the lonely writer

Writing is a solitary hobby. Endless hours sitting at that blasted blinking cursor, in a quiet room, waiting for inspiration to filter through our fingertips, onto the keyboard, and onto the screen. Loving everything we write, and the next day, as if awaking from a hangover, regretting every word combination we ever created. And yet there’s something intensely desirable about it. We all can’t be masochists. So what helps us get by?


I meet with an incredibly talented group of writers once a week, our own personal Writers Guild. One of our best community builders this fall, NaNoWriMo, allowed us to pursue a common goal and cheer one another along, regardless of our place in the journey. We celebrated our progress with an epic hall display, moving our viking ships through the word count sea. Writers would stop by almost every day with an update. Together, we wrote 187,383 words during the month of November. Not too shabby for something they didn’t have to do.

In addition to moving viking ships, we decided to also use a badge system for demonstrating proficiency in each of the major elements of fiction: plot, dialogue, conflict, theme, characterization, point of view, and setting. Writers also earned badges for meeting writing milestones (weekly word count goal, 25K, 50K), plus additional badges for participating in write-ins. Lockers all over the building displayed these badges, affirming yes, I am a writer, and I have a story to tell.

Due to the success of the November NaNo, our writers decided to also participate in Camp NaNo, held annually in April. Instead of earning shield-shaped achievement badges, writers will build their own totem pole with hand-cut (and glued!) animals. Each totem pole will be different, since our writers work at their own pace and determine when they are ready to earn each badge. If writers earn all of the badges, their totem pole will be the same height as their lockers. Plus, it will look pretty awesome, too.

And if you’re wondering what their word count markers will be, they will have both canoes and backpacks, depending on the terrain. More pics and updates to follow.


If teaching AP has, in turn, taught me anything, it’s to pay attention to word choice– connotation, denotation, contranyms (my new favorite teacher geek word this year), homonyms. I love to pick apart language and hyper-analyze what people say, find interesting connections between language and meaning.

project (noun) 

  1. something that is contemplated, devised, or planned; plan; scheme.
  2. a large or major undertaking, especially one involving considerable money, personnel, and equipment.
  3. a specific task of investigation, especially in scholarship.
  4. Education. a supplementary, long-term educational assignment necessitating personal initiative, undertaken by an individual student or a group of students.

project (verb)

  1. to propose, contemplate, or plan.
  2. to throw, cast, or impel forward or onward.
  3. to set forth or calculate (some future thing): They projected the building costs for the next five years.
  4. to throw or cause to fall upon a surface or into space, as a ray of light or a shadow.
  5. to cause (a figure or image) to appear, as on a background.
  6. to regard (something within the mind, as a feeling, thought, or attitude) as having some form of reality outside the mind: He projected a thrilling picture of the party’s future.
  7. to cause to jut out or protrude. | source

One might, in this case, project a project. My five advanced creative writing kiddos did this today. Nine-week projects, self-designed with five checkpoints. The big goals for each are, in essence:

  • a collection of LGBTQIA short stories, all geared toward self-discovery and identity (5-15K words per story)
  • a MG high fantasy novel (30-50K total words)
  • a YA mainstream revision / novel completion (50K+30K=80K+ total words)
  • a YA fantasy / sci-fi novel and a play (12K+20K = 30K+) + (?)
  • two to three completed and revised short stories, ready to submit for publication (5-10K per story)

I am so dorkily excited about these projects because these kiddos are friggin amazing.

Truth is Stranger than Fiction

I’ve thought about this expression lately, considering what exactly makes fiction oftentimes more acceptable than truth. Perhaps when we hear something is fiction we automatically prepare our minds to suspend our disbelief to some extent to accept the story.


That said, tonight I went to Rural King to buy a small box of screws to mount some shelves at school and a box of dog biscuits for my girls. Apparently everyone simultaneously decided to go to Rural King at 5:00PM, including a middle-aged man with four large cockatoos. He stood at the front of the store near the cart corral, feeding the birds popcorn from his own mouth. He was obviously not shopping and did not appear to be in any hurry to leave.

Four cockatoos. Popcorn. From his mouth. That is all.

found poetry–the statue in the stone

I am not a poet.

I tell my students this as we work on poetry for half of the semester in creative writing. I am a fiction writer, but I became a better fiction writer through studying and writing poetry.

In both poetry and fiction, word choice–diction–matters. But in poetry, the challenge to say more with fewer words causes us to be more frugal.

So today, we channeled our inner Michelangelo and discovered the statue in the block of stone.

I refer to this activity as found poetry, though I’m sure there’s several names for it. Pinterest also has some amazing examples of it.

I have a book, published in 1949 with yellowed pages with that wonderful old book smell, The Heavyweight Championship, that I use for this first assignment.

foundStep 1: Select a page from a book or other (prose) publication.

I think half the class gasped as I gave the instructions, then demonstrated. “Rip a page out of the book.” Rip.

I allowed them to select any page, for that page held the poem meant for them. I think part of the success concerns what book you allow your students (or yourself) to use. The point is to make the final poem sound nothing like its source material.

Step 2:
Circle words (top to bottom, left to right) to create a new poem.

Step 3: Adorn accordingly.

(Optional) Step 4: Use this opportunity to teach line breaks and punctuation.

My original chosen words read like this: thirteen years a fortune of good time never self-confident erratic temperamental Jack lost the time it was thirteen Jack Jack avoided triumph Jack stopped

Decisions: line breaks, capitalization, and punctuation.

During the next class, we’re going to look at all 18 poems and talk about these critical decisions in poetry. Here’s how I rewrote my poem:

Thirteen years–
a fortune
of good time.
Never self-confident, erratic,
Jack lost
the time.
It was
Jack avoided triumph.
Jack stopped.

Digression: Today, I met my new creative writing students–eighteen brilliant minds eager to tell a story. I am blessed to also have five advanced CW loopers–students who excelled in creative writing last year. They will be working on independent projects and pursuing publication while still participating in weekly workshops with my first-year CW students. It’s going to be a great semester. You’ll be hearing a lot about them, I’m sure.


First Love

I never liked the expression love at first sight. As someone who always found imperfections with her looks, I always considered this an impossibly shallow concept. And yet, while efforts exist to combat the worship of (society’s slanted perspective of) physical beauty–no makeup selfies, songs about self-image–trolls everywhere still echo the darkest voices of our subconscious.

Why is it that sight is the sense we choose to associate with instantaneous love? And I’m not talking about love at first smell or love at first taste (ahem, vampires). What about love at first voice?

Wavy flashback lines to seventh grade.

Fabulously awkward me, sitting at the back lab table in biology class with a Beauty and a Jock. Daily, he verbally reminded me of my shortcomings; merely looking at her had the same effect.

But every once in a while, during the last twenty minutes of class, I was permitted to fall in love. Our teacher read aloud to us, in biology class. Not from a science textbook but from a collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury. The Illustrated Man.

Sometimes, as teachers, we admittedly do things because we sincerely believe in their value. Sometimes, it’s because we need something to fill in a lesson that somehow ran short.

I’m not sure what was our teacher’s purpose for reading a collection of science fiction short stories in a science class. We didn’t have ‘I can’ statements back then.

What I do know is that there, during seventh grade, a homely girl with mousy brown hair fell in love with the Voice of literary science fiction.

Ray Bradbury. Orson Scott Card. Ursula K. Le Guin. Frederik Pohl. Isaac Asimov. Robert A. Heinlein.

Even Mary Shelley.

Writers who didn’t just care about the hows of science fiction but the why this matters. Character-driven, emotional, whoa-let-me-go-back-and-reread-that-so-I-can-think-about-it writing.

Flash-forward to high school.

Slightly less awkward me, but fabulously flannel. (It was the 90s.)

Ray Bradbury visited my hometown, and our class went to see him. He spoke to a sea of young people, most of them probably there to get extra credit from desperate English teachers. I remember two boys with “Bradbury 3:16” written in Sharpie on plain white t-shirts, standing up and yelling from the back row.

I remember clutching my secondhand copy of Fahrenheit 451, naively thinking I could convince this god to sign it.

And though I can’t recall his exact words, I know he spoke of writing Fahrenheit 451, renting a typewriter for a dime at a time in his nearby public library. Suddenly, the Voice I had grown to love for the stories he told split into two chords, creating a wondrous harmony. The Stories, themselves, and the dogged Writer behind them.

So I ask you this: with whom did you fall in love at first voice?

killing trees

I’m really trying to go paperless, let me just say that up front.

I really am.

But I’ve learned, especially with my students, that one of the skills they sometimes lack is a sense of organization, which is why I allow them to keep their class folders in my room.  Maybe I’m an enabler.  Maybe.  But there’s something to be said about modeling correct behavior, and if I help them to maintain a neat folder with all of their information, handouts, and graded papers, maybe–just maybe–they’ll do it on their own in other classes or in later grades.

In previous years, my co-teacher and I provided them with a spiral-bound notebook.  This worked great for keeping things from getting lost but didn’t do much for containing loose-leaf papers.  At the end of last year, I picked the brain of my astute student teacher and we began developing a folder template, which is still a work in progress.  If you plan to mimic the folder, feel free–share and share alike–but I would suggest including everything you needed as early on in the process as possible.  This weekend I spent hours organizing one class’s folders, taking handouts from one pocket and placing them in another, opening and closing the prongs to add in loose leaf paper. Oy.  But! they’re nice and neat and grading will be SO much easier when students know that if they want me to grade something, they’ll place it in the left-side pocket.

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I bought the folders with the prongs because I wanted to be able to include important handouts that the students couldn’t claim to have lost or never received.  Handouts = killing trees, I know, but there are some things that as teacher I need to be able to justify students having received.  You know.

So, here’s the front of the folder.  I use the 5160 Avery mailing label templates.  I use a blank one for their name and then a “Please put all handouts & bellwork in the prongs.”  I actually had some who asked what this means.  Demonstration is everything.  Now, all of their handouts are in the prongs with the bellwork.  I’m still trying to decide if I want their notebook paper in there first or the handouts first (since one of the handouts is about how I would like for them to format their bellwork.)  I will probably have an update on this preference when they have several pages of bellwork and whether or not the other pages get in the way of the grading and writing.  The stickers that follow are ones my co-teacher and I developed last year for their notebooks.  We wallpaper the front of their folders with these stickers because we always had to flip back and forth to record their scores.  This keeps the labels on the same side of the folder as their names and also has a place for us to record notes scores.  The last little circle (or stars, actually for this year) are their True Colors results.  If you’ve never done this personality / learning style survey, you should really check it out.  Not only does it tell you their learning preferences, it provides you with information about how best to interact with them, signs they’re having a bad day, and working styles.  It tells you how other people misread their personality eccentricities and what message they’re really trying to get across.  Great stuff.  There are plenty of variations out there on the Internet, you just have to find the one that works best for you.  We’re going to mark their folders in times when we want them to work in groups; we may  have all of the “like” colors working together on one project, while other projects may call for one representative from each learning style.  Originally, we were going to have the whole folders be the color of the learning style, but we wanted to have the folders before students arrived and we had no way to anticipate how many we would need for each one.  We actually have our folders the same color of the crates in the back of the room that keep them organized, so students who have the red folders should file them away in the red crate.

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Photo Aug 25, 2 37 32 PMHere are the insides of the folders (for now.)  As a department, we opted to provide students with two hall passes per 9-week grading period.  These are transferable to bonus points for that grading period only at 10 points per pass if unused.  I urged students to write their names, in ink, on the passes and then stapled them inside the folders.  They must exchange these coupons for hall passes–it says that on the ticket.  I don’t want them waving it around the hallway saying it’s their hall pass.  On the other side, the Oops passes are another department-wide policy.  Students receive 3 Oops passes per 18-week semester.  This allows them to avoid the late penalty for submitting assignments 1 day late.  These are also transferable for bonus points at 5 points each.  They may be submitted during either grading period for the bonus points.  In the middle, I have a “Ready for Grading” label so students know this is where they “turn in” items that are not personally collected by me.  If something is missing or I believe they misplaced an item (I saw them working on it in class but it is not in the folder), I write them a little message on a sticky note.  This has worked INCREDIBLY well so far.  The next time I look at their folders, the sticky note is usually gone and the missing work is in the pocket.

The right side of the folder has more organizational stickers.  The label “Graded Items” lets them know that I’ve already graded and recorded that work.  They can either leave it in the folder or take it home.  One label allows them to record their Achieve3000 Lexile levels.  This is a program our corporation has adopted to help students improve their reading comprehension in non-fiction.  Last year, almost all of my students raised their Lexile levels.  In order to help them see and be part of their own improvement, I want them to record their Lexile levels at grading period marks.  The last piece of information on the remaining labels involves their Acuity login and scores.  Acuity is a program that, after testing students, identifies their deficits and assigns work that specifically targets those areas of concern.  Acuity testing takes place three times a year:  once in October/November, January/February, and April/May.

I’ll continue to update the folder template as well as post about my attempts in my elective to do paperless bellwork with Google docs, but that’s an entirely different post, and it’s a school night.

Until next time.

Nuances of Character

In my SAT-ACT prep class, I tried to design a well-rounded curriculum, and this week one of the items on our to-learn list involves Nuances of Character.  Here’s my KidBlog post for their first short written response.

Today, we’re looking at nuances and attitudes of character.  According to Google, a nuance is “a subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound.”  Sometimes characters fall into stock categories (the knight, the princess in distress, the wise mentor.)  These are called archetypes.  Nuances can be small things about characters that make them stand out from other characters.  Let’s look at Fiona from Shrek.

Princess_FionaFiona does not represent the stock character of the “princess in distress” for several reasons.  Although she is apparently in distress, she can definitely fend for herself, unlike other stock princesses.  And while she wants a handsome prince to rescue her from her tower, she eventually accepts her fate that her prince is Shrek who doesn’t fit the fantasy she had planned for so many years.  She hides a deep secret about herself and her past which is sometimes revealed when she fights the robbers in the woods, sings and explodes a bird, or belches after breakfast.  These are all subtle nuances that make her different than other princesses in distress.

Write about 100 words about a character from a book, television show, film, or cartoon that displays subtle nuances of being different than other stock characters.  For reference, the above paragraph is a little over 100 words.  Obviously, don’t use Fiona as your example as that’s already been taken.