice central to my curriculum, students always get to choose either their process, genre, or topic.  Because in this unit students are constrained to one genre–nonfiction–I will make an effort to help them choose their own topics and processes.  That’s wisdom I gleaned from Writing With Mentors.)

“I want to consider the writer’s process, and I found some good evidence of it:  let’s look at Powell’s tweets from during the game.”

I pull up Powell’s Twitter account and we scroll down to see his game-time tweets, many of which contain some of the same phrases  in the article: the Dead End Kids, the Lackawanna freight train rolling through, the pitchers being gassed.  Students notice these unique phrases immediately.

“What could you infer about Powell, given that this game ended at around 1:00 am and his piece ran at 9:00 am?”

I elicit students to share:  “He was already writing a bit during the game.”  “He writes sports all the time so he can already pull up a lot of the jargon quickly.”  “He really loves his subject, since he’s up watching the game and tweeting and having fun with it.”  “He’s knowledgeable about the history of these teams–maybe he did a lot of research beforehand or maybe he just knows it from writing about it a lot.”

Now, students have painted a picture of the piece’s author.  We can go into the reading warm, not cold.

“So, let’s read again, and consider his process this time,” I ask.  “Look now to see how his tweets–evidence of his prewriting–are in the article and what that teaches you about his process.”

We read the article again, a fresh purpose for reading helping us see the writer’s process come to life.  Once we’ve finished, we talk in table groups and then debrief as a whole class about the evidence we see of Powell’s writing process based on his tweets and what we know about sportswriters as a group.

These two reads give us three things:  another example of writer’s craft, more examples of claims with supporting evidence, and an example of process.

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I love this great photo of the Cubs’ moment of triumph from the Wall Street Journal. 

Follow-Up:  After students read this piece, there are many opportunities for follow-up.  One is to simply have them apply its writing lessons to their own nonfiction pieces.  Another is to have a lengthy conversation on writing processes, and how they can be short yet incredibly effective–students can see that prewriting doesn’t have to take the form of a web or an outline, but that it can be tweets, too.

Daugherty’s work, the now-defunct Grantland, and The New York Times sports section are some of my favorite places  to find great sportswriting.  What are some of your favorite resources for finding great nonfiction for your students? Please share in the comments!

Cliché College Essays and Why I Hate the “Three Ds”

IMG_0040On the Monday their essay was due, I handed out a rubric. “I cannot and will not grade you on this essay,” I said to my AP Literature class.

In all honesty, I don’t care what they get for a grade on this piece. After days, weeks, and months of toil, a number cannot and will not determine the actual value of this paper: the college essay.

I have a love-hate relationship with the college essay. I love that students have the opportunity to express themselves through writing and that they are encouraged to provide personal stories. I especially love the emphasis on creativity that draws them away from the rigidity and structure of standardized tests and check-box-surveys. What I hate is the overwhelming weight that accompanies telling “your story,” the crowning piece of one’s 17 years of life.

My first year of teaching, I fretted over college essay advice. I told students to steer clear of the three Ds—death, disease, and divorce—and to instead explore a wider variety of ideas that included mundane moments. I wanted them to beware the standard cliché essays of human suffering.

What I found was in restricting these three topics, I also restricted the very stories that shaped these students’ identities. After all, our students are still teenagers; they have many more stories to live and we mustn’t undermine those stories of death, disease, and divorce that have framed their present reality.

Sarah’s essay on her father’s death and her inability to hold his hand during his last moments tears at my heart every time I read it, and I have been working with Sarah on this piece for a year. She writes:

It is nearly two years after my father has passed, and my inability to hold my father’s hand on his deathbed still haunts my dreams and consumes my thoughts. I am sixteen years old, I have done regretful things in my life, but the singular moment I regret most in my life is not holding my dad’s hand during the one time he needed it to be held by me.

Sammie’s poetic piece on coping with her best friend’s severe eating disorder and eventual hospitalization and rehabilitation has a place in Sammie’s college folder. Maddie’s experience meeting her mother’s boyfriend for the first time after the shock of her parents’ divorce belongs filed alongside her SAT scores.

Instead of limiting their stories or categorizing them as cliche, we, as teachers, must help our students explore these experiences through expert narration and craft. After all, doesn’t the beauty in literature rest in its familiarity? Its common story? Its trumpeting of empathy, underdogs, and resilience?

How do you approach college essays, and how do you help students who are struggling with essay topics?

Readers & Writers Workshop–Beyond English and Into Journalism

dotCJR-blog480Are any of us really just English teachers?

It has been rare in my teaching tenure to only teach English–and in my current position, my schedule is no different.  I teach Yearbook and Newspaper, in addition to four English classes.

Learning the content of those new-to-me courses has been one of the biggest (and most fruitful) challenges of my teaching career.  While writing instruction is naturally paramount in journalism courses, teaching photography, design, AP style, and the interview process were foreign concepts to me prior to starting this job.

So, when I discovered that I’d be teaching journalism, I did what any good teacher does–I began to research.  This article describing the four properties of powerful teaching–presence, personality, passion, and preparation–reminded me that I had the first three qualities when it came to teaching journalism.  I just had to do the work of preparation.

After a long summer of workshops and self-teaching, I felt well-versed in lens aperture and the inverted pyramid, but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to structure my journalism courses.  When I boiled down the values I wanted my young journalists to prize, though, they came down to doing good writing, good research, and good thinking–all values that are foundational parts of the readers and writers workshop.

So, each day in Newspaper and Yearbook, we begin with ten minutes of reading.  I confer with students and we discuss how to read like writers.  We analyze how a writer sets a scene, much like how a photographer composes a picture.  We note the author’s style, filing away their craft moves for use in our own copy writing.  We speculate about the writer’s inspiration for the story, trying to find our own topics to write about.

After two booktalks (often nonfiction), we then move into a quickwrite, thinking in writing for ten minutes about a variety of subjects–sometimes responding to simple questions, sometimes practicing journalistic writing skills, and sometimes brainstorming ideas for articles, photo stories, or coverage.

A ten- to fifteen-minute mini-lesson follows, taught either by me or the editor-in-chief of the day’s publication.  These mini-lessons are based on trends the editors and I notice as students submit their work.  Yesterday we worked on strengthening our headlines; today we’ll focus on brushing up on the conventions of AP style in our copy.

We leave ourselves with a sixty-minute writers’ workshop every day, which is packed full of collaboration, conferring, and chaos.  That last hour is productive until the bell rings, with every student journalist working toward a unique deadline or assignment, receiving guidance from any and every other person in the room.

Watching and participating in the organized, creative chaos of a journalistic writers’ workshop is probably my favorite time of day.

I asked two students how they felt that the workshop enhanced their journalistic learning.  Ryan feels the quickwrites are most valuable:  “Your notebook allows you to open up and be yourself when you write,” he says.  “You learn to still have a voice in journalism, which is usually just really formulaic.”

“I really like that you learn while you write,” he emphasizes, repeating that twice in our brief conference.

Gabi agrees.  “You’re learning as you do the writing–learning from your mistakes–rather than having concepts spoonfed to you,” she says.  “I think everyone likes to learn hands-on, by actually writing, instead of just reading other people’s articles.”

In what electives or non-English classes do you employ the workshop model?

3 Ways Notebooks Top Digital Writing

IMG_9111Has it already been two weeks since the last day of #UNHLit15?  Unbelievable.  Time is flying by, as it always does in the sweet summertime.  As I get older, I find myself wanting time to slow down…and that’s one of the perks of a writer’s notebook–it slows down a writer’s thinking.  At right is a note I jotted to myself during Tom Newkirk’s class two short weeks ago.  I’d been pondering the notion of length in my instruction–reading longer texts, writing longer pieces, sustaining an idea or a reflection for a longer period.  While brainstorming ways to do that, I realized notebooks were one way to add length to the thinking process.  They slow down a writer’s thinking, making it keep pace with the measured movement of a hand across a page, which is slower than the tapping of keys across a keyboard.  As Tom Newkirk writes in his credo, “I believe that slow reading runs counter to a media culture that stresses speed, distraction, and a loss of history.”  I believe the same thing of slow writing, in notebook form–it draws out thought in a way digital writing just can’t.

IMG_9110Notebooks also make thinking visual.  There is something about switching colors when revising, drawing lines to connect a tangled web of thoughts, or adding ideas to a pre-existing idea to show tangible growth that just can’t be done with a computer, voice recording, or video.  As I’ve pondered the theme of power–the overarching theme of my English 12 curriculum for this upcoming year–I’ve returned again and again to this page at my right, adding ideas, jotting inspirations, and connecting them to one another.  I’ve loved watching the page become more and more crowded, my thoughts finally spilling over onto the facing page before making it into my typed syllabus and curriculum map.  This visual map of my thinking is the most important part of my writing process, and without it, the typed pages I hand my students would lack coherence, focus, and quality.

Finally, notebooks illustrate volume in a way typed papers or blog posts just can’t.  Revisiting my old notebooks provides me a tangible location to mine ideas from–I can flip back to the summer of 2013 and find wild scrawls from my first class with Penny Kittle, or the fall of 2006 to see a plethora of hearts marking my budding courtship with my husband, or the spring of 2009 when I was frantically finishing my Masters thesis, evidenced by frantic scribbling and much crossing-out of ideas.  All of this evidence of my thinking takes up an entire bookshelf in my office, showing me proof that my thinking has evolved over time.  I want my students to feel that same sense of wonder and growth when they fill their second notebook by the end of our school year together.

Notebooks are a map, a timeline, a guide–to our lives, our minds, and our hearts.  They create a space for creative contagious concentration that is tangible and necessary, and which transcends the nebulous nature of digital writing.

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