Abiding images

Last week I spent several days on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, studying writing with teaching colleagues from across the state.  This extraordinary opportunity was provided to us by the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching – heartfelt thanks to you, NCCAT, for your support of teachers, and for inspiration at a time when it is needed more than ever.

Ocracoke is, in the words of our faculty advisor, who’s native to the island, “a windy, sandy, watery place.” It’s also tiny and breathtakingly beautiful. One of our assignments was to capture abiding images from this idyllic locale in our writer’s notebooks.

Abiding images are symbols with deep personal meaning to us, often recurring, according to dream analysts. Abiding images are part of us, shaping our lives the way the wind and the water continuously shape this island. To poets and writers, abiding images come from a wellspring inside us – stories, dreams, conscious and unconscious memories – each as unique to us as our own fingerprints.

Our task was to walk in this brine-tinged breeze, under the moody sky, without speaking to one another. We were to walk alone, searching for the images that speak to us.

I prefer to think of it as being called by the images that wish to speak to us.

The long beach grass rippled like hair against the ground; the sea, shimmering and calm on the Pamlico Sound side, flowed ceaselessly from left to right like words across a page. Come, was the inherent, compelling invitation. Come. Listen to me. I have stories to tell.

I filled seven pages with abiding images and took pictures of a few.

There were the pink wildflowers, startlingly bright against the beach grass. Marsh pinks, they’re called. Sabatia stellaris. Our advisor said for anything to survive on the island, it must be hardy, yet here were these delicate flowers with perfect yellow stars in the center, as if painstakingly hand-painted by an artist. Incongruous. Surprising. Hopeful, somehow, for these flowers carry the mark of the heavens in their upturned faces.

I came across some shells by a small hole in the sand, out of which grew a thin, solitary blade of grass. No other grass stood anywhere near this one long, lonely strand, this one hair from this one follicle. There are secrets in the sand, the advisor told us. So much more goes on in it and below it than we really know. 

This curious wisp of grass shivers, nods.

I walk farther and discover the ivory-yellow skeleton of . . . something. I don’t have a frame of reference for it, other than knowing it’s a bone, something once alive. It worries me. I want to know what creature it was and why it’s here in such pristine condition, with no other marks in the sand near it in this isolated spot. How long has it been dead?

I learn later that it’s the skull – just the skull, although it’s the size of a chicken – of a red drum. North Carolina’s state fish.

I still don’t know why it was lying there all by itself.

The last of my abiding images is at the marina in front of the NCCAT building, which used to be the old U.S. Coast Guard lifesaving station. As I turn to go back inside, I encounter a rusted handle quite suddenly in the sand near the marina’s edge. It’s sticking upright, clearly attached to something buried there, and it’s obviously been around a long time. What’s THIS secret hidden in the sand? I don’t tug on the handle, although I want to; I imagine pulling it and a door coming forth from the sand to reveal an opening with stairs leading down to . . . anywhere. A bunker, a secret gathering place, another world, another time. Oh, the stories this strange handle evokes!

Perhaps I will write one of them yet.

For now, the images abide in my notebook and in my mind; they shape me, even as I shape my thoughts about them. I carry them with me while I leave a piece of my heart, perhaps a piece of my soul, behind with them.

We belong to one another. That’s what I think as the sun goes down over the Sound, as I hear boats over in the marina rocking as if they are waking from a long sleep, coming back to life.

We abide.

 

Sunset Pamlico Sound

Sunset on the Pamlico Sound.

In reading and in writing, our instructors told us, “Setting is everything. It drives the story, drives the characters’ actions.” 

The hallway

Hallway

Hallway. DSC_003. ColinCC-BY

A large part of my job involves helping teachers and students grow as writers. I often define writing workshop as an artist’s studio, a place with time to fall in love with the craft of writing.

As I consider my own writing experiences, the image of a hallway forms in my mind. I am actually in this hallway. I can see numerous doors, one of which stands partially open, and through it I can see a window, and beyond that, trees, bright in the golden light of afternoon, probably in late spring or early summer. The branches sway in a breeze, making the leaves dance and beckon, but there is no sound, not from this vantage point. I would have to go through the door and open the window, probably, to hear the rustling, the insects, the birds, to feel the sun’s warmth and taste the laziness of a free afternoon – if, in fact, the afternoon is lazy and free, as it seems to be from where I stand.

Other doors are closed, and knowing that I can open any of my choosing sends a compelling shiver through me – each door leads to a different place, experience, and story. They are all mine to explore, at my leisure. I will never know what’s behind the doors unless I go and open them. Some lead to the past – when I walk through, I can see my family, some of whom are gone now but alive and remarkably young in this place.  They don’t seem to mind at all when I come – in fact, they seem to welcome my visit the same as they always did. If I go farther, I see old friends, classmates, even people I didn’t know well but who are somehow connected to an idea, a moment in time when I learned something or realized that something mattered. My childhood dogs bounce up at the makeshift gate between the kitchen and the living room in their typical greeting; I smell cigarette smoke, the old Kirby vacuum cleaner, the old worn rug; fried chicken also lingers in the air. But I do not want to stay and wander like a ghost here in my childhood home. I can come back another time, anytime I like.

Behind other doors are chairs where I rocked my babies. Here I sit with their soft warmth in my arms, their fuzzy heads nestled against my neck. I feel them breathing, slow, easy, contented in their slumber. I can stay here a while and just be, just rocking, holding one boy for a long time and then the other. I can see them when they are a little older, one always chipper and friendly, the other absorbed in his own thoughts, spending hours lining up his Hot Wheels or taking things apart to put them back together. They are safe and well in this place, so I will leave them here, after I kiss their satin-soft cheeks once more and tell them that I will always love them.

Other doors, I suspect, lead to worlds that I can still create, both real and imagined. I can only see so far in the future; only some things are certain and I will alternately face them and embrace them as they come. I could linger far too long in the imagined worlds, just to see what will happen, to discover the secrets and the magic, knowing all is of it is at my command.

I am surprised by the door that opens straight into the natural world. I have discovered this about myself, that the workings of nature have a strong pull for me. Some of the discoveries are breathtaking, like the iridescence of a dragonfly’s body, the precise blue and orange painted pattern down a caterpillar’s back, the powerfully sweet fragrance of a gardenia, of honeysuckle, and the tiny war-plane drone of a hummingbird’s wings. Others discoveries are not nearly as pleasant – a horseshoe crab decaying on the beach, a tobacco worm (a non-native North Carolina neighbor recoils in horror – “Is that a dragon?“) crawling on my porch rail, a scar on the wood trim by the roof where lightning struck the house. Not pleasant, but fascinating all the same. I had no idea until I started writing that nature spoke so much to me – just now, as I capture these words, the sun bursts forth from behind the clouds beyond my bay window, shining on the laptop and my hands as I type, like a validation, an invocation.

Other doors lead to mysterious places like cemeteries, where time is irrelevant. I don’t know these people, but I look at the stones, the names, the dates; I read the poems on the older, eroding ones, and I want to know: Who were you? What were you like? What was your life like, what did you love, and how did you die? What’s your story?

The most curious thing of all about this silent hallway is that whichever door I open, in whatever order, wherever I go and however far or for however long, I find myself there. Myself as I was, as I am, as I will be.

I give myself a nod.

And I write.

 

Tripping the write fantastic

Fantasy

Fill your life with love. Dianne LacourciereCC BY-SA

Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable. – Carl Jung

Her teacher sent her to me, to confer about her writing.

Not because the student is struggling.

The student, a fifth-grader, had written twenty pages of complex plot and extraordinary dialogue that revealed character personality and motivation.

“It’s amazing,” explained my colleague. “Out of the blue, she’s just taken off. I thought you could give her some pointers – her story is really good.”

The student, delighted at the prospect, immediately sent her work to me via Google Docs. Here are things I am thinking about, her message stated. She’d made notes about characters, problems with the story line, where she wanted to go with certain parts.

For a moment I felt transported to the future, as if I were an agent or editor receiving book ideas from an established author.

I read the work, praising the strength of the writing on sticky notes: Powerful, believable dialogue! and Excellent descriptive detail – I can “see” this scene vividly.

I looked for a couple of major areas to improve – only a couple – and they had nothing to to with spelling, format, or conventions at this point. The pressing thing at the moment was keeping those rich ideas flowing and clarifying this young writer’s meaning in some spots.

The child, beaming, comes to confer with me at the appointed time.

I sit beside her at my table:

“Ok, I have to know what inspired you. Clearly anyone who writes this much and this well – this dialogue is better than what I’ve seen some adults write! – is very inspired.”

Giggles ensue. “Well, it started with the fantasy writing unit in class. I got this idea of a girl who went back in time to the days of slavery. I am bad at history” – more giggles – “but that time period interests me, especially since my teacher read Chains to the class. That book made me want to go back in time and rescue some of those people, so that is what my main character will do. And she will meet her great-great-great grandmother.”

“That,” I say reverently, “is a story a lot of people might like to read.”

She goes on to share additional ideas that she got from other books like Serafina and the Black Cloak. 

As she speaks, I mentally toast the power of the read-aloud and student-selected texts.

To the student, I say: “Let’s go over what you’ve done here.”

I explain that switching narrators and times is using multiple story lines – “very advanced,” I tell her.

She grins.

I show her places where she lost me: “This is called a plot hole. You know what’s in your head and what you mean to say, but you jumped too fast and lost your reader.”

She nods. “Yes, I see that now.” We discuss ways she might want to fix it.

Off she goes.

That night, the Google Doc returns with revisions and questions.

Today she appears in my room, announcing: “I rewrote the entire first chapter. I felt that readers needed to know a little more about my main character’s life and her family in order to get the rest of the story.”

“Ah,” I reply, “exposition and backstory. That will help your readers.”

We look at the changes together.

“What we have to watch now is your pacing. Don’t spend too long on the beginning or you’ll lose readers – they want to know where this is going, so you want to speed up the less important parts and slow down at the more important ones.”

“And watch for plot holes,” she laughs.

“Indeed,” I smile.

Her ideas come fast and furious, and before we know it, time is up. As she turns to leave, she asks: “When is the next time we can meet?”

My turn to laugh. “Ask your teacher.”

At the end of the day, I return to my room to find a folded paper on my table – a schedule for when she can confer with me every day through the rest of the year.

I think of J.K. Rowling, who said that the idea of a boy wizard fell into her head on a train ride, when she had nothing to write on.

I think of C.S. Lewis, how an image of a faun carrying Christmas presents in the snow popped into his mind.

I think of Suzanne Collins, who grew up on her father’s stories about the effects of war.

I think of my young writer’s inspiration, and how fantasy and fairy tales help us work through the problems of the real world.

I recall telling my young writer: “Stick with it. You will be a famous author one day. I’ll come to your book signings.”

Giggling, she’d replied: “And you will be my famous helper.”

I look at the little conferring schedule in her handwriting, and smile.

We are tripping the write fantastic, she and I.

 

slice-of-life_individual

 

The brain and story

 

Ghosts in hall

Ghosts in the hall. Rachel TitirigaCC BY

My mother-in-law had a stroke one week ago today.

At ninety-one, she came through emergency surgery astoundingly well. In ICU, she was happy to see her children and grandchildren, called them all by name, told everyone how shocked she was that she’d had a stroke. As I greeted her, she held out her hand to me and said, “Hey, you’ve got a birthday this weekend.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, in wonder.

“I haven’t forgotten,” she said, holding tight to my hand.

In the hospital and rehab, she has remained lucid, talking about books, authors, politics, and traveling she wants to do.

So when she occasionally asks, “Hey, little boy, what are you doing over there?” when no little boy is present, or “Who’s that standing behind you?” when no one is, the family gets anxious.

The physician explained: “It’s her brain at work – partly because of the area affected by the stroke and partly due to her declining vision. When she doesn’t immediately understand what she sees or what’s happening, her brain supplies the story, to make sense of it.”

I hung on every word, thinking: The power of story is profound. It’s more than reading or writing. It’s who we are, how we are wired. 

Both Scientific American and Big Think explain: “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” Our ability to solve problems, the scientists say, is tied to our understanding of story: “Perhaps story patterns can be considered another higher layer of language.”

Fascinating, isn’t it, that story is where science and the humanities meet.

Story is the essence of being human. It’s how we make sense of the world and our place in it. Story is how we attempt to understand who we are, and how we stretch the boundaries of possibility and our humanity, by imagining more: “What if . . . .”

As an educator, the visit with my mother-in-law could not have been a more striking reminder that story is critical to student learning and growth. It’s not so much the types of texts that students read, but their interpretations, their stories, about the texts that matter – and that for students truly to be critical thinkers and problem-solvers, they must go beyond synthesizing and responding to what others have written. They must look within and generate their own stories. To not do so is to hamper human nature, to not meet an intrinsically human need – and to starve the human brain.

slice-of-life_individual

 

Come SWiRL with me

SWiRL

Our Literacy Lunch team’s T-shirt design

Q: What’s a fun way to engage families in English Language Arts activities with their children?

A: Have a Literacy Lunch!

Every year, families look forward to Literacy Lunch at our school. It’s one of our best-attended events.

Our theme this year, “Come SWiRL with Me,” centered on the facets or domains of language: Speak, Write, Read, Listen (we added the “i” to the SWRL acronym to make a real word), as speaking, writing, reading, and listening comprise the ELA standards and language skills needed across all disciplines.

So, grade levels came up with activities that encompassed all elements of SWRL. Some included poetry, in recognition of National Poetry Month.

 

Spring poems 1st

First graders wrote spring poems with families, to read aloud. Second graders wrote “I wish” poems.

Swirl poem 4th

Fourth graders composed “swirl” poems with families.

Book tasting 5th

Fifth graders treated parents to a “book tasting.”

Wax museum 3rd

Third grade’s wax museum: Meet Woodrow Wilson, Frederick Douglass, and Jackie Robinson. Visitors pressed a “button” to hear the historical figures speak. This was the culmination of a biography writing unit.

After the in-class activity, families went to the cafeteria:

SWiRL - Cafe

All ready for families to eat together – and to write on the tablecloth.

The children seemed to enjoy writing on the paper tablecloths at lunchtime the most – at the end of each lunch, tablecloths were covered with messages and small sketches. One carefully crayoned note from a first grader: “I love you.” Underneath, the neat printing of a parent: “I love you, too.”

Upon exiting, parents gave feedback: They were in awe of the artwork,  fascinated by the children’s ideas and their creative expression. One parent commented: “Public speaking is VERY IMPORTANT!” Another parent, after attending kindergarten’s renditions of reader’s theater, wrote: “I’ve seen so much improvement in my son’s writing and speaking.”

Perhaps most telling is this comment, one frequently echoed throughout our years of Literacy Lunches: “Thank you for this special time with my child.”

Speak, write, read, and listen well, for words are important.

So is time.

SWiRL table

Reflect: What message do you need to communicate to someone today? Make time.

 

The escape artist

Yellow parakeet

Yellow parakeet. IMG_3172. lobo325CC BY

Yesterday’s post, Just the Right Word, was about writing realistic fiction with a third grade class. I modeled taking an event from one’s one life – a slice of life – to create a work of fiction. As a child, I had a yellow parakeet that frequently escaped his cage (the part about the window in this story is true!). “The Escape Artist” was composed over the course of several days with the class making suggestions during the process, some of which strengthened the story profoundly.

Enjoy. 

Tweety Bird sat inside his cage on his swing, rocking back and forth. He lifted one yellow wing, preened it, fluffed all of his yellow feathers, and went back to swinging.

As if he didn’t know Jake was watching.

“You don’t fool me, Bird.”

Tweety blinked his purple eyes at Jake and kept on swinging.

“Jake,” Mom called from the kitchen, “Did you get the mail for me like I asked you to?”

“No, ma’am,” Jake replied. “I’ll go now.”

As Jake left the living room, he turned back toward the birdcage. He shook his finger at Tweety:

“You better stay put. I’m going to figure out how you keep escaping from your cage.”

With that, he walked through the front door.

As soon as the door closed behind Jake, Tommy popped up from behind the sofa. He was wearing his Batman costume, mask, cape, and all.

Tommy looked to the left.

He looked to the right.

Tommy snuck very Ninja-like over to the cage.

“Don’t worry, Robin,” Tommy whispered to Tweety Bird. “I’m here!”

Tweety Bird chirped happily.

Tommy reached for the door of the cage just as the front door opened and Jake walked back into the living room.

“The mail truck is on its way down the street … HEY! TOMMY! WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING!”

Tommy twirled around and hurtled himself in one motion over the top of the sofa. He crashed onto the floor on the other side.

“Uggghhhh,” came Tommy’s voice from behind the sofa.

Jake stomped over to the couch. “You little dirtbag! You’ve been letting Tweety out this whole time and I thought he was doing it all by himself. Some mystery!”

“Acckkk…” groaned Tommy. “I think I hurt myself.”

“I don’t care!”

“And I haven’t been letting him out ALL the time. Sometimes Robin gets out by himself,” said Tommy, beginning to cry.

Mom, with her radar-hearing for crying, came into the living room from the kitchen.

“What’s going on in here?” she demanded, with her hands on her hips.

Tommy wailed louder. “I’m HHHUUUUURRRRT!”

Mom stepped over to Jake. “What did you do to your brother?”

“I didn’t do anything to him!” shouted Jake. “I caught him trying to let Tweety out of the cage! He’s been doing it all along!”

“Tommy, is this true?” Mom asked the sofa. “Have you been letting Tweety out of his cage?”

Loud sniffles echoed behind the sofa. “Maybe once or twice … and he’s not Tweety, he’s Robin!”

“He’s Tweety, you bonehead!” Jake rolled his eyes.

“Jake!” Mom snapped. “You used to like make-believe, too. Besides, Tweety – or Robin – has gotten out of the cage when you boys are not home, so it’s not always Tommy letting him out.”

Mom shoved the sofa over and pulled Tommy out from behind it. “Come on, let’s go have some cookies and milk, Batman. You too, Jake.”

Just as they turned toward the kitchen, a scratching sound came from the birdcage.

They turned back.

Right before their eyes, Tweety, clinging to the bars on the front of the cage, used his beak to lift the cage door so that it fell open.

Tweety looked to the left.

He looked to the right.

And he flew out of the cage!

“Fly, Robin, fly!” screamed Tommy, jumping up and down, his Batman cape flapping.

“Jake!” cried Mom. “Go grab a dishtowel! We have to catch Tweety!”

Jake ran for the towel. He came back and threw it at Tweety, who was squawking madly and flying back across the room in confusion. The towel landed on Mom’s head.

Tommy ripped off his cape – Jake could hear the Velcro – and swiped at Tweety, who was now flying rather low. Tommy missed. Feathers floated through the air as Tweety flew high again.

Jake stared as Tweety flew as hard as he could across the living room, right toward the huge picture window with a view of the trees in the front yard.

Oh no, Jake thought, he doesn’t know that’s a window! He thinks he will escape to the outside!

Just then, Tweety smacked into the window with a sickening SPLAT. He slid down the glass and landed on the floor.

“NO!” shouted Jake!

“Tweety!” cried Mom.

“ROBIN!” screamed Tommy.

All three of them rushed over to Tweety’s crumpled yellow body.

Tweety’s eyes were closed.

He’s broken his neck, thought Jake. Hot tears stung his eyes.

Then he noticed that Tweety had opened one purple eye.

“Robin, you’re all right!” shouted Tommy, jumping up and down.

“Shhh, let’s be calm and quiet,” said Mom. Very carefully, she picked Tweety up.

Tweety promptly bit her hand as hard as he could with his beak.

“OUCH! Quick, Tommy, give me your cape!”

Tommy handed Mom his Batman cape. Mom covered Tweety, head and all, and wrapped the cape into a tiny bundle.

“Ok, escape artist, back to your cage you go,” she said, and she carried him over, put the bundle inside the cage, and shook gently until Tweety stepped out. She shut the cage door.

Tweety looked at them with his purple eyes. He lifted a wing, preened it, then climbed up the bars on the side of the cage to hop on his swing, like nothing at all had happened.

“I’ll have to get one of my ponytail holders from the bathroom to keep the cage door tied shut from now on,” said Mom. “We must keep Tweety safe.”

Tommy looked through the bars at Tweety. “Sorry, Robin,” he said. “It’s better this way.”

Tweety chirped. He swung back and forth on his swing.

Jake sighed. “At least he’s all right.” He looked at his little brother.

“You know, Tommy,” he said, “I have a Batman flashlight that I used for the Bat signal, if you want it.”

“Awesome!” said Tommy. “I can shine it on the wall behind the cage. I can still play with Robin.”

With that Tweety chirped loudly, flapped his wings several times, then held them out like a bat, just for a second, before he settled back to swinging.

Tommy and Jake stared at Tweety with their mouths hanging open.

“That’s one tricky bird,” Mom smiled. “You never know what he might be up to next.”

Tweety blinked his purple eyes and kept on swinging.

As if he didn’t know all three humans were watching.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

Just the right word

Ninja

Happy Go Lucky 393. D-KarissaCC BY

In the midst of writing realistic fiction with third grade, I am stuck on a word.

We are studying how using events from our own lives can bring fiction to life. I once had a yellow parakeet that kept opening the door of its cage to fly around the house. This is the basis for the piece I’m modeling for the students. My story concerns two brothers that the students have named –  it opens like this:

Tweety Bird sat inside his cage on his swing, rocking back and forth. He lifted one yellow wing, preened it, fluffed all of his yellow feathers, and went back to swinging.

As if he didn’t know Jake was watching.

“You don’t fool me, Bird.”

Tweety blinked his purple eyes at Jake and kept on swinging. 

“Jake,” Mom called from the kitchen, “did you get the mail for me like I asked you to?” 

“No, ma’am,” Jake replied. “I’ll go now.”

As Jake left the living room, he turned back toward the birdcage. He shook his finger at Tweety:

“You better stay put. I am going to figure out how you keep escaping from your cage.”

With that, he walked through the front door.

As soon as the door closed behind Jake, Tommy popped up from behind the sofa, wearing his Batman costume, mask, cape, and all.

Tommy looked to the left.

He looked to the right.

Tommy snuck very bat-like over to the cage.

The problem with that last sentence isn’t snuck vs. sneaked, alas. That’s a discussion for another day; snuck is acceptable and I like the sound of it here better than sneaked.

No, the trouble is with another word.

“I am having a problem with the word bat-like, ladies and gentlemen. Tommy can’t sneak bat-like over to the cage because, well, bats don’t sneak. The word doesn’t work here. I’m trying to think of a better word, but I’m stuck.”

Like a wave, expressions of deep thought sweep over the sea of little faces, replacing that of delight over the Batman image. Little brows furrow. These third-graders frequently seem like forty-year-olds; we were discussing once how drivers do not pay enough attention and this is why car accidents occur. One student sighed: “People these days . . . .”

“Maybe you could try cat-like,” suggests a student.

“True – cats sneak a lot. That’s much better, but I am not sure I want to mix cat and bat here. I mean, having Tommy as Batman sneaking like a cat? What do you think?”

Heads tilt. “Yeah, it’s not quite right,” agrees another student.

A hand goes up: “How about with stealth?”

All the heads turn toward this student.

I blink.

“Wow, that’s pretty impressive. What a great word. I could say Tommy snuck with stealth over to the cage. What do you think?”

Faces are contemplative. Another student: “What about Tommy snuck stealthily over to the cage?”

It’s not really grabbing any of us – I can see the doubt on their faces.

Stealthily is an amazing word. Here’s the thing. I want a word that really helps paint the picture in the reader’s mind, that really captures the movement Tommy is making so that the image is clear to the reader. It needs to be connected to a noun, something else that sneaks, something better than a cat.”

A boy’s face lights up: “I know – a Ninja!”

It’s magic, the way all the faces light up. “Yes!”

“That’s perfect!” I cross out bat-like and write Ninja-like:

Tommy snuck Ninja-like over to the cage.

“Can you see the action in your mind, exactly how Tommy is moving toward the cage?”

Heads nod vigorously. A couple of the kids strike Ninja poses.

“I have to thank you all for your help, because I never would have thought of using Ninja. It’s just the right word.”

The students, looking like young sages, get back to work on their own writing. The hum of their brains is nearly audible.

They make another artistic suggestion later on, as my modeled story progresses:

Right before their eyes, Tweety, clinging to the bars on the front of the cage, used his beak to lift the cage door so that it fell open.

Tweety looked to the left.

He looked to the right.

And he flew out of the cage!

“Go, Tweety, go!” screamed Tommy, jumping up and down so that his Batman cape flapped.

A hand: “Mrs. Haley, if Tommy is pretending to be Batman, he could pretend that Tweety is Robin. He should say Fly, Robin, fly!

“Yessssssss!” says the class in unison.

That suggestion changes the shape of the entire story, for it provides the motivation for Tommy, as Batman, to let Tweety out of the cage in the earlier scene.

“You, ladies and gentlemen, are extraordinary writers!” I am as excited as they are with this new layer in the narrative.

With knowing smiles, they bend back over their own pages, pencils in hands.

********

Here’s the Tweety tale in its entirety, should you want to read it: The Escape Artist

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

O. Henry

O. Henry grave 

Fall comes early in Asheville, North Carolina. The air is chilly when I get out of the car at the cemetery to visit the grave. I think of winter coming, of Christmas, of this writer’s most famous work. I take a picture, marveling at the coins spread over the gravestone. As I turn to go, a frigid wind gusts, scuttling leaves over the ground and across the driveway.

Leaves . . . I remember that story.

O. Henry’s headstone is covered in coins, mostly pennies, which usually add up to $1.87 –  the amount of money that Jim and Della had at Christmastime in his famous short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” This shortage of money is why Jim sold his gold pocket watch to buy combs for Della’s beautiful hair, and why Della cut and sold her hair to buy a platinum fob chain for Jim’s prized watch. Their sacrificial love for one another has made the story an enduring classic.

There is another story of O. Henry’s that I love almost as well.

I remembered it as I planned to write “Oh, Henry,” yesterday’s post about my son’s dog. I should write about O. Henry next, I smiled to myself. A little word play with the titles. How enticing.

That’s when I thought about the fallen leaves blowing over the writer’s grave.

I scrounged up my old paperback copy of O. Henry’s short stories and reread “The Last Leaf.”

In this tale, two young artists live in a three-story Greenwich Village building. One of them becomes sick with pneumonia. She watches the leaves dropping from an ivy vine against the wall just outside of her window, convinced that she will die when the last leaf falls. To her astonishment, the last leaf hangs on through high wind and rain. To make a short story shorter, the leaf remains because an old artist in the building crawled up a ladder in the dark of a raw November night and painted it on the wall with the vine. The girl begins to recover and the old man, Behrman, dies of the pneumonia he catches from being out in the weather while painting that night.

The old artist had always wanted to paint a masterpiece and never pulled it off – but the last lines of the story have the roommate telling the recovering girl about the leaf: “Didn’t you wonder why it never fluttered when the wind blew? Ah, darling, it’s Berhman’s masterpiece – he painted it there the night the last leaf fell.”

Self-sacrificial love at work again – but there’s more to it.

That leaf symbolized hope, sparking the desire to strive, to overcome. The old artist’s small gesture inspired the young artist to keep living.

This leaves me thinking, in the course of our days as teachers, as writers: Are we not the artists who paint the pictures of possibility, of hope, in the minds of others? Do we spark in others a desire to strive, to reach for what’s beyond their grasp, or to hang on only long enough until this, too, shall pass?

Our masterpieces may never be world-famous; they may be as simple as knowing the right word, the right idea, the right vision, the right story, and sharing it when it is most needed. Inspiration leaps from one heart to another, creating something to hang onto, outlasting high winds and rain. We may never see the full effect of our work, but that’s all right.

We paint the leaves where we can.

I close my old paperback book.

O. Henry, I am so thankful you were here.

 

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The Writing Spa

Welcome to the Writing Spa.

Please put your things down and help yourself to salt scrub – wash your hands and refresh.

Or have some aromatherapy lotion.

Listen to the soft music, the sound of the ocean with the occasional distant gull.

That fragrance in the air? That’s a pillow mist. It’s called Peaceful.

Yes, it does smell very spa-esque, doesn’t it?

Today we will write. It’s so important that teachers of writing write themselves, with and for students.

Today you write for you.

You have a choice of stations: Refresh, Evoke, Escape. Start wherever you like. If there’s time, we will get to all three; if not, certainly two.

Let me explain.

The Refresh sign bears the Isak Dinesen quote: “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.” Which salt water form grabs you first? Close your eyes and envision a scene where this salt water form played a significant role. Where were you? Who was with you? Get back into the moment – show, don’t tell.

Here’s an example, a time when tears played a healing role in my life ….

The sign at the Evoke station reads: “Nature speaks and wafts her perfumes. Capture it.” This is meant to connect us to the natural world with sounds and scents that lift our spirits and make our hearts rise. Write about any sound or any scent that does this for you, and why it has this effect. Who or what is associated with it?

I chose sound. I wrote about cicadas in the summer and what this evokes for me. I will share ….

The last station is Escape. There’s a place you long to return to – why? Who or what is connected to that place? Capture it in detail so the reader goes there with you. Share the reason for its specialness to you.

Here’s one of my special places. I only went there once ….

The teachers write. Some have tears in their eyes; some stop to look into the distance, far beyond the walls of the room, to different places, conjuring different images in each of their minds. The music is soothing. We are breathing in Peaceful. When it’s time to stop, those who wish to share their writing do so with one another; those who’d  rather not share are willing listeners, ready to give positive responses on the strength of the writing. There are more tears. There are also smiles, even a small eruption of laughter at the humor in someone’s writing.

We rotate and repeat.

For reflection, they write a takeaway for themselves and one for their classrooms. They write on white paper. 

Ball up your white paper. This is the Invigoration piece of the spa – we will now have a snowball fight! Have at it!

Much laughter ensures as teachers throw “snowballs” at one another. We stop; they choose a snowball and open it up to read to a partner. No one knows who wrote what and reflections that strike chords are shared with the group. We go another round. 

I hope you enjoyed your Writing Spa, everyone. However you view yourself as a writer, the goal for today is that you found writing a pleasurable experience. Writing must be pleasurable for teachers to be pleasurable for students. We create the atmosphere for writing in our rooms. Think of ways you might adapt what we’ve done here for your kids – pay it forward.

On your way out, by the door, there’s a basket of chocolate – help yourself to Chocolate Therapy. 

Go forth in writing wellness.

*******

I did two variations of the Writing Spa, one with teachers at my school last December and one on Monday with teachers attending the North Carolina Reading Association Conference. Improving writing instruction has been a major focus at my school for a couple of years, the most frequently-requested area of support. The spa was born from a synthesis of ideas: Teachers, however they feel about writing, need to have enjoyable experiences with it; professional development needs to lift teachers’ spirits; writing is about going deep, tapping the power that lies within us.

You are welcome, if you like, to read my sound and place pieces shared for Evoke and Escape.

I’m still working on my salt water piece.

(I finished itBaby’s breath)

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Where the meaning is

My colleague is weeping.

She’s just read aloud a passage from The Unstoppable Writing Teacher: Real Strategies for the Real Classroom by Colleen Cruz, specifically from Chapter Five, entitled “I’m finding some student writing repetitive and boring.”

In this passage Cruz  relates the story of being observed by teachers who said that some students in the class had chosen “boring … almost shallow” personal essay topics. Cruz confers with one of these students. He’s writing about why Christmas is his favorite holiday – his reasons are the food, the presents, watching videos. As Cruz continues to converse with the boy, she feels pressure building under the skeptical eyes of the observers; the conferring is going nowhere. But Cruz presses on. She keeps talking, feigning enthusiasm: “There’s just so much to say about videos on Christmas. I would love to hear what you have to say about them.”

And then the boy explains that every year on Christmas, after the presents are opened, his mom lets him watch all their previous Christmas videos, when his dad was alive. She can’t endure the videos during the rest of the year, but at Christmas she watches them with her son.

“It’s like we’re all together again,” said the boy.

Like Cruz and the observing teachers in the story, my book study colleagues and I all have tears in our eyes.

I write in the margin of that page: Go deeper and deeper to the meaning. 

I think about a second grader writing realistic fiction. Her first attempt at dialogue was rambling, pointless; the characters were talking but not saying anything. When I mentioned that we can add things from our own lives to make characters think and feel things that we do, to “make it real,” she revised the dialogue to a conversation about a girl who was worried about her new stepfather liking her. When she read it to me, I said, “Wow, your story really came to life there! What made you write about the girl’s worries over her stepfather?”

The child answered, solemnly, “My mom is getting married next weekend.”

I think about a girl describing how she and her grandmother waded through the regular flooding of their impoverished hometown in Viet Nam.

I think about a fifth-grade boy who never liked writing, how he developed an enthusiasm for it with his memoir on making the hard choice to tell the truth after having lied. A girl new to the school wrote about a girl having to move often. The piece opened with the narrator shouting at her mom; the anger was palpable.

A dim recollection of the movie Where the Heart Is flits through my mind – the young pregnant girl pressing a hand against her abdomen, saying, “That’s where the heart is.”

Cruz says students “have a subconscious need to write about particular topics, but they don’t consciously know why.”

Our job, then, as writing teachers, is to help students go deeper to the why, to where the heart, the meaning, is.

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