Posted in Poetry, Teaching, Writing

Why I Love Writing Club

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Two years ago, I began assisting with my middle school’s Writing Club, and last year I took over as sponsor. It makes for a long Friday afternoon, and sometimes I need to just sit in the silence of my car for a few minutes before I drive home so I can get the ringing in my ears to stop*, but overall it’s been a very pleasurable experience.

* Ringing in your ears? It’s a Writing Club. Doesn’t that mean you spend the hour listening to the peaceful scratching of pen on paper? Um, no.

At my school’s Writing Club, the focus is on the word Club more than on the word Writing. The hour after school is as much about students gushing over their latest literary crush, arguing over which fandom is better: Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, and complaining about the perils of writer’s block, as it is about writing the great teen novel. We do eventually put gel pen to journal most days, but first there are beach ball ice breaker games and a general LOUD decompressing after a long day/week. Some students come to the club with works in progress—comics, sci-fi novels, poetry—that they add to or work on. Others sit down with a blank page and see what happens. Some just come for the company. Because, most importantly, Writing Club is a place where these young writers can be among their own kind and let their inner selves out to play without judgment.

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Random gift from a Writing Club kid. It hangs on my fridge.

My favorite part is when we end with sharing time because these kids, silly or not, are killing it with their poems and stories, and they’re not afraid to put themselves on paper or take their fiction to dark, shadowy places. Last week at our first meeting of the year (yes, we started Writing Club on a full moon Friday the 13th) one girl shared a heart-wrenchingly honest poem written to her math class crush, another read a haunting piece full of dramatic imagery, and another shared a witty, rhyming poem about the latest trends that had both me and our principal in stitches, even though we didn’t get all the references. These kids always inspire me. Which brings me to my other favorite thing about Writing Club… It often gets me writing.

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Poem I wrote during Writing Club

I’ve drafted unexpected blog posts in Writing Club and written poems based on prompts, and even wrote the first page of a story about a zombie crocodile that I later turned into something I really like. The ideas that come to me in this setting are things that probably would never cross my mind elsewhere, as if I, too, can channel my inner “young writer” around all this creative youth.

I’m grateful for Writing Club, and I’m looking forward to more meetings with this year’s bunch of unique little oddballs. They are my people.

Posted in Reading

A Tale of Two Books

I read all the time, but I don’t always read what everyone else is reading. My book choices bounce from classic horror to edgy YA to quiet middle grade titles to random novels with a cool cover that I saw at Half-Priced Books. I rarely read the MOST POPULAR BOOKS of the moment, those titles that are on everyone’s Goodreads page and every best seller list. If I do read them, it’s often much later, after all the hubbub has died down and I think, “Ok, let’s see what all the fuss was about.” (Often the fuss was right on. Sometimes I disagree with the fuss.)

However, last month, I read two VERY POPULAR BOOKS at the same time—one in print and one on audio—and I was shocked at how similar they were.

The books were Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and Educated by Tara Westover.

On the surface, these books are quite different. Where the Crawdads Sing is a fiction novel that is part mystery, set in the 1950s and 60s. The story is about a young woman named Kya, known to locals as “the Marsh Girl,” who grows up alone after her family leaves her, creating a life for herself in an isolated hut on the North Carolina coast. Educated, on the other hand, is a memoir about the author’s life growing up in the 1980s and 90s with her radical survivalist family in the mountains of Idaho. Her parents don’t believe in modern medicine and don’t even have birth certificates for their children, who, in the eyes of the government, don’t exist. Despite their obvious differences, the connections between these books were fascinating.

The biggest similarity was that both characters (I’m going to call Tara a character here even though she is a real person) were the youngest child in a large family and neither one went to school. Kya, lured by the promise of a hot lunch, went to school for one day when she was around seven years old, but when the other kids made fun of her for misspelling “dog,” she never went back. Due to her father’s intolerance of public school, Tara never set foot in a classroom until she was seventeen. However, both women were bright, quick learners and became educated through other means, each becoming an expert in their areas.

There is so much more, though, that links these two books. The richness of the setting is one. Both the marshes of the Carolina coast and the rural Idaho mountains were described so vividly, I could see them. When Kya was motoring through the lagoon in her old boat and Tara was working in the junkyard beside her father, I felt like I was there with them. Because of the Westovers’ primitive way of living, even the time periods of the books didn’t seem so far removed. Each time I heard a year mentioned in Educated, I was jolted for a moment at the reminder of how recently these things occurred.

In addition, both characters experience abuse by family members and ostracization from society. Both live in an isolated world of their own or their family’s own making. Both use home remedies to treat injuries, and both retain strong bonds to their family and place of birth despite the negative memories associated with them.

However, each subject matter is written about so differently by the authors. Westover’s concise, pragmatic prose left me breathless with its merciless betrayal of her family’s control over her and the accidents that resulted from her father’s recklessness and mental illness, while Owens’s depiction of Kya’s hardships was softer, more beautiful, blurred at the edges in ways that let the reader understand her heartache and hurt without falling into it.

In the end, I really liked both books and would give each 4.5 stars. In Where the Crawdads Sing, the .5 reduction is due to a couple of writing nitpicks. Although the language was beautiful, I got tired of the sentence fragments. And I loved the ending, but I thought more time needed to pass before the last reveal. I listened to the audio version of Educated, so I couldn’t see the sentences, but the writing seemed flawless, both effortless and precise. In that book, the .5 star reduction was due to the content itself. Tara’s life was hard to read about, and it disturbed me on so many levels. There were horrifying descriptions of injuries and cringe-worthy scenes of manipulation and abuse. The book was excellent, but I can’t say that I “enjoyed” a lot of it.

In conclusion, I strongly recommend both Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing and Westover’s Educated. The hubbub was spot on for these two. I also recommend reading them back-to-back so you too can enjoy the connections between these oddly similar books. (There were a few more similarities not mentioned here due to spoilers.) If I were you, I’d start with Educated and allow yourself to feel all the shock and frustration and horror of Tara’s childhood (while also, of course, admiring her strength and endurance and brilliance). Then let Where the Crawdads Sing be a soothing balm for your reading soul.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Teaching

On Fire: A Completely True and Not at All Sarcastic* Look at Differentiation in a Middle School Classroom

* ok, maybe a little sarcastic

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Imagine trying to light ten different fires while simultaneously trying to put out seven. That’s what differentiation in a classroom of thirty students feels like.

I once taught a dynamic, interactive, differentiated lesson that included modeling, group work, individual accommodations, and a reflective recap of the learning objective in front of an intern, an observer, and my inclusion teacher, and it all went near-perfectly. (Once. I said this happened ONCE. It was like seeing a unicorn standing on the back of the Loch Ness Monster.) Afterward, my inclusion teacher told me, “Wow! You were on fire!” I said, “Thanks, yeah, that’s pretty much what it felt like.” Then I collapsed into a plastic chair for a full 30 seconds before setting up to do it all again for the next period, during which neither Nessy nor the unicorn made an appearance.

Accounting for every student’s distinctive learning style, individual accommodations, unique personality, and level of stress makes direct teaching difficult and giving inspirational speeches almost impossible. It seems like I’m always pressuring my students too much or not enough. I can never find the proper balance. I don’t think it’s my fault, though. Mixed-level classes and large class sizes and the amount of variation in accommodations make it tough for one person to address an entire group the same way.

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Consider this: What if Abraham Lincoln had been required to accommodate the Gettysburg Address? What if Martin Luther King, Jr. had wanted to inspire half his audience to action while also thanking the other half for all the work they’d already done?

Abraham Lincoln:
“Four score and seven years ago (that’s 87 years) our fathers brought forth on this continent (North America), a new nation, conceived in liberty (that means formed in freedom), and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. (I’ll pause here for a moment while you think about that. Danny, here’s a paper copy of the speech. Yes, Betty, you may go to the restroom.)”

Martin Luther King, Jr:
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. (Sally and Albert, you’ve done an excellent job exalting valleys so far this year, and Robert, you’re making good progress on straightening those crooked places. You should feel proud of yourselves.) Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. (Mississippi, I know you’ve been struggling with the whole freedom thing. You just keep applying yourself, okay?) Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado…”

I’m not critiquing the practice of differentiation. It is absolutely the right way to teach and the best way to help students progress. We have come so far from the days where every lesson was a teacher-centered lecture that left bright, creative, differently-engaged students behind. My point is only that individualized instruction is difficult, especially in large classes. You need a lot of matches and a lot of damp towels to concurrently ignite and douse the coals of each individual student’s motivation to the appropriate level, and if you do it right, there will likely be smoke coming out of your ears by the end of the day.

I think that metaphor got away from me. Sorry. To clarify, don’t bring matches to school.