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1. Classroom Connections: The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society by Janet Sumner Johnson

age range: 9-12 years
genre: contemporary fiction
PB&J Society Rules
PB&J Society Bonus Chapter
Janet Sumner Johnson’s website

Please tell us about your book.

Some things are better together. Like peanut butter and jelly. Or Annie and Jason. So when her best friend’s house is threatened with foreclosure, Annie Jenkins is bursting with ideas to save Jason’s home. She could sell her appendix on eBay. (Why not?) Win the lottery. (It’s worth a shot!) Face the evil bankers herself. (She’s one tough cookie, after all.) Or hunt down an elusive (and questionably real) pirate treasure. Whatever the plan, it has to work, or this is undoubtedly The Last Great Adventure of the PB & J Society.

What inspired you to write this story?

I originally started writing this book based on memories from my own childhood. However, that version of the book was all over the place and not very good, so I shelved it. When I read through it many years later, Annie and Jason were so much fun, I couldn’t let them go.

Around that same time, the housing crisis was in full swing, and foreclosures were becoming all too common. I had some friends facing this, and I wondered how it affected their children. It was an easy connection to have Annie and Jason face this conflict, and the book grew out of that.

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching? 

My book, while not historical in and of itself, does have bits of history which required research here and there. Most of my research came after the first draft on an as-needed basis. For what I needed, simple internet-based searches worked fine, and I would usually fact check across various sites. However, I did use my Dr. Husband for some medical questions. Very useful to have an expert in the house!

One interesting thing I learned in my research is that Peanut Butter used to be called Peanut Paste. Sounds gross, right? John Harvey Kellogg (Yes, that Kellogg) patented a peanut-butter-making process in 1898. However, even though most information that I found credited Mr. Kellogg as the first patent-holder, a Canadian gentleman named Marcellus Gilmore Edson actually received a U.S. patent for his own peanut-butter making process in 1884. Maybe they ignore him because he’s Canadian? Maybe because his name isn’t as recognizable? I don’t know. But I thought that was interesting.

Another thing I learned is that peanut butter, apparently, wasn’t as tasty back then. It was invented for people with bad teeth who couldn’t chew. Who knew?

What are some special challenges associated with writing contemporary middle-grade fiction? 

I love writing contemporary fiction because it is easy to identify with the characters and their circumstances. They face stuff we deal with in a very recognizable way. But one of the challenges is that time marches on and things change very quickly.

For example, in an earlier draft of my book, I made some references to Twinkies. And then BOOM! Hostess went bankrupt and Twinkies were gone. Just like that. I had to do an emergency edit and cut those references all out.

Of course, we all know that Twinkies are now back, but I decided it was better to keep them out.

Also in an earlier draft, I referenced iPods a lot. My editor rightly suggested that those are now out-dated, and kids have moved on to iPhones. Really, what I should be learning is not to use brand names in my writing!

But even then, you can’t always know what to avoid. In another book, I had one character telling another to “Let it go.” After a certain Disney movie was released, I couldn’t read the passage the same anymore, and had to change it.

In short, it can be tricky to keep a contemporary feel to a contemporary book when it takes years to write and publish it.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

There are quite a few discussion topics in my book, both serious and fun.

On the serious side:
-foreclosure
-moving
-making/being a friend
-parent’s job loss
-growing up

On the fun side:
-brain freeze
-pirates
-treasure maps
-ways to earn money
-soccer

 

Click through to sign up for my quarterly newsletter and you’ll receive a free printable from my novel, Blue Birds. Enjoy!

The post Classroom Connections: The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society by Janet Sumner Johnson originally appeared on Caroline Starr Rose

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2. Middle Grade Books Are Not About You and Me (With a Nod to Colby Sharp and Linda Urban)

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I few weeks ago I shared a link to a blog post by teacher Colby Sharp. In it he talked about picking up a middle grade book and feeling like he’d seen it all before. Then he read these words by author Linda Urban:

Colby went on to say “middle grade books are not about you and me” (in other words, the adults out there).

I’ve thought so much about Colby’s and Linda’s words these past few months. They’ve helped me solidify some of my ideas about children’s literature, actually. While I will always, always, always believe a good book is a good book for everyone, regardless of age (though not all books are for every reader, which is another discussion entirely), Linda has reminded me that children’s literature is first and foremost for children.

Of course I know this, but I think sometimes I bring an outside perspective (as both reader and writer) that doesn’t always serve the work best. Rather, this is where I’d like my focus to be:

  • If this book is for a young reader, what is it they’ll discover that will be meaningful and ring true?
  • What am I willing to say as an author that might feel trite or old news to the grow ups but could be new and important to young readers?
  • Am I willing as a reader not to have my needs met first when I am reading middle grade?

I’m curious what readers here think.

 

Click through to sign up for my quarterly newsletter and you’ll receive a free printable from my novel, Blue Birds. Enjoy!

The post Middle Grade Books Are Not About You and Me (With a Nod to Colby Sharp and Linda Urban) originally appeared on Caroline Starr Rose

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3. Meet Local Authors, ABQ Readers and Teachers!

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Fri-Sun — April 15th, 16th, 17th
Barnes & Noble, Coronado Mall (6600 Menaul Blvd)

From SCBWI-NM:

Nearly 20 local authors and illustrators will be giving talks, readings, and signings over this three day event. We will also have a table set up with as many local authors’ and illustrators’ books as we can get our hands on! Many autographed copies will be available.

*Bonus, the fair coincides with Barnes & Noble’s Educator Appreciation Week—meaning all educators (K-12) that have signed up for an education membership with Barnes & Noble, will get 25% off their purchases!

This is a huge event for New Mexico’s chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators — the first of its kind. I’ll be there Sunday, April 17 from noon to two and will read Over in the Wetlands and give a presentation about Roanoke’s Lost Colony. (If you’re an elementary teacher, be sure to pick up a copy of Blue Birds. It’s on the New Mexico Battle of the Books list next year).

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Please spread the word. I’d love to see you there!

 

Click through to sign up for my quarterly newsletter and you’ll receive a free printable from my novel, Blue Birds. Enjoy!

The post Meet Local Authors, ABQ Readers and Teachers! originally appeared on Caroline Starr Rose

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4. reflections as the end of this teaching semester nears

Maybe it's because I lead but one class during the one semester at Penn that teaching carries, for me, such weight. I begin planning for January in August, often earlier. Choosing the books we'll read, plotting our course, interacting with potential students. I pack as much into every class as our allotted hours allow. Pressing in with ideas, exhortations, readings. Bringing guests like George Hodgman (via Skype), Reiko Rizzuto, Margo Rabb, A.S. King, and Trey Popp into the fold. (Next year we'll be hosting Paul Lisicky, and focused on the art of time in memoir.) Using multiple media, stretching the idea of memoir, expecting much. Finding the good while searching, too, for all that is still possible.

And, this semester, leading two remarkable thesis candidates—Nina Friend and David Marchino—toward work so extraordinary that, I believe, it will represent their calling cards for years and years to come.

Teaching is standing before a class, then stepping aside. It's managing the ripples and waves while keeping the craft on course.

Three more weeks. And then these students will be off on their own, carrying our lessons forward, glancing back, I hope, not just as writers, but as people who value truth, empathy, conversation, and a greater knowing of themselves.

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5. Classroom Connections: The Last Boy at St. Edith’s by Lee Gjertsen Malone

The Last Boy at St. Edith’s
age range: 8-12
genre: contemporary fiction
Lee Gjertsen Malone’s website

This is a funny, emotional book that will quickly become a favorite to many a reader, regardless of age. Sweet, funny, exciting—a spectacular debut. — Kirkus, starred review

Humor mixes with more serious issues in this clever debut. — Booklist

Malone’s debut is a sweet, candid novel about fitting in, messing up, and making amends. — Publisher’s Weekly

Please tell us about your book.

It’s the story of a boy named Jeremy who goes to an all girl’s school that tried to go coed but failed. He ends up being the very last boy left at the school, because his mother works there and won’t let him transfer, so he hatches a plan with his best friend to pull some epic pranks in an effort to get himself expelled.

What inspired you to write this story?

It began with a conversation with my husband. He went to an all-boy’s school that went coed a few years after he graduated, and we got a fundraising newsletter from his alma mater. As a graduate of public schools, I was fascinated with the whole idea – why a previously single gender school would decide to go coed, and, because this is where my mind goes, how would they know it would work? And what would happen if it didn’t work, and instead of there being more and more kids of your gender each year, there were fewer and fewer?

And the same time I was also thinking I wanted to write a book about a strong boy-girl friendship that was tested by growing up, and the combination of those two ideas got me started writing this book.

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching? 

I love doing research, even if it’s not obvious in the finished book. I love it almost too much. For this book I researched a lot of things – saint names, the economic development of western Massachusetts, and how doorknobs are put together. Oh, and pranks. Lots and lots of pranks.

What are some special challenges associated with writing middle grade?

First, I think that while it’s true that in any novel every scene has to have a purpose, in middle grade I think it’s even more important – because of the space constraints, every scene needs to do double and triple duty. There’s also the tricky issue of the middle grade voice. It’s not easy to find that balance where your kids sound like kids and the story feels like something they would be interested in without becoming a parody of the way kids talk.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

The book touches on a few topics I think would be great for classroom conversations. The first is gender – what does it mean to act like a boy? What does it mean to act like a girl? And why does it matter? Do you need to have friends and role models like yourself in order to know how you are supposed to be?

Secondly, Jeremy, the main character, is a lot of ways a cultural norm in our society. He’s white, male, middle class. He wouldn’t stand out at all in a lot of places. But he definitely does stand out at St. Edith’s. Which leads to the question, what makes something a norm anyway? How can you decide what’s normal without considering the context?

And finally, the main characters make some really bad decisions in the book that seem like good ideas at first. They never intend to hurt anyone with their pranks but they end up causing a lot more trouble than they expected. I think it’s interesting to think about what you should do when something you never intended to cause people trouble backfires.

What do you think of the blog? I’d love to hear from you.
Click through to sign up for my quarterly newsletter and you’ll receive a free printable from my novel, Blue Birds. Enjoy!

The post Classroom Connections: The Last Boy at St. Edith’s by Lee Gjertsen Malone originally appeared on Caroline Starr Rose

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6. Top Posts of All Time

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In 2009 I stopped teaching without any publishing prospects, but with the burning conviction it was time to put everything behind my efforts to finally sell a book. I did what every other aspiring author was doing then: I started a blog.

A few months later, I signed with my first agent. Four months after that, May B. was under contract. Through highs and lows this blog has been a constant, a place for me to think through ideas, share bits of encouragement, introduce readers to new books, and celebrate my own. Whether you’ve been here from the beginning or are entirely new, I thank you for the ways you’ve added to the conversation and become a key part of my writing life.

Over the next few months I plan to highlight key posts that have risen to the top. Today’s are the posts that are read most often (I wrote this before last week, when this post, now the top post of all time, went live). While my sense is most regular readers are aspiring writers, it’s interesting to note these posts almost exclusively speak to teachers, librarians, and parents looking to share books with their children.

Running a Book Club for Kids

The first post in a series based on my experience running after-school book clubs, this post has been number one around here for years. Included in the post are links to the rest of the series.

girls and pearls

The Gift of Friendship

I love knowing that the second most-widely read post on the blog is essentially a love letter to my dear friend, Jamie C. Martin, whose own book comes out later this year. The post touches on the ways friends bolster and inspire us, in this case how Jamie pushed me to be brave when writing Blue Birds.

Third-Grade Book Club Reading Lists

Straight from my after-school book club days, this is the list I used with third-grade readers, plus a run down of everything I included in my Welcome to Book Club handout.

Classroom Connections: Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Lynda’s had a pretty phenomenal year, hitting the NYT Bestseller’s List with her second middle-grade novel, Fish in a Tree, and going on to win the American Library Association’s Schneider Family Book Award, which “embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.” This interview includes links to Lynda’s website and educator’s guide.

Fast Five: Novels About Teachers and Their Students

This one’s been a favorite for a long time, with a number of oldie but goodies sure to inspire.

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Reading in the Wild: 5 Things Wild Readers Do

Teacher turned author turned Scholastic Press guru, Donalyn Miller, has written two glorious books about reading and teaching that I devoured. This post is one of several that grew out of her second book, Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits. Read our interview based on Donalyn’s first book, The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, here.

Click through to sign up for my quarterly newsletter and you’ll receive a free printable from my novel, Blue Birds. Enjoy!

The post Top Posts of All Time originally appeared on Caroline Starr Rose

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7. Workshops of Empire by Eric Bennett


Eric Bennett has an MFA from Iowa, the MFA of MFAs. (He also has a Ph.D. in Lit from Harvard, so he is a man of fine and rare academic pedigree.) Bennett's recent book Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War is largely about the Writers' Workshop at Iowa from roughly 1945 to the early 1980s or so. It melds, often explicitly, The Cultural Cold War with The Program Era, adding some archival research as well as Bennett's own feeling that the work of politically committed writers such as Dreiser, Dos Passos, and Steinbeck was marginalized and forgotten by the writing workshop hegemony in favor of individualistic, apolitical writing.

I don't share Bennett's apparent taste in fiction (he seems to consider Dreiser, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, etc. great writers; I don't), but I sympathize with his sense of some writing workshops' powerful, narrowing effect on American fiction and publishing for at least a few decades. He notes in his conclusion that the hegemonic effect of Iowa and other prominent programs seems to have declined over the last 15 years or so, that Iowa in recent years has certainly become more open to various types of writing, and that even when Iowa's influence was at an apex, there were always other sorts of programs and writers out there — John Barth at Johns Hopkins, Robert Coover at Brown, and Donald Barthelme at the University of Texas are three he mentions, but even that list shows how narrow in other ways the writing programs were for so long: three white hetero guys with significant access to the NY publishing world.

What Bennett most convincingly shows is how the discourse of creative writing within U.S. universities from the beginning of the Cold War through at least to the 1990s created a field of limited, narrow values not only for what constitutes "good writing", but also for what constitutes "a good writer". It's a tale of parallel, and sometimes converging, aesthetics, politics, and pedagogies. Plenty of individual writers and teachers rejected or rebelled against this discourse, but for a long time it did what hegemonies do: it constructed common sense. (That common sense was not only in the workshops — at least some of it made its way out through writing handbooks, and can be seen to this day in pretty much all of the popular handbooks on how to write, including Stephen King's On Writing.)

Some of the best material in Workshops of Empire is not its Cold War revelations (most of which are known from previous scholarship) but in its careful limning of the tight connections between particular, now often forgotten, ideas from before the Cold War era and what became acceptable as "good writing" later. The first chapter, on the "New Humanism", is revelatory, especially in how it draws a genealogy from Irving Babbitt to Norman Foerster to Paul Engle and Wallace Stegner. Bennett tells the story of New Humanism as it relates to New Criticism and subsequently not just the development of workshop aesthetics, but of university English departments in the second half of the 20th century generally, with New Humanism adding a concern for ethical propriety ("the question of the relation of the goodness of the writing to the goodness of the writer") to New Criticism's cold formalism:
Whereas the New Criticism insisted on the irreducible and indivisible integrity of the poem or story — every word counted — the New Humanism focused its attention on the irreducible and indivisible integrity of the humanistic subject. It did so not as a kind of progressive-educational indulgence but in deference to the wholeness of the human person and accompanied by a strict sense of good conduct. (29-30)
This mix was especially appealing to the post-WWII world of anti-Communist liberalism, a world scarred by the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, and a United States newly poised to inflict its empire of moral righteousness across the world.

For all of Bennett's gestures toward Marxism and anti-imperialism, he seems to share some basic assumptions about the power of literature with the men of the Cold War era he disdains as conservatives. In the book's conclusion, he writes:
It remains an open question just how much criticism some or all American MFA programs deserve for contributing to the impasse of neoliberalism — the collective American disinclination to think outside narrow ideological commitments that exacerbate — or at the very least preempt resistance to — the ugliest aspects of the global economy. Those narrow commitments center, above all, on an individualism, economic and otherwise, vastly more powerful in theory and public rhetoric than in fact. We encourage ourselves to believe that we matter more than we do and to go it alone more than we can. This unquestioned inflation of the personal begs, in my opinion, the kinds of questions that must be asked before any reform or solution to some seriously pressing problems looks likely to be found. (173)
This is almost comically self-important in its idea that MFA programs might (he hopes?) have enough cultural effect that if only they had been more willing to teach students to write like Thomas Wolfe and John Steinbeck, then maybe we could conquer neoliberalism! One moderately popular movie has more cultural effect than piles and piles of books written by even the famous MFA people. If you want to fight neoliberalism, your MFA and your PhD (from Harvard!) aren't likely to do anything, sorry to say. If you want to fight neoliberalism ... well, I don't know. I'm not convinced neoliberalism can be fought, though we might be able to find an occasional escape in aesthetics. The idea that Books Do Big Things In The World is one that Bennett shares with his subjects; he'd just prefer they read different books.

As self-justifying delusions go, I suppose there are worse, and all of us who spend our lives amidst writing and reading believe to some extent or another that it's worthwhile, or else we wouldn't do it. But "worthwhile" is far from "world-changing". (Rx: Take a couple Wallace Shawn plays and call me in the morning.)

Despite this, Bennett's concluding chapter had me raising my fist in solidarity, because no matter what our personal tastes in fiction may be, no matter how much we may disagree about the extent to which writing can influence the world, we agree that writing pedagogy ought to be diverse and historically informed in its approach.

Bennett shows some of the forces that imposed a common shallowness:
There was, in the second wave of programs — the nearly fifty of them founded in the 1960s — little need to critique the canon and smash the icons. To the contrary, the new roster of writing programs could thrive in easy conscience. This was because each new seminar undertook to add to the canon by becoming the canon. The towering greats (Shakespeare, Milton, Whitman, Woolf, whoever) diminished in influence with each passing year, sharing ever more the icon's niche with contemporary writers. In 1945, in 1950, in 1955, prospective poets and novelists looked to the neverable pantheon as their competition. In 1980, in 1990, in 2015, they more often regarded their published teachers or peers as such. (132)
That's polemical, and as such likely hyperbolic, but it suggests some of the ways that some writing programs may have capitalized on the culture of narcissism that has only accelerated via social media and is now ripe for economic exploitation. I don't think it's a crisis of the canon — moral panics over the Great Western Tradition are academic Trumpism — so much as a crisis of literary-historical knowledge. Aspiring writers who are uninterested in reading anything written before they were born are nincompoops. Understandably and forgiveably so, perhaps (U.S. culture is all about the current whizbang thing, and historical amnesia is central to the American project), but too much writing workshop pedagogy, at least of the recent past, has been geared toward encouraging nincompoopness. As Bennett suggests, this serves the interests of American empire while also serving the interests of the writing world. It domesticates writers and makes them good citizens of the nationalistic endeavor.

Within the context of the book, Bennett's generalizations are mostly earned. What was for me the most exciting chapter shows exactly the process of simplification and erasure he's talking about. That chapter is the final one before the conclusion: "Canonical Bedfellows: Ernest Hemingway and Henry James". Bennett's claim here is straightforward: The consensus for what makes writing "good" that held at least from the late 1940s to the end of the 20th century in typical writing workshops and the most popular writing handbooks was based on teachers' knowledge of Henry James's writing practices and everyone's veneration of Hemingway's stories and novels.

For Bennett, Hemingway became central to early creative writing pedagogy and ideology for three basic reasons: "he fused together a rebellious existential posture with a disciplined relationship to language, helping to reconcile the avant-garde impulse with the classroom", "he offered in his own writing...a set of practices with the luster of high art but the simplicity of any good heuristic", and "he contributed a fictional vision whose philosophical dimensions suited the postwar imperative to purge abstractions from literature" (144). Hemingway popularized and made accessible many of the innovations of more difficult or esoteric writers: a bit of Pound from Pound's Imagist phase, some of Stein's rhythms and diction, Sherwood Anderson's tone, some of the early Joyce's approach to word patterns... ("He was possibly the most derivative sui generis author ever to write," Bennett says. Snap!) Hemingway's lifestyle was at least as alluring for post-WWII male writers and writing teachers as his writing style: he was macho, war-scarred, nature-besotted in a Romantic but also carnivorous way. He was no effete intellectual. If you go to school, man, go to school with Papa and you'll stay a man.

The effect was galvanizing and long-term:
Stegner believed that no "course in creative writing, whether self administered or offered by a school, could propose a better set of exercises" than this method of Hemingway's. Aspirants through to the present day have adopted Hemingway's manner on the page and in life. One can stop writing mid-sentence in order to return with momentum the following morning; aim to make one's stories the tips of icebergs; and refrain from drinking while writing but aim to drink a lot when not writing and sometimes in fact drink while writing as one suspects with good reason that Hemingway himself did, despite saying he didn't. One can cultivate a world-class bullshit detector, as Hemingway urged. One can eschew adverbs at the drop of a hat. These remain workshop mantras in the twenty-first century. (148)
Clinching the deal, the Hemingway aesthetic allowed writing to be gradeable, and thus helped workshops proliferate:
Hemingway's methods are readily hospitable to group application and communal judgment. A great challenge for the creative writing classroom is how to regulate an activity ... whose premise is the validity and importance of subjective accounts of experience. The notion of personal accuracy has to remain provisionally supreme. On what grounds does a teacher correct student choices? Hemingway offered an answer, taking prose style in a publicly comprehensible direction, one subject to analysis, judgment, and replication. ... One classmate can point to metaphors drawn from a reality too distant from the characters' worldview. Another can strike out those adverbs. (151)
Bennett then points out that the predecessors of the New Critics, the conservative Southern Agrarians, thought they'd found in Hemingway almost their ideal novelist (alas, he wasn't Southern). "The reactionary view of Hemingway," Bennett writes, "became the consensus orthodoxy." Hemingway's concrete details don't offer clear messages, and thus they allowed his work to be "universal" — and universalism was the ultimate goal not only of the Southern Agrarians, but of so many conservatives and liberals after WWII, when art and literature were seen as a means of uniting the world and thus defeating Communism and U.S. enemies. "Universal" didn't mean actually universal in some equal exchange of ideas and beliefs — it meant imposing American ideals, expectations, and dreams across the globe. (And consequently opening up the world to American business.)

Such a discussion of how Hemingway influenced creative writing programs made me think of other ways complex writing was made appealing to broad audiences — for instance, much of what Bennett writes parallels with some of the ideas in work such as Creating Faulkner's Reputation by Lawrence H. Schwartz and especially William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist, where Daniel Singal proposes that Faulkner's alcoholism, and one alcohol-induced health crisis in November 1940 especially, turned the last 20 years of Faulkner's life and writing into not only a shadow of its former achievement, but a mirror of the (often conservative) critical consensus that built up around him through the 1940s. Faulkner became teachable, acceptable, "universal" in the eyes of even conservative critics, as well as in Faulkner's own pickled mind, which his famous Nobel Prize banquet speech so perfectly shows.

(Thus some of my hesitation around Bennett's too easy use of the word "modernist" throughout Workshop of Empire — the strain of Modernism he's talking about is a sanitized, domesticated, popularized, easy-listening Modernism. It's Hemingway, not Stein. It's late Faulkner, not Absalom, Absalom!. It's white, macho-male, heterosexual, apolitical. The influence seems clear, but it chafes against my love of a broader, weirder Modernism to see it labeled only as "modernism" generally.)

Then there's Henry James. Not for the students, but the teachers:
As with Hemingway, James performed both an inner and an outer function for the discipline. In his prefaces and other essays, he established theories of modern fiction that legitimated its status as a discipline worthy of the university. Yet in his powers of parsing reality infinitesimally, James became an emblem similar to Hemingway, a practitioner of resolutely anti-Marxian fiction in an era starved for the same. (152)
Reducing the influence and appeal here to simply the anti-Marxian is a tic produced by Bennett's yearning for the return of the Popular Front, because his own evidence shows that the immense influence of Hemingway and James served not only to veer teachers, students, writers, and critics away from any whiff of agit-prop, but that it created an aesthetic not only hostile to Upton Sinclair but to the 19th century Decadents and Symbolists, to much of the Harlem Rennaissance, to most forms of popular literature, and to any writers who might seem too difficult, abstruse, or weird (imagine Samuel Beckett in a typical writing workshop!).

As Bennett makes clear, the idea of Henry James's writing practice more than any of James's actual texts is what held through the decades. "He did at least five things for the discipline," Bennett says (152-153):

  1. His Prefaces assert the supremacy of the author, and "the early MFA programs depended above all on a faith that literary meaning could be stable and stabilized; that the author controlled the literary text, guaranteed its significance, and mastered the reader."
  2. James's approach was one of research and selection, which is highly appealing to research universities. Writing becomes a laboratory, the writer an experimenter who experiments succeed when the proper elements are selected and balanced. "He identified 'selection' as the major undertaking of the artist and perceived in the world a landscape without boundaries from which to do the selecting." Revision is key to the experiment, and revision should be limitless. Revision is virtue.
  3. James was anti-Romantic in a particular way: "James centered modern fiction on art rather than the artist, helping to shape the doctrines of impersonality so important to criticism from the 1920s through the 1950s. He insulated the aesthetic object from the deleterious encroachments of ego." Thus the object can be critiqued in the workshop, not the creator. 
  4. "James nonetheless kept alive the romantic spirit of creative inspiration and drew a line between those who have it and those who don't." He often sounds mystical in his Prefaces (less so his Notebooks). The craft of writing can be taught, but the art of writing is the realm of genius.
  5. "James regarded writing as a profession and theorized it as one." The writer is someone who labors over material, and the integrity of the writer is equal to the integrity of the process, which leads to the integrity of the final text.
These ideas took hold and were replicated, passed down not only through workshops, but through numerous handbooks written for aspiring writers.

The effect, ultimately, Bennett asserts, was to stigmatize intellect. Writing must not be a process of thought, but a process of feeling. It must be sensory. "No ideas but in things!" A convenient ideology for times of political turmoil, certainly.
Semester after semester, handbook after handbook, professor after professor, the workshops were where, in the university, the senses were given pride of place, and this began as an ideological imperative. The emphasis on particularity, which remains ubiquitous today, inviolable as common sense, was a matter for debate as recently as 1935. The debate, in the 21st century, is largely over. (171)
I wonder. From writers and students I sense — and this is anecdotal, personal, sensory! — a desire for something more than the old Imagist ways. A desire for thought in fiction. For politics, but not a simple politics of vulgar Marxism. The ubiquity of dystopian fiction signals some of that, perhaps. Dystopian fiction is being written by both the hackiest of hacks and the highest of high lit folks. It shows a desire for imagination, but a particular sort of imagination: an imagination about society. Even at its most personal, navel-gazing, comforting, and self-justifying, it's still at least trying to wrestle with more than the concrete, more than the story-iceberg.

So, too, the efflorescence of different types of writing programs and different types of teachers throughout the U.S. today suggests that the era of the aesthetic Bennett describes may be, if not over, at least far less hegemonic. Bennett cites its apex as somewhere around 1985, and that seems right to me. (I might bump it to 1988: the last full year of Reagan's presidency and the publication of Raymond Carver's selected stories, Where I'm Calling From.) The people who graduated from the prestigious programs then went on to become the administrators later, but at this point most of them have retired or are close to retirement. There are still narrow aesthetics, but there's plenty else going on. Most importantly, writers with quite different backgrounds from the old guard are becoming not just the teachers, but the administrators. Bennett notes that some of the criticism he received for earlier versions of his ideas pointed to these changes: 
I was especially convinced by the testimony of those who argued that the Iowa Writers' Workshop under Lan Samantha Chang's directorship has different from Frank Conroy's iteration of that program, which I attended in the late 1990s and whose atmosphere planted in my heart the suspicion that, for some reason, the field of artistic possibilities was being narrowed exactly where it should be broadest. In the twenty-first century, things have changed both at Iowa and at the many programs beyond Iowa, where few or none of my conclusions might have pertained in the first place. (163)
That's an important caveat there. The present is not the past, but the past contributed to the present, and it's a past that we're only now starting to recover.

There's much more to be investigated, as I'm sure Bennett knows. The role of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and similar institutions would add some more detail to the study; similarly, I think someone needs to write about the intersections of creative writing programs and composition/rhetoric programs in the second half of the twentieth century. (Much more needs to be written about CUNY during Mina Shaughnessy's time there, for instance, or about Teachers & Writers.) But the value of Bennett's book is that it shows us that many of the ideas about what makes writing (and writers) "good" can be — should be — historicized. Such ideas aren't timeless and universal, and they didn't come from nowhere. Bennett provides a map to some of the wheres from whence they came.

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8. Why Pay Authors for School Visits Anyway?

book posters illinois

Yesterday I shared tips on finding authors who are interested in school visits. Today I’m going to bring up compensation, a topic that is never easy to discuss but is nevertheless necessary, especially if you’re interested in inviting an author to your school. Let’s look at some commonly-held assumptions about authors and visits and contrast them with a more realistic glimpse at things.

Assumption #1: Shouldn’t authors offer free school visits? After all, it’s great for publicity. Some authors do offer free visits, whether when first starting out (I did that) or by offering one or two free visits each year (I’ve done that, too) or in other situations when they choose to do so. But here’s the thing:

An author is a professional. Just as we wouldn’t expect a plumber to fix a leak in exchange for publicity, we shouldn’t expect the same from an author sharing her expertise with young readers.

There’s an unspoken assumption attached to this one, the idea that once an author sells a book she has it made. In truth, it’s safe to say many of us make less (in many cases far less) than your average teacher. All of my books have sold for less than what I received my first year teaching, and that was in the mid-nineties in New Mexico, one of the poorest states in the US. For an author, there’s no such thing as a steady income. Selling new books to a publisher can be sporadic, if it happens at all. I share this because I think it’s important to have a sense of how slow and precarious establishing oneself in the writing world can be. 

Assumption #2: We’d like to have bookseller come when you’re at our school. Aren’t book sales enough to cover an author visit? Thank you to every school that considers book sales! To give a child the opportunity to own a book — any book — is a gift. And there is special meaning attached to a book written by an author the child has met. Unfortunately, though, book sales are not the same as compensation.

For example, for each book I sell, I earn around $1 for a hardback and $.50 for each paperback. So while selling books at a school visit is wonderful, it is primarily a benefit for young readers.

photo-14

Assumption #3: I’ve just looked at your rates. You sure expect to make a lot of money an hour! If you click through to my author visits page, you’ll get sense at what I charge for visits in the Albuquerque area, within New Mexico, and out of state. While some authors choose not to list their prices online, I like having that information available to anyone who might consider inviting me to present at their school.

An author’s rates can’t be translated into hourly fees. When a school pays for an author visit, not only are they compensating the author for the work she does that day, but all the preparation that went into the presentations beforehand, the time spent traveling to and from the school, and the author’s time away from her writing desk. An author visit isn’t just an event, it’s an experience, one that takes time and preparation to get it just right.

Assumption #4: There’s no way my school can afford to bring an author in. Not true! Scholastic has produced a great document about preparing for an author visit, which includes ideas for fundraising. SCBWI offers the Amber Brown Grant, which annually gives one school “an all-expense-paid visit from a well-respected children’s author or illustrator.” Here’s another page with information on funding, another on grants. Perhaps money earmarked for field trips might be used for a school visit (think of it as a field trip coming to the school). Or maybe the PTA could help out. And don’t forget Skype visits, which cost significantly less.

Dan Gutman shares a wonderful quote from a student on his Perfect Author Visit page.

I am now reading more than any other part of my life thanks to Dan Gutman.

Isn’t this ultimately the wish of every author and teacher? An author visit is an opportunity to hook young readers, keep them reading, and serve their creativity, writing, and imaginations for years to come. It’s an investment, for sure, one I wholeheartedly believe is worth making.

Click through to sign up for my quarterly newsletter and you’ll receive a free printable from my novel, Blue Birds. Enjoy!

The post Why Pay Authors for School Visits Anyway? originally appeared on Caroline Starr Rose

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9. Four Places to Find Authors Who Want to Vist Your School

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Perhaps you’ve considered inviting an author to talk to your students but are unsure what to do. Maybe a neighboring school has just brought in an author to great success and you’d like to do the same.

But how exactly do you proceed? How do you find an author who does presentations? Are these visits free (and if not, shouldn’t they be)?*

Finding authors

Probably the most comprehensive list of authors who do school visits can be found through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ Speaker’s Bureau. Here you can find authors, illustrators, and children’s book translators by region or within a certain radius from where you are. Want someone who writes for a certain age range? You can do that, too.

For example, when I entered “All” (for authors, illustrators, or translators), “New Mexico,” and the age range 5-10, I was able to find six authors and illustrators who met that criteria. Because SCBWI is an international organization, you can find speakers from every corner of the globe and many who are willing to travel.

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Another way to find authors is to visit publishing websites directly. Scholastic, for example, has an Invite an Author page, where you can search a list of authors available for school and Skype visits. Here’s a similar page from Random House Children’s Books, one from Penguin, another from HarperCollins.

Author Kim Norman also hosts a blog called School Author Visits by State, where you can quickly scan lists of authors, arranged alphabetically by state, who are ready and willing to present at schools.

One final way to find an author to visit your school is to simply Google a few of your favorites. Many authors include on their websites information about school visits as well as presentations prospective schools can choose from. Here are a few examples I think are especially great:

Alexis O’Neill
Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Kate Messner
Don Tate
Deborah Wiles
Gordon Korman
Kekla Magoon
Barbara O’Connor
Terry Lynn Johnson

Once you’ve booked that author, consider reading these articles filled with great advice on making your visit spectacular.

Ten Tips for a Perfect Author Visit :: Nerdy Book Club
The Authors Answer: What Made Your Best School Visits Great? :: Publisher’s Weekly Shelftalker
The Perfect Author Visit :: Dan Gutman

*More on this second question in tomorrow’s post

 

Click through to sign up for my quarterly newsletter and you’ll receive a free printable from my novel, Blue Birds. Enjoy!

The post Four Places to Find Authors Who Want to Vist Your School originally appeared on Caroline Starr Rose

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10. Classroom Connections: The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price by Jennifer Maschari

The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price
genre: contemporary with magical realism
age range: 8-12
setting: Cincinnati
Jennifer Maschari’s website
discussion guide

Jennifer Maschari’s debut novel is a work-out for the heart. Charlie Price has to make a terrible choice between what has been and what could be, and readers will stick with him every poignant, suspenseful step of the way. Charlie’s journey is more than remarkable. It’s unforgettable.
–Tricia Springstubb, author of Moonpenny Island

What a beautiful book Jen Maschari has written—a brave and big-hearted exploration of the sustaining power of friendship and the infinite treasure of memory our loved ones give us.
— Anne Ursu, author of Breadcrumbs and The Real Boy

Beautifully crafted sentences read almost as if they were poetry…Fans of both fantasy and realistic fiction will appreciate this painful but ultimately triumphant, multilayered novel.
— School Library Journal, starred review

A beautifully written meditation on grief … Reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline”
— Booklist

Please tell us about your book.

My book is a middle grade novel about a boy named Charlie who thinks he is doing okay after the death of his mother. He has Mathletes, he has school, and he has his friends. But then his little sister, Imogen, finds a passageway under her bed to a world very much like their own, with one key difference: Mom is alive. But things are not as they seem. Charlie needs to find out the truth of this alternate world before he loses himself, the true memory of their mother and Imogen, forever.

My book has a little bit of everything: magic, math, hope, and a really great dog named Ruby.

What inspired you to write this story?

There are a lot of things that inspired the writing of Charlie’s story. My father passed away when I was younger so I think a lot of those feelings of loss and sadness and trying to find a new “okay” gave this story roots. I wrote the book that my younger self needed.

I also tutor students in math and used to teach fifth grade science. Charlie’s always been a mathematician to me. It was really interesting to contrast Charlie’s love of math (and its unchanging nature) with his constantly evolving feelings, hopes and understandings. Charlie wants there to be concrete answers, but life doesn’t always give them to you.

What are some interesting things you learned when researching for this book?

I did a lot of interesting research for this book. This research involved both using books and the internet to find answers.

Even though I grew up in Cincinnati where the book takes place, I made sure to look at maps of the area where Charlie lived. This added an extra layer of authenticity to his comings and goings (though I did take a few liberties). Google Maps was a great resource for this. Not only did I get to look at the street layouts but I also could look at pictures of the area. I researched the stars, constellation stories, different mathematical terms, and telescopes. An observatory in Cincinnati plays an interesting role in the story, and I e-mailed with the director to get the floor plans and discuss what could actually be seen by the telescopes. I love learning new things.

What are some special challenges associated with writing magical middle grade?

Defining the rules of magic was certainly a special challenge I had to face in writing this book. In an early draft, all kinds of magical things just happened at different times. I had to take a step back and actually write the rules down so I could refer to them as I was revising. It’s just like in real life. For example, take gravity. We know if we jump up, that we will come back down to earth. It’s what we expect. I had to build in that level of expectation with the magic. If this one thing happens, it causes this magical thing to happen, and I had to be consistent throughout.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

I truly believe that books act as mirrors (reflecting back our own experiences) and windows (allowing us to see into the lives of others). I hope that this book would reach kids who are facing difficult things in their lives – whether it be a death of a loved one or something else entirely – and let them see it’s possible to come out the other side. Books build empathy and allow safe spaces for kids to experience different emotions and situations. I hope that my book allows for that as well.

I think my book also has a lot of opportunities for cross-curricular connections:
-outer space (stars, orbits)
-math (variables, equations, Möbius strip)
-the constellations (stories and history behind them)

Click through to sign up for my quarterly newsletter and you’ll receive a free printable from my novel, Blue Birds. Enjoy!

The post Classroom Connections: The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price by Jennifer Maschari originally appeared on Caroline Starr Rose

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11. A week in Aberdeen


I had a bit of an adventure recently...

It began with me getting a plane to Scotland on a Sunday afternoon. Things got off to a dodgy start though - I nearly missed my flight. I had bags of time, right up to the point where, approaching the departure gate, I realised I'd left my watch in the tray at the security bit, so had to try and get back through. It's not so easy in the other direction. 'Last call for Lynne Chapman...' Luckily someone had handed my watch in. Thank goodness I noticed before I got on the plane.

I had been invited to spend 4 days at the International School of Aberdeen: the longest school visit I think I've ever done. I was put up in a rather nice hotel and had a big, if VERY taupe room: not a whisper of colour anywhere!



Bizarrely, on that Sunday night, I was the only person staying in the entire hotel. I could have run naked through the corridors at midnight. Instead I was very boring and went to bed. Well, I needed to be up bright and early for my first day at school. 

The excitement was at a pretty high level before I even got there but, as the days went by, it got better and better. I moved around the school to a constant soundtrack of 'There she is!' and 'Look, it's Lynne Chapman!' with children waving and calling hello. I was nipping to the loo one lunchtime when I overheard an excited whisper: 'Look, she's going to the toilet!', as if it was a shock that I actually needed to.


I kicked off that first Monday morning with a lecture about how picture books are created. They had a totally gorgeous theatre. It was packed tight with all the kids and quite a few parents. I immediately felt very welcome. Everyone was obviously really keen and the talk went down extremely well. Good start!


I read stories and larked about with the younger ones as usual. I read Rocky and the Lamb for the first time in ages and we designed monsters. These are some of the children's monster drawings. Very inventive - I love how they often come up with elaborate stories about their invented creature:



At the end of the session, I got them all to hold them up and make a monster noise:



With the slightly older ones, I had time for 2 different workshops for each group, which is very unusual - normally it's a squeeze to see everyone once. This meant I could try a couple of new things. After passing on all my hot tips for creating characters (basically the 'best of' my Craftsy class), I tried demo sessions, showing them how to colour artwork. Some classes experimented with the Inktense watercolour pencils I love so much and others used pastels.

I did a big demo-drawing of Giddy Goat in pastels to show them specific techniques. I added to it over the days until it was finished and left it with the school as a present. These are a few of the pastel drawings the children created:



It was a bit scary doing something I've not tried before, but the children were great and absolutely loved the Inktense watercolour pencils. Both children and teachers were all so enthusiastic about everything I shared, I walked around in a warm glow all week.

I was looked after really well too. I was taken out a couple of times for meals in the evenings with the school librarian who had booked me (Thai and Lebanese - yum). I even got to try my hand at an after-school yoga class (oh dear: lots of creaky bits). Come Thursday afternoon, I was almost sad to be going home. 

Luckily, the flight back home went without incident or recourse to stupidity.


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12. Cute Class at RISD

Recently, I taught a class at my alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design. It was a class on character design, focusing on THE CUTE ONES. Suffice it to say, this was right up my alley!

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13. Author-Teacher Interview: Esther Hershenhorn

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Esther, welcome back to Cynsations! What’s new in your writing-teacher life?

I’m happy to report: the teaching part of my teaching-author life is taking off in all sorts of new directions this year, literally and figuratively. I continue to teach writing for children workshops at both the University of Chicago’s Graham School’s Writer’s Studio and Chicago’s Newberry Library, where I’ve taught since 2001 in alternating seasons.

However, this April and May I’ll be facilitating a Writers Group at the Writer’s Studio for middle grade and young adult novelists. This June I’m introducing a new hands-on workshop in which writers use common marketing tools to create a GPS to guide their final submission-worthy revisions.

Both institutions bring me stellar students from all walks of life, so committed to telling their stories to children they wring me out like a sponge.

I love it and remain “Jewish-Mama proud” as they fully immerse themselves in learning and honing their craft.

Come July, I’ll be flying northeast to Landgrove, Vermont, where I’m honored to continue Barbara Seuling’s venerable Manuscript Workshop from July 10 to July 15 at the Landgrove Inn.

I’m back in Chicago July 23 through Aug. 3, again honored, this time to facilitate a writing for children workshop, along with Joan Bauer and Sara Holbrook, in Judson University’s Doctoral program.

We’ll spend time on campus grounding the soon-to-graduate Doctorate in Literacy candidates in the Children’s Book World’s story-telling opportunities and possibilities; we’ll then retreat to a northern Michigan resort where we’ll work one-one-one with our writers to help each ready his or her manuscript.

How exciting that you’ll be leading the Manuscript Workshop at the Landgrove Inn in Landgrove, Vermont! Would you please tell us about the history of the program?

The one-and-only Barbara Seuling - children’s book author of more than 60 titles, illustrator, former children’s book editor and esteemed children’s book writing teacher, founded The Manuscript Workshop in New York City in 1982, moving it to Vermont in 1992 and then to the Landgrove Inn these last few years.

That’s Barbara Seuling, the expert author, as in How To Write A Children's Book and Get It Published (Wiley, 2004), Barbara Seuling, whose dedication to craft and children’s literature as well as to her students and fellow children’s book creators is known to all in the children’s book world.

I’m mindful I’m stepping into some mighty huge shoes.

An early brochure’s cover quote underscored Barbara’s heart and the workshop’s intent: “Spread your writer’s wings…and discover how high you can soar.”

Countless working writers who attended the workshop and retreat have indeed flown high, connecting with fellow writers, learning new skills and polishing their work.

The good news is: my heart lies with Barbara’s; the workshop’s intent remains the same.

The small (up to eight writers) week-long workshop continues its tradition of offering insightful, informative and inspiring one-to-one student-teacher connections.

Morning sessions include hands-on writing exercises and instruction on craft – story and its structure, format and genre considerations, the young reader’s needs.

Afternoons are set aside for individual writing and/or re-visioning of manuscripts, optional special interest sessions or free time.

Evening sessions focus on readings of the day’s work and guided critiques.

Throughout the week, focused food-for-thought conversations at meals highlight the writing process, paths to publications, writer’s tips and sustaining the creative spirit.

Appropriately enough, manuscript workshop founder Barbara Seuling ices the week’s cake with a guest speaker visit.

How about your personal philosophy of teaching? What should your students expect from you?

As corny as it sounds, like Barbara I do things “the old-fashioned way” – up close and personal, eyeball to eyeball, heart to heart.

In my humble opinion: each of us has a story and the right to tell that story. It’s my job, as well as a privilege, to help the writer do just that if children are his or her audience. I do indeed invest in that story – in its construct, its telling, its place within the body of children’s literature.

But as important, I also invest in the writer. Knowing what our characters want/need/wish for and why isn’t enough; we need to know our own what's and why's. As Marion Dane Bauer taught me, the writer needs to be somewhere in his story if it’s to re-sound in the reader’s heart.

This was a truth that came late to me in my own path to publication, a career that – proudly - earned me the title “The Susan Lucci of Children’s Books.”

Again, it might sound corny, but I do my best to give my students and the writers I coach what I needed while out and about on my own writer’s plotline: I needed someone seeding me, feeding me, cheering me on, believing in my story, believing in me.

Like the earlier-mentioned Jewish Mama, I’m tough – because children deserve the very best, I nurture and I take enormous pride in the strides my students and coached writers – my “storied treasures” - continue to make.

One of the great lures of any workshop is the location. How would you describe it?

I cannot tell a lie: I’ve yet to visit the Green Mountains in person!

However, I’m counting the days ‘til I arrive.

Paging through Vermont travel guides and scrolling down the pages of online Vermont websites, I know what awaits me: majestic mountain peaks, rolling hills, picturesque valleys and verdant forests, scenic roads, hiking trails and quaint charming towns. “Idyllic” is the word most travel writers choose to describe the Green Mountain State.

Tom and Maureen Checchia, proprietors of the historic Landgrove Inn, known, incidentally, for its award-winning meals, describe their country inn and town as “authentically Vermont.”

The truth is: a whole lot of magic can happen when we leave our known and familiar writing rooms, when we take ourselves and our stories to new places and spaces and surround ourselves with like-minded, like-hearted folks who share our passion.

Tell us more what you’re doing in your writing life.

Ah! The author part of teaching-author.

Alas, when I do claim writing time between my teaching and coaching, my work, like my teaching, has taken off in new directions, literally and figuratively. Now, when I do write, I’m usually writing nonfiction.

I found this funny at first, since I was somewhat reluctant to join my fellow TeachingAuthors bloggers, certain the writing would not fulfill me as my fiction did. (How wrong I was!)

I also found my reluctance ironic. I minored in journalism at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication and cut my writer’s teeth working for a local newspaper, then educational text book publishers.

Researching and writing S is for Story, illustrated by Zachary Pullen (Sleeping Bear, 2009) turned me around 360°. The writing itself, straightforward and concrete, came so naturally, lost as I was in that creative flow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi advocates.

Recently I began blogging for the American Writer’s Museum, scheduled to open in Chicago in late 2016/early 2017.

Given my love of Chicago and All Things Children’s Book, my posts have featured Shel Silverstein (“A Chicago Gift Named Shel”), L. Frank Baum (“Somewhere, Over Lake Michigan!”) and The Center for the Book’s Letters About Literature project (“Dear Author”). Future posts will feature Gene Luen Yang (the new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature), the Walter Dean Meyers Award and a favorite author’s upcoming 100th Birthday.

Currently, I’m working with a graphic designer to create a new alphabet book concept.

And that one middle grade fictional character whose story grabbed my heart a life-time ago?

Fortunately, she’s making herself known on a daily basis.

How would you say your journey has evolved over time?

Leo the Late Bloomer and I have much in common.

For starters, like most beginning children’s book writers, I had no idea I was embarking on a journey, and a Hero’s Journey, to boot.

I was simply writing a picture book to be published in time for my son’s third birthday. It would be easy. It would be fun. And how nice that while doing so I could realize my childhood dream of seeing my name on the cover of a children’s book. I mean, I did teach fifth grade, right? I did write for newspapers, yes? I did write text books.

Fast forward lots of years dotted with lots of rejections and “oh, no!” Moments, past lots of twists and turns, not to mention lots of mentors and allies. To my amazement, as story helps the reader discover/uncover/recover his story, writing – and revising - my never-published picture books and middle grade fiction helped me discover/uncover/recover my story. I’d finally found my voice. I could speak from the heart. Published picture books soon indeed followed.

But wait! Just as the hero surprisingly returns with something so much better than what he first sought, I did too.

Once published, I went on to become a teacher and coach of children’s book writers.

In Elizabeth Strout’s new novel My Name is Lucy Barton (Random House, 2016), the title character and narrator shares remembered advice from a famous author whose writing workshop she’d attended. “You will have only one story,” Sarah Payne told the class. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”

I agree.

I’ve come to see that all of my books, whether fiction or nonfiction, picture book or novel, and all of my characters from Lowell Piggott to the referenced and cited children’s book creators in S is for Story, tell the reader: you matter!

Which is just what I tell my students and writers.

In so many inevitable yet surprising ways, I now understand my story may well be helping other writers tell their stories.

I look forward to doing just that July 10 to July 15 at the Landgrove Inn in Landgrove, Vermont.

Through February, The Inn offers a discount for accommodations. You can email Tom Chechhia at vtinn@sover.net.

Interested writers can also email me their questions at esthersh@aol.com.

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14. Straight from the Source: Cheryl Blackford on Writing Historical Fiction

Cheryl Blackford was born in Yorkshire, England but now lives in a house in the woods in Minnesota where she is entertained by a wide assortment of wildlife, including coyotes. Lizzie and the Lost Baby is Cheryl’s first middle-grade novel. She has written three non-fiction books for young readers, and her picture book Hungry Coyote (inspired by a coyote she saw one winter morning) won the 2015 Moonbeam Award in the category of picture books for ages 4-8.

What typically comes first for you?

Setting is often the first thing I think about with a new story. In LIZZIE AND THE LOST BABY I wanted to set a story in England and I modeled fictional Swainedale on Rosedale in the North York Moors, where my parents owned a cottage for many years. Rosedale is beautiful: wild in some places and pastoral in others. I love hiking across its purple-covered moorland on a sunny day and I worked hard to get the feel of the place into the story. I didn’t set out to write this book as historical fiction, but when Lizzie appeared she seemed to belong to a very specific time and place.

Rosedale_2006

How do you conduct your research?

I usually begin on the web and then migrate to other resources such as the library or a primary source. In LIZZIE AND THE LOST BABY I needed information about English World War II evacuees and about the Gypsy/Traveller culture. I found fascinating BBC online archives of ordinary people’s wartime experiences and my primary source was my parents. My father was an evacuee whereas my mother stayed in her home in Hull and suffered through the bombing blitz. To learn about the Gypsy/Roma/Traveller culture, I began with memoirs, including Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two: A Gypsy Family’s Hard and Happy Times on the Road in the 1950s by Maggie Smith Bendell. Much of what is written about Gypsies was written by outsiders but this was information from a primary source. Maggie and I have since become friends and she was an early reader of my book. She gave it the thumbs up – which makes me very happy.

What is your favorite thing about research?

Everything! I love falling down the “research rabbit hole.” I always learn far more facts than I ever use! And actually, I shouldn’t have said “everything” because keeping accurate detailed records of my sources isn’t my favorite thing to do.

What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?

For LIZZIE AND THE LOST BABY, the most astonishing thing was that my father and uncle were evacuees — I had not known that before I began writing. The other fascinating things I discovered were all related to the Gypsy/Traveller culture in England . For example, I knew that Gypsies were avid horse traders but I didn’t know that they preferred a specific type of horse (grys in their language) that is sturdy and steady and has a beautiful long tail and feathery hair dangling over its hooves.

Why is historical fiction important?

Modern problems often have historical equivalents and we can all learn from the lessons of the past. Fiction can help readers develop empathy with people or problems they otherwise know little about, such as the Gypsies in LIZZIE AND THE LOST BABY. The prejudice towards the travelling people that Lizzie encountered is nothing new; it has existed for centuries and continues to this day. During World War II, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime murdered tens of thousands of Roma in an effort to exterminate a people they deemed inferior. Genocide is an ugly difficult subject and narrative fiction can help us find a way to discuss it with students.

More fabulous books about this time period:

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Dial Books, 2015

A Frost in the Night by Edith Baer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, reissued 2011.

The Klipfish Code by Mary Casanova, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, 2007.

Click here to download your own Blue Birds printable. Enjoy!

The post Straight from the Source: Cheryl Blackford on Writing Historical Fiction originally appeared on Caroline Starr Rose

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15. Activists of the Imagination: On English as a Department, Division, Discipline


Earlier this month, just back from a marvelous and productive MLA Convention in Austin, Texas, I started to write a post in response to an Inside Higher Ed article on "Selling the English Major", which discusses ways English departments are dealing with the national decline in enrollments in the major. I had ideas about the importance of senior faculty teaching intro courses (including First-Year Composition), the value of getting out of the department now and then, the pragmatic usefulness of making general education courses in the major more topical and appealing, etc.

After writing thousands of words, I realized none of my ideas, many of which are simply derived from things I've observed schools doing, would make much of a difference. There are deeper, systemic problems, problems of culture and history and administration, problems that simply can't be dealt with at the department level. Certainly, at the department level people can be experts at shooting themselves in the foot, but more commonly what I see are pretty good departments having their resources slashed and transferred to science and business departments, and then those pretty good departments are told to do better with less. (And often they do, which only increases the problem, because if they can do so well with half of what they had before, surely they could stand a few more cuts...) I got through thousands of words about all this and then just dissolved into despair.

Then I read a fascinating post from Roger Whitson: "English as a Division Rather than a Department". It's not really about the idea of increasing enrollment in English programs, though I think some of the suggestions would help with that, but rather with more fundamental questions of what, exactly, this whole discipline even is. Those are questions I find more exciting than dispiriting, so here are some thoughts on it all, offered with the proviso that these are quick reactions to Whitson's piece and likely have all sorts of holes in them...

The idea of creating a large division and separating it into departments is not one I support, because I think English departments ought to be more, not less, unified, but it nonetheless provides a template for thinking beyond where we are. (I don't think Whitson or Aaron Kashtan, whose proposal on Facebook Whitson built off of, desires a less unified discipline. But without clear mechanisms for encouraging, requiring, and funding interdisciplinarity, the divisions will divide, not multiply.)

The quoted Facebook post in Whitson's piece basically describes the English department at my university, and each of those pieces (literature, composition, linguistics, ESL, English education, creative writing) has some autonomy, more or less. I'm not actually convinced that that autonomy has been entirely healthy, because it's led to resource wars and has discouraged interdisciplinary work (with each little group stuck talking to each other and not talking enough beyond their own area because there's little administrative support for it and, indeed, quite the opposite: the balkanization has, if anything, increased the bureaucracy and given people more busy-work).

English departments need to seek out opportunities for unity and collaboration. I don't see how dividing things even more than they already are would achieve that, unless frequent collaboration were somehow mandated — for instance, one of the best things about the program I attended for my master's degree at Dartmouth was that it required us to take some team-taught courses, which allowed fascinating interdisciplinary conversations and work. They could do that because they were Dartmouth and had the money to let lots of faculty collaborate. Few schools are willing to budget that way; indeed, at many places the movement is in the other direction: more students taught by fewer faculty.

Nonetheless, though I am skeptical of separating English departments more than they already are, I like some of Whitson's proposals for ways to reconfigure the idea of what we do and who we are and could be. Even the simple act of using these ideas as jumping-off points for (utopian) conversation is useful.

Planetarity
Here's a key point from Whitson: "I propose asking for more diverse hires by illustrating how important marginalized discourses are to the fields we study, while also investing heavily in opportunities for new interdisciplinary collectives and collaborations." (Utopian, but we're here for utopian discussion, not the practicalities of convincing the Powers That Be of the value of such an iconoclastic, and likely expensive, approach...)

This connects to a lot of conversations I observed or was part of at MLA, particularly among people in the Global Anglophone Forum (where nobody seems to like the term "global anglophone"). Discussions of the difficulties for scholars of work outside the US/Britosphere were common. At least on the evidence of job ads, it seems departments are, overall, consolidating away from such areas as postcolonial studies and toward broader, more general, and often more US/UK-centric curriculums. The center is reasserting itself curricularly, defining margins as extensions, roping them into its self-conception and nationalistic self-justification. The effect of austerity on humanities departments has been devasting for diversity of any sort.

I like the idea of "Reading and Writing Planetary Englishes" as a replacement for English Lit, ESL, and parts of Rhet/Comp. Heck, I like it as a replacement for English departments generally. It's not perfect, but nothing is, and "English" is such a boring, imposing term for our discipline...

(Where Comparative Literature — "Reading and Writing Planetary Not-Englishes" — fits within that, I don't know, and it's a question mostly unaddressed in Whitson's post and will remain unaddressed here because questions of literature in translation and literature in languages other than English are too big for what I'm up to at the moment. They are necessary questions, however.)

Spivak's idea of "planetarity" ("rather," as she says, "than continental, global, or worldly" [Death of a Discipline 72]) is well worth debating, and may be especially appealing in these days of seemingly endless discussion of "the anthropocene" — but what exactly "planetarity" means to Spivak is not easy to pin down. (She can be an infuriatingly vague writer.) Here's one of the most concrete statements on it from Death of a Discipline:
If we imagine ourselves as planetary subjects rather than global agents, planetary creatures rather than global entities, alterity remains underived from us; it is not our dialectical negation, it contains us as much as it flings us away. And thus to think of it is already to transgress, for, in spite of our forays into what we metaphorize, differently, as outer and inner space, what is above and beyond our own reach is not continuous with us as it is not, indeed, specifically discontinuous. We must persistently educate ourselves into this peculiar mindset. (73)
A more comprehensible statement on planetarity appears in Chapter 21 of An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, "World Systems and the Creole":
The experimental musician Laurie Anderson, when asked why she chose to be artist-in-residence at the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, put it this way: "I like the scale of space. I like thinkng about human beings and what worms are. We are really worms and specks. I find a certain comfort in that."

She has put it rather aggressively. That is not my intellectual style, but my point is close to hers. You see how very different it is from a sense of being the custodians of our very own planet, for god or for nature, although I have no objection to such a sense of accountability, where our own home is our other, as in self and world. But that is not the planetarity I was talking about. (451)
On the next page, she makes a useful statement: "We cannot read if we do not make a serious linguistic effort to enter the epistemic structures presupposed by a text." (Technically, yes, we can read [decode dictionary meanings of words] without such effort, but whatever understanding we come to will be narcissistic, solipsistic.)

And then on p.453: "...I have learned the hard way how dangerous it is to confuse the limits of one's knowledge with the limits of what can be known, a common problem in the academy."

Spivak (here and elsewhere) exhorts us to give up on totalizing ideas. She quotes Édouard Glissant on the infinite knowledge necessary to understand cultural histories and interactions: "No matter," Glissant says, "how many studies and references we accumulate (though it is our profession to carry out such things properly), we will never reach the end of such a volume; knowing this in advance makes it possible for us to dwell there. Not knowing the totality does not constitute a weakness."

That could be another motto for our new approach: "Not knowing the totality does not constitute a weakness."

What can be known, then, if not a totality, a thing to be mastered? Our limitations.

What I personally like about transnational, global, planetary, etc. approaches is that their impossibility is obvious and any pretense toward totalized knowledge is going to be laughed at, as it should be.

One point Whitson makes that I disagree with, or at least disagree with the phrasing of, is: "Most undergraduate students in English do not have a good grasp of rhetorical devices (kairos, chaismus, prosopopoeia) and these would replace 'close reading' (a term that lacks the specificity of the more developed rhetorical tradition) in student learning outcomes and primary classes."

Reading is more than rhetorical analysis. "Close reading" may have a bad reputation, and in some of the ways it's used it deserves that bad reputation, but it remains a useful term for a necessary skill. Especially as we think about ways of communicating what we do to audiences skeptical of the humanities generally, a term like "close reading", which can be understood by people who aren't specialists, seems to me less alienating, and less likely to produce misunderstandings, than "rhetoric". But that may just be my own dislike of the word "rhetoric" and my general feeling that rhetorical analysis is, frankly, dull. (There's a reason I'm not a rhet/comp PhD, despite being at a great school for it.) I wouldn't pull a Whitson and say "We must have no rhetorical analysis and only close reading!" That's silly. There are plenty of reasons to teach rhetorical analysis in introductory and advanced forms. There are also many good reasons to teach and encourage close reading. Making it into an opposition and a zero sum game is counterproductive. After all, rhetorical analysis requires close reading and some close reading requires rhetorical analysis.

In any case, instead of debating rhetorical analysis vs. close reading vs. whatever, what I think we ought to be looking at first is the seemingly simple activity of making meaning from what we read. That unites a lot of approaches with productive questions. (John Ciardi's title How Does a Poem Mean? has been a guiding, and fruitful, principle of my own reading for a long time.) From there, we can then begin to talk about interpretive communities, systems of textual analysis, etc: ways of reading, and ways of making sense of texts. Certainly, that includes methods of argument and persuasion. But also much more.

There's much to learn from the field of rhetoric and composition on all that. (In fact, a term from rhet/comp, discourse communities, can be quite useful here if applied both to the act of reading and the act of writing.) Reading should not — cannot — be the province only of literary scholars. A recent issue of Pedagogy offers some fascinating articles on teaching reading from a comp/rhet point of view. Further, coming back to Spivak, it seems to me that her work, for all its interdisciplinarity, frequently demonstrates ways that readers have been led astray by not reading closely enough, and her own best work is often in her close readings of texts.

Whitson proceeds to a utopian idea of planetarity (one inherent in Spivak) as a way of broadening ideas of literature beyond the human. This would certainly make room for eco-critics, anthropocene-ists, animal studies folks, etc. This isn't my own interest, and I will admit to quite a lot of skepticism about broadening the idea of "literature" so much that it becomes meaningless, but it's clear that we need such a space within English departments, even for people who think plants write lit. Our departments ought to contain multitudes.

Media
I've taught media courses, and obviously have an interest in, particularly, cinema. I don't think most such studies belong in English departments, so I am inclined to like the idea of it as a separate department within a general division. While there are plenty of English teachers who teach film and media well, and as an academic field it has some of its origins there, cinema especially seems to me to need people who have significant understanding of visual and dramatic arts. (Just as "new media" [now getting old] folks probably need some understanding of basic computer science.)

Media studies is inherently a site of interdisciplinary work, and that's a good thing. Working side-by-side, people who are trained in visual arts, theatre arts, technologies, etc. can produce new ways of knowing the world.

Something that media studies can do especially well is mix practitioners and analysts. Academia really likes to separate the "practical" people from the "theory" people. This is an unfortunate separation, one that has been detrimental to English departments especially, as literary scholars and writers are too often suspicious of each other. (I'll spare you my rant about how being both a literary scholar and a creative writer is unthinkable in conventional academic English department discourse. Another time.) You'll learn a lot about understanding cinema by taking a film editing class, just as you'll learn a lot about understanding literature by taking a creative writing class. Indeed, I often think the benefit of writing workshops (and their ilk) is not in how they produce better writers, but in how they may enable better readers.

On the other hand, and to argue in some ways against myself, writing and reading teachers ought to be well versed in media, because media mediates our lives and thoughts and reading and writing. To what extent should a department of reading and writing be focused on media, I don't know. Media tends to take over. It's flashy and attracts students. But one thing I fear losing is the refuge of the English department — the one place where we can escape the flash and fizz of techno-everything, where we can sit and think about a sentence written on an old piece of paper for a while.

Education
I'm less convinced by Whitson's arguments about a division of "Composition Pedagogy and English Education". Why put Composition with English Education and not put some literary study there? Is literary study inherent in "English Education"? Why separate Composition, though? Why not call it "Teaching Reading and Writing"? Perhaps I just misunderstand the goals with this one.

It seems to me that English Education should be some sort of meta-discipline. It doesn't make much sense as a department unto itself in the scheme Whitson sets up, or most schemes, for that matter. Any sort of educational field is very difficult to set up well because it requires students not only to learn the material of their area, but to learn then how to teach that material effectively.

To me, it makes more sense to spread discussion of pedagogy throughout all departments, because one way to learn things is to try to teach them. Ideas about education, and practice at teaching, shouldn't be limited only to people who plan to become teachers, though they may need more intensive training in it.

If we want to be radical about how we restructure the discipline, integrating English Education more fully into the discipline as a whole, rather than separating it out, would be the way to go.

Writing
Whitson proposes merging creative and professional writing as one department in the division. This is an interesting idea, but I'm not convinced. Again, my own prejudices are at play: in my heart of hearts, I don't think undergraduates should major in writing. I think there should be writing courses, and there should be lots of writers employed by English departments, but the separation of writing and reading is disastrous at the undergraduate level, leading to too many writers who haven't read nearly enough and don't know how to read anything outside of their narrow, personal comfort zone.

In the late '90s, Tony Kushner scandalized the Association of Theatre in Higher Education's annual conference with a keynote speech in which he (modestly) proposed that all undergraduate arts majors be abolished. (It was published in the January 1998 issue of American Theatre magazine.) It's one of my favorite things Kushner has ever written. The whole thing is worth reading, but here's a taste:
And even if your students can tell you what iambic pentameter is and can tell you why anyone who ever sets foot on any stage in the known universe should know the answer to that and should be able to scan a line of pentameter in their sleep, how many think that "materialism" means that you own too many clothes, and "idealism" means that you volunteer to work in a soup kitchen? And why should we care? When I first started teaching at NYU, I also did a class at Columbia College, and none of my students, graduate or undergraduate (and almost all the graduate students were undergraduate arts majors--and for the past 10 years Columbia has had undergraduate arts majors), none of them, at NYU or Columbia, knew what I might mean by the idealism/materialism split in Western thought. I was so alarmed that I called a philosophy teacher friend of mine to ask her if something had happened while I was off in rehearsal, if the idealism/materialism split had become passe. She responded that it had been deconstructed, of course, but it's still useful, especially for any sort of political philosophy. By not having even a nodding acquaintance with the tradition I refer to, I submit that my students are incapable of really understanding anything written for the stage in the West, and for that matter in much of the rest of the world, just as they are incapable of reading Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Kristeva, Judith Butler, and a huge amount of literature and poetry. They have, in essence, been excluded from some of the best their civilization has produced, and are terribly susceptible, I would submit, to the worst it has to offer.

What I would hope you might consider doing is tricking your undergraduate arts major students. Let them think they've arrived for vocational training and then pull a switcheroo. Instead of doing improv rehearsals, make them read The Death of Ivan Illych and find some reason why this was necessary in learning improv. They're gullible and adoring; they'll believe you. And then at least you'll know that when you die and go to the judgment seat you can say "But I made 20 kids read Tolstoy!" and this, I believe, will count much to your credit. And if you are anything like me, you'll need all the credits you can cadge together.
Call it the pedagogy of pulling a switcheroo. A good pedagogy, at least sometimes. It doesn't have to be, indeed should not be, limited to Western classics, as Kushner (inadvertently?) implies, and the program he calls for would not be so limited, because the kinds of conversations that he wants students to be able to recognize and join are ones that inevitably became (if they weren't already) transnational, global, even maybe a bit planetary.

So yes, if I were emperor of universities, I'd abolish undergraduate arts majors, but keep lots of artists as undergraduate teachers. I'd also let the artists teach whatever the heck they wanted. Plenty of writers would be better off teaching innovative classes that aren't the gazillionth writing workshop of their career. Boxing writers into teaching only writing classes is a pernicious practice, one that perpetuates the idea that the creation of literature and the study of literature are separate activities.

But let's come back to Whitson's first proposal: planetarity and the making of textual meaning.

My own inclination is not to separate so much, but to seek out more unities. What unites us? That we study and practice ways of reading and ways of writing. We should encourage more reading in writing classes and more varied types of writing in reading classes. We should toss out our inherited, traditional nationalisms and look at other ways that texts flow around us and around not-us. (Writers do. What good writer was only influenced by texts from one nation?) We should seek out the limits of our knowledge, admit them, challenge them, celebrate them.

Imagination
Perhaps what we should think about is imagination. We need more imagination, and we need to educate and promote imagination. So many of the problems of our world stem from failures of imagination — from the fear of imagination. If you want to be a radical educator, be an educator who inspires students to imagine in better, fuller, deeper ways. The conservative forces of culture and society promote exactly the opposite, because the desire of the status quo is to produce unimaginative (unquestioning, obedient) subjects.

English departments, like arts departments and philosophy departments, are marvelously positioned to encourage imagination. Any student who enters an English class should leave with an expanded imagination. Any student who studies to become an English teacher should be trained in the training of imaginations. We should all be advocates for imagination, activists for its value, its necessity.

One of the best classes I've ever taught was called Writing and the Creative Process. (You can find links to a couple of the syllabi on my teaching page, though they can't really give a sense of what made the courses work well.) It was a continuously successful course in spite of me. The stakes were low, because it was an introductory course, and yet the learning we all did was sometimes life-changing. This was not my fault, but the fault of having stumbled into a pedagogy that gave itself over entirely to the practice of creativity, which is to say the practice of imagination. Because it was a pre-Creative Writing class, the focus wasn't even on becoming better writers but rather on becoming more creative (imaginative) people. That was the key to the success. Becoming a better writer is a nice goal, but becoming a more creative/imaginative person is a vital goal. Were I titling it, I'd have called that course Writing and Creative Processes, because one of the things I seek to help the students understand is that there is no one process for either writing or for thinking creatively.  But no matter. Just by having to think about, talk about, and practice creativity a couple times a week, we made our lives better. I say we, because I learned as much by teaching that class as the students did; maybe more.

English departments should become departments of writing, reading, and thinking with creative processes.

I began with Spivak, so I'll come back to her, this time from her recent book Readings:
And today I am insisting that all teachers, including literary criticism teachers, are activists of the imagination. It is not a question of just producing correct descriptions, which should of course be produced, but which can always be disproved; otherwise nobody can write dissertations. There must be, at the same time, the sense of how to train the imagination, so that it can become something other than Narcissus waiting to see his own powerful image in the eyes of the other. (54)
Training — encouraging, energizing — the imagination means a training in aesthetics, in techniques of structure, in ways of valuing form, in how we find and recognize and respond to the beautiful and sublime.

I'm persuaded by Steve Shaviro's arguments in No Speed Limit about aesthetics as something at least unassimilable by neoliberalism (if not in direct resistance to it): "When I find something to be beautiful, I am 'indifferent' to any uses that thing might have; I am even indifferent to whether the thing in question actually exists or not. This is why aesthetic sensation is the one realm of existence that is not reducible to political economy." (That's just a little sample. See "Accelerationist Aesthetics" for more elaboration, and the book for the full argument.)

Because the realm of the aesthetic has some ability to sit outside neoliberalism, it is in many ways the most radical realm we can submit ourselves to in the contemporary world, where neoliberalism assimilates so much else.

But training the imagination is not only an aesthetic education, it's also epistemological. Spivak again:
An epistemological performance is how you construct yourself, or anything, as an object of knowledge. I have been consistently asking you to rethink literature as an object of knowledge, as an instrument of imaginative activism. In Capital, Volume 1 (1867), for example, Marx was asking the worker to rethink him/herself, not as a victim of capitalism but as an "agent of production". That is training the imagination in epistemological performance. This is why Gramsci calls Marx's project "epistemological". It is not only epistemological, of course. Epistemological performance is something without which nothing will happen. That does not mean you stop there. Yet, without a training for this kind of shift, nothing survives. (Readings 79-80)
If we're seeking, as Whitson calls us to, to create more diverse (and imaginative) departments of English, then perhaps we can do so by thinking about ways of approaching aesthetics and epistemology. We can be agents of imagination. We don't need nationalisms for that, and we don't need to strengthen divisive organizational structures that have riven many an English department.

We can — we must — imagine better.

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16. Classroom Connections: PAPER WISHES by Lois Sepahban

genre: historical fiction
setting: Manzanar, the Japanese internment camp, 1942
age range: 9-12
Lois Sepahban’s website

A superior story of survival and love.
— School Library Journal, starred review

This historical debut speaks volumes of love and longing.
— Kirkus, starred review

Engrossing and heartrending historical fiction.
— Publisher’s Weekly

Please tell us about your book.

Ten-year-old Manami did not realize how peaceful her family’s life on Bainbridge Island was until the day it all changed. It’s 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Manami and her family are Japanese Americans at a prison camp in the desert. Manami is sad to go, but even worse is that they are going to have to give her dog, Yujiin, to a neighbor to take care of. Manami decides to sneak Yujiin under her coat, but she is caught and forced to abandon him. She is devastated but clings to the hope that somehow Yujiin will find his way to the camp and make her family whole again. It isn’t until she finds a way to let go of her guilt that Manami can accept all that has happened to her family.

What inspired you to write this story?

My book takes place at Manzanar in 1942. From 1942-1945, it was an internment camp for Japanese-Americans, most of whom were children. I grew up in central California, and I had two classmates whose grandparents were Manzanar internees. My classmates’ mom spoke to us a few times about her parents’ experiences at Manzanar. So, by the time I was seven or eight years old, I was aware of Manzanar. I was too young to understand it, but having something of a personal connection to the camp made me curious to learn more. My research led me to so many heartbreaking and poignant stories, as well as some very strange ones. One strange story was in an newspaper article. The old man being interviewed said that at some point, dogs started showing up at the camp. No one knew where they were coming from or how they got there. When I read that article, I got goosebumps. Suddenly, I knew what my story would be. 

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?

Researching my book was a process that stretched over several years. It began, unintentionally, of course, in my childhood. Every time my parents drove past Manzanar on family trips or I listened to someone talk about Manzanar–these moments were layers of research that slowly built over time.

My curiosity really flamed to life in 2013 when I read Heather Lindquist’s book The Children of Manzanar. For the next few months, I devoured Manzanar true stories. I found an archive of oral history video interviews with former internees on Densho.org. My research at that time was deliberate. I knew that I wanted to write a story set at Manzanar. I knew I wanted it to have a love story between an internee and a camp worker. I knew I wanted the story to be from the perspective of a little sister. So I focused my research on the areas that were important to these storylines. I looked at old maps. I read supply lists and building reports from 1942. I drove along Highway 395 in California and tried to imagine how it must have looked to eyes that saw it for the first time. It is a landscape of scrub brush and red dirt. Very different from the lush rainforest of the Pacific Northwest. I continued to research as I wrote–looking for details and facts as I needed them for the story. And I was fortunate that a historian at the Manzanar National Historic Site was willing to read the manuscript to check for historical accuracy.

What are some special challenges associated with writing historical fiction?

The real challenge is that you can’t make certain things up in historical fiction. The characters, yes. The conversations, yes. Known historical events? Not so much. Writers do take liberties with history. I did. But I was careful to point out those liberties in the author’s note. When I speak to groups about my novel, it is not uncommon for me to hear from attendees that they had never before heard about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. So I feel a great responsibility to honestly portray this history.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

My book is a good fit for 4th grade social studies in California, Oregon, and Washington because these were the states affected by the Exclusion Zone rule. It is a good fit for 5th grade and 8th grade social studies because it discusses U.S. history. This history applies to Canada, too, which also had Japanese internment camps during World War II.

The post Classroom Connections: PAPER WISHES by Lois Sepahban appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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17. Christmas Presents!


Since I've already done a few posts to promote my Craftsy illustration master-class, I'm guessing that most people who are interested will have already enrolled, but, in case I've missed anyone, or you haven't quite got around to signing up, you might want to know that it is on sale again for Christmas - It's £15.97 until Dec 12th. 


The other bit of good news is that many of the other drawing classes are HALF PRICE! Here's a link to see them all.

If you are anything like me, you will have people to buy Christmas pressies for who are tricky, people you are leaving until last and who you will be panicking about in a few days. So, you might want to know that you can now send people a gift of a Craftsy class. They do all sorts, not just drawing and painting, there's cooking, dressmaking, gardening, wine, knitting... If you want to buy a lesson as a present for someone, you do it here.

All of the classes last forever. You can dip in and out of them or do them again and again, as many times as you like. And all of them give you access to the teacher: you can ask questions and show them your work for feedback at any point, as often as you like. 

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18. Using Over in the Wetlands in the Classoom

image1

The Classroom Bookshelf has just published an incredible post about Over in the Wetlands that I wanted to pass on. You can click through to read an overview of the book and ten Teaching Ideas and Invitations for readers K-8.

So much to love.

First, as a former upper elementary and middle school teacher, I am so pleased to see others actively using picture books with older children. Second, these lesson ideas cover a number of disciplines, from art to science to literature to geography. There are a couple of other picture book suggestions that parallel nicely with Wetlands as well as a number of website resources.

And don’t forget the Over in the Wetlands Discussion Guide and Activity Sheets Random House Children’s Books produced for the book.

Click through to read The Classroom Bookshelf’s post.

The post Using Over in the Wetlands in the Classoom appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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19. Classroom Connections: THE TOWN THAT DISAPPEARED by Sandy Carlson

age range: 8-12
genre: historical fiction
setting: 1871, Michigan
teacher’s guide
Sandy Carlson’s website

Please tell us about your book.

Just how many homes and friends does a kid have to lose in twelve years?

Driven from his neighborhood during the Chicago fire of 1871, Adrian and his parents move to the Michigan wilderness where his father lands a job at the sawmill. The town is called Singapore – as if a name could make a tiny spit of a town into a great seaport.

Back in Chicago, it was easy to keep his hobby a secret, even from his father. But in this small town, will people discover who the true knitter of the family is? Only his best friend, big R.T., keeps him level.

Adrian’s attempts to protect his new – and first – girlfriend, Elizabeth, from the school bully seem to backfire, especially when he hears Jake’s big brother, Otto the Monster, is heading to town.

Then, just as Adrian starts to feel that Singapore is his home, he discovers the moving sand dunes along the Lake Michigan shore are slowly burying his town. He tries to stop it, but how can he fight both man and nature?

What inspired you to write this story?

An elderly friend from church grew up in Saugatuck, Michigan. She remembers running down the sand dunes as a child and diving into the Kalamazoo River. Some days there would be a roof exposed from Singapore, an 1800’s buried town. Other days there might be a different roof. And still other days there was nothing but sand and the river. I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would have been like to have lived through that time – when my town was threatened to be buried by active sand dunes.

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?

First of all, I need to walk the land where the story takes place, even if it’s 150 years after the time of the story. Each time I return and wander the streets or dune hills or beaches, I feel rather ghostly – imagining what it was like back then. The unceasing waves coming in would be the same. The wind blowing dry sand around the dune grass would be the same. The crying sea gulls would be the same, as well as the quiet stillness in the woods or just a little farther up river from the Lake.

My limit for doing library research (done in various Michigan towns) is about three hours. After that I find myself rereading a line several times. When I start rereading, I scoop up all my notes, pile the books and magazines and news clippings, put everything away, and wait for another day to do more research with a cleared mind.

I especially love staring at old photos of the area in which my book is set…imagining what it would be like to be there, and then I compartmentalize and focus on the photo, ignoring people around me; for I’m sure they think I’m crazy, on drugs, or have fallen asleep.

Sometimes research falls right into my lap. I went to a jeweler to re-clasp a necklace. I noticed a box of watch “guts” on the counter and asked about them. He was a watch man. I told him of my grandfather’s pocket watch. He informed me that real pocket watches weren’t very common because they cost as much as a buggy (or today’s SUV). (A nice historical fact which shoots down all the westerns I’ve ever seen.)

What are some special challenges associated with writing MG historical fiction?

How to get my book into the hands of kids. Actually, I know a lot of my readers are adults, because they are interested in local history.

If a kid is a reader, they’re likely to read anything, especially if they can relate to the characters or are interested in an area or a specific time. Libraries and booksellers often prefer the hottest and latest and most popular books. As long as I continue developing the craft of writing to make my characters, plot, and language golden, well, then, I’m golden, too.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

The book begins with a new kid moving to town. Nearly every kid today has either moved, or been in a classroom which received a new student. (Relevant.)

There are several true local stories in the book, as well as description of jobs kids would do, like chopping wood, working in the family store, or knitting. (History.)

There’s a bully in town, but there may or may not be a resolution. You’ll have to read it to find out. (Resolutions.)

Adrian is ahead of his time, trying to find a way to stop the dunes from burying his town. (Environmental Studies.)

The post Classroom Connections: THE TOWN THAT DISAPPEARED by Sandy Carlson appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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20. Off to a fresh start

Hello dear education community. I’m back! Last year I was quite silent. This was due in part to the fact that I had moved to a new school. But mainly it was because I was simply at a loss for what to say.

My previous school was strictly disciplined to the point where students were basically only extrinsically motivated. This allowed me to help students attain high scores and cover vast areas of content (it was a self-contained classroom, so I taught all core subjects). Yet, to be frank, it was miserable. Although I did my best, I couldn’t deny that even after two years together, my kids never felt emotionally or psychologically safe in this school.

Furthermore, when I moved to a school that promoted restorative justice techniques, targeted interventions, and differentiation, I had glaring holes in my instruction. The posts I had written as a teacher at my previous school rang hollow because I realized that I had never had to struggle with motivating students without external systems and consequences in place. Also, my students were known to be particularly difficult due to various factors. Truly, my first semester was such a battle. By winter break, I ended up crying to my assistant principal about whether or not I could even finish the school year.

Fear not, friends; it does not end this way. Long story short, I learned to apply the growth mindset that I claimed to teach, and there were mentors and colleagues available to guide and commiserate with me along the way. And thankfully, my students grew to learn that I truly cared.

Now I’m blessed to be at a school that serves a tough population, engages the community, and freely trusts me to teach. Most of all, I’m blessed to be at a school that values reflection — the perfect balance to my tendency to freak out or quit a strategy too fast.

In a new spin of events, I am actually joining the math team this year. We’re piloting a blended, shared teaching style, and although I’m apprehensive, I’m also super excited. Looking back on my teaching journey thus far, there are definitely rueful moments. I now have a bajillion teaching credentials, and I feel like I’ve been regularly taking exams for the past three years. But, as I embark on my fifth year as a teacher (4th year in Oakland), I know there’s no stopping now!

The post Off to a fresh start appeared first on The Horn Book.

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21. My Craftsy Character-Illustration Class is Here!!


Today is the day!! My Craftsy master-class, teaching you how to draw children's book characters, just went live, slightly ahead of schedule! To celebrate, you can get the class half price for the rest of this week from this blog post. Yep - Craftsy allow me to discount the class if I want. So what better time?


Last week I got a sneak preview of how it looks and am absolutely delighted with the way it's turned out. The editing guys have done a smashing job, splicing all the material together. There's me talking (okay, nothing new there says John...), plus all the various drawing demos that we filmed, lots of illustrations from my books, as well as various extra drawing tips with bits and bobs of graphics. 


Plus, Craftsy's clever, techy guys have had to build the whole background platform, because the workshop is not just a series of films. Oh no...

After each lesson, I set my students a homework project to do. Then, when they're done, they can post their work onto a gallery, for me and the other students to see. Great eh? Plus students can even ask me questions, if there's anything they need more help with.


Huge CONGRATULATIONS to Tami T, who was the winner of my prize draw. Well done Tami! Have fun. I look forward to seeing your characters :-)

If you were unlucky, don't worry: all is not lost! C
raftsy classes are very reasonably priced but if you are on a tight budget, get in quick while mine is super-duper-brilliant-value with my launch-week deal... 


The other brilliant thing about the workshop is that it does not have an expiry date. You can watch it as many times as you like, for as long as you want - once you sign up, everything is yours for good. And because you only need a pencil and paper, once you have signed up, it's not going to cost you anything extra at all.

I have tried really hard to pack all 7 of the lessons with tons of tips which should really help your character drawings, both of animals and people, but I've also done my best to make it a fun workshop to do. 

Please do let me know what you think. As this is my first venture of this kind, I'd really like to hear your feedback.

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22. Classroom Connections: OPERATION PUCKER UP by Rachele Alpine

age range: 9-13
genre: contemporary fiction
Operation Pucker Up Discussion Guide
Rachele Alpine’s website

Please tell us about your book.

Operation Pucker Up is about a girl named Grace Shaw who is thrilled when she’s cast as Snow White in her middle school play. That is, until she realizes she’ll have to kiss Prince Charming. And not only is Prince Charming—a.k.a James Lowe—the most popular boy in school, but Grace has never, ever been kissed.  To help, Grace’s two best friends create Operation Pucker Up—a plan for Grace to score a kiss before opening night so she doesn’t make a total fool of herself in front of a live audience. If that weren’t enough to think about, Grace’s father, who left six months ago, suddenly walks back into her life. Grace, her mom and sister have bonded as the “Terrific Three” – and while two of the “Three” welcome Dad back with open arms, Grace isn’t sure she can forgive and forget. As Operation Pucker Up begins to spin out of control, and opening night is approaching, the question is whether Grace will manage to get her happily ever after—both on-stage and off.

What inspired you to write this story?

I did theater and dance classes at a place called The Beck Center for the Arts when I was young all the way into high school.  I called it my home away from home, because sometimes I was there more than I was at my real house!  I was in a lot of shows while I was there, including Cinderella, where I had to dance with a boy.  I remember being so nervous about it because I had never held hands with a boy before. I couldn’t imagine ever having to kiss someone on stage!  I began to brainstorm about that idea and what would happen if that kiss was your first kiss.  Operation Pucker Up was born from that!

Could you share with readers some behind-the-scenes glimpses into your book?

When I was writing this book, I wanted it to be a sort of homage to The Beck Center for the Arts.  Almost ever character is named after someone I acted with (either their first or last name). There are many local places mentioned in the story and one of the main character is even named Beck!  I wanted readers from Cleveland who knew the theater to pick up the book and feel connected to the story through the setting.  The coolest part was that they hosted my launch party in their studio theater!  We filled all 98 seats and had almost fifty more people standing and sitting in the aisles.  Some of my old friends came and acted out a scene from the book and a few of my old directors/teachers were there.  It was so amazing to celebrate my book in the location that inspired it.

What are some special challenges associated with writing middle grade?

I wanted to write a book that was both light hearted and serious, because I think that’s what life for a middle-schooler is like. They are trying to find where they fit within the world, their friends, and family, some of which is in their control and some of which they have no say in. I wanted to find a good balance between the two and make it sound authentic. Grace is trying to handle having her first kiss on stage and the return of her father after her parents’ separation.  Both of these events would be a big deal to a middle-schooler, so I wanted to make sure I treated both as such.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

The book includes a lot of topics for discussion such as being yourself vs. trying to be someone you aren’t, forgiveness, bullying, feeling like you don’t belong, the power of friendship, telling the truth instead of keeping your feelings inside, and what family means.  

The post Classroom Connections: OPERATION PUCKER UP by Rachele Alpine appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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23. Making Nonfiction From Scratch by Ralph Fletcher



Making Nonfiction From Scratch
by Ralph Fletcher
Stenhouse, available late November 2015

When I got the Stenhouse Publishers Newslink email last week (sign up now if you don't get them -- they always contain juicy tidbits) and saw that Ralph Fletcher has a new book coming out soon...AND Stenhouse is offering a free online preview of the entire text...AND we are just starting our unit of study on nonfiction writing...well, it felt like the universe was aligning.

There's so much to love about this new book. Of particular note:
Chapter One -- fun parable, then check out those headings -- minilessons, here we come!
Chapter Three -- interview with Louise Borden
Chapter Six -- NF read aloud
Chapter Eleven, page 94 -- what a final draft could look like
If you preorder this book by Wednesday of this week with the code NLDH, you'll get $10 off. What are you waiting for? I know you'll want your own copy to mark up and flag with stickies!

In honor of this book and our unit of study on nonfiction writing, tomorrow and Wednesday I'll have two more nonfiction posts.


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24. Classroom Connections: THE LAURA LINE by Crystal Allen

age range: 8-12
genre: contemporary fiction with historical flashbacks
Crystal Allen’s website

Please tell us about your book. 

THE LAURA LINE is about Laura Dyson, a thirteen year old, overweight girl who has dreams of being a model…or a major league baseball pitcher.  Because of her weight issues, students make fun of her to the point that Laura begins to believe that she is all of the ugly things her classmates say she is.  It’s not until Laura ventures into an old shack on her grandmother’s farm and finds a ledger filled with documents from the female ancestors in her history, (all of them named Laura)  that she begins to stand up for herself.  Now, Laura Dyson not only knows who she is, but has evidence of all the wonderful things she can become.

What inspired you to write this story?

My mother raised my oldest brother and sister in an extremely small, one-room, family-built house on my grandmother’s farm.  I missed my opportunities to tour this family landmark, but I knew it held valuable history, along with proof of the strength and determination of my mother.  I wanted to honor her, and the house, in some way.

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?

Talking with family members and memories of growing up on my grandmother’s farm in Indiana were the biggest tools I used when writing THE LAURA LINE.  However, while visiting Boston one summer, a replica of the Amistad was docked in the Naval shipyard, and people were encouraged to tour for free!  Since the Amistad was going to make a “cameo” appearance in THE LAURA LINE, I thought this was an excellent opportunity for some research, and the price was perfect!  With camera in hand and money for snacks, I took off to the shipyard, expecting a fun day in the sun.

But that’s not what happened.

Touring that schooner caused such an emotional stir in me, I was completely caught off guard by its affect from the moment I stepped onboard.  I had no personal ties to anyone aboard the Amistad, yet I wept right there at the shipyard as if I did.  To see pencil-drawn portraits of the captives, some as young as seven-years-old, took all of the fun out of my day. I knew the story of the Amistad, but standing downstairs, in the belly of that schooner, put the whole story in my face.  This was no longer a research project.  It was now personal.

Even though the THE LAURA LINE is based on fictional characters, I felt as if I met the first Laura that day. She was real, and she needed me to feel her pain, her fear, her frustration, her hunger, her tears, her anger. I rushed back to the place I was staying and began to empty out everything I had felt that day, whether it was in complete sentences or not.  I will never forget that experience.

What are some special challenges associated with writing historical fiction?

Making sure each Laura was given a talent that existed in her era, and the materials, left by each Laura, were believable.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

THE LAURA LINE teaches its readers:

Love yourself.  Love your “Line.”  Live your dreams.

The post Classroom Connections: THE LAURA LINE by Crystal Allen appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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25. On Teaching Writing

Jan Steen, School Class with a Sleeping Schoolmaster

A writer recently wrote a blog post about how he's quitting teaching writing. I'm not going to link to it because though it made me want to write this post of my own, I'm not planning either to praise or disparage the post or its author, whom I don't know and whose work I haven't read (though I've heard good things about it). Reading the post, I was simply struck by how different his experience is from my own experience, and I wondered why, and I began to think about what I value in teaching writing, and why I've been doing it in one form or another — mostly to students without much background or interest in writing — for almost twenty years.

I don't know where the quitting teacher works or the circumstances, other than that he was working as an adjunct professor, as I did for five years, and was teaching introductory level classes, as I continue to do now that I'm a PhD student. (And in some ways did back when I was a high school teacher, if we want to consider high school classes as introductory to college.) So, again, this is not about him, because I know nothing about his students' backgrounds, his institution's expectations or requirements, his training, etc. If he doesn't like teaching writing where he's currently employed, he shouldn't do it, for his own sake and for that of his students. It's certainly nothing you're going to get rich from, so really, you're doing no-one any good by staying in a job like that, and you may be doing harm (to yourself and others).

Most of the quitting teacher's complaints boil down to, "I don't like teaching unmotivated students." So it goes. There are, though, lots of different levels of "unmotivated". Flat-out resistant and recalcitrant are the ultimate in unmotivated, and I also really find no joy in working with such students, because I'm not very good at it. I've done it, but have not stayed with jobs where that felt like all there was. One year at a particular high school felt like facing nothing but 100 resistant and recalcitrant students every single day, and though the job paid quite well (and, for reasons I can't fathom, the administration wanted me to stay), I fled quickly. I was useless to most of those students and they were sending me toward a nervous breakdown.  I've seen people who work miracles with such students. I wasn't the right person for that job.

But then there are the students who, for whatever reason, just haven't bought in to what you're up to. It's not their thing. I don't blame them. Put me in a math or science class, and that's me. Heck, put me in a Medieval lit class and that's me. But again and again, talented teachers have welcomed me into their world, and because of those teachers, I've been able to find a way to care and to learn about things I didn't initially care about in the least. That's the sort of teacher I aspire to be, and occasionally, for all my fumbling, seem to have succeeded at being.

It's nice to teach courses where everybody arrives on Day 1 with passion for the subject. I've taught such classes a few times. It can be fun. It's certainly more immediately fulfilling than the more common sort of classes where the students are a bit less instrinsically motivated to be there. But I honestly don't care about those advanced/magical classes as much. Such students are going to be fine with or without me. At a teaching seminar I attended 15 years ago, the instructor described such students as the ones for whom it doesn't matter if you're a person or a stalk of asparagus, because they'll do well no matter what. I don't aspire to be a stalk of asparagus.

There's another problem, too, and that's the problem of pedagogy. Many colleges and universities are terrible at providing training for teachers. There's an unspoken assumption that teaching is something anybody with an advanced degree can do. This despite the fact that anybody who's spent more than a few days in a college or university knows there are plenty of people with advanced degrees, people who may be brilliant at all sorts of other things, who can't teach at all.

Teaching writing is a particular skill, especially when teaching unmotivated students. I'm lucky to have spent some undergrad time and now some PhD time at the University of New Hampshire, where the teaching of writing is taken really seriously because writing teachers at UNH have long been interested not only in writing, but in the art of its teaching. The ghosts of Donald Murray, Donald Graves, and Robert Connors still haunt our halls. I continue to draw on things I learned in a Teaching Writing course in my last semester of undergrad. In my early years of teaching, I read every pedagogy book I could get my hands on. I still pick them up now and then, because I'm still learning to teach.

If you're struggling to teach writing, have no support from your institution, but don't want to quit, there are resources that can help you. (Though really, you should consider quitting, especially if they're not paying you well. Schools exploit people who they provide little support to because those people feel some sort of obligation to work for crappy wages and in crappy conditions. Say no! Or at least help organize a union.)

To begin, check out the National Writing Project, Teachers & Writers, and the NCTE.

Seek out books for ideas and inspiration. First, put everything aside and read Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary. Then maybe a practical book like The Elements of Teaching Writing, The Handbook of Creative Writing, or Being a Writer (which is overpriced; its predecessor, A Community of Writers, is easy enough to find used for much less money).

If you're determined that you must fix your students' grammar, then start with Teaching Grammar in Context and/or Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing by Constance Weaver. (But a caution: Make sure you're not promoting myths. Educate yourself. Read Stephen Pinker's A Sense of Style, Henry Hitchings' The Language Wars, and, if you're especially determined, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Or, better yet, make a study of grammar ranting part of your pedagogy — see Grammar Rants by Patricia Dunn and Ken Lindblom.) If most of your students seem to lack much preparation for college-level work, then investigate pedagogy for developmental writing.

Don't just be a writer who shows up in a classroom. You've been hired to be a teacher who also knows something about writing. You need to see yourself in that role, or else you're just grossly stroking your ego in public. Develop a vision of yourself as a teacher, and read the works of writing teachers who inspire — Peter Elbow is my go-to guy whenever I'm feeling bad about my teaching, with Everyone Can Write as the key text (though I'm fond, too, of Writing with Power and Writing Without Teachers). Read Lynda Barry. Read. Talk. Listen. Plenty of people have had all the challenges and disappointments and frustrations that you've had. Learn from them.

And yes, of course there are lots of frustrations along the way. Even the best classes will have bad days, and sometimes you'll have an entire bad term. That's the world of teaching. Analyze what isn't working and try to figure out ways to fix it; seek out other people's ideas when you're stuck. I hate the feeling of having been a bad teacher, but it also invigorates me, because it makes me determined to fix the problems the next time around. (It's when the problems seem utterly unfixable that you know you're the wrong person for the job. If nothing seems like it will get better and again and again you find yourself dreading the next class, the next term, then quit if you can. It's okay. You don't need to spend your entire life as a bad teacher. Create an exit plan before you kill yourself or one of your students. Seriously.)

I've been meaning to write about the most successful writing course I've taught, and so this gives me a bit of an excuse to do so. By "successful" I mean that the students' work and reflections on the course at the end of the term consistently met my goals for the course through multiple sets of students, both in face-to-face classes and online. The course is called Writing and the Creative Process, and I taught it at Plymouth State University. It's the lowest-level creative writing course the English department offers, and it fulfills a general education requirement, so typically it is taken by students will little background in writing and often not much interest in it. They arrive to the course because they need the credit, and many assume a creative writing class is an easy A or B.

My goals for the course are not for the students to become great writers. That's out of my control. Great writing is a mix of talent, practice, experience, circumstances. My goals are more about helping the students to overcome some assumptions about writing and creativity.

Most students arrive to my classes, whether writing classes or otherwise, with an idea that writing is about following rules and not making mistakes. They've lost all sense of play. I want them to be less afraid of playing with language. I want them to be less afraid of the unfamiliar. If I can do that, then a lot of what matters in writing will take care of itself. Of course, there are rules and conventions. Writing is (usually) a form of communication, and communication requires some rules and conventions. But they can be learned, and if learning them is still beyond you for whatever reason, you can probably find friends who will proofread your work for you. (Many excellent writers are rotten with commas. And plenty else. Proofreaders exist for a reason. Research the manuscripts of well-known writers and you'll be astonished.) I love the intricacies of grammar, usage, and style, so I pay a lot of attention to it myself, but for me it's part of the essential play that makes writing a worthwhile activity for me. I try to impart that to students, even in the Writing and the Creative Process class, but I also don't expect them all to be like me.

After teaching the class a few times in a way that didn't thrill me, I finally came upon this progression of material, which seems to work:
Unit 1: First Things
Unit 2: Shaping Raw Material
Unit 3: Images and Senses
Unit 4: Words
Unit 5: Sentences and lines
Unit 6: Paragraphs and stanzas
Unit 7: Revision
Final Exam week: Portfolio
Lots of people teach the course by going through major genres, but I don't care for that approach because in my experience it's highly superficial to write essays for a week or two, poems for a week or two, stories for a week or two, etc. I sprinkle different genres throughout the term, but we never stick with any particular one. Learning different genres is not the goal. I want the students to play around, and I want them to think about similarities in different ways of writing rather than differences.

The First Things unit is focused on introductions, starting out, and beginning to forget the "rules" you think you know about writing. I think of it as the deprogramming unit. Especially given the mania for standardized testing in schools over the last 15 years, students arrive to my classroom with great anxiety about "proper" writing. They mostly think they're bad at it, and they're terrified of losing points. So I make a point of getting them to pay attention to themselves, to do things like stare at an object for 10 or more minutes and then write about the experience, to write a list of rules for good writing and then violate them all, etc. The basic theme might be able to be boiled down to, "Who are you? What do you know? How do you perceive things? And how might we expand/broaden/explode all that?"

The Shaping Raw Material unit is exactly what it says. The exercises have the students write 5 versions of a short piece of writing, try out different points of view, rewrite a folktale, rewrite a partner's piece of writing, etc. Some of it is similar to Kenneth Goldsmith's "Uncreative Writing" ideas, some of it isn't. The goal is to look at the different ways writing can be shaped, and the effects of different shapes. Again, it's about breaking out of a narrow way of thinking about writing, because narrow ways of thinking only lead to anxiety about "getting it right". Again and again, I say: There are no right answers, so stop looking for them.

The other units are exactly what they sound like: close attention to senses and images, to words, to sentences and lines, etc. It's good to be deliberate about these building blocks. Too often, we take them for granted. They're all fun to play with.

The Portfolio requirement at the end is this:
What your portfolio must include, at a minimum:
  • Your own artist's statement / portfolio intro.  Length: 114-119 words.  (Yes, this number is arbitrary.  Most rules are.)
  • Examples of 3 different types/genres of writing, each with at least one revision included. (You will have done a lot of this work for previous units. Now you’re collecting it and polishing it.) Include all drafts along with a final, polished, proofread draft.
  • A reflection of at least 500 words.  This should be the last thing you write.  After you've put the portfolio together, read it, then write this reflection.
You are welcome and encouraged to include more than this in your portfolio, but this is the absolute minimum.
All grading before the portfolio is purely on whether the students follow the guidelines or not. For instance, here's an assignment:
1. Go to the index at the website Worldwidewords.org.
2. Read around on the page. Click on words that grab your attention. Look for weird words.
3. Once you are familiar with the site and how it works, write a piece and use as many unfamiliar/weird words from the Worldwidewords.org list as you can -- at least 20.
GRADING: 6 points = 600+ words; 5 points = 500-599 words; 4 points = 400-499 words; 3 points = 300-399 words; 2 points = 200-299 words; 1 point = under 200 words
(Each exercise is worth a certain amount of points, and I just add them up for their exercises grade, so 95 points = a 95 (A), 84 points = 84% (B), etc. They have a number of exercises to choose from in each unit. All of the exercises together add up to more than 100 points, but I've rarely had students try to go beyond 100 points because I don't count anything above 100 and, in any case, most of the exercises are more complex and take more work than the one above, so if you do them all at the highest level, it's quite a lot of work.)

I don't  evaluate their writing until the portfolio, and even then it's light evaluation of their progress more than anything. This has been crucial. The point of this course is discovery and play. That's what I want to encourage. I don't much care if their writing is great or terrible. I want them to improve, though, so we spend time at the end of the course working on revision, but only after we've spent the majority of the course playing around. I want the students to become more flexible thinkers and writers.

My paying no attention to whether they are writing well or badly is liberatory, and the effects are remarkable. The students discover skills and interests they never knew they had because they were so terrified of writing badly and getting low grades. They often struggle against the class in the first weeks because they think I'm going to trick them. They are conditioned to be graded and ranked and evaluated at every turn. They don't know what the freedom from grading, ranking, and evaluation feels like. It's terrifying at first. I must be a bad teacher, I must be a dishonest teacher, they must be doing something wrong. It isn't until a handful of exercises have been graded and they realize they really are just being graded on output that most students begin to really free themselves.

The exercises are not small or easy, and numerous students have told me they've written more for this class than for any other. If I were trying to grade evaluatively, it would be an awful paper burden on me, but I'm not grading evaluatively. I'm mostly just counting words.

The students don't need me to read their work in any depth until the revision stage, and even then mot of the work is on them, as the revision exercises are designed to get them to look at their work in new, different ways. It extends the freedom to experiment to the revision process. Then they sift through everything and begin to put order to it and show off the work they're most pleased with, most proud of. They write about how they got there, and that reflection is vital — students need to think about the processes that allowed them to write in ways they see as successful, and reflective writing is key to helping solidify what they've learned. They reflect on what they've done and what they would like to do in the future.

Their final grade is ultimately not about them being a good writer, but being a writer who has 1.) learned how to play around and experiment; 2.) learned how to look at their work with a new and critical eye toward revision; 3.) learned how to extend what they've discovered to other realms of thinking and writing. If they've been able to do that, they do well.

Grades for the course tend to average around a B, a bit higher than my usual B- average for courses. Sometimes, a group really takes to the material and I end up with an A- average. I don't feel bad about that. Because the grade is based on how much they've written, to get an A- average, the students have written an awful lot.

When teaching more advanced courses, I tend to add in a bit more evaluative grading, I tend to do fewer exercises based on playing around and more toward specific skills and goals, then finish the course with one complete and revised piece of writing. Sometimes this goes well, sometimes not.

I don't much like the traditional writing workshop. Maybe it's fine in grad school, but I really dislike it for undergrads, as I think it wastes a lot of time and doesn't give them the tools they need. I've never much liked traditional writing workshops, myself, so maybe it's just a matter of my personality. I'm sure there are people who are great teachers within that structure at whatever level. Personally, as both a student and teacher, I prefer exercises, discussions of a wide variety of published writing (and by wide variety, I mean as wide as possible — true variety, not just Lishian stuff), a focus on sentences and paragraphs, etc. There are plenty of ways to meld some of the virtues of the workshop approach with other structures. I haven't hit on a perfect solution yet, but I keep experimenting when I get the chance to teach an advanced course (which hasn't happened recently, as I'm only teaching one course per term as part of the PhD program, and mostly what I teach is first-year composition).

My goal is not to create professional writers. One or two of my former students have gone off to publish things, but they're really the outliers. I want to help students gain more confidence in their ability to use the language, and I want them to become more enthusiastic, informed readers. The reading part is important to me — I want more students to be delighted by the weirdness of Gertrude Stein, to be willing to try out complex and difficult and alienating texts, to not just seek out what feels most immediately "relevant" to them. Teaching writing is one path to that goal, because it lets students begin to think about how texts are constructed, and what writers think about. Reading like a writer is a good way to read. Experiencing writing as both and art and a craft helps, I hope, to overcome some of the prejudices that lead to writers and artists being seen as people who don't actually labor.

I also don't want to blame students for the failures of institutions. I'm skeptical of the recent discourse about whiny, overprotected students. I don't think teachers should be against students. I think we should be against the neoliberal university that sees nothing but economic indicators. As teachers of writing, we have a special place in that struggle, I think. I take hope from Steve Shaviro's ideas about aesthetics and political economy, e.g.:
I think that aesthetics exists in a special relationship to political economy, precisely because aesthetics is the one thing that cannot be reduced to political economy. Politics, ethics, epistemology, and even ontology are all subject to “determination in the last instance” by the forces and relations of production. Or rather, if ontology is not entirely so determined, this is precisely to the extent that ontology is itself fundamentally aesthetic. If aesthetics doesn’t reduce to political economy, but instead subsists in a curious way alongside it, this is because there is something spectral, and curiously insubstantial, about aesthetics.
As teachers of writing, we can wield aesthetics as a weapon against the all-consuming power of neoliberalism — we can help and encourage students to revel in the inefficacy of our aesthetic projects.

Or, at least, in my more utopian moments I think we can. Right now I just need to stop procrastinating and go grade a pile of research papers... Read the rest of this post

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