Thursday, November 25, 2010

Quiet Day

The week before Thanksgiving, I only had two students in my class: Mykhi and Saleha.

We ate Carma's cookies and read aloud a selection from Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad and talked about college. Saleha wants to go to Harvard. Mykhi wants to play football for the Terps; he also does a killer robot voice.

The Robot Bard of The Cyberiad

I found out that most of Saleha's family is still in Iran, and Mykhi's father played football for Notre Dame. His parents are a little more than 10 years older than me.

They really loved The Cyberiad, although they said at first that it couldn't be a real book because it has pictures in it. "That's the great thing about college," I said. "Your books have pictures and you only have class one day a week."

I lied a little bit. For the greater good.

The most interesting part about Lem's book was the nonsense language. It led us a to a surprisingly deep conversation about the nature of words, the source of the universe, and God vs. robots.

At the end of class, I spent some time with each of them developing the story-lines for their spooky tales. Mykhi's decided to do his as a play. Saleha is torn between poetry or prose, but I think she'll settle on prose.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

"The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," Storytelling, and Personal Essays

Whew. It has been a while, hasn't it? My classes and I have met three times since my last post, so let me get right to it:

Four Tuesdays ago, I brought in F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" for my students and I to read. The story is long (taking up about 25 11x8 pieces of paper) and I suggested popcorn reading to keep the students attentive. However, one student told me about an alternative to popcorn reading, one in which the reader replaces a character's name with a classmates name, signaling the next reader. This worked great, as the kids were not only listening closely for their names to be called, but excited when their turn came so that they could be the ones calling on a classmate. Before reading the story, I told them a little bit about F. Scott Fitzgerald's life and work, and was surprised to hear that a few of my students had already read The Great Gatsby. I also told my students that my professor, John Irwin, considers "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" the greatest American short story. That certainly got them excited.

We got through a little more than half of the story that period, and I was happy to see that the students really wanted to continue reading. The next week we were off for Election Day, but the following week we started from where we'd left off. I had the students summarize the story up to that point, reminding everyone of what had occurred. We finished the story with about twenty minutes to spare, and spoke about it some. It is a story that captures the imagination, and the kids loved it. I told them that if Fitzgerald could write such an amazing and fantastical piece about a diamond the size of a mountain, then they shouldn't be afraid to tackle their most bizarre ideas, so long as they adhere to the process and remain organized. We discussed the themes of the story, the historical significance, and why John Irwin might consider it the "greatest American short story." I was very happy that the kids not only made it through such a long story, but appeared to have enjoyed it very much. We spent the rest of the period sharing the bizarre stories from our own lives, and I urged the students to incorporate such tales into their writing.

This past Tuesday, I wanted to teach the students about personal essays. My goal is to collect a strong piece of writing from all of them by time the semester is over to make an anthology. I've noticed that some students are very capable of writing a story without a prompt, while others need more direction. I was hoping that those in the latter category would find inspiration in our discussion of personal essays, as everyone loves writing about his or herself.

We first read my favorite essay, Zora Neale Hurston's "How it Feels to be Colored Me." It is short and brilliant and if you haven't read it I suggest you do. It can be found easily on the internet. We then shared our thoughts about this essay, as well as discussed the life of Hurston, who was not recognized for her work until well after her death.

I then reached back into my own middle school days and had my students write a "This I Believe Essay." In such an essay the author writes a 250-500 word piece about a principal that he or she lives by. I had to do this myself in school, and even shared my essay with my students. The "This I Believe" essay contest is sponsored by NPR. I had brought in my computer so we could listen to the readings of some of the better essays that NPR has on its site. My favorite, as well as the students, was one entitled "Be Cool to the Pizza Delivery Dude." Each student began his or her own "This I Believe" essay, which we will continue working on after Thanksgiving.

Enjoy the Holiday everyone! It is my favorite of the year.


Happy Halloween

Getting serious... Weeks 6, 7, and 8.

In week six, I introduced our long-term project: Spooky stories! The genre of supernatural fiction tied in (somewhat superficially) to the overall theme of Modern Myths, but more importantly it was an idea the kids were really interested in. 

I led us in a guided meditation and free-write to start us off. It was a dark and stormy day... Actually, it was slightly overcast and about 60 degrees, but it looked quite cold outside. I lined them up at the windows and asked them to consider first the immediate aspects of the environment (the cloudy skies, the breeze on the tree-branches, the belching industrial pipes and the crowded parking lot). Then we moved to smaller things (the way the clouds moved, the individual leaves on the trees, the squirrels among among the cars), and finally ended by imagining all of the unseen life outside the classroom (the people in the buildings, the invisible birds in the trees, the innumerable creatures and bacteria in the dirt and grass of the football field).

Then we read a few supernatural-themed poems: "Because I could not stop for death" (Dickinson), "Ghost House" (Frost), "Annabelle Lee" (Poe).

Another time, I split them into four groups and we acted out "The Witches' Spell" from Act 4 of Macbeth. I asked each of them to put a different spin on the performance and the results were hilarious. Not much writing this week, but definitely a lot of thinking and discussion... I can't wait to start the projects.

These are the weeks I began to lose students... I didn't want to take it personally, because as one child's mother explained, there "seems to be a college-level amount of work assigned to sixth-graders." But it still hurt. My first class went from fifteen to nine students. It seems that parents and teachers believe Creative Writing should be reserved for "a future year in [students'] scholastic get the most out of it."

For all my soap-boxing, I think they have a point. But if my child had the opportunity to write and to develop the kind of advanced literary thinking I've been trying to cultivate in these students--I don't know that I would pass that up, even if it meant missing a few sections of Egyptian mythology in sixth grade social studies. Soap-box: dismounted.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Weeks 4 and 5: Free-Writes, Collaborative Pieces, and Poetry

Hello again. A lot has happened since my last blog, namely the elimination of the New York Yankees from the 2010 MLB Playoffs. I wish both the Texas Rangers and San Francisco Giants the best, and from this point forward will not acknowledge the sport of baseball until Spring Training begins next March. I fully expect both Derek Jeter and Mariano River to return to pinstripes for the 2011 season, and take a pay cut if need be. If that is not the case, we are going to have problems.

Now to teaching. I guess I have to be careful not to turn this into a sports blog. Anyway, I think I learned at least as much from my students as they did from me during my fourth lesson. My goal is to have the kids prepared to workshop a short story of their own the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Since I am not permitted to assign homework, all of their writing has to occur in class. Thus I decided to give them a head start on their short stories. We spent the first ten minutes of class playing another game of Exquisite Corpse to help facilitate the creative spirit. The kids love this game, and by the time it was over they were in the mood to start their stories. Before instructing them to do so, I reminded everyone of what we talked about so far this semester: setting, mood, characterization, foreshadowing, conflict, and the overall structure of the short story.

After a half an hour of writing, I could tell that the students were getting a little restless. I told them to put their piece away and to be prepared to work on it during another lesson. Some weren't ready to stop, and I urged them to continue working on their stories at home if they felt the need to do so.

We spent the last twenty minutes of class writing collaborative stories. Each student started his or her own story, and then passed it to their left for another student's contribution. At the end of the period we had a collaborative work for each student in the class. Some were more cohesive than others, although none were particularly organized. Thus I learned a valuable less: If you instruct six eighth grade girls to do a collaborative free-write, what you will receive in the end are six versions of Twilight. Sadly, there will be no more collaborative free-writes.

In week five, I had both of my classes meet at the same time. There was a scheduling conflict in my later period with a "Poetry Slam" the school was hosting that Tuesday. I am very excited to hear what my students have to say about the Slam when I see them tomorrow.

Because my class was twice as large as usual, I knew I had to come into the period with a solid lesson plan. Moreover, I wanted to prime the students for their Poetry Slam. I decided to bring in Emily Dickinson's "Because I Could Not Stop For Death", Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!", Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz", and Seamus Heaney's "Blackberry Picking", the latter being one of my favorite poems in the English language. We had a rewarding discussion about each poem's structure and themes, along with the imagery that the author evoked. For the last ten minutes I instructed the students to begin a poem of their own. At the end of the period most students were eager to share their work, so much so that I plan to return to poetry later in the semester.

Tomorrow, we will be reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Diamond As Big As The Ritz."

Goodbye for now,


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Weeks 4 and 5: Aspects of a story

In week 4, we focused on characterization. For the first three weeks of the course, I had had each student write down a different fact or character trait each day. By the fourth week, there were three descriptors for each student.

I wrote them down on index cards and left a blank spot for the students to fill in. Then we wrote stories based on the our facts. At the end of the class, they guessed whose card they'd written on. For example:

This character...
is an accomplished pianist;
his/her favorite season is fall;
he/she loves Chopin (the composer, not the writer);
and ___________. 

Natalie received this card about Leah, and filled in for her blank: has a sad love of squash.

We had a discussion about what makes a realistic character and how to avoid "stock characters" (action figures). 

In week 5, we focused on words--not wasting words, and the importance of compelling dialogue.

To this end we read "The Poison Tree" (William Blake), "The Haunted Palace" (Edgar Allen Poe) and "The Mock Turtle's Story" by Lewis Carrol. The "Mock Turtle" was a huge hit--they picked up some of the puns I'd missed. And the introduction of the mythical creatures into the class's pool of knowledge resulted in some very interesting stories later on, as some students took up the idea of Gryphons and blended beasts in their long projects (a few of which are almost Dr. Moreau-esque, to my horrified delight).

"Now, at our school, they had, at the end of the bill, 'French, music, and washing..."
"You couldn't have wanted it much," said Alice; "living at the bottom of the sea."
"I couldn't afford to learn it," said the Mock Turtle, with a sigh. "I only took the regular course."
"What was that?" inquired Alice.
"Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with," the Mock Turtle replied; "and then the different branches of Arithmetic--Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision."
"I never heard of 'Uglification,'" Alice ventured to say. "What is it?"
The Gryphon lifted up both its paws in surprise. "Never heard of Uglifying!" it exclaimed. "You know what to Beautify is, I suppose?"
"Yes, said Alice doubtfully: "It means--to--make--anything--prettier."
"Well, then," the Gryphon went on, "if you don't know what to uglify is, you are a simpleton."
Alice did not feel encouraged to ask any more questions about it: so she turned to the Mock Turtle, and said, "What else had you to learn?"
"Well, there was Mystery," the Mock Turtle replied, counting off the subjects on his flappers,--"Mystery, ancient and modern, with Seaography: then Drawling--the Drawling-master was an old conger-eel, that used to come once a week: he taught us Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils."

Friday, October 22, 2010

"Nice" does not suffice

or Week three: Roadblocks.

So what does a writer do when he has nothing to write about? I was slightly shocked to learn that my sixth graders--despite having mouths like motors and more pep than a can of Mr. Pibb--very quickly ran out of things to write about. Writing time dissolves almost instantly into whisper time which of course grows to talking time.

So this week we worked on techniques for overcoming writer's block.

To start off with, we told a straightforward and well-known tale--this is not the time for the Odyssey, but the encounter with the cyclops works very well. We broke it down into its basic narrative arc and then moved on to discussing Freytag's pyramid, mostly importantly trying to find a definition for a story's "climax."

I asked them to picture a group of mountain climbers, and (long story short) we decided that the climax was the peak of the mountain--big surprise. But trying to describe why that had to be the climax was a much more interesting discussion, and in the end it was the fact that there was nowhere else to go--in other words, that an inevitability had been established--that made the peak the climax.

After that we played the ABC game. I suppose you could just as well call it the 123 game or the character-emotion-location game. It's just what the third name would suggest: each person takes three scarps of paper and writes on each a character, an emotion, and a location, respectively. The scraps are then drawn randomly from the three different piles, and we wrote group stories based off of the results.

It was exciting to see how the point of view of a story and the six spots of the pyramid--exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement--formed a story's skeleton, and how the pyramid could be a cure for the common writer's block. (Might still be in Mad Men frame of mind. Hope I'm not the only one.)

If you couldn't think of where you were going with your story, or if you got bored, or if you just didn't like what you were doing, you could start writing a different step. It could be a sentence or a paragraph or five pages but when you came back to what you were doing before, you'd be fresher and you'd understand better what you were trying to say.

And our "Writer's Life" series continued: this week, Revisions! We'll see how many poems I get back...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Oh, right: Meet Miss Osborn

I realized that unlike Alex, in his awesome first post, I forgot to introduce myself.

My name is Katie Marie Osborn and I'm also a Writing Seminars student at Johns Hopkins University. I'm originally from Carmichael, CA (a 'burb of Sacramento that lies on the west side of the American river), but I have many special Baltimore places in my heart thanks to friends, employers, and professors who've helped me get to know the city.

I have a fiction concentration within the Seminars, but I've also studied American and European literature, politics and public policy, and philosophy. I'm graduating in December and have little or no idea what I'm doing after that, but I have a feeling it's going to be something in community development or public policy.

I am so excited about our project at Roland Park Elementary and Middle School. I think it's critically important--at least it was for me--to begin to see writing as something that can be done outside of what you do in school, something that's actually fun and creative and relaxing and revealing.

Sixth grade is when I first got to know some of my favorite writers: Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allen Poe, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Lewis Carroll. 

My goal with my students is to look beyond their middle school "Primers" at the quality children's literature  out there. 

So far we've done pretty well! I'm having so much fun!

Dali with Sixth-Graders

Week Two: Exercises in Ekphrasis

In our second week we tackled some pretty weighty questions: What is art? What is the point of it? What do you want to say with your art?

To show how a person's own history affects the way he interprets a piece of art, we read the myth of Icarus (I typed it up very quickly; they were not impressed with my ill-proportioned sketch of the Minotaur), then we looked at Peter Bruegel's painting "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," and finally we read William Carlos William's poem that addresses Bruegel's painting (also "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus"):

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

I think that a lot of them could identify with Icarus, and I was incredibly impressed when someone in my first class connected the painting with Aesop's fable about the gnat and the rhinoceros that we had read the week before.

And as I intended, the poem inspired a debate about William Carlos Williams in general. I didn't know it, but they had just read "The Red Wheelbarrow," one of my personal favorites, a poem which did not impress several of my students.

"I could have written that," one of them said.

I talked about how for me, just an image or a series of images (the red wheelbarrow, the white chickens, the raindrops) can evoke a whole train of thought. I tried to put us in the mind of the farmer plowing the field below Icarus.

"I don't think it's fair for him to talk about that other painting," someone else said. "The painter might not agree with what he said."

The whole conversation about the nature of art--our role as writers and artists, the responsibility of the writer, the creative process--was fascinating and revealing and I hope I made the kids realize that writing isn't a chore, but rather an art form, just like painting and music and dance. Its rules and limits make it all the more creative because the writer has to work within a set framework to produce something unique.

Anyway, they had fun writing about the paintings I gave them--Chagall, Dali, and anonymous Chinese calligraphy.
Their creativity was through the roof! And this week their "Life of a Writer" homework is to think of a natural phenomenon they don't understand. You'll see the awesome things they came up with (and their explanations!!) in my next post.   :)

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Weeks 1, 2, and 3: Forming the Short Story

Finally, I enter the wide world of blogging, and I couldn't think of a better way to be initiated into this medium than this. I feel extremely lucky to be teaching creative writing to Roland Park 8th graders, and look forward to sharing my experiences with you.

Let me begin by telling you a little bit about myself. My name is Alex Morrison and I am a Senior writing seminars major at Johns Hopkins University. I am 21 years old (22 on October 17), have an older sister named Kelsey (her blog can be found at, and was born in UCSD Hospital in La Jolla, California. My family moved shortly after, and I grew up in Rye, New York. I have been interested in creative writing since elementary school, and was attracted to Johns Hopkins for its unique program in the field of writing. I am a lifelong Yankee fan (Game 1 of the ALDS is currently on my TV the background) and hope that as this blog progresses in the coming weeks, so to do the Yankees on their quest for a 28th World Championship.

Now to the teaching. I am in charge of two morning classes of 8th grade students. The earlier one (9:45) has five students, while the later one (10:55) has eight. The small number of students makes for an intimate environment that is more discussion than lecture, and even allows us to workshop student projects.

Before I began, I was informed that throughout the course of the year, my students would be learning about mood, characterization, and foreshadowing in their Language Arts classes. And the first week I decided to bring in Ernest Hemingway's short story "The End of Something" ( and read it to my students. We discussed how these elements, especially mood and foreshadowing, play a role in this story. I explained to my students how many times the best way to establish the mood of your story is through setting. We examined how Hemingway portrayed the town of Horton's Bay, and how its desolate and decaying descriptions foreshadow the eventual demise of Nick and Marjorie's relationship. It has been a long time since I was in eighth grade, and I wasn't sure whether or not my students would be able to pick up on some of the subtleties of the story, but of course they did so impressively. Both classes identified the mood of the story, how it plays into the story's plot and setting, and numerous examples of foreshadowing through dialogue. I then instructed everyone to do a free write where they focused on a setting in their lives that evokes within them a clear mood. I was utterly amazed with these samples of writing, and knew that it was going to be a great semester.

The second week I brought in another Hemingway story, "A Clean, Well Lighted Place" (, through which we further discussed mood, setting, and characterization through dialogue. However, the majority of the class we spent playing a writing game called Exquisite Corpse that was invented in the early 20th century by the Surrealists. In its simplest sense, Exquisite Corpse is is a method by which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled. Each collaborator adds to a composition in sequence, either by following a rule or by being allowed to see the end of what the previous person contributed. In our version, each person had to write what they felt was the exact opposite of what the person before them wrote, which was the only sentence that he or she was permitted to see. Each student started an Exquisite Corpse with a sentence of their own so at all times every student had a piece of paper in his or her hand. After each student had contributed to each Exquisite Corpse about five times, the papers were unfurled and the students read what their sentence had become. I could tell that everyone really enjoyed this fun, and often revealing, game.

This past week, the third week, we spent most of the class writing. I explained the different types of conflict at the beginning of the period (Man Vs. Man, Man Vs. Society, Man Vs. Nature, Man Vs. Himself) and emphasized the importance of conflict because it is what gives a story its momentum. After talking a little bit about the conflicts we had encountered in the two stories we had read previously, I randomly handed a yellow and purple note card out to each of my students. The purple note card had on it a random setting, and the yellow one a unique character. After receiving their note cards, I instructed the students to write a short story using the particular setting and character that they had been designated, making sure to evoke mood and characterization. I think my favorite combination was the blind homeless man named Buggs on a cruise ship docked in the Bahamas. The students wrote all period, and next week we will share these pieces as well as talk about constructing effective dialogue.

I am looking forward to it, and GO YANKEES.


Friday, October 1, 2010

The tortoise or the owl?

or, Week one: Getting to know you, getting to know all about you...

From the moment I stepped onto the Number 61 bus outside 7-Eleven in Charles Village, I knew I was in for it.

At least I'd gotten on the right bus! But I barely had time to pat myself on the back before the bus took off with a thundering lurch, slamming me into the change receptacle. I felt tiny bones in my feet cracking. I felt unbalanced, trying to feed my nickels and dimes into the tiny slot, and then I felt uncertain as I stepped away, my $1.40 deposited but no receipt in sight. And as I sat down behind the driver, I felt a green string of snot drip down my nose and balance, threatening, imminent, on my upper lip as I pulled out my phone to track my progress on the journey to Deepdene Road.

In short, it was one of my most poised, elegant, and proudest moments. I was a teacher.

In Miss Osborn's (I say again: Miss Osborn's!) class this semester, we'll be focusing on myths and fairy tales. We began with a discussion about fables: Why is a fable different from other myths? What role do fables play in our lives, as children and as we get older? What can we learn from them to apply to other kinds of stories?

Both classes really took to the idea of animals standing in for human values. Aesop's portrayal of a fox as cunning and manipulative (if not, according to some students, downright evil; a distinction I tried but apparently failed to illustrate), an owl as wise and old (like me, one student rather preemptively asserted), and a turtle as stable, slow and prudent (if a little reserved). Afterwards, I realized I'll probably fall into one of these over the course of the semester: An artful manipulator of the sixth-grade horde; a patient and wise guide or mentor (ha!); or a rolling, unstoppable force unto myself, moving us at a slow but steady pace through the western canon from Aesop to Barth.

Then we moved on to "popcorn" story-telling, an unqualified success.

The part of class I'm most excited about, though, is a little feature I like to call "Life of a Writer." At the end of every week, my students' homework is to emulate one specific trait of a writer. This week, I asked the students to "notice things" as a continuation of our popcorn story. We talked about how important little things are, the difference you can make with the details you use to paint a picture.

I wanted to, but didn't feel comfortable in the public high school setting, have them write "God is in the details!" across the tops of their folders.

Will have to come up with an alternate expression for next week.

Signing off for now, and looking forward to tell you about the no-doubt amazing (and considering this is Baltimore, bizarre and possibly unpublishable) things my sixth-graders notice,

-katie marie

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Last Day at Roland Park

I thought I was going to teach through April 27th but Ms. Saar informed me this morning that next week the students have more standardized testing. I am disappointed because I won't have the opportunity to wrap up with the group I saw last week (day B kids) and hand back their plays in person, or have the party I had planned to. Instead I am going to drop off their corrected work next week and put it in Frankie's mailbox for her or Ms. Saar to hand out, but it isn't the same. I feel like I didn't get to know that group at all and it is a real shame because there were a lot of talented kids that I would've enjoyed getting to know.

So, I said goodbye to my day A kids today. I finished reading over their 2nd drafts last night and a couple of kids really did very very well. Not only did they complete the play, but some even had time to insert stage directions. I found the work of those select students (about 4) to be very impressive because not only did they successfully complete the task by adapting a fairy tale into a play, but also they showed me their creative abilities as writers and as imaginative thinkers. One in particular sticks out to me because this student included historical content by adapting parts of her play to take place in Nazi Germany. I later learned that this student is currently learning about WWII in another one of her classes, which showcases her ability to relate material across disciplines. Another student did a very good job showing and not telling in the way he characterized his protagonist. Each play was funny and smart and I was really proud of them. Everyone showed progress on their plays between weeks, which was great, however, some of course worked more on their play/ took it more seriously than others. Ms. Saar and I decided that the plays (finished or not) would count for a homework or participation credit. I went through my comments and assigned a couple of grades to those students I felt really excelled and the rest will be awarded by the discretion of Ms. Saar.

Because it was the last day, I thought it was best to play games, so we played the game chain fairy tale that I played with the other group last week. All of the kids enjoyed themselves, perhaps a little too much since some of the stories took turns that weren't totally appropriate for school. Frankie and I did our best to censor what we could. Two of the kids (not surprisingly two of the four strongest writers in the class) came up to me at the end and wished me luck on my upcoming graduation. It was really touching. For as troublesome as they could be at times, I really do think I am going to miss coming in and seeing the kids every week.

At the end of the period I stayed a couple of minutes late to debrief the semester with Ms. Saar and with Frankie. I thanked them for giving me the opportunity to teach and for lending out not only the kids to me once a week and letting me use the resources of the classroom, but more so for their continued mentoring and support over this semester. We all agreed that future Hopkins students participating in the teaching writing program should be schedule during the fall because the freak blizzard aside, there is just way too many disruptions in the school calendar--standardized testing (Ms. Saar said they keep adding more and more exams), my spring break and their spring break--to get anything grossly productive accomplished. Nevertheless, this was a learning experience, which is what I signed up for and therefore I am satisfied with how the semester turned out. I learned how to be flexible with my lesson plans, how to reassess my goals for the semester when due to extraneous circumstances, certain things were no longer reasonable to expect, how to work with difficult children early in the morning, how to curtail certain personalities/behaviors to make them akin to the classroom setting etc. I wouldn't trade my experience at RPEMS for anything and I feel very fortunate to have participated in such a unique opportunity during my last semester at Hopkins. I am not entirely sure if I am ready to switch gears and pursue a career in teaching, but I do know that I enjoy the challenge of it and genuinely get pleasure out of being a part of the learning process.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

April 13th

I finally saw my other group of kids today!!! It had been almost a month since I had least seen them so it was great catching up on what they had been doing, how their break was etc. I started the class with a writing warm up exercise called "Chain Fairytale" where every kid starts with their own sheet of paper and in a minute writes down the beginning of a fairytale they have never read/heard of before. At the end of the minute each kid passed their sheet to the right and once again everybody had a minute to expand upon the fairytale. We did this until each kid had a chance to expand upon every fairytale but their own and then we took turns reading aloud each one. It was hilarious and a great way to start the class. They liked it so much they asked if we could do the game all over again at the end of class.

After that, I had to basically reintroduce our goal for the semester--each student writing and completing a one act play--which at this point isn't reasonable to expect due to all of the disruptions in the calendar. Nevertheless, the kids worked very hard for the rest of the period. I'm looking forward to reading them over this weekend especially since there seems to be a lot of creative writers in the group. Since I'm probably only going to see this group one more time this semester I think I am going to try to work with Frankie and make our last session a party with sharing work, playing writing games and generally celebrating both the students' cooperation as well as Ms. Saar's, through this process. I'm really sad I didn't get to spend more time with this group because I really like the students. I think if I had more time we'd really have a class set of fantastic finished products.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

week after spring break

I saw the A day kids again this week. I know how hard it is to come back to school after being on break and getting back into the working mode, so I thought we would start off the day with some "book chat" which pretty much just turned into all of the kids talking at once about their respective breaks. Not that I think they remember how our last meeting ended, but I think I am still trying to redeem myself after I came down hard on them for being disruptive and off task a couple of weeks ago.

I had marked up the papers from before spring break and I have to say I was very impressed with a couple of the plays. One girl in particular expressed to me that she writes plays on her own time outside of school, which I thought was really ambitious and cool. The majority of the kids however did struggle with writing dialogue. A lot of them were still writing in prose format, but at least everyone had an idea written down on paper. I handed back the papers and decided to stage individual conferences in the back to go over the notes I had given them, talk to them personally about their writing process, and give the kids who really care about their plays the opportunity to ask questions that they may otherwise be embarrassed to ask in front of the class. I didn't get to everybody, but those kids I did sit and talk with seemed to have a clear vision where their play was going, and appeared to be comfortable with the assignment.

The class still had some discipline problems, but in all I have to say they worked hard and I have a whole new stack of papers to look at for next time. It sounds like they want to try to do workshops, but I am not convinced that the productive time wouldn't turn into social hour so I am going to have to think about that. It is too bad because I think peer feedback could be really beneficial. I did give the kids a little incentive for finishing their plays: an end of the year open mic party where we could share/ act out some of the finished products. They liked the sound of that. Hey, anything to keep them writing, right?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Weeks 1-3

Due to all of the weather cancellations at RPEMS I've had a bit of a rocky start in the classroom. The first lesson went well--I met my B day kids and I introduced the three fairy tales we would be adapting our one act plays from, we picked apart the texts and had great class discussion. In all, I think for the first day things went very seamlessly. The kids seemed interested and I certainly was excited to return next week and give the same lesson to the other group of kids. The next week I met the A day kids and they proved to be slightly more challenging. The class is a little bit bigger and they have a lot of energy, which is really wonderful especially since a goal of this semester was to have the kids act out their own plays, but I am still learning how to bridle in that spirit so class time can be as productive as possible.

Week 2 we worked on character development and how to write believable dialogue. I gave the students a list of questions (some introspective some innocuous) just to get the kids in the mind of their character. Having them answer questions forced them to think critically about this new person they were creating and stressed the importance of knowing the character inside and out because that is what would allow the dialogue to be believable. At the end of the class period we talked about the importance of setting and its influence on the dialogue of a scene, so I chose three random situations and mixed and matched the students' characters together and had each group create a dialogue based on a situation of their choice. Some groups got to perform, which was a nice way to end the period, and I think on the whole everyone enjoyed acting/listening to the works of their peers.

This past Tuesday I taught my A day kids again so the lesson was a little rough (it was International Day at school so I think the kids were anxious to get to the festival and not extremely tuned it to our class). I started off writing down some guidelines for general play writing and then some points to keep in mind specific to writing one act plays (one location, smaller cast of characters, takes place in one day/ a definite time frame etc.) I wanted the students to use the rest of the class period to work on writing. Keeping in mind their plays would need several drafts, I thought it was time to start putting things down on paper. Needless to say a lot of the kids had issues getting started, and staying focused and on task. Behavior will be an issue for this group of kids, so I think I am going to try a new approach for my next lesson. I see the same group again right after they come back from spring break so my plan is to bring in a one act play for us to read and act out together so they understand visually what a one act play looks like/ how long it is (a lot of students thought a one act play could be completed within one page front to back). Then we'll work backwards--take the play and write a summary of it in prose form so they can understand the relationship between lines of dialogue and sentences of a story. Perhaps then they won't feel so overwhelmed writing lines of dialogue. I also think that will help ease the process of adapting a story into a play. I will also be handing back whatever they turned in to me on Tuesday, so my comments should help give them direction as well. We'll see! I'm excited to get back into things in two weeks and hope that the lesson runs more smoothly.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

november 10th

Yesterday only three members of our 6th grade class were able to come due to a 6th grade field trip, and so instead of continuing work on the fables we are having them write, we had 'book chat'. Erica and I were enlightened about the Twilight Series and Harry Potter. Next week we plan to have them finish up their fables and then we want to do the play writing activity we did with our 8th graders....
We had the 8th graders pair off into groups of two and write situations such as 'you get pulled over by a cop on the freeway' and then compose a dialogue that matched the situation. We wanted to sort of introduce playwriting and considering we were working with boisterious 8th graders it became sort of a sketch comedy hour. It was fun and they seemed to enjoy it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Week 2

I decided that the second story I brought in to read aloud should be more of a sure bet, so I broke out the Library of America's collected works of James Thurber.  In 1933 he wrote a short autobiography called My Life and Hard Times. From that I selected the Preface and a chapter called "University Days," in which the young Thurber of Ohio State struggles to see plant cells through a microscope in his botany class.   

There were many laughs, so it went well. I'm pleasantly reminded what a subtly great writer Thurber was. I framed our discussion around the relationship between humor and melancholy. They serve to support one another and prevent stories from tipping so far emotionally in one direction that their narrative no longer relates.  Sometimes you have to laugh so that you don't seem trite when you cry.  

Now, whether or not I personally have had an effect on their writing is not something I can safely say just yet, but some of the work I've received from them (I will say more in another post) has been fantastic.  It could honestly hold its own in a Hopkins workshop, which in my mind  just goes to show how great a time high school is to write, particularly for the more mature.  These students are pure personality, more comfortable in what they think than they even know, unencumbered as yet by the weight of that adult social pressure that subliminally flattens the imagination of undergraduates.  The point is, issues of presentation and technique aside, these kids can write.  

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

October 27th

Today Erica and I brought in compilation books of all the stories our students and written. We had them drawn cover pages and then typed up all their stories over the weekend and copied all of them and brought them to give to each student. We provided a bit of time at the end of class to give everyone a chance to read aloud.
Before we listened to the stories being read, Erica and I introduced our next story assignment- fables. We brought in a fable to read (we choose to bring in the story of Midas) and then had the kids discuss what a fable entailed. Then we had them break into small groups, had one student write a few sentences of a fable and then pass it to the next student who would add to it and then pass it on to the next to add to it etc, until they had created fables as a team.
After this we passed out story board so that the students could being plotting their own fables and had them give them to us at the end of the class so that we could give feedback and review them.
The students were really excited about their books and they turned out really well- Tristan let us know if you want copies, we made one for you!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Week 2

For the first week of classes I led the kids through a close reading of Junot Diaz' "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie" and a rushed-off, half-ass reading of an excerpt from Derek Walcott's "Omeros". I'm happy to say both texts seemed to strike a chord with the kids (who couldn't be more astute, engaged, and charming), and I assigned for this week a 1-2 page story about "a life more intricate than ours". I asked them to draw the narrative lens in on something to reveal its recondite life, which in hindsight was probably a bad place to start. What I got were largely essay-story hybrids, although they were by and large surprisingly inventive. Part of my goal for next week is to wean them from the essay format that high school kids instinctively turn to, where you more or less bullet-point the first paragraph and devote the rest of the piece to developing each point systematically. I explained how, in a narrative, you've got to do the opposite. Don't telegraph the story. Stick and move--drop lines that radiate meaning and say a lot by saying a little. I assigned Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" for next week, which I think will help them sort out exactly what I mean.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

First month of Teaching Writing

Erica and I are team teaching two classes at Roland Park Middle School. Our first class is a group of 12 sixth grade students, and our second is a group of about 20 eight graders.
We started out by bringing in a lightly edited for content Dave Sedaris piece, and as a group went over the way he sculpted himself as a character, and what writing techniques he used to present himself to his readers. After an in depth discussion of this we had our students write pieces about themselves and encouraged them to incorporate what they had learned from our in class discussion.
The next week Erica and I brought in a piece by a travel writer that depicted Paris in an humorous and engaging way. We went over how the author amplified the setting in his piece, and stressed the importance of a well developed setting in a fiction piece. We assigned a creative piece where the student wrote a brief story that centered around a location.
The third week we brought in 'A Tell-Tale Heart' by Poe, and then we gave the students a basic outline to assist them in writing their own ghost/scary stories. We discussed the basic elements in a stories structure (main characters, setting, plot- introduction, rising action, climax, resolution, etc) and had them outline their stories for us. We reviewed the stories and then this current week we took the entire hour to write the stories and have individual conferences with the students about their rough drafts.
Erica and I hope that the students will finish the final drafts of their stories after next weeks class so that we can take them and turn them into a book that we can give to each student to keep. We also want to have the students read the stories allowed during the class before Halloween.

BSA Week 1

Well, I taught my first two classes at BSA last Friday morning, the first one a group of about 23 and the second, around 17. These are smart, confident kids, which makes life a lot easier for me. It's something to appreciate for sure. 

I brought in a story that, if I had a mulligan, I might not have begun with: Vladimir Nabokov, "The Fight". It's an early story of his, obsessively descriptive and unconventional in its development and conclusion, but I chose it because it is a writer's story. The concept of sight, the "oculus", comes through very strongly, and I think that's important.  Nabokov could have written the whole thing in a page but instead felt (or his translator did) like using every uncommon adjective in the scribe's giant lexicon. 

The kids were split in their feelings for it.  Some found Nabokov grating, a mental image control-freak, while others loved his strangely beautiful observations, the kinds of things we realize in life, to ourselves, and never think to discuss. Like the momentary blueness that coats your vision of everything when you get out of a lake after swimming on a cloudless day. 

We talked about why writing is worth anyone's time. How it can create or repair the sense of continuity in our lives, by attesting to a former, maybe alien thought process.  I assigned them a 2-4 pg story about a fictionalized "lesson" learned in life: good, hard, deceiving, etc.  I think it's a good exercise because the form has a conclusion built into it.  I'm excited to see what they produce. 

One last note. Everyone is NICE! The students thanked me after class, said I did a good job, smiled, the whole thing was bizarre. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


The final two playwriting classes were held on April 27th and May 4th. On the 27th, Brigitte arranged for a playwright and an actor to visit the class, so Brigitte and I just sat and watched their lecture/performance. The kids really enjoyed the class because the playwright and actor read "The Cat in the Hat" as an example of an exciting story with a dramatic structure. Then they read many of the students' plays aloud and gave the students a lot of positive feedback about their work.

On May 4th, some students still were working on their plays, but I helped most of them create audio recordings of their plays. They had a lot of fun assigning parts to each other to read and speaking into the microphone.

Teaching 3rd, 4th and 5th graders this semester has been a really great experience, so it was kind of sad for me when they took all their work home.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Been a while...

Hello, strangers!
I, too, have managed to fall off the blog wagon (blogon?) but here are the updates since the last round of… well, updates.
We are working on the finalized stories that the students have been working on all semester—they’ve been writing between one to two pages per week for about 8 weeks. Which means that I have fifteen stores, running from 10 to 30 pages (over-achievers! Damn you!) to grade in, well, about a week. I probably could have thought this out better, but all the same, it’s been going really well.
In order to make sure that the students are all able to receive the same amount of attention for their work, and combating the general lack of class time we have during the year, I decided to split up my class into three smaller groups and have student-run workshops. I thought of this for two reasons: one, I’m able to bounce between all three groups and not dominate the conversation, which I feel is one of the larger drawbacks to professor-run workshops (as I have observed, this seems to promote a “follow the leader” mentality). Secondly, this peer review should be really useful for editing these stories for their eventual destination—Thomas had approached me with the hope that some of the student’s work could be published in a student literary magazine at the end of the year. For students, by students, so who would have the most valuable input than students? I ask you!
That being said, we’ve worked on the first five stories last Tuesday, and tomorrow we’re going to be working on the next round, and finally we’ll finish off on the 15th!
Oh, and a word of advice to those who would follow me as teachers: don’t let the class know you watch Gossip Girl.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Final Few Weeks!

As usual, I've been updating the blog less often than I should, but there have been a few major developments in my classes since I last wrote:

1. The anthologies are finished!! We only ended up doing it with the second class because the first class has thinned out a lot (due to restrictions on which students can come which weeks, I end up having 2-4 students per week). But as far as the second class goes, all 10 of the students submitted their letters/diaries project and a cover for their story, they came up with a team name and "About the Author" pages, and I designed a cover for the whole anthology and made copies for all of the students. At the end of class last week they got to "publish" their own anthologies (ie I brought in cheap materials to bind each of them and make them look legit and the students put them together themselves). It was a BIG hit... it took a lot of work to make it all come together smoothly, but I'm glad that we did it. (I also have some extras and I will drop one in your mailbox Tristan when I get a chance, and if anyone else would like to see them they can send me an email...)

2. They have written a few other short projects... I find that doing one short story per class holds their interest much better than having an ongoing project, and it exposes them to more challenges in terms of prompts. I do a (very) short introductory lecture suggesting ways to structure their stories in an effective manner depending on the focus for the week, and then I let them write for the rest of the time. One was a prompt where the students wrote from the POV of a superhero (previously created or newly invented) with a secret fatal flaw (ie Spiderman is actually blind and doesn't want anyone to know); another was a short story about a prank played on someone (done on April Fools Day); and last week it was a picture prompt they had to look at and then write a story explaining it or telling the story from the POV of the girl in the picture (I'm going to try to include the photo in this post.... it's quite interesting so I hope it works, the photo definitely provoked some crazy stories...)

The main motivation for the kids to finish their stories was that I would not tell them what the photo actually depicts until they had submitted their versions (if you're wondering, it was part of an opening ceremony for a festival in China... apparently they put some kids in giant "waterballs"?)

And that's about it! I have not yet graded those stories but I'll post later on what they wrote. Next week is my last class... I'm so sad that it's ending!! I've been working with the same kids for a year now so it will be a bittersweet ending to a wonderful Senior year. But I plan to bring some candy and cake and have a little party, and I'm thinking we'll spend the class doing an activity we tried in the past and they LOVED: having students come to the front of the classroom one at a time and do some improv storytelling for 1-2 minutes, and then the next student has to continue where the last left off. I really like the interaction of the students' different ideas and styles... it gives them an extra challenge to have to expand on the material their classmates have created. I'll make a short post after the class to kind of wrap up my impressions of the program and post some of the improv ideas they came up with.

And finally, I apologize if this entry seems very scatterbrained... I'm waist-deep in final term papers so my ability to write coherently has significantly diminished.

Have a good weekend everyone!

Monday, April 20, 2009


After missing two consecutive Mondays due to spring break, our class reconvened today. The students are at all stages of writing their plays. Some have finished recopying their final draft in pen, some are almost finished a first draft of their plays and a couple have written less than one page. At this point what the students get out of the class is beyond Brigitte's and my control because some of these third, fourth and fifth graders are more motivated and/or have better basic writing skills than others.

Besides spelling and grammar mistakes, one problem I saw was that the students forgot to write in stage directions. Obviously, this made it difficult to understand what was happening with only the dialogue there, but the students eventually understood the issue and made the appropriate corrections. Another problem I saw was the overwriting of setting and character descriptions. Overall, I am impressed with the elementary school students' creativity and progress, despite that they forget some of the fundamental components in plays.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


This is the first blog I've written in a while because March 16th was our Spring Break, I was sick on March 23rd and Brigitte taught the class for me and then for some reason I was unable to access the blog website. Anyway, the kids are on Spring Break today and they also were on break last Monday the April 6th, so this is a summary of how playwriting went on March 30th.

I started the class by briefly going over the different components of dramatic structure, but the students spent the rest of the class working on their plays. Some of them had started their plays at home, while some hadn’t begun to brainstorm what their play was going to be about. I read over the beginning of one girl’s play about “Animal Broadway” and a match-maker animal, who also was the director of a play. I thought it was a very cute and fairly complicated idea, though the main problem was that she forgot to add “Scene ___” when it was a new scene. The other students I helped still were brainstorming and were not staying focused until about half way through the class once they had their idea. I was a little frustrated, but eventually more and more of them separated themselves and sat at single desks, so as to concentrate better.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Week 7 (week 6 was spring break, I think

Another workshop bites the dust.
Well, it bites the dust in a good way. As in “it’s over with.” Also, again, it’s over with in a good way.
I’m really excited at how different each student’s work is from everyone else’s work. It wasn’t something I had initially noticed, even—it was something that one of my students pointed out to me when discussing the stories. I was glad, because I think that’s the true indicator that everyone is willing to go in their own directions with what they write. Though discovered inadvertently, I think this exploratory method is a better than the imitative model that’s preached in a lot of writing programs.
I doubt that comes as a shock. I’m an ideas guy, if the last 5 or so blog posts haven’t already made it clear. If the idea isn’t present and awesome in a story, then I don’t feel like reading it—it is infinitely throw-awayable (yay, make-em-up words!). So by giving my students free rein, I think they ended up doing what they thought (creatively) was the best idea they could write about, and set off in that direction.
Intro to Fiction and Poetry definitely set me (at least) in another direction. Learning the nuances of writing style certainly leaves the writer with an asset, but I think it might end up constricting creativity. Certainly, there are some great works of fiction that have beautiful writing. However, I think that by starting on this path people feel constrained about what they are able to write about with this level of prose—for example, In a lot of workshops I felt like I was taking a risk by trying to write science fiction or adventure stories. But the thing is, I think it’s a bogus expectation to want everyone to write like the love child of Kafka and F. Scott Fitzgerald (who, I’m pretty sure, actually learned his writing voice be retyping the works of Earnest Hemingway), in a world where great works of fiction are not necessarily discernable from bestsellers or Oprah’s book of the month. It’s my belief that the economic aspects of the publishing world are going marginalize works that rely on prose, rather than idea, to sell the book.
So, yeah. My class running in all kinds of directions with their writing = good. It makes it more fun for me to grade, anyways. Of course, this isn’t to say that I’m not trying to get them to tighten up their writing—that’s the majority of my feedback to them. But I’m very happy to say that there are only a few instances where the fundamental idea of a story has been challenged—which is more than I can say for a lot of my workshops, having been both on the giving and receiving end of that sort of feedback. I hope I’m able to maintain course.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Week 5

As usual, I'm a little late on updating about my class, but this post will be somewhat anticipatory anyway because most of the action will be taking place this coming Wed.

Last week I went into class with the intention of 1. finalizing plans for the anthologies the students will be creating and 2. making sure everyone was finished with their diary/letter projects and covers for these pieces so that they could all be in the anthology. The plans were to ask the students in each group what "team name" they wanted for the cover of their anthologies and how they wanted the cover to look, and then to get as many stories as possible from them so that I can make photocopies that they can bind together in class (I got some little plastic binder/publisher things).

My first class had only one student this week because others could either not leave their regular class or were not there that day (the class only has 4 students even when they are all present so it's not unusual for the first class to be quiet). The one student who was there finished her diary and together we worked out a plan for the morning group's anthology. One of the other students in that class is great at doing illustrations so I asked that word be passed along so that she could draw something for the anthology cover. I really think it will be valuable for these students to have a nice finished "published" project to bring home, especially since they already have spent last semester writing for my class. It mixes things up I think.

The afternoon class was more eventful. They were very excited about the idea of a team name (we spent the first 15 minutes of class brainstorming ideas on the board... they had lots of great suggestions but we decided on an anagram made up of each student's initials in a single word). They were so excited about the idea of the anthology that they started thinking of other ideas: an "about the author" blurb for each student, etc. I encouraged all students who wanted to do this to go ahead (but only if they were done with their piece already)... it's good in terms of timing too because I want to wait for all the students to be done with their stories so that they can all be included in the anthology, but at the same time I don't want the students who are done to be bored. However, for those who were finished with their story, their cover, AND their about the author blurb, I assigned a short challenge piece: write a short story from the point of view of a super hero, but one who has a fatal-- and secret-- flaw (ie Spiderman is actually blind and he doesn't want anyone to know but he keeps swinging into buildings and stuff).

Anyway, by the end of the afternoon class, we had come up with these -ambitious- plans for the cover of the anthology: next week I will bring a camera into class and we'll take a picture of each of the students dressed up as their story's main character (I asked them to bring their own costumes/small props in... it should be interesting, as the characters range from serial killers to video game nerd to a squid with anger management issues). I will then take the pictures and make a cover layout online that includes all of these "characters," as well as their team name, etc. Hopefully this all comes together seamlessly... its basically contingent upon all of the students having finished projects for me next week so that I can make copies of everything and the following week they can bind their anthologies and start a new project (if time permits).

This anthology thing has been a learning experience... it's definitely a lot more leg work than just coming up with topics and reading what students turn in, but as I said before, I think it would be great for these students to come out of this workshop with a concrete, professional-looking piece. One of my afternoon kids even asked if we could submit the finished project to be published... I told her I would be happy to give her the names of some publishing companies if she wanted to give it a try, so long as all the students agree they want their work submitted. But I also told her she should try some middle school writing contests instead because they may get some attention-- and even prizes-- from those sources.

Okay that's enough for today... I'll let everyone know how this whole business turns out next week.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Week 5

We did our first workshop on Tuesday.
It was a simple affair. It was a tad disheartening to learn that the majority of my students forgot to bring in enough copies of their story for students to work, but luckily there were enough student works to get through the class.
There were three students that presented on Tuesday: We’ll call them Prima, Secunda and Tertia, if only because the Charles Dodgson reference amuses me. I set up the workshop with the intention of not going through a student’s whole. Part of this was simply the short timeframe I have—If we were to workshop someone’s entire story, we might only be able to do one story a class, and I don’t have fourteen weeks to get through everyone’s work. Aside from that, I wanted to make sure that students were receiving feedback in a way to make sure they’re not shelving pages they write. One of the more annoying parts of workshopping in a Writing Seminars class is that you might write a story in one go, sit on it until you need to workshop it. I found the experience to be kind of like driving in a car at 60 miles per hour, and then slamming down on the breaks every now and again. It’s pretty choppy, and I think the story can change dramatically in a few iterations.
This is not to say that maybe a story needs drastic changing, but I was hoping to create a method of workshopping that was smoother, so students wouldn’t feel forced to changed their stories so drastically. Aside from that, I was hoping to use my class to try and change the benefit a story might receive during a workshop.
I’m only having my students workshop the first three pages of their story. I like this for two reasons—like I said, we don’t have the time to workshop full stories at this point (and we don’t happen to have full stories at this juncture), and we are able to help authors figure out where their work is going.
So, I’m working on the iceberg principle: that is, a person’s writing is synechdotal (woo, Charlie Kaufman reference! I KNEW I got out of bed for a reason today!). In seeing the first three pages of their story, the class gets a feel for how a writer is going to present a story, the perspective they’re using, the flow of information, the characterization, and some semblance of the plot. I also like the fact that the readers can’t really see where the story is going to end up, because the speculation put forward gives the authors ideas of where they could take the story, or how to tighten up their plot so as to not mislead the reader. Good times, all around.
So Prima, Secunda and Tertia got workshopped, and I’m fairly happy with the results. The only real difficulty was that the class had not been able to get advanced copies of the story, so I had each of them spend the first fifteen minutes of class reading their classmate’s work. Then, each student got ten minutes, where students talked about areas of strength and weakness. I was somewhat comforted to hear that no one had negative comments. However, the flipside was that the students might be too nervous to give constructive criticism. I’m having a bit of a conflict trying to encourage them to feel free to say what they want.
I dislike when a professor invests themselves in a workshop rather than letting students conduct it, because their words carry weight that students might feel obligated to agree with, even though they might disagree. However, based on the feedback I’ve gotten, it might be necessary to lead the discussion in order to get students to speak up. It’s something I’ll keep working on.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Baltimore City Public Schools (and almost everything else except Hopkins) were closed last Monday because of snow, so my class was canceled. This Monday we were back though and Playwriting Class was a great success! I had my 3rd, 4th and 5th graders read another play aloud, but this time I chose a children's play called "The Jade Stone." After we finished reading it, I asked the kids to raise their hands if they liked the last play we read or this play better. Initially some raised their hands for the second play, some raised their hands for both, but most decided they liked the play from the first class better. Then they thought about it a little longer and all of them said they liked the last play more. This was the response I had hoped for. I purposefully chose a play with a lot of narrators, which interrupted the action of the play, without any setting description at the beginning and without a lot of action or interaction between the characters. During our discussion I asked a few questions, but they pretty much picked up on why this was a bad example of a play and what pitfalls I wanted them to avoid once they started writing.

For the second half of the class, I gave them their first exercise in playwriting. I asked for several volunteers to come up with a setting and two characters. It turned out that the setting was a muddy backyard and the characters were a fluffy dog and an orange striped cat. Then I told them to get into pairs and to start writing a play with that setting and those characters. I made them a "Brainstorming for Playwriting" worksheet (with a cartoon thunder cloud with a face, arms and legs) to help them organize their ideas. I haven't looked over the plays yet, but it was amazing how fast they started. One of the groups was arguing a little bit and a couple other groups forgot to start with the setting description, meaning what the audience was seeing on the stage. By the time class was over, some groups had finished and some had barely started. Five of my students wanted to take their folders home because they were so excited about what they had started and they wanted to write some more. I absolutely love teaching them! It's a shame (kind of) that Spring Break is next week.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Week 4

He taught a class on point of view and perspective this week. The perspective and point of view of a story, of course, greatly changes how a story is told, from the sympathies and empathies the narrator creates to the information that the narrator is capable of releasing to the reader. Tom thought that, in explaining the advantages and disadvantages of first person versus third person limited versus third person omniscient, his students might either discover how their longer pieces might better be told, or how to change their story in order to better take advantage of the point of view they wish to write it.
Perspective is a tricky beast, and sometimes it can make or break a written work. For example, it’s really tedious and annoying when someone tries to write their blog post in the third person (solely to illustrate a point). The perspectives of a character can be very limiting for a work—or that could be to an advantage, if the genre of the work is a mystery or whodunit, like Greenmantle or The Thirty-Nine Steps. Incidentally, third person omniscient works well in some kind of holistic study of a fictional setting with lots of characters. Cannery Row comes to mind, as does East of Eden, and I’m sure that if I was literate enough I could come up with a more disparate set of examples than two works by the same author for each category.
In order to teach how stories can be influenced based on what is known and what is not known. To that end, I got REALLY bored and came up with an exercise involving a museum heist. A master thief hears that the local museum is hosting a special exhibit—a priceless Faberge Egg and, deciding he would like to celebrate his birthday in style, decides to relieve the museum of its jewel-encrusted burden. He ends up getting stuck in the museum vents overnight but, despite several glaring obstacles, he manages to get his act together, get the egg, and get out alive. Students had to take several key events from the thief’s evening and fill in what’s missing, in order to recreate the events of the evening within the thief’s perspectives.
Well, half of the students had to do that.
The other half had to write on a security guard, a tired and overworked woman who took a night job at the museum in order to pay her way through law school. She had been asked to work the day shift before her night shift and, extremely tired, underprepared for her midterm coming up next week, and really not excited to spend twenty-four hours straight guarding some gaudy egg. Besides, it’s her birthday. She wasn’t planning to celebrate with a bunch of dead stuffed animals and dinosaur bones.
With one half of the class working on the guard’s story and the other half working on the thief’s story, it came time to put them together. Splitting my class into pairs, each was instructed to inform their partner about the events of the evening. In this way, they were able to learn more about what happened during the robbery than they could by only following the story of their assigned characters. For example, each section was given a surprise that only the other knew. Those who wrote about the guard knew that, concerned for the egg’s safety, the Faberge egg was switched out with a fake one for the evening, meaning that what the thief stole was not anything of value. Those who wrote about the thief were able to figure out that the two characters were actually long-lost twins. What a twist!
The exercise was well-received, and my students said that they enjoyed this style of learning. I thought it was a success.
Next week, we’re moving on to small workshops, in order to prepare students for their full workshops at the end of term. We’ll see how it goes.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Week 3

I had asked the students to write a one page story about anything they wished. In fact, the "one page" requirement was not set in stone. I just wanted them to begin somewhere so I decided to resort to what I thought would be a good, safe, place to start: the one-pager. Many of them surprised me; they wrote complete stories. One story I found very compelling was about a man's visit to a whore house. Surely, the provocative topic kept me interested but as I kept reading it became very clear that the writing was very good. The story began with a meaphor. A metaphor that craftily linked the allure of prostitution and common childhood events. It was actually pretty damn cool. Others got more personal than I expected. Mr. Enthusiastic wrote an essay (again, I told them they could write whatever they wanted so some opted for essay-style pieces) on his bout with anorexia. Reading such a personal acocunt on male anorexia was eye-opening, especially since I usually think of anorexia as almost exclusively female. In short, some exceeded my expectations, others met my expectations, and a few went in a different direction than I had hoped - but I can't blame them since I gave them all the freedom in the world.

After reading their stories, I decided to steer them in a more "creative writing" direction. It was clear that some were already on that path but others were not. In order to get them all to start thinking about things like characterization, conflict, and plot, I went into class with Hemingway's "Hills like White Elephants." We read the story in class and discussed the obvious - but at times hidden - theme of abortion. The students agreed with me that the very simple dialogue was effective in telling a loaded story. Thomas informed me that most of the students he had taught the story to did not always pick up on the theme of abortion. My students picked it up immediately - I guess they really are as smart as I have always thought.

For next week (actually, in two weeks - the students have a half day next week), I have asked the students to take two characters from their "one-pagers" and create a dialogue between them in the spirit of "Hills." Some of the stories had no characters or only one character; I have asked those students to create two new characters who have a dialogue that is either based on their one-pagers or revolves around a whole new story. This time, I stressed that the dialogue be only one page because we're going to workshop them in class. Forty minutes goes by so quickly; if we have to workshop anything longer than one page we will never move on to creating longer pieces.

One last point: it seems like the students really care about what they are writing. After class, one student came up to me and wanted to talk about how she could make her story better. It turned out that I had improperly interpreted her story. The world she had created in her story was supposed to be an alternate one - that was not clear. I really want to be able to have one on one discussions with the students because it seems like they have really cool ideas but need more focused help expressing them in clear and still creative ways. I am still thinking about a way to be able to do this in the alloted time while keeping others occupied.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Week ?

So I am finally posting in the Teaching of Writing Blog. The reasons for my absence thus far have been 1. half forgetting the existence of the blog and 2. we got off to a very late start (but mostly #2). So having only held two classes so far, I feel that even though we are a good month into the semester, I am not a complete failure for taking this long to post...

Anyway. I am teaching the same kids this semester as I did last time, two groups of VERY bright 6th graders. I was thrilled to have the chance to work with the same kids because I had already done all the work of getting them hooked on the program (they were just as excited to come back as I was), and I had also had a chance to see their work/assess their skill level, which was a big factor in choosing assignments and planning my lessons. Last semester we went over concepts like plot and character development and did a few projects (some small, some large), but we spent the most time on the ghost stories (for Halloween) and on another project where they chose the topic/genre. I was blown away by what they submitted (everything from an entire notebook filled with a single story to a short piece about Dr. Suess characters who live in a box and are trying to get a paycheck from their boss, the Cat in the Hat), but I was posed with a challenge this time around: where to go now?

I decided, when we finally got a chance to hold our first class, that since they had had an opportunity to write stories on a topic I provided and also on a topic of their own choice, I would give them something in between: I went into the first day of the second semester planning to assign a project where they could choose their own topic/voice, but they had to use a defined structure. They could choose between writing a story through diary entries or through letters between two or more people and/or creatures (with emphasis on the creatures... I completely encourage their desire to write from the POV of fleas/paperclips/Dr. Suess characters/Freddy Krueger sp?, etc).

But when they came into class two weeks ago, they were way ahead of me. A group of students in the second class informed me that they had spent their lunch period brainstorming ideas for their new stories, and they wanted to write the "confessions of a video game addict," among other diary-based ideas (this before I even shared my plan to do diaries/letters).

Perfect! Write away, I told them.

So they got started, some working alone and others (by request) in groups. I actually thought it would add a new dimension to the writing experience if they worked in groups... personally I hate having to compromise with other people about how I will write my story, but I'm glad they wanted to. I just asked that each person do at least one letter/diary entry on their own and put their name on it, so I could be sure that everyone had contributed to the content.

The project was a big hit. During the second week they continued/finished their first pieces. These included letters back and forth between the serial killers Freddy and Jason (from Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween movies), the video game addict piece, and other crazy-creative ideas. I can't wait to read all of them... I'll post some of the highlights next time (but I promise not to post any names this time, even if I am singing their praises :) ).

Finally, I asked each of the students to come up with some cover art for their diaries/letters (either by making it look like an authentic diary in which someone/something confided its deepest, darkest secrets, or by just illustrating the cover with images related to the story). My plan for the next week or two is to collect all of the cover art and make color copies for each student (as well as copies of each of the stories), then bring in some materials to make their own anthologies (since the anthologies never really happened last semester). That way, everyone could have a bound edition with all of the diary covers encasing all of the stories, which they can keep as their first "published" piece and can show off to their parents, etc. As always, any student that does not want to share their work does not have to, and if they don't want their story/art in the anthology that's completely ok. I just ask that each student submit a copy to me so that I can give some comments back to them, but their work will remain unread by other students.

And there you have it: my update on the semester thus far (though it has only been two weeks in which the class actually met so you can expect more rapid development in future). Hopefully all will go well with my plans for this anthology... I don't expect any trouble as far as submissions/content go because all of these kids are very talented writers and always do their assignments (many taking extra time to do them outside of class as well), but in terms of the whole binding thing in class... we'll just have to see.

Oh, and I think I'm going to ask each class to come up with a name for themselves (like a team name), which I'll use to design a cover for the whole diary collection/anthology... suggestions would be appreciated.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Week 3

It all starts with a sentence.
That’s the common ground between Daniel Defoe and Dan Brown. Well, some stories might start off with a sentence fragment, or maybe a picture, or a list, but still. The shape of the starting sentence is one of the truest determinants for the story that follows—and, if it does not directly inform the style and approach of the following writing, it is most certainly interrelated.
The opening, of course, is the dangerous part of a story—it’s the make-or-break, the Thermopylae (a pox on your house, 300, for cheapening a generation of Thermopylae references!) where the massed expectations of the reader clash against a finite expanse of words. The opening is what tends to be the most remembered the window into the narrative of the world created by the author. If it smells bad, the reader will stay away. If it is intriguing, then the reader will stick around and read.
I’ve been fascinated by the power a plot can gain or lose by its beginning. A lot of times, especially when people are discussing movies, you’ll hear them say something like “well, it was kind of slow at the beginning, but it really picked up.” My immediate response is that the story would have been put down if it was a book or a magazine. Four years of writing has taught me that the difference between the good starts and the bad starts are the difference between the quick and the dead. This is not to say that good beginnings are those that are literally “quick” or speedy (though I think Calvino wants to reign in here at some point—rest assured, there’s only one incoherent and rambling discusser-of-writing operating in this particular blog post), or, I am obliged to admit, that bad beginnings are literally “dead.” It’s all about the control of information.
In class, I provided them with a hands-on example. Having compiled a list of sentences selected by my students, I created a randomized list. Essentially, one student wrote a sentence, and then turned it into me—I gave that sentence to another student. These selections became the first sentences of an exercise that the students had to complete. I have to say, I got quite a mixed bag of submissions—sentences ranging from the purposefully vague to the packed-with-detail, with content that ranged from dietary problems to racism from unexpected sources. Of course, this kind of mix was what I wanted. Taking sentences from people and giving them entirely different subjects in return seemed like a good way to expand what the students would be willing to write about, and also challenged them to write about something outside of their comfort level.
After given time to elaborate on their sentences, I had the students read aloud their concluding sentences, to get an idea of whether the story flowed from A to B. This was mostly the case, but sometimes, it wasn’t—a lot of this was the result of having sentences that were vague or short. And those results weren’t negative results—quite the opposite, it demonstrated how vague opens (I suppose you could call them ‘cold opens’) offer a degree of freedom in choosing the parts of the story that followed. I had two examples that were brought up in class to illustrate this point:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
By the way, don’t ask me what A Tale of Two Cities is about. I’m the most illiterate literate person I know. However, I think that illustrates the point of the open—it’s very memorable, but the story that follows from it is not clear. What times? What’s best? What’s worst? Who knows. Who cares (well, presumably the people that read past this line—I was not one of them)?

The other example”
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
Granted this is about the same as a “Once upon a time”, and in that I think it gains some recognition in that sense, but it also lets the viewer know that the movie they’re about to see is a tale. It’s the call to suspend disbelief, indicating the other-worldly setting in a way that is both assertive, but not alienating. I think it works really well.

My students said they weren’t necessarily used to the subjects they were writing about, and, as such, hesitant, but their ability to do the work is an important step in getting creative experience. And that they did it so well makes me excited at their ability to meet the challenges I can dish out—as a responsible teacher, of course.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Week 2

I plan on giving them a short story to read every week. This week, I gave them Italo Calvino's "The Adventure of a photographer." It's one of my personal favorites and I wanted to introduce them to Calvino. None of them knew who he was; it was nice to be able to introduce them to one of the best.

After telling them a little bit about Calvino, we spent the rest of the class talking about the opening line, "the hook". I first read them the opening line of a novel by Tsitsi Dangarembga, a writer from Zimbabwe. Her novel, "Nervous Conditions," opens: "I was not sorry when my brother died." I think this line epitomizes the hook. It is interesting, troubling, puzzling, inquisitive, and every other word that describes a sense of mystery. I explained what I thought the hook was - a line that immediately draws in the reader. We then read the first line of "Photographer" together: "WHEN SPRING comes, the city’s inhabitants, by the hundreds of thousands, go out on Sundays with leather cases over their shoulders." We compared the two lines and concluded that Calvino's was less of a hook than Dangarembga's. Interestingly, Dangarembga's begins a novel and Calvino's begins a short story. I explained to the students why I found this interesting. Correctly or incorrectly, I usually think that hooks are more useful in short stories. Because short stories are usually twenty pages or less every line must be evocative, especially the first line. Short stories don't have the luxury to be 200 or so pages; for this reason, the sooner the writer can set up a conflict, the better. I think the students agreed - they nodded enthusiastically.

I then read them the first line of Gloria Naylor's "Mama Day." She begins, simply, "Willow Springs." I intentionally chose this book because I wanted to also tell them that sometimes your first line is nothing without your second, and that's ok. Because when Naylor goes on to write: "Everybody knows but nobody talks about the legend of Sapphira Wade," she introduces the relevance of Willow Springs and makes the reader very interested in the story she's about to tell.

My goal with this lecture was to give them an elementary place to start. I don't believe that every short story must start out with a hook; in fact, Calvino's doesn't and the story is one of my favorites. I encouraged them to go for the hook because it is a good, safe place to start. It sets up a possibly interesting narrative, even if it ends up going nowhere.

I had asked them to write one pagers for this week. I asked each of them to read the first lines of their stories. We discussed each line after it'd been read and I think the students really understood what I was trying to get through to them. Their comments were very informed and very thoughtful. We got through only five of the stories. They were all pretty damn good. There was not a single story I was not interested in. I am yet to read them...I will have more to say about their first writing assignments next time.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Week 2 2/17/09B

So, I guess the worst has happened. I had asked them to write one-page stories the first week, so that we could use them to workshop. I had asked them, on the first day, if they were nervous about workshopping their stories; a good number of them said yes. I wanted to use these stories to show them it wasn't so scary, and also to guide them into realizing what kinds of comments were useful and what really wasn't. 

But none of them wrote the stories. 

I guess that was my fault, I guess I wasn't clear. I thought I was clear, but I guess by the frantic gasping I received in response to my asking them for their stories I was not. Okay, fine. I'm not angry. I'm still learning. Dear class: I am not staring at you in anger, I am staring because I have no idea how I'm going to fill the next 45 minutes! 

Yeah. I set them to writing a quick exercise--I like having them do these, as 'warm-ups'; a concept that I think as actors and musicians and dancers they appreciate--while I tried to figure out what I was going to do.

Luckily I had some flash fictions that we hadn't read last week that we "workshopped." They really enjoyed it, it seemed. Hopefully they are less afraid. Unfortunately, I think we're going to skip workshopping their one page stories--I will collect them and give them feedback, hopefully the combination of feedback and a practice workshop will encourage them to feel comfortable sharing. 

Monday, February 23, 2009

Playwriting- Day One

After some initial miscommunication between our program and the school and then missing the next week due to President's Day, Brigitte and I finally started teaching the Playwriting Class to 3rd, 4th and 5th graders. About fifteen kids--mostly girls--showed up on the first day, though apparently there'll be a few more next time. They were really cute and they seemed really excited about being in the class. We started off the class by giving them folders, having them write their name, grade, favorite subjects and what types of stories they like on a flashcard and then asking them to read what they wrote down to the class. I explained that they were practicing reading aloud because plays are built on dialogue between characters and they would be reading aloud each other's work.

After that, we read a short play "Who Wears the Necklace Now," which was based on a Kenyan folktale. I assigned parts and the readers--that included almost everyone in the class--sat in chairs in the front of the room. It took a lot longer to read the play than I thought, but they definitely had fun. Several of them really got into reading their parts. The girl who read for the antelope was sad after we finished because the antelope was tricked and then was eaten by the hyenas. I think I cheered her up a little when I told her that it was just a play and that she read the part really well.

Anyway, we ended by breaking the class into two discussion groups, one led by me and the other led by Brigitte. In our group we talked about what they thought of the play, which characters were good and bad and why, what the characters were trying to achieve, the format of plays, and the setting. One girl asked when we were putting on the play, so I said we would be writing our own plays instead. I guess she didn't realize what playwriting meant, but she got really excited and started telling me about how she comes up with play ideas all the time when she plays with her toys.

I really enjoyed the first day of teaching. Everything went pretty smoothly and the kids were well-behaved and enthusiastic.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Week 2- 2/17/09

This week, Tom Murphy squared against the most powerful and unexpected opponent he had and ever would face: time itself. Seriously, forty-five minutes seems so short on the teaching side of things. Clearly having three-hour classes at JHU has cheapened my sense of time. That being said, this week seemed entirely clipped. I suppose the only solution is to teach at hyper-relativistic speed.
This week in class, I had the students read “The Last Question,” a story by Isaac Asimov, which details the history of mankind from 2061 to about the time when all the energy in the universe has been expended (some trillion years down the line). It’s a fascinating story, in my opinion, if only because it spans an inconceivable amount of time and space in about 10 pages. And that’s what I tried to emphasize to my students: the scope (or lack thereof) available to writers in short fiction. Last week, we read “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, which, in three pages, covered a man’s errand-filled afternoon. Asimov takes us beyond that and bounds within ten pages something that is, theoretically boundless—that is, the progression of time. I think it’s a neat juxtaposition of how a short story can exhaust a time-span of three hours, or paint a suitable portrait of millions of years of history.
The net goal of this is to instill the students with the idea that they can write about anything and everything, that the length of a story does not determine its content.
Aside from length, there was another aspect of “The Last Question” that I thought deserved examination by new writers. Essentially, this story lacks a single, coherent character—covering the span of time that it does, it would have been difficult for Asimov to have provided us with one—and it examines a single phenomena repeatedly, using different subjects and different backdrops. And yet, it still works as a story—and these quirks make it significantly more read-worthy (in my humble opinion) than other stories that rely on more conventional storytelling.
The lesson: Get out of the box!
I was discussing with One Of The Other Teachers (anonymity, while probably not necessary, seems proper) on a subject related to this. That is, I was hoping that, in the stories that I provided for my students, they might intuit that a story grabs at the reader more effectively (sometimes generally, oftentimes in my experience) if it is more creative. We all have lives, and we all can only see the world as we see it. However, I think one of the biggest failings that all writers make is that they stick too close to home in their first attempts at writing. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, and we have all done it. At some point in our lives we’ve had a detail of our story called out and our single, obvious response has been, “But that’s what happened.” As if that means anything.
And on top of it, these stories can, well, be boring. I’ve said as much, and definitely been told as much, and even though our lives may be mired with quirks and “fascinating” events, that probably isn’t going to translate well. My solution as a teacher: get my students to avoid it.
In contrast to this argument, I have been told by a Nameless Professor that anything is entertaining if the writing is done well enough. That may be so. And, though I am inclined to ask, “What is the color of the sky in your world, Nameless Professor?” I would say that there’s a fair response to Nameless Professor’s claim. Young writers and students of writing may not find their writing voice for years. Writing is clearly an iterative process, and when you start, you start with, essentially, nothing. However, if the subject is something well-thought out, and creative, then the writing of a story might not become the central highlight. In fact, whenever I read something, the subject is what I am most concerned with. It is only in an academic reading that I bother to judge the merits of writing (the exception, of course, being when writing is abysmally poor).
But that’s what I’m trying to get these kids to do. And, hopefully, I can see these ideas take fruit next week. Because we’re going on to workshoppin’!