Preparing for the Transcendentalists…

Yes, it’s that time of year again. Fall — the season of newness and beginnings, at least for teachers. I think maybe we all love the fall, at least that’s what my students confess in their journals, a confirmation to a belief I’ve long held, that the year begins in the fall, not in January, but in autumn, the season we teachers know instinctively as the time to try again. The season of the fresh start. Fall is my favorite season, almost each 11th grader begins in this new journal assignment I’m trying out this year in my American Lit classes. String Journals  — I learned about them in the Approaching Walden Institute that I attended this past summer. The idea is to give students a piece of string. Ask them to tie the string outside somewhere, attach it to something, a place they can revisit throughout the year. But the string, I tell them as we were told, is only a device. If it disappears, so be it. The point is to get outside, to observe one spot in nature over time, to reflect on that observation, and to write about it in a 2-3 page journal entry due every other week.
We are preparing for the Transcendentalists.

I think in some sense I am always preparing my students for the Transcendentalists. Fall, with its visible changes, allows us to be more aware of nature’s insistent call that we pay attention now. Doesn’t Thoreau lament that too few of us are truly awake? Isn’t Emerson’s plea for us to listen to our own true selves? Spring is too subtle with its lightness, its pastels, but fall, this season of deep, vibrant hues, calls us to attention.

My 11th graders are reading Emerson this weekend, with Margaret Fuller and then Thoreau to follow. On Monday, we’ll talk about what self-reliance means, how “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” about the ways in which “society never advances” and is a “joint-stock company.” We’ll probe and consider his words, and it is my hope that the string journals have prepared them in some small way to think deeply about Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau. At least they have begun noticing small things in their daily world of outside.

I took my Creative Nonfiction students on a walk outside, after we read Annie Dillard’s essay “Seeing,” which they loved. We read Diane Ackerman’s “How To Watch The Sky” and several short pieces on the meaning of home. Their writing is strong and accomplished for so early in the year, and I’m hopeful that they’ll continue to soar and find new strengths as yet uncovered.

In Fiction II, my nine students, this year all girls, juniors and seniors, are drafting novels. Their goal: 100 pages of a novel by year’s end. This quarter, we lay the groundwork, writing about characters, their backstories, their vulnerabilities, their potential conflicts. This past week, we have been focusing on the outside world, the setting of the novel. I ask my students, what does it mean to be from the place your character is from? How does place impact them — their lives, their decisions, their language, their hopes and dreams? For two days this week, students created storyboards, dreaming up their novels as they worked, chatting with each other, asking questions about possible motives and behaviors, a happy hum in the classroom.

My freshmen, too, are writing happily right now, nonfiction, their most recent essay assignment focused on home and what that means. They are fierce little writers, already dedicated, desperate to write and write and write. Can we just write all day?  they beg. Please just let us keep writing.

It is a joy — right now and mostly — to work with young writers, kids who are waking up to their lives, bold and bravely putting their worlds on paper, using language to create art and new realities, sifting through their stories, finding truth and their true selves. photo-mums pumpkins

10 Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment: Blogiversary Post #2


This blog entry hit the nail on the head. Inevitably how I feel at least once every quarter as I grade papers and portfolios…*sigh*

Originally posted on Classroom as Microcosm:

mflfn0II hesitate to put this post out there again!  Not only does it feel outdated (I haven’t asked for a paper copy of an at-home assignment in three years), but at the time it was published, it attracted some passionate critics (and defenders); if you go to the original and read the comments, you will see what I mean.  I came of age as a blogger when this post went moderately viral and I got my first taste of what it means to blog for the “public” and not just for a small and like-minded group of readers.

Nonetheless, it is the 9th-most-shared post I’ve ever written, and it still gets a fair number of views at the end of each semester/year when teachers everywhere are apoplectic and need someone to vent for them.  What’s more, it tickles me to look back at the quaint concerns we had in 2009, like printer ink and Hotmail.

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Butterflies and Barbecue

butterfly on red flowers  What a lovely week! If you haven’t made it to the Butterflies Alive! exhibit at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden (open through mid-October), you should. It’s magical. Trust me. You should go. You won’t regret it. If you click here: you should be able to see a live cam of the butterflies.

Here are a couple more pictures that do not capture their real beauty or the truly magical quality of being in the butterfly “room” while these creatures fly and land on plants, the floor, your shoulder.  black butterfly And here’s another:

white butterfly

What a delight!  I took my friend Connie to see the butterflies after we got back from five days of glorious writing at The Porches: –. Both of us finished novel revisions, and I worked on an essay revision and started a new essay.  Best way to begin the summer. The butterflies kept us feeling other-worldly for just  a bit longer.  We finished off the day at Buzz and Ned’s Barbecue, for its own “otherworldly” qualities!  Delicious.

I’m also re-reading Walden in preparation for an upcoming workshop–APPROACHING WALDEN — to be held at the Thoreau Institute in Massachusetts. I leave in two days, and I’m pretty excited to see what the workshop entails.  For teachers, the idea is to help us develop a curriculum based on “place” — and I’m either going to work on my English 11/American Literature curriculum or my nonfiction writing curriculum — I’ll wait to see when I get there.  And, I’ll keep you posted. No matter what, it should be interesting.  I have some thoughts on Thoreau to post later too — it’s rather astounding how relevant his words are still, in 2014.

Tonight, it’s off to see THE COLOR PURPLE — the musical:  And then — off to New England and the Transcendentalists!

Summer slow down



It’s not officially summer, but since school is out, it’s summer as far as I’m concerned. This particular summer has brought some changes, first and foremost a weight loss program that is long overdue.

For the past several years, I have told myself, not deceptively, that I am — to borrow a phrase from Elden Nelson, aka “Fatty” or “Fat Cyclist” (see his fabulous blog: ), “fat fit.”  In other words, though I am overweight, I am “fit,” cardiovascularly speaking.  And that’s true.  I am an avid though amateur cyclist, and in most seasons, I ride with some regularity, usually training for a long-distance event at summer’s end.  And up until very recently, blood work would support my fat/fit theory.  But this past year, at my annual check-up, my bad cholesterol level had inched up to the higher end of normal, closer to the unsafe level than I like.  A few other numbers weren’t as good as they had been either, and to make matters worse, I wasn’t riding, maybe as a result of last year’s training for Pan-Mass Challenge when, at times, I felt resentful of the need to train and wanted just to stay home and read, write, or do anything that wasn’t training.  So I stopped altogether, though from my perspective now, I don’t remember it being a conscious decision — but instead the need for intense training was over, and once fall arrived, school started back up and time became precious again.

 Perhaps even more critically, not only did I ride infrequently (i.e. 3 or 4 times all fall), I stopped working out regularly, too.  Again, not so much a conscious decision but something I let happen.    

Now, to further exacerbate the situation, the school year was a tough one. We had, this year, more than the average number of difficult situations with kids — suicide attempts, hospitalizations, abusive parents, even a cardiac arrest (NOTE: that student is doing well today, thankfully!).  We had difficult situations with teachers — our beloved musical theatre teacher suffered a stroke at age 34 (NOTE: he is making good progress…), a dear friend and English department colleague who shattered her ankle and missed the last two months of school (she is healing well now too). It just seemed that one thing happened after another with no time to process or heal or make sense of it all.  Topping it off, we missed weeks of school in the winter because of bad weather, and while that time should seem like a gift, truthfully, missing so many days makes the in-school time more difficult for a variety of reasons.  All in all, this has been the hardest year I remember in my twenty-nine years of teaching.  

So..instead of exercising, I was more inclined to come home, open a bottle of wine, pour a glass and flop onto the couch.  Day after day after day.  And thus, the inevitable weight gain.  

But now that school is over, I am motivated to do something about it, and I’ve started the Ideal Protein diet (you can read about it here: and here:  Three weeks in, and I’m down 14 lbs. and over 7 inches.  I’m ecstatic!  

I’ve noticed, too, some important changes that are accompanying this weight loss journey:

  • Becoming more mindful in general.   Because I have to prepare my food daily, because I can’t just grab something and go, I’m slowing down and becoming more mindful of what I eat and how I am spending my time.  Mindfulness is something I have consciously tried to cultivate in my life, but this year especially, I found myself carried along with the messiness of everyday life — doing, doing, doing but not reflecting, not being conscious at all.  The shift to mindfulness is noticeable and welcome. 
  • More energy!  Part of this diet’s protocol (for the beginning phases at least) requires me to give up alcohol.  Less wine means more energy — but the supplements I’m now taking and the much healthier eating habits are contributing to that, too.  More energy means more time to do the things I love, like writing and reading and working in the garden.  Now of course I knew that flopping on the couch with a glass (or 2 or 3) of wine wasn’t helping my evening energy level, but I’m a creature of habit, and once I established that habit of coming home and having a glass of Zinfandel or Cabernet, I started to look forward to it.  My stress levels told me I needed it when, of course, I didn’t.  So, cutting out the alcohol, as much as I love wine, has been beneficial to me in lots of ways, not the least of which is redirecting my habits and ways of dealing with stress.  

I’m sure I’ll discover more benefits as I continue with the program.  
Now, one potential drawback for this program is that exercise (at least most aerobic exercise) is prohibited too, so for now, I’m not riding.  Like the alcohol prohibition, it’s temporary, and I am definitely looking forward to hopping back on the bike and climbing hills with much less extra weight!  So for the immediate future, there will be no cycling posts.  Instead — many more writing posts, I hope! 

It’s funny how one change can influence so many others.  I didn’t anticipate a general improvement in my days simply because of a decision to lose weight, but of course everything we do is connected.  Being mindful about what I eat and drink helps me to be mindful when I approach my writing.  My friendships. My relationship.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to see this play out in my life these days.  And as the summer continues, I’ll keep you posted on my progress.  

Happy summer!  

My Published Writing

I thought, maybe, I should add links to places where my writing has been published. Here’s one:

Here’s another:

And then: (though I don’t think you can actually find my short story that was published some years ago):

One of my earliest pieces of published writing can be found here:

I’m most excited about my essay soon to appear here:

Check them out!  Let me know what you think. 

Snow Days and Huckleberry Finn…


Here we are, another snow day — the 2nd one this week, actually. What a crazy winter!  This time, I have no work at home with me, so I’m cherishing these days as writing days.  

On Monday, my 11th graders are scheduled to have an in-class essay test on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I wondered, tongue in cheek, on a Facebook posting, how fantastic the essays might be because of these extra days to prepare… 

Of course I’m kidding.  

I suspect that my students, like me, like most of us probably, see snow days as a chance to lie around, watch back-to-back episodes of Law and Order: SVU, Castle, or NCIS.  Maybe, like me, they read a book just for fun.  Or, not like me, play video games or other computer games.  Maybe they bake stuff they normally don’t have time to bake or maybe they go outside and take a walk in the snow, or build snowmen and snow forts, have a snowball fight.  Maybe they just sleep.  

But however they decide to spend their snow days, in the best light, these days are gifts of extra time, a lull in our otherwise busy lives, maybe even a reminder to slow down.  Here in Virginia, we’ve been forced this winter to slow down a lot. 

I can’t say that I wasn’t thrilled to have temperatures hovering near 70 this past weekend.  Sunday was picture-perfect for the Groundforce IT Snowflake Ride (I guess we encouraged the snowflakes…) when about 300 of us cycled out from the Richmond Bicycle Studio into Ashland to race money for Richmond Cycling Corps, a fabulous organization that takes inner city kids and teaches them to ride bikes and, in some cases, to race.  How glorious the sun felt!  The warmth. But I have to say, these snow days, too, are lovely in their own way, like extra long weekends, terrific excuses to be lazy or self-indulgent.  It’s just that we’ve had so many of them this year!  

To be honest, I wouldn’t mind so much, except for the need to make up the school days.  Here in VA, we go by “seat hours,” and my school — Appomattox Regional Governor’s School — has a longer school day than most, so we get in a lot of seat hours.  We’ve been told that up until now, we’re OK and won’t need to make up time — though after yesterday and today, I’m no longer certain.  Still, how much inconvenience is two extra days, right?  Well — the inconvenience is much more than that.  Certainly, the theatre department is trying to decide whether or not our spring play — As You Like It – can still open next Friday (they are currently in the midst of tech rehearsals); English SOLs (Standards of Learning, the state-mandated tests) for 11th graders have been disrupted, which means that most likely, classes NEXT week will also be disrupted so students can take those tests.  

Certainly, we are all feeling the loss of classroom time.  We can’t read all the books we normally read — or we do, but we rush through.  We try to still teach the same content, convinced as we are that what we teach matters very much.  I say “we,” but maybe I should speak for myself!  Each year, snow days not withstanding, I struggle deciding which books I’d like to teach, the ones I feel I must teach, all the others I don’t have time for.  There are so many I don’t get to — no Hemingway, no Faulkner, no Baldwin, no Morrison. 

And if time is shortened and something has got to go, what will it be?  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where we have our most profound discussions?  Sometimes those discussions are about race and sometimes, as they were this year, they are about the process of learning that, like Huck, what we’ve been taught by the adults in our lives isn’t always right.  We talk about Huck’s moral dilemma — his decision to help Jim escape, a decision he thinks is “wrong” because everything that a young boy is supposed to look up to and learn from, i.e. the “good” adults in his life, his church, his school, his government,  has been telling him that slavery is OK.  And while he never comes to the conclusion that slavery itself is wrong, he does come to the decision that if helping Jim — his friend — is wrong, he’ll “go to hell.”  

And then, a student asks me if I think there are things in our world today that might be similar?  We talk about growing up, how it’s an inevitable process to discover the things we grow up thinking are one way because that’s what we’ve been taught might not, in fact, be that way.  We find ourselves in the position of disagreeing with our parents, our churches, our teachers — and what do we do about it? How do we handle those disagreements, and what does it say about those people?  The student nearly gasps.  “We’ve been having that very conversation!”  she says, pointing to a friend who sits behind her.  It’s the beauty of literature, I tell her and the rest of the class.  We can grapple with those questions. Sure, we can talk about it in the abstract– how Huck comes to his decision to help Jim, why Hester doesn’t reveal Dimmesdale’s identity or more importantly, why Dimmesdale doesn’t confess,  or the way Gatsby insists that we can repeat the past — but ultimately, the hope is that we transfer those thoughts to ourselves and our own lives.  

It’s why we read. And why we write.  

OK — I think my post here took a detour — I think meant to write about the ways that the SOLs (the irony of that acronym…) force us to deal with snow days, the fact that the tests won’t be cancelled or changed in spite of losing so many school days to winter weather.  For teachers whose SOL tests are content-specific — math, history, science– they still have to “fit in” their content somehow.  And I guess I struggle with that enough on my own!  I hate giving up anything.  I hate more, though, that standardized tests don’t / can’t measure what matters most, what kinds of transformations students go through, or the kinds of understandings they come to.

Because in the long run, does it really matter if we have a certain number of days in school?  Will it really matter to these kids years from now, in the grand scheme of their lives, whether or not they missed a week of school?  It won’t.  

I need these snow days to help me remember that! 


Snow Days and Portfolios


In my Fiction classes, students prepare portfolios that count as their exams.  They revise their work, write a “Reflective Cover Letter” that introduces the portfolio and explains their revision process, and they present their portfolio to the class.
These days are among my favorite teaching days.
I love hearing the students speak about their writing process, the deep (mostly) understanding they have of what works and what doesn’t work on the page, the ways in which their busy lives get in the way of their writing, their love of the craft, and their understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses.  While I won’t go on at length about it here (ahem), these portfolio presentations  and the reflective cover letters reveal radically more than any standardized test could possibly reveal about these kids and what they’ve learned.

I sit and listen, often in awe.  So far this year, I have listened to one Fiction class–a group of eight young women, all sophomores in high school, young women who have delighted me and frustrated me — as all students can (teachers, you can back me up on this!).  I have wondered how to help them go beyond their scenes-called-stories, how to push them to read literary fiction that they normally might not choose, how to understand what makes a story a story, how to use all the separate elements that constitute a good piece of fiction — all while retaining their love of writing.

This, people, is my dilemma.  It isn’t entirely new, because I struggle, too, with the same basic notion in my English classes — how NOT to turn English class into an I-hate-reading class.  I’m afraid that too often, kids come to us with a love of reading, and sadly, English class can ruin that love.  I don’t want my writing classes to do the same, but as one student wrote in her cover letter — and read out loud to the class: “…it makes me really sad that something I used to love to do has turned into homework…”  OUCH.  That broke my heart.

But isn’t it inevitable?  I told her I understood, and I didn’t want her writing to feel like “homework” either (although maybe it’s the way she considers homework; we didn’t have that conversation).  I asked the girls for suggestions — because they know and I know that they need deadlines.  And the teacher in me can’t let go of the idea that they need some structure too.  They understand that the prompts I give them are highlighting a certain aspect of writing — i.e. using setting to reveal emotion, or effectively writing flashbacks or dialogue.  And, I always say, if the prompts don’t speak to you, ignore them and write what you want — though I do insist that they try to highlight the skill I’m after.

This same girl wrote in her cover letter: “The most important thing I’ve learned in fiction over the past semester if that you can’t write fiction like it is real life…fiction has to exaggerate events. I think before I realized this, I was scared of […] inflating things too much, but since then, I’ve had a sort of epiphany and understand that there isn’t a story if you don’t.  […] In my opinion, my most successful piece so far is XXX [leaving out title for anonymity’s sake — PS]. I think that solely through dialogue, it has tension […]. I think readers are more inclined to like it because it lets them feel smart by being in on the scheme and figuring out the plot.”

Here are some more gems from these young writers:

“One of the most difficult things with writing fiction for me is believing in the story I am telling…”  WOW — how do you get this kind of insight at such a young age?  She goes on: “I try to write with feelings that I have had and I think those feelings are at the core of fiction.  Maybe we have never been forced to live in the coat closet of our aunt’s home or sailed down the Mississippi, but we have all felt neglected or known distrust.  Capturing those feelings, though, and weaving a story around them is hard.  I guess with practice and becoming more aware of who I am as a person and learn my feelings I’ll be able to apply them more in my writing…”  OK, done. This girl doesn’t need me.

Another: “I think one of the most difficult things about writing fiction for me has been trying to complete a full plot arc within a story. I often have trouble creating the sort of plot that can be confined to a short piece that still carries the appropriate amount of tension.”[SIDE NOTE: I think this particular girl is a born novelist!]. She continues: “One of the most helpful things I’ve learned is how important tension and realistic dialogue are to the integrity of a story.”

And one more: “The most influential story that we read this year was probably “The Things They Carried”  I had no personal connection to the story, yet I did.  I felt like I was there through all of it.  I felt the heartache and strife, and I want to make my readers feel that connection in my work.”

So how to continue pushing these creative thinkers beyond what they’re comfortable with?  I should admit that I also test them on the concepts covered in our text Writing Fiction:A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French.  Again, the teacher in me wants to hold them accountable for what I assign as reading (same reason I give reading quizzes, too, on the short stories I assign).  And, I think there are students who, while they understand the concepts, can’t yet apply them in their own writing, and I want to give them credit for that.  And, finally, I also think students who have taken a Fiction I class should be able to definite and discuss with some ease things like plot, setting, scene and summary.  I think they should know how to write effective dialogue–what it can and can’t (or shouldn’t) do, what constitutes point of view.

And yet I’m also reminded of the Q & A my Fiction II students and I participated in with Ramona Ausubel ( at the VCU Cabell First Novelist Festival  We were discussing her award-winning novel No One Is Here Except All of Us and the first person omniscient narrator, asking her if she worried about her particular choice of point of view, how she could explain that her first person narrator knew things that were happening far away from her — and she told us that she didn’t think about those things at all; she just wrote.

So I wonder.  Am I asking too much of my students?  Should I simply ask them to “just write?”  Because I’m too afraid that if I do, I won’t be teaching them anything, won’t be shortening their learning curve any.  I’m afraid that they will write what they’ve always written and they won’t stretch beyond their current capabilities.  I’m afraid that if I don’t, they won’t experience “epiphanies” about fiction vs. reality; they won’t ever pick up “The Things They Carried;” they won’t learn to see that tension is important to the integrity of a story.  But I don’t want them to feel as though writing is homework either.