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

Morning snow

Snow

There was crisp, dry snow under his feet and more snow lying on the branches of the trees. Overhead there was a pale blue sky, the sort of sky one sees on a fine winter day in the morning. Straight ahead of him he saw between the tree trunks the sun, just rising, very red and clear. Everything was perfectly still, as if he were the only living creature in that country.

-C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Snow swirled down in the gray dawn yesterday, winter whispering farewell in its dying breath: I’m still here, but not for long. Just one more time . . . .

There’s a silence, a stillness, to Sunday mornings anyway, a sense of expectancy, an invitation to step away from the world.

Of course I think of Narnia. I always do when it snows.

I was ten years old, scouring the school library shelves for a book I hadn’t read yet, when I encountered a compelling title: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 

“Sounds interesting,” I thought, opening the cover, not realizing that it was a portal to another world that I’d never fully leave  – or want to leave. I fell in and never climbed all the way out again. Part of that pull is the longing C.S. Lewis infused into the Narnia Chronicles, the sense of “realness” that pervades the magic. Lewis poured what he loved into the stories, and they live because of it.

Having facilitated a writing workshop for teachers just the day before on “creating the magic” – writing about what matters to you, tapping into your heart, your dreams, your struggles, your memories, making your writing authentic so you can help students do the the same – I watched the snow, remembering Narnia.

Writing is the closest thing to magic that there is. As teachers we create the atmosphere for our writers. It’s one of excited expectancy, of energy, when young writers discover the power within them, learning how to harness words to impact readers. Writing, after all, is meant to be shared – it’s the connecting of human minds and hearts.

Which is why, for me, Narnia is never very far away.

Especially when it snows.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

 

 

All that you hold dear

Fawn in hands

A new idea is fragile, fleeting

capture it as soon as you can.

Find the meaning

what it makes you think

how it makes you feel.

Nurture it

as you nurture the artist within you

so the idea and the artist will grow.

Play with the words

the images will come.

Play with the images

the words will come.

Trust your inner writer

to find a way

of conveying that idea, that image

so that others think and see

and feel.

There’s power in that fledgling thought

in every feeling connected to

 all that you hold dear.

More power in sharing it

than in holding it tight, unspoken.

Let it breathe

let it live.

It wants to.

It is precious.

Even

priceless.

Inspired by my writing workshop with teachers yesterday on “creating the magic”  – first as a writer, then for your writers.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

Six-word memoir

Words pour in

“What do you love best? How can you use the things you love to represent you, to describe who you are, in just six words?”

I pause to let the fifth graders think.

“One thing that I love,” I continue, “is the sound of cicadas. Have you heard that sound?”

Hands shoot up. I nod to a girl who replies: “Those bugs that buzz really loud.”

“Yes. Every spring I look forward to hearing the cicadas again – they will buzz all summer long. They remind me of summers spent with my grandparents. The sound was deafening in the thick woods around their home. Hearing cicadas now makes me feel happy and safe, no matter what else is going on. It’s one of the things I love best. So I might try to write my six-word memoir about the sound of cicadas.”

With pencil on paper, using the document camera, I write:

Nature sings to me. I listen.

I see heads nodding.

“I might keep working these six words to see if I can make them represent me better. I might decide to work on another idea. Today you will make a list of things that you love – maybe things you love to do, or favorite objects, or even dreams you have of things you want to do or be – and think about how each thing represents you. Then we will work on capturing and hammering out those descriptions in just six words.”

Off they go around the room, to brainstorm.

I brainstorm, too. What else can I write? What’s another example I can give them?

Well, as far back as I can remember, I loved reading and writing – it’s who I am. It’s what I do. It’s why I’m in this very room this very minute, teaching it.

I think about it all night, and am ready for the next lesson.

“So, ladies and gentlemen, yesterday we brainstormed ideas for writing our six-word memoirs. We thought of things we love and how they might represent us. I thought of something else to represent me. Let me ask you: What do you think represents me? Think about what I do and what you know about me.”

A boy waves his hand: “I know! Harry Potter!”

The class giggles and a few say, “Yessss!”

I laugh. “Excellent. But think bigger than Harry Potter, if possible! Think about who I am and what I do.”

A quiet girl’s hand sneaks up. “You teach reading and writing.”

“There you go. I’ve loved reading and writing all my life. I think this idea might be a great choice for a six-word memoir. It really describes who I am. I have to think now about how to capture this idea in six words.”

With pencil, paper, and the document camera, I write:

I read, I write, I am.

Heads nod – and an image materializes in my mind just then.

A pitcher, a glass, water pouring . . . .

“I just got an idea of how to make this better!”

I write:

Words pour in. Words pour out.

The children study these words.

“What do you think this means, ladies and gentlemen?”

A boy says, “First you wrote I read, I write, I am and you said you could make it better so I think you mean that if words pour in, you’re reading, and if words pour out, you’re writing.”

Across the room, faces light up.

I smile. “Well done. For a few minutes, share your ideas with your partner and talk about possible ways to begin writing your six-word memoir. Then we’ll all write.”

I listen as the ideas flow in and out, with a hum as vibrant as that of cicadas.

(If you’re interested in reading an earlier Slice on the sound of cicadas: Cicada rhythm)

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer