Category Archives: writing
A pilgrim looking for miracles,
I move from desk to desk,
reading the notes my students scribble
in their composition books,
their tender words
crawling across the page like lizards seeking light.
One of them writes of how he swept the horse stalls
before filling them again with fresh straw.
One writes of cement gushing from the chute of a truck—
the foundation for the family’s new home;
another of an early morning walk with his flock of sheep
before the sun ignites Tsé Bit’ A’í and it becomes
a fiery winged creature rising from the desert floor;
another of the rusty nails that pierced both his heels
three summers ago
as he scampered across a pile of old lumber behind his hogan—
he says you can still see the scars;
still another of how she torments
her younger sister without mercy—
“There’s something cruel in me,” she writes,
“and it wants Kelsey to hurt, hurt, hurt.”
And I pray:
even the prophets were not blessed like this!
I am standing on holy ground.
Do not remove my feet from this place
now or ever.
© 2011 by Magical Mystical Teacher
More The Sunday Whirl #16 here
More The Poetry Pantry #61 here
More Postcards from Paradise
For you are our glory and joy.
1 Thessalonians 2:20, RSV
I’d like to think that I’m Mrs. Thelma Hill’s glory and joy. At the very least, I owe her a lot. Mrs. Hill, who taught English at East Denver High School, died years ago, but something of her spirit lives in me.
Like Mrs. Hill, I stand at the door of my classroom as students come in, barking “Spit!” if I see a student chewing gum. (I already have enough gooey globs ground into my floor, thank you very much.)
Like Mrs. Hill, I appreciate—and write— the enigmatic snippets of seventeen-syllable poetry known as haiku. (Unlike Mrs. Hill, however, I do not have a Siamese cat named after the Japanese poetic form.)
And like Mrs. Hill, I try to instill in my students a love for literature by reading only the best of books aloud to them, and encouraging them to check out books from the school library.
“I want to be a writer,” I confessed to Mrs. Hill one day as we sat on her living room floor, sipping iced tea and listening to Mozart. (I was one of a handful of students she invited into her home.)
“You can do it,” she said.
Those four words of hope have sustained me for many years. When I abandoned my dream for a while, thinking it was foolishness, I seemed to hear Mrs. Hill reminding me: “You can do it.” When I finally started writing again and rejection slips outnumbered letters of acceptance, I could hear her encouraging me: “You can do it.” And when an unexpected divorce shattered my heart and my self-confidence, leaving me wondering if I’d ever be able to write—or love—again, I felt Mrs. Hill cheering me on: “You can do it.”
Mrs. Hill slipped into the twilight zone of Alzheimer’s disease several years before cancer finally claimed her life. If she were alive today she’d be pleased, but not surprised, to know that I am living my dream. More than a dozen magazines have published my work and I’m currently writing an inspirational book for my colleagues in the teaching profession.
When I had an incipient vision for my future, Mrs. Thelma Hill’s simple words of encouragement inspired me to sharpen my focus and to persevere in spite of setbacks.
During the remaining days of Advent—and for the rest of the school year—will I inspire my students as Mrs. Hill inspired me? Whose life can I change with a simple word of encouragement? Which student will learn from me that a setback is not the end of the world, but an invitation to create an even better world?
Who will become my glory and my joy?
One of our state’s academic standards for 6th-grade science expects students to be able to create a list of instructions that someone else can follow in carrying out a procedure. Because this 14-day summer school session is a multi-disciplinary unit including language arts, math, science and social studies, I try to relate every lesson to the novel Number the Stars.
“You’re one of the Danish Resistance fighters,” I told my students yesterday. “You need to blow up a bridge. In ten steps, write instructions that someone else can follow for blowing up that bridge in case you get killed before you can do it.”
“Why do we want to blow up a bridge?” one student asked.
“Because the Germans are using it to move men and military equipment, and you don’t want to make things easy for the enemy. I’ll give you the last step on your list: It’s to blow up the bridge. You’re responsible for the first nine steps. Oh, and use dynamite as your explosive. Any other questions?”
“How do you spell dynamite?”
I wrote the word on the board and the kids began to scribble their instructions. One of the steps on several of the students’ lists was “Test the dynamite.” Arrgh!
For a first attempt at writing instructions, however, I didn’t want to be too critical. No use discouraging them. I want them to write, write, write!
Today, they continued working at mastering the standard. On a handout, I had written:
[The German invaders rationed food in Denmark.] Annemarie went to the kitchen and opened the door to the cupboard where the potatoes were kept. Every night, now, it seemed, they had potatoes for dinner. And very little else. (Number the Stars, p.22)
Create a list of instructions that Annemarie can follow to prepare a tasty dish of potatoes for the Johansens’ evening meal.
The students’ instructions for preparing potatoes were somewhat more explicit than their instructions for blowing up a bridge, although I did worry a bit about the student who wrote that after putting the potatoes on the stove to cook, I should walk away and come back in a while when the potatoes were done. Um, how long is “a while”? And won’t the potatoes be overdone—or even burned to a crisp—if I leave them sizzling in a greasy skillet while I go play video games? (Video games? During World War II?)
They’ll try writing more instructions next week—perhaps for gutting a fish (Annemarie’s Uncle Henrik is a fisherman); or how to draw a Star of David (a symbol that figures prominently in the story); or even how to make applesauce (a treat that Annemarie’s mother makes at the farm).
Most of my students don’t know how to think. Writing lists of step-by-step instructions is one way to get them to practice the art of thinking.
After school, I walked about a mile to our tiny local public library to return some books. While I was there, I scanned the shelves quickly for some fresh reading material. I left with three books under my arm, one of them The Professional by Robert B. Parker.
As soon as I returned to my domicile, I switched on my radio to our local NPR station. (I like to listen to “All Things Considered” as I take my evening repast.) I was dismayed to learn that Robert B. Parker had died. No more Spenser novels was my first thought. (Not true, I found out later. At least two more novels are slated for publication in 2010.)
Parker, 77, apparently died at his desk Monday, doing what he loved: writing. A little research turned up several surprising facts about this author with whose work I had become acquainted only during the past decade. First, he had a Ph.D. in English (his thesis was detective fiction). Second, at one time he had been a teacher of college English. And third, he cranked out about three novels per year, writing five to ten pages per day.
I don’t remember the first book of Parker’s I read. I do remember being impressed by his laconic style of writing; he wasted not a word. And unlike Elizabeth George (whose work I deeply admire), I never had to reach for a dictionary while reading one of Parker’s novels. He used ordinary words to tell rather extraordinary—and thrilling—tales.
However, a Los Angeles Times reader cautions: Parker’s novels are not “detective stories.” They are existential inquiries into the shallowness and uncertainty of life. Boston is the stage. He concludes that there are only two, real certainties: Love (Susan) and Friendship (Hawk).
There’s one other certainty: death.
I like to think that I’ll be following Robert B. Parker’s lead, still doing what I love, when I take my last breath.
After reading a couple of poems that were shaped like the objects they described, including “The Apple” by S.C. Rigg (a pseudonym of author Sharon Creech), my sixth-graders and I wrote a concrete poem of our own.
First we came up with a list of things that had interesting shapes: sun, train, window, door, chair, snake. The sun won the class vote.
Next, I asked the kids to brainstorm phrases describing the sun and write them on pieces of paper. Then I walked around the room, borrowing bits and pieces from each student, drew a spiral on the board and wrote:
Shaped like a circle,
hot as fire
and brighter than a star,
the heat can fry you like a steak—
and make you dead.
the sun gives us daylight,
spinning like a wheel in the sky.
Not too shabby for our first effort.
Of course, our little sun poem doesn’t even come close to the quality of a Shakespeare sonnet, but we had fun teasing language into shape.
I think we’ll do some more teasing.
Words are the building blocks of thought—and stories. Words spoken by a blind poet around the campfires of old celebrated the cunning ways of a rogue named Odysseus. Words written by Hebrew poets on parchment still tell the tale of the origins of our world: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
My students use words every day, not to tell stories, but for far more mundane purposes:
“May I go to the restroom?” “I need to sharpen my pencil.” “What’s my grade?” “Can I go to the nurse?” “Can I get a drink of water?” “Do you have a tissue?”
My students’ vocabularies are limited, and one of my jobs is to help them increase their vocabularies, for words are the building blocks of thought—and stories.
On Monday, I opened one of our test-preparation booklets to an exercise on correct spelling. Because I work with kids who have IEPs, I encouraged them to use a dictionary to check the spelling of each word in the list.
On Tuesday, I selected five words at random from the list—wrinkles, envy, odyssey, untidy, falcon—and asked my students to find the definitions. I also asked them to use each word in a sentence. When that task proved too daunting for more than half of them, I made up sentences, wrote them on the board, and asked my students to copy them.
“Get acquainted with these words,” I said, “because tomorrow we’re going to use them to write a story.”
And we did:
Once upon a time there was a falcon named Julian (although sometimes he called himself Joshua). He was a very confused falcon—probably because he lived in an untidy nest.
One day he decided to start an odyssey. The odyssey would take him to a magical land where the phoenixes rise every morning.
The odyssey lasted so long that wrinkles appeared on the falcon’s face. He grew wise, and became the envy of other birds who lacked wisdom.
“I like that!” I exclaimed as we finished our story. “I think I could turn what we’ve written into a book.”
Even if I never expand the story of Julian the Confused Falcon into a book, this little writing exercise engaged every student—even my non-readers. Like the blind poet of old, they eagerly shared their ideas orally as I wrote them on the board. Unlike Homer, however, my students opted for brevity in telling their tale.
Who’s to say that a long tale is better than a short one—or vice versa? What’s important is that I am giving my students the gift of words so that one day, without my help, they will be able to tell their own tales as their eager children gather ’round to listen.
A gift well-given keeps on giving.
When I discovered that I have two non-readers, A-Girl and D-Boy, in my sixth-grade language arts class, I began thinking of ways to include them as fully as possible in our literacy activities. I decided to have the kids, all of them, play with rhymes and make couplets, because poetry that rhymes is just plain fun. (I can still recite “Eletelephony,” which I memorized when I was in elementary school about 2,000 years ago.)
We spent some time coming up with several lists of words that rhyme, and kept it simple: day, may, way, play, say, etc. Then we experimented with writing couplets. Again, I kept it simple, asking the students to fill in only the last word of a couplet I had created, using the list of rhyming words that we had already generated together. Even my non-readers could copy the couplets from the board and recite them, because the musicality of poetry sticks with your ear a lot longer than pedestrian prose. (Why do you think Shakespeare has lasted so long?)
As an extension of this activity, I decided that we could collaborate and write a book of couplets together. The book I envisioned would contain lots of repetition so that A-Girl and D-Boy would, sooner or later, start catching on to the correlation between the symbols on the page and the sounds we made with our mouths. The book would also be illustrated by the students.
At first, I thought that I’d look at all the students’ illustrations and use only the very best one for each couplet in the book. I quickly abandoned that idea in favor of each student’s making his or her own book, illustrating all the couplets.
Red-shirted Glenn, whom you see in the illustration, is introduced on one page of our book that, when finished, will be twenty-eight or thirty pages long. We hope to have it “published” and ready for the parents to read by Back-to-School Night on the 26th.
So far, the kids are having fun with this writing project—and so am I!
When I write, I’m most alive.
Click here for more Six-Word Saturday.
Today’s district-wide orientation, although tedious, wasn’t an unmitigated disaster. While the speakers droned on and on and on, I managed to write 53 new haiku in a steno book that I brought along just for that purpose. Like a mentor I had when I was in graduate school, I refuse to be bored at meetings that are anything but interesting.
My mentor’s name was James D. Glasse, and he was the president of Lancaster Theological Seminary. During the September seminar my first year at LTS, Jim decided to take us new seminarians to the local court house, where a forum on aging was in progress. I sat next to Jim as the speakers droned on and on and on.
Jim seemed to be keenly interested in the proceedings, because he was filling page after page of a yellow legal pad with notes. My curiosity was piqued. Maybe I was a poor listener. I decided to try to refocus my attention on what the speakers were saying, but thirty seconds later I was fidgeting in my seat.
Jim, however, was still scribbling furiously, so I decided to take a peek at his notes. That’s when I discovered that he was writing letters to friends. He looked up just before I could look away, and flashed me a huge grin. He leaned close and said, “I made up my mind years ago never to be bored at boring meetings. That’s why I carry this legal pad.”
I’ve followed Jim’s example ever since. I find legal pads too cumbersome and too conspicuous, so I prefer a steno pad instead, but I never go to a meeting without one. Two in-services, one on Thursday, the other on Friday, will be perfect opportunities for me to write more poetry.
Any day I can write, I’m a happy guy.