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

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