Category Archives: Teaching Writing in the Summer

Showing Up

Anna Quindlen has this great philosophy about life, wherein she says something to the extent of “I show up, I listen, I try to laugh.”

I collect a lot of words: jot them down on scraps of paper, inside my planner, the app on my phone, my Moleskine, and try to remember them, but this is one of the few quotes that I have committed to memory. It’s probably because this is my general outlook on life.

This summer, I have been teaching writing again to another phenomenal group of young people, though I’ve had more of them for a summer (which has been perplexing for me because I feel like I just don’t know them like I used to–it’s much more difficult to figure out a kids’ writing quirks when there are +30 as compared to 15. I have even more sympathy and respect for teachers who have that many kids in their classes every day). Because I’ve had a larger class load, I’ve gotten creative about how I interact with kids. I’ve conducted writing conferences at breakfast, talked about integrating quotations over Google Docs and in the hall, given a quick recap of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade over lunch, and stopped to have intense chats between points on campus.

That’s what it means to show up.

Last night, I went to the summer showcase for a writing program because it featured a young man I urged to attend. He’s the type of writer whom you, essentially, get out of his way. We had sophisticated conversations about word choice, about intention, about meaning in ways that I’ve not spoken with many young people about, and that’s because he is curious, earnest and dedicated. (Funny, too, he’s the student who wrote quite adeptly about how he was dissatisfied with our classroom discussions about voice; he found them too reductive when, after all, voice can take a lifetime to develop. Touche. Absolutely correct…)

He was surprised to see me, and broke into a huge grin. As I chatted with his parents in the moments after the reading and before the young writers disbanded to find their families, his mother asked about my summer and thanked me again for suggesting he do the program. The student told me he’s submitted a few articles, rattled off something about words and length and I simply…marveled about how summers help young people to grow, and to be creative and to do powerful, amazing things. (On another note, how can we keep that fire from the summer in the school year?!)

And I’m pleased I was able to show up to let him know I was proud of him.

When I first began teaching, I showed up for everything: after school sessions, book clubs with students, parent events I created, community lectures that I attended with students. My week was on a seven-day cycle. Now, I am selective about my showing up: I get tired, and then I get cranky, and then I realize it’s not fun showing up if I am irritated and thinking about other things.

Thus, I try to pack a number of events into a weekend, say, or an afternoon. I can do a pancake breakfast sponsored by the crew team, see an early afternoon soccer game, hope that there’s a dance performance or a preview of a play, and perhaps squeak in some time to chat with a student who I’ve been hoping to build a stronger relationship with over a high point that I witnessed at one of those events.

There is a power in showing up for kids, and I understand, every time, that there is a power in showing up for them that extends to me. I am never sorry for the time I spent listening, laughing, pushing, stepping back, or just…being in their presence.

I’ll hope to build in those times to see them in other contexts beside the classroom throughout the upcoming school year.

I will show up. I will listen. I will try to laugh.

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Reading Junot Diaz (with Marvin in the Margins)

Drown always comes up as a book people often use in their classrooms. Kids love it, they say. That refrain, of kids loving it, is usually enough to garner at least one copy of said title in my classroom free reading collection, but I let Drown allude me. Two years ago, while combing through my department head’s binder, I found some stories from Drown with her meticulous notes and queries to push kids into and through the text, and thought that I’d use those stories in my Modern American Short Story unit.

So late to the party, I was.

The kids loved Junot. Rather, they loved the humor, the honesty, the heartbreak of the characters. When we read the New Yorker short story “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” we had an intense discussion about Oscar: fool or hero? Wasn’t dying for love admirable? (Many thought not. Oscar, they reasoned, was just a pitiful loser).

When I knew Diaz was releasing a new collection of short stories, I was more receptive (finally). I often half-listen to adults, but when young people talk, they generally have my full attention.

After being completely floored that my young Dominican students (particularly the boys) had NO IDEA who Junot Diaz was, and after I made several grandish claims (see earlier blog posts), I photocopied his short story “Ms. Lora” from another New Yorker where it ran that summer.

I was so anxious to finally read This is How You Lose Her that I ordered it on Amazon, was promptly struck with book buyer’s amnesia (it’s happened before), and purchased another copy in a local bookstore. (And maybe I was attempting to correct my book buying karma by keeping it local–sort of).

Then, I intentionally took the subway from one end to another, purposely scheduled a meeting and arrived an hour early so I could read and not be interrupted, so I could have the experience that kids have been having all along.

This experience of reading TIHYLH has been infuriating, comforting, endearing…makes me want to reread every page real slow because I don’t have something to read next that’s going to be as good.

I vacillate between wanting to punch Yunior in the face for being so callous with women to hoping to offer him a soft place to land for losing his brother to cancer. I want to shake the women who bide their time with men who see them when their “main women” are otherwise occupied. I want to take others by the hand and tell them to just hold on. It gets better.

I read so many pieces of text in my life that I think I lose my edge of actually feeling…thus, when I read something and it sucker punches me, I’m disoriented, gotta tell everyone about it, intentionally schedule reading time into classes so kids can read (but really so I can read, too).

What am I going to do with that extra copy? Well, I emailed that student who I had in class this summer and told him I’ve ended up with an extra copy of the book. Does he want it? Wait. First, I emailed him to ask if he knew the book was out and he said “Ha, way ahead of you Kim. This Is How You Lose Her, planning on getting it this week. Also, the short story Ms. Lora, was phenomenal. The Dominican culture in it is very similar to my own. I never knew I would ever find such things as the plastic covers on sofas being written about in a book! Hope all is well.”

I’ll make sure that extra copy gets delivered this weekend and follow up in a few weeks. I will listen more than I speak, simply content that a book and an author can create a text that we care about and will talk about for months to come.

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This is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz

Then, he’ll return the favor. “I’ll have a book for you by the summer comes,” he writes.

And he will.

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The Wrap-Up: Reflecting on Learning–Theirs & Mine

The deadline to submit my grades and the supplementary narratives that students receive for my summer program is Monday. For the first year of this program, I’m up against it. I might be writing my way through the weekend. What happens is that I’m a bit of a sentimentalist, so rather than just writing, I find myself going back and rereading past reflections so I can get myself into the groove of writing the current ones.

This one that follows gets me every time. I wrote it for a kid that I hoped would make it through the program, but he ended up leaving us. I miss him. I hope he knew this reflection was serious and honest and true. Absolutely true.

An excerpt from my narrative to him:

You were so brave to share your truths with me. I know this was difficult and brought up some memories you had hoped to suppress, but in the process, you wrote a piece that was deeply moving and personal. Thank you for trusting me. I admire your honesty and humor, too, which always made the class a space of joyful learning (even when you tried hard not to make it seem that that was your intention).

In your self-reflection, you said that this course confirmed that you are not good at writing narratives. I disagree. While writing narratives are difficult–probably because they are so personal–your voice is quite strong, clear, and convincing. As is your habit, you second guess yourself too much and seem to forget that everything takes practice; if you want to be the writers you admire, then you have to write. A lot. And yes, some of that writing will be absolutely awful, while much more of it will probably be something worth saving, but you’ll never know what to save unless you try, R. Stop being so self-deprecating (look it up). Your greatest disadvantage is that you refuse to acknowledge how great of a scholar you could be. I knew you were capable of excellence from the moment I met you. I realize seeing greatness in oneself is harder because we tend to downplay our own intelligence—sometimes, though, the first step at embracing what it takes to be a scholar is having someone tell you that, based on the work you’ve done, that you can be great. Thus, after reading your essays and interacting with you throughout the summer, you can do great work, and you can write well. Okay, off you go now to do it. I wish you the best for the school year. It has been a pleasure writing with you.

These kids never leave us…

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Undoing

My summer program ended yesterday and I’ve begun to read reflections about the class, the final assignment students write. These reflections reaffirm many of the things I know to be true about myself: that I’m initially imposing, that I’m relatively harsh, that I love what I do, that I love my students.

Eventually, we reach a place of peace, but the 4-5 weeks that are required to get there are usually fraught with under-the-breath swears (and I’m sure they’re quite colorful, as adolescents have lovely vocabularies in that regard) and worries about passing the course.

For the most part, they all do pass. I tell them I’m not necessarily concerned with how they start, but how they finish. It’s not rocket science, I continue. If you buy into the class, if you commit to being excellent, then we’ll work together to be excellent. And you might just become a great writer, or at least start down the path to being a great writer.

In this course, excellence requires revision: lots of it. It’s a near constant process. Thing is, once the kids begin revising and pass the paper, some ask what they can do to achieve an exceeds. Those conversations are some of the best, because then they are about word choice, about sentence variety, about punctuation…those conversations are about what real writers do.

But I don’t have those conversations with everyone; for the most part, they are generally worried about meeting expectations, which, I’ve suspected for a couple of years but now confirmed, is difficult because I’m undoing.

Undoing, in this respect, means breaking them outside of what they are accustomed to. No formulas, no minute details about what goes where in what paragraph. I didn’t realize how much that freaked them out until so many of them wrote about it in their reflections. They said that initially they were concerned by so much freedom (WTH? As a writer–even an academic writer–I relish freedom), that that freedom caused them so much panic that it led to inertia (seriously, they couldn’t get started)…

But once they began to just write, they surprised themselves. Most importantly, they found themselves. Here’s a snippet from one kid who knows the formulas for essays in his sleep. He didn’t know what to do with me because I challenged him to find himself in his writing, to leave those formulas in the past. He wrote about, essentially, wearing a mask as a writer, that allowed him to detach and write perfectly functional but emotionally devoid essays:

A poker face that said nothing, had nothing to say, and could not say anything on his own. Why? I remember you telling me that I should try personalizing my essay, try to change from  using the traditional formulas for essays. And now I see why, because I can remember the times in eighth grade when I felt proud of everything I wrote. It was not just the satisfaction of finishing my essays, but also the joy of writing my own essay. An essay that was all from me, no one else’s. Originality, they call it.

[My reflection] and the Literature Appreciation Essay are great examples of the improvement I have made. I tried to refresh my style in papers that give me the opportunity to do so. I think that it would be the ideal way for me to change, step after step, like a turtle. Although I have made changes such as using the dictionary and thesaurus more, changing my sentence structure, using punctuation marks and separating or combining sentences, I think that the poker face now sitting somewhere else than my own face is a more significant change. It just makes me happy to know that I can now, after all, write things that I can be proud of writing, that I can be happy writing.

I might be a sentimentalist, and I might just be overwhelmed with packing up my apartment for my impending move and endings in general, but this reflection gets at what I work really hard to undo, or, actually, what I’m realizing is a process of undoing.

If we teach kids to write so well in these formulas, how do they ever know how to break them? How do they ever know what their voice is? How will they ever know how writing can work for different purposes? I’m not such a fool to believe that kids will love writing, but at least I would like for them to know in their bones that they can do it, in whatever form, and be good at it.

I have been so complicit in promoting the formulas when I first began teaching 10 years ago. What changed was that I had to write a lot in graduate school and I became much more aware of my own processes and desire to write for an audience that mattered. If I was bored, then my audience was sure to be bored, too (another gem I tell the kids: don’t bore me).

Don’t kids deserve that chance, too?

I know this summer class is just that, a summer class for high achieving students, many of color, some not, all low-income and all of promise. And if these kids are writing like this, then that does not bode well for the ones who are not here.

But I end knowing that we have to change the writing instruction we do with students. We have to teach them that what they have to say matters, and what they have to say doesn’t fit within a structure. Sure, structure is important and certain tasks demand a particular response, but if that response is all we train kids to do, we are committing a tremendous disservice: to them, but also to ourselves. I simply cannot stomach that.

In that move towards helping and convincing students, really, that their voices matter, they get it.

One final piece from another reflection: Kim’s class was not the regular class that I expected. It did not teach us how to write based on lectures and long talks. We learned from our own writing and mistakes, both inside and outside of class. She taught us that we can learn from ourselves.

I feel like I don’t even know what regular means at this point in my career. I know what teaching writing looks like in this context, and I know what helping kids find their voices and produce excellent pieces of writing looks like. I simply wish more teachers (and I know they’re out there) could do the same.

There’s more to writing than formulas. Now, at least, some kids know that. And while they’re writing in their classes over the next year, they’ll know what else they could be doing and how they could be doing it, and perhaps they’ll take some risks, break the formula, and be commended for writing themselves into their papers.

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Give It Away

Whether it’s a by-product of working in under-resourced schools for much of my teaching career or just being selfish, I was unwilling to share. My refusal to share a pack of Sharpies with my now-dear-friend, then-frenemy Ain, is legendary. I squirreled away everything: paper, markers, books, ideas, for myself and really no one else. I wasn’t necessarily even moved to change by people who were generous with their resources and knowledge.

I just kept taking.

Until finally, I reached the point where I wanted to change my hoarding ways. That change was largely precipitated by an amazing student teacher (who wasn’t really a student; he’d had two years of teaching in New Orleans under his belt by the time we met) who kept asking. And, because I’m a sucker for flattery, and because he was genuine in his desire to be an excellent teacher, and because he improved daily with just a simple suggestion or reflection, I started giving. I gave ideas, I gave feedback, I gave of my knowledge.

Damned if I didn’t begin to realize how much I was growing because of my generosity. Funny, that.

I reached a place, eventually (it didn’t happen overnight), where I was willing to make a photocopy of a short story that moved me, a poem that puzzled me, a blog post or link I stumbled upon that was so well written I had to share it with someone.

Another confession: I’m riddled by my own insecurities, but I realized that people accept these small offerings because we ALL can help each other, ALL need different ways of looking at something…heck, we ALL need sub plans (even if I was at a school for the last two years that didn’t have subs)!

In that spirit, as I sat on the subway crossing the Charles River this morning, reading “Ms. Lora,” a new short story from Junot Diaz that was in a recent New Yorker, I thought of one of my students (always, thinking about teaching, right?! I don’t know any good teacher that can completely keep the two separate; instead, we always think about how everything we read might be good for some or all of our students). He’s Dominican but didn’t know Junot Diaz (don’t even get me started). And that day when we were walking across Harvard Yard, I told him a bit about Diaz, and about Drown, and Oscar Wao, and how Diaz teaches in Cambridge and you never know, you might see him around…writers have to drink coffee, you know. That conversation was also about reading literature by people who look like us (and I’m not Dominican, but I’m Black and a woman, and that means something). It just changes things, I think I said. Lets you know someone KNOWS you (and even lets you know what they don’t know about you). The next day in class, I made a quick list of Dominican authors on the board (chalk…my fave). Many of the kids wrote down the titles, said they were going to look them up, try to find them.

That one particular kid will follow up. I just know it. As we wrapped up that class, I noticed him looking up an app to read The Economist online. He told me that he’d won a contest in the eighth grade that gave him a subscription but that, two years later, he’d still not received it.

I quickly fired off an email to the school’s founder. That’s one of the small perks: I worked at that school years ago. The founder responded a day later, said he’s purchase the subscription himself.

Another instance of giving away: using some small advantage to help this kid. If you’re reading The Economist heading into the tenth grade, who are ANY of us to stop you?

And so, as I read this short story and get excited about Diaz’ forthcoming book, I finish it and have a moment of indecision: do I keep this story to myself, mention it in passing to the kids and hope that they’ll read it? Or do I give it away, allow them to experience Diaz for themselves, make them their own copies?

No question. Make the copies. Give it away. Share so that we might all know. I’m learning.

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Writing Workshop Gets Real (Or, Working My Way Out of a Job)

Every teacher hopes for the moment when the kids GET it, and that moment is not often accompanied by bells or whistles; instead, sometimes it’s a subtle click and the students begin owning the material. They don’t regurgitate it just for approval; rather, they’ve taken it in, reformulated it so it makes sense to them, and have begun to incorporate it into their learning.

Best case in point: Friday Writing Workshop. At this point, the kids are well-versed in how to give feedback, and they are usually constructive. We had our last four writers present their work last week, and from the moment they started, I knew that I was sharing a moment with them that they owned. The first writer said she wanted feedback about flow, about word choice, about places where she could strengthen her analysis (they were writing a poetry analysis essay). Another asked for help on his organization. Another asked for feedback on the nebulous “everything.”

And their peers responded in kind. They offered insight about where the balance seemed off in their peers’ papers, where they noticed repetition, where a more concise word would suffice rather than the wordy, overly flowery construction another favored. They marked up drafts for specificity, circling points in the papers for added emphasis, making notes, helping, always helping.

I didn’t have to say a word. In fact, I think that if I’d have said anything, it would have first been repetitive, because the kids say everything (and more, actually) that I was thinking, and it also would have taken the power away from the writer to lead a workshop, receive feedback, and use that feedback.

They absolutely understand what a writing workshop is all about. What’s critical, in this space, I think, is that they own it. They feel the communal responsibility: that we are all responsible for making each of us better writers.

We are all writers here. Every single one of us.

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I Used to Be Afraid to Be Great

I had an early morning writing conference with a student this morning. Like, super early, so early that when I ducked into the dining hall, they weren’t even open at 7 a.m. I didn’t complain, though; that was an additional 20ish minutes I had to be consumed in this new book that probably doesn’t have much literary merit but that captivates me in ways that I love (the new Emily Giffin: LOVE HER!). And that reminds me, when one of the kids I had last year runs into me, precariously balancing a tray of breakfast options, she admits that she’s been reading. What?! She smiles, embarrassed. (I’m all kinds of astonished at that moment. This kid is so serious; I’m just stoked she seems to be taking things less so). She goes on to tell me that her teacher at school told her she should always analyze what she’s reading.

I told her that I disagreed with her teacher. I might have even said that her teacher was wrong. I read for pleasure all the time, and I only analyze something when I want to. Reading works on different levels, and if you’re going into the Hunger Games with the primary goal of analyzing, then you’re doomed. Hopefully, she keeps reading and finds enjoyment out of it. Why tell kids that if we ever want them to ENJOY anything?

Ugh.

Move backwards in time to the writing conference that commences promptly at 7:30. I’m approaching overcaffeinated, so I have to remind myself to focus only on what matters for this student. He has fantastic ideas, just needs some practice honing his focus, refining his thesis, making sure his topic sentences and body paragraphs are all working together. He LOVES this poem, Knock, Knock by Daniel Beatty. I tend to agree. It’s a fantastic poem to teach with students (again, another tip from Christensen).

First, I ask him what, exactly, he wants to say about this poem that he’s been tasked to analyze (remind me to rethink this assignment for sophomores next year; I think it’s too tough. Last year, I did it with juniors and that seems a more appropriate match). He tells me he’s interested in the speaker’s perseverance, and he’s interested in repetition, and word choice and imagery. Right? He’s got the makings of a fantastic paper. So, I do some dictation while he works through what he wants to say and eventually present him with a map, that works into a thesis, that allows us to move to the rest of the paper.

And what I realize, after some talking through the paper, is that he has buried the topic sentences within this body paragraphs. Eventually, I tell him so and make him identify the topic sentences. This kid’s got a way with words: he loves them, wants to use all kinds of them, even if they’re not the right ones. Even when simple, concise ones will do. I tell him as much (and even write “Practice an economy of words” on his paper and tell him what it means), and his face falls momentarily before I reassure him that there’s a time and place for a beautiful word, and that, as a writer, he’ll come to decide when it’s appropriate.

For now, though, I tell him, it doesn’t matter how lovely the word is if I can’t understand what it is you’re trying to tell me.

I want to get better, he admits. But I’m worried that time is running out (for the program). Will I pass?

You need to revise these papers, I reply. But sure. If you do the planning we did today, of first writing your thesis, then making sure your topic sentences are supporting your thesis, then yes, you can pass.

I wish I had more time in your class, he says. My writing is just starting to improve.

I tell him we are all works in progress as writers, so he can keep moving ahead, building on what he’s learned here. You’re gonna be even better next summer. Watch. The school year seems to work all kinds of magic on kids, I reassure him.

And then, because all the kids from the program tend to cluster in one area of the dining hall, and because I’m holding court in that corner, I stop another student who has been dodging me and is in danger of failing, too. I ask him where his revision is and he responds vaguely that he is going to get it to me. When I ask for an exact date, and if there’s anything confusing about what he needs to do, he mumbles something that I perceive as a yes.

I then go off on what might be one of my most effective rants about greatness and achievement and fear that I’ve mustered up in quite a while (it really was a beauty), I ask him several times if he’s afraid to be great. Silence. I wait. About a minute or so later, he says that yes, he is afraid to be great. That the only one preventing him from being great is him. I tell him that I had that same fear, but that I got over it when I was five (a lie; I still suffer from it–that fear of being great–but sometimes, you have to lie to the kids). Then, that student opens his computer and shows me his points of confusion. Turns out, it’s around analysis, so I open up one of our textbooks for the course, They Say, I Say by Graff and give him some references. We work through his narrative and I make suggestions about line breaks and spacing. I feel him growing more confident. By the end of that drive-by conference, he tells me I’m going to have both revisions by day’s end.

Being a warm demander has its perks.

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