I have been using one of the writing ideas I learned at Kenyon last summer with my juniors. Watching my students write last week prompted me to tweet this comment:
I love being in a room full of students writing.
— Dana Huff (@danamhuff) January 7, 2016
For some reason, the exercise generated a different feeling in the room, and it was a happy moment for me, sitting and looking around the room at the pens moving over writing notebooks. I don’t think my Kenyon instructors would mind if I shared the exercise, especially in the name of spreading the good writing vibes.
First, I asked students to write down a list of places they lived for a substantial period of time, and they could define that, but they should think of places they spent more than a night. Next, I asked them to circle up to three places and draw maps of each place. They should draw where the trees were, where the streets were, where the rooms and important items were, etc. I gave them plenty of time for this because there are often many stories in a single room, a tree… even a single item. I remember when I did this exercise at Kenyon last summer, the place where I found the most inspiration was my grandmother’s sewing room. Every detail in that room is etched in my memory. I can see where everything is, and if there is a single room in any house I’ve ever lived, anywhere, it would be the one room I’d want to preserve, always. When I was at NCTE in November, I did a writing exercise in one of my sessions in which I returned to the room again, and when I shared my writing with a partner nearby, she asked me, “At what point did you realize this was a room that didn’t exist in most houses?” It was a great question, and I don’t know when it was that I really understood how unique that room was, but I’ve been returning to that room over and over again in my writing ever since July.
After students drew the maps, I had them pick one map, one place, and make a list of things they could writing about that were connected to that place: people, events, things. Then I asked students to pick one thing and freewrite. I wrote along with them. Near the end of class, each of us shared one detail or sentence we had written that we really liked.
When we returned to class, we read a chapter from Haven Kimmel’s memoir She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana entitled “Brother.” It’s a beautiful and evocative description of Kimmel’s relationship with a much older brother who left and distanced himself from the family. It is partly a story of the place in which the family lived, but the relationship is at the very center of the piece, and there are some beautiful moments in the description—the time her brother swooped out of the darkness in a Dracula cape on Halloween and scared Kimmel, a description of her brother singing in his room at night. She prefaces her memories of her brother with the sentence “These are things I remember, and they are mine.” I absolutely love the ownership in that declaration. Later, Kimmel shares her mother and sister’s memories of her brother, prefacing these recollections with the sentence, “Here are memories I stole.” And again, I love the idea of hearing stories so many times that you own those memories, too, but also that somehow, because they are not your own memories, they are stolen from others.
We discussed this essay, picking out details we particularly liked and noticing what the author does. The students noticed, for instance, that Kimmel describes some images in detail, but not all, so it’s like zooming in and zooming out with a camera. In fact, Kimmel describes photographs of her brother and what the “eye of the camera” sees that all her family members missed. It truly is a great mentor text for students to use.
After we had discussed this piece of writing, I asked students to make two columns in their notebooks. Then I asked them to head the first column with the sentence “These are things I remember, and they are mine” and to head the other column with the sentence “Here are memories I stole.” After that, I asked students to use their freewrite as inspiration and make a list of things they remember about the person/event/place they wrote about and then make a list of things they don’t remember—others’ memories, things that happened before they were born or went there, or historical events.
They turned these lists into a second freewrite on the topic. Today, students began drafting an essay based on their freewriting. All of this took three class periods. Time well spent. Everyone seemed like they were really in the flow of writing. No one seemed to lack inspiration. The Kimmel text proved to be great source for ideas. Students are currently writing a solid first draft they would be ready to share with peers in writing workshop on Thursday (when class meets again).
I mentioned that I had used this lesson, and Emily Moore, my instructor at Kenyon, commented, “I started the term with that activity and adored it. There’s a part of me that feels like we could do it every day for the entire term and it would never stop being magic.” I couldn’t say it better. Think of all the stories this simple exercise might generate. I love the inductive nature of the idea generation. One of my students commented that the frustrating thing, sometimes, about writing narratives was that though he agreed we all have stories, figuring out which ones would be good to tell, to write, can be really hard. This writing exercise leads students to selecting that story and also gives them a place to return to for inspiration. Marsha McGregor, the instructor who shared this exercise with us, reminded us that plot is a piece of ground, a place, and it’s also a story.
I have anxiety. It makes me sad for my family, and it makes me sad for me because it has prevented us from doing things. Fun things like taking day trips. It has made doing these kinds of fun things hard for me. The reason anxiety causes me so much trouble is that in my particular case, it’s my car that makes me anxious.
My car is getting rather long in the tooth, and it’s had some hard to diagnose issues over the years. The first time we had trouble with it was in the middle of nowhere on a road trip from Georgia to Massachusetts—a vacation. We broke down in the middle of Pennsylvania. We had been stuck in traffic, and though I was driving, I hadn’t noticed the engine running hot until the alarm started to go off. Right after that, steam poured out from under the hood. I pulled over as best I could, and we called AAA. We were waylaid for about five hours with two children on the autism spectrum and nothing to do, really, until the car was fixed and we could continue on to Salem. I was terrified that the mechanic would just about rob us. You really are putting your trust in people when you’re in a situation like that.
I had had plenty of car issues in the past. Once, I was pregnant and had two children with me, and I didn’t have a way to call anyone, so I was walking up the interstate toward a gas station. Some nice guy took pity on me (I was rather pitiful, hugely pregnant and pulling two small children along) and drove me there. Once when my oldest was a baby, I got out of the car to take her in to daycare. I was running late. And green liquid started pouring out of the car. My point is that this anxiety issue grew over time, but it didn’t become debilitating until this car, mainly because we can’t really seem to figure out why it has problems sometimes and doesn’t have problems other times. So I have this feeling of distrust where the car is concerned.
Rationally, the very worst thing that could happen is that it would break down and need a tow. I could still get home. It would be okay. It has been okay before. I also know that right now, if something like that happened, we could afford the repair. No one would be harmed. It would be an inconvenience. That’s all.
I can actually go long stretches when the car has been fine for a while and not be too anxious. I even drove it the other day. Dylan needed a Star Wars tee-shirt for school, and because of his communication issues, we didn’t realize what he wanted until about 10:30 at night, so I got in the car, went to Walmart, and bought him one. I was gripping the steering wheel the whole time.
The issue that we have, and it’s intermittent, seems to be that when the car is fully warmed up, it tends to, and excuse my precise mechanical description here—FREAK OUT—when it’s at a stop. It used to start to overheat. It doesn’t do that anymore, but the oil light flashes. I think I know what the issue is because I have Googled it, and it’s not a terribly bad one. We have had it in the shop, and it works okay for a while, but the frustrating thing is we can’t seem to figure out why it does it so we can fix it once and for all. And it doesn’t even do it very often or even kind of often. It’s an extremely rare issue.
The car was acting up a bit last Friday when Steve came to get me after school. I tried to be calm, but I started shaking and my heart was pounding. I was starting to have an anxiety attack. Ever since Friday, I’ve been a bit of a wreck in the car. Let me tell you what I have done to avoid driving. I walked to the grocery store in the rain today. It was okay. It was actually nice. But I got wet, and the store is about seven tenths of a mile away. It’s not a bad walk. It doesn’t take very long. But it takes maybe five minutes to drive, and I don’t have to carry bags home. But walking doesn’t make me anxious.
Tonight, Dylan’s school was able to get us tickets to an autism-friendly production of A Christmas Carol. Dylan was excited. I was nervous to be in the car because I knew that it would be some stop-and-go traffic, and we might have to wait at lights. When it looked like it might take us a while to get into the parking garage at the theater, I could feel a full-on attack coming. I was already twisting my wallet in my hands. I was shaking. I felt tears coming on. So I apologized and asked if I could get out and wait while they parked. My husband is very understanding. Way more than he should be, given how little sense it makes. Because my rational mind knows that everything is really okay, I wasn’t worried about the family in the car. I was worried about being in the car myself and making everyone else worried and miserable. On the way back, we weren’t able to go out to eat because I was too anxious in the car. And it was completely fine. Nothing even happened.
I have avoided gatherings with friends because of transportation issues. I have walked when it wasn’t easy or convenient rather than drive. Last summer, when I was going to AP training in a town that is literally maybe a half hour away, I arranged to stay in the dorms and even to stay an extra night so I could travel by bus. I could easily have commuted each day and spent evenings with my family if not for my anxiety. The machinations I have to go through to go anywhere require a great deal of time and planning.
We are saving for a new car, and we should be able to get one soon. One thing I’m very thankful for this Christmas season is that my husband has been blessed with two big freelance writing gigs that will allow us to be able to buy a new car at last. I think the anxiety about the car will improve after I have a car that is reliable, dependable—new. I don’t expect it will vanish, but on the occasions when I’ve rented cars (yes, I’ve rented cars when traveling in-state because I’ve been afraid to drive my car any substantial distances), I haven’t been anxious.
The thing with anxiety is that I’ll probably find something else to fixate on. I actually do get anxious about other things (though the car is the only thing that drives me into full-on anxiety attack mode). I’m not sure what I’ll transfer the anxiety to. But I am hoping that being able to remove this one major source of anxiety from my life soon will offer me some freedom. Maybe I can go exploring. Maybe I don’t have to turn down invitations. Maybe I don’t have to feel bad about asking to carpool.
Given that an anxiety attack was the low point of my day, and also that I feel very embarrassed and sad about it (especially for my family), I was a bit scared to write about it. On the other hand, it’s not just the low point of my day today. It’s the low point of too many of my days. It’s a frustration that I know others share and can identify with. And since it does embarrass me so much, I don’t talk about it. It’s a pretty big slice of my life today, though.
Previous visitors might remember that I am implementing independent reading. Students have shared their reading progress for their first full week of independent reading. Almost all of them met their reading goals. A few observations:
- Most of the students are enjoying their books. One boy declared in class today that Kwame Alexander’s book The Crossover is the “best book [he’s] ever read.” He’s been recommending it to others. Another said of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, “This is a really intense and fun book to read, the pictures in the book combine [with] the writing really well and make it even more interesting.”
- One student said he wasn’t enjoying his book, and I emailed him to let him know it’s okay to abandon it and move on. I think he just needed to know it was okay.
- One girl finished a project we’ve been working on and read for the entire 75-minute period today. And she told me at the beginning of the year that she didn’t like reading and didn’t read for fun.
- Some of them need to recalibrate their goals. I had them use Penny Kittle’s method of counting how many pages they can read in ten minutes, then multiplying that figure by six and then doubling it to determine how much they can read in two hours. Some of them didn’t factor in needing to look up words (I have many English language learners in my classes) in their time.
- One student emailed me to let me know her page count was proving unrealistic, so she recalibrated on her own. I like the fact that my students are doing this kind of thinking: adjusting their own goals and taking ownership over their reading.
- One student finished John Lewis’s graphic memoir March: Book One. He picked up March: Book II and checked out Winger for over the break.
My student who is reading The Crossover is an interesting student. He’s one of those real charmers, a leader in the classroom. The other students tend to look to him. He’s easily the most outgoing student in the class, so when he says a book is the best book he’s ever read, the others are going to add it to their list. He said he is close to finishing his book and will need another “to read over the break.” And I said, “Yes, of course, because I want you all to keep reading over the break.” He joked that he would cuddle up with the book and a nice cup of tea. I told him he was describing my idea of a party.
So far, the independent reading is quite a success. I am pleased to see the students reading so much. I’ve had a good time reading along with them (I haven’t done any reading conferences yet because at this time, I haven’t identified a need).
The students are already establishing the routine of reading at the beginning of class. I forgot to set the timer and remind them to read today in one class, and they started without me!
As I’ve promised before, I’ll keep posting updates about how independent reading is working. It’s off to a strong start.
On Thursday, I took my students to our library, and our Director of Library Services, Jenn Hanson, booktalked several titles. Next, students took 30 seconds to select a book from the clear plastic bins at each table (or grabbed one of the books she booktalked). Students read the books for four minutes, then gave the books a rating (whatever rating scale they wanted to use), and put the book back. Jenn called it “book speed dating,” and I think the students really liked it. We did four rounds, and typically, students had a book in mind that they wanted to read after that.
Students checked out books and we calibrated their reading speed. I asked them to read at a comfortable pace for 10 minutes. After that we multiplied how many pages they could read in 10 minutes by 6 to get the number of pages per hour, then doubled that number for the pages that could be read in 2 hours. I want them to read 2 hours per week at a comfortable pace.
In class the next day, there were some questions about pages. What if some books had poems and you could read them faster? Yes, that happens, so you need to recalibrate for the new book when you get it.
I participated too, and I was able to find several books to put on my own reading list. I had asked students to turn to the last page of their Reader’s/Writer’s Notebooks to make a list, and every student had several titles written down.
I didn’t notice any overt resistance. Everyone, even my students who describe themselves as non-readers, found a book. In class the next day, all but one of the students remembered to bring their books (and I happened to have had a copy of his book to lend him for class).
I booktalked Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian the next day (only in one class because the other doesn’t meet again until Monday, at which time I’ll share the Alexie book with that class). I told students if it sounded interesting to put it on their list, and I notice that several students wrote the title down in their notebooks.
I also asked students to find one sentence that they really liked for some reason in their independent read and copy it down in their Reader’s/Writer’s Notebook then write one or two sentences about why they liked it. We all shared our sentences. I suggested that if someone’s sentence sounded interesting, students might want to write the title of the book it came from down as well.
The independent reading is off to an encouraging start. The students all chose great books, and Jenn was wonderful at engaging the students in selecting their books.