All posts for the month December, 2011

A Recipe for Writing

Published December 26, 2011 by Susan Woodward

When I am trying to teach my students to become stronger writers, I have taken to creating analogies as a way to get them to think about what they put on paper.  One of my favorites is the stuffing analogy… and it seems kind of timely to share this during the holiday season.

By the way, that’s my three-and-a-half year old granddaughter, Jordan, basting the holiday bird!

One main skill they need to learn is how to analyze literature and then intelligently discuss the Writer’s Craft in how the piece was constructed.   I use phrases like “insert concrete details from the work” and “comment on how those details relate to the topic”, and more often than not, what I get is either a plot summary or their opinion on the topic with no textual support.  What is needed is a recipe.  Jane Schaffer offers a recipe of “chunks” that can be used well with beginning writers– two sentences of commentary for every concrete detail– which would work as long as quality ingredients are used.  And so I give them the stuffing analogy.

For paragraphs that go on and on about some aspect of the topic, but have very little evidence to back them up, I tell the kids that’s like making stuffing with bread only.  Sure, it will fill the bill, but it’s not very appetizing.  For good stuffing, it needs to have some meat to it.  The details from the literature are the tender morsels that deserve to be shared.  Just popping in quotations that really don’t have much to do with supporting the topic is like throwing gristle into the stuffing.  Adding fatty meat to keep it from being all bread is also not going to be something that the family would enjoy during the holidays, and it’s not all that easy to digest.  Neither is reading a paragraph that is filled with incidental details that really don’t have anything to do with the topic at hand.

Of course, there are those who go in the opposite direction and stuff the paragraph with plot summary.  When I point out that it isn’t what was asked for, they say, “But you told me to put in stuff about the story!”   That’s when I ask them if they’d like to have their holiday turkey simply stuffed with sausage and nothing else.  Sure, it fills the cavity, but it has nothing to hold it together… just a greasy mess inside the bird.  That, too, is rather unappetizing!  That one I know from personal experience with stuffing the turkey with too much meat… and cheap meat, at that!  That culinary mistake led to a racking up of frequent flusher miles on the family commode that year!  Well, that’s not what we want from writing, either!

Like the Schaeffer model of writing, good stuffing is about two parts bread to one part choice meat.   I tell students to carefully select the details they wish to include so that they lend themselves to solid commentary on the topic.   Would they want their mothers to go to the grocery store and buy fatty, gristly meat to serve to them?  Of course not!  Well, I don’t want them to serve me the same on paper.

Once they have that balance of bread and meat, that’s not enough to make the stuffing memorable.  It needs seasoning to spice it up a bit: well-chosen vocabulary, sentence structure variety, an appropriate tone.  These will make their writing much more palatable.   They also need to remember that the key to good seasoning is not to overdo a good thing;  too much salt or going unnecessarily heavy on the garlic will spoil the recipe as well.   Using SAT level vocabulary in every single sentence muddies the clarity of the piece, and if the word is not used correctly, it’s like putting Skittles in the stuffing.  They may taste great on their own, but not roasted inside a bird!

Well, I’m off to read some recipes now.  I’ve brought home a feast to go through during my holiday break.  Bon appetit!

My English Class is Your 14 Year Old’s Empty Parking Lot!

Published December 14, 2011 by Susan Woodward

How many parents out there would hand their 14 year old child the car keys and say, “See ya later!  Have a good ride to Pennsylvania!”?  NONE… I hope.  Why not?  Because most kids that age don’t know how to operate a three-ton, motorized chunk of metal yet!  Most people accept this as the norm, am I correct?  God, I hope so!

Don’t most parents, when teaching their child to drive, take them to an empty parking lot somewhere to teach them the basics like:

1)  how to start the damn thing;

2) how to put it in the proper gear (or for those driving a standard, how to find the clutch);

3) where the accelerator is;

4) which pedal is the brake;

5) how to operate the turn signals;

6) how to turn on the lights…

And that’s all before even MOVING the vehicle first!  While there may be many who will pass the test of where to locate these simple necessities, there are probably more who will not… the first time.  But does that “failure” mean that there is something wrong with the kid or, God forbid, something wrong with the parent because the kid doesn’t know?  Of course not!  Both the parent AND the child take it in stride that he/she is not going to be 100% successful this first time behind the wheel.

No one in their right mind would try to teach a child to drive on the 490 right off the bat.  It has to be in a safe place where failure isn’t that much of a high risk… like an empty parking lot.

Now let’s get to accelerating.  First, it has to be in “drive”, both hands have to be on the wheel, he/she has to learn just how much pressure to put on the accelerator pedal to get it to move forward, and also just how much pressure to put on the brake to come to a smooth stop.  Most parents are white-knuckling it the first time… I know I did when I taught my five kids to drive.   And the kids’ hands were gripping the wheel for deal life.  And how DOES that first attempt at stopping a moving three-ton, motorized chunk of metal go?  Most often, it is a herky-jerky stop… and sometimes a few screeching tires are involved.  But the car does stop… hooray!  So does that mean the kid gets a gold star and is ready to go out on the 490 yet?  NO!  And most parents (and student drivers) would agree.  It was not an acceptable stop that one could do in real traffic.  Again, does that “failure” mean that there is something wrong with the kid or with the parent/instructor?  NO!

But would you give a driver’s license to the kid?  NO!  And rightly so!

Before anyone can go out and tool about the neighborhood with one hand on the wheel while simultaneously changing the radio station or taking a sip from a cup of coffee, he/she MUST go through a series of failed attempts first.  And these failures are acceptable.  No one gets angry because we want the child to be a safe driver who will not get into accidents, bringing possible harm to himself or others.  It’s natural.

So if society at large is willing to accept these small failures that ultimately lead to the successful passing of a road test and permission to navigate our roads, WHY can’t that same philosophy be applied to education?

In my experience as a ninth grade English teacher, very few students come to me with the proper writing and/or analytical skills already mastered.   I teach basic sentence structure, punctuation, and other skills that will lead to sufficient writing.   When I give my first quizzes on sentence structure or assign a short paragraph, they are more often than not riddled with errors that leave many students in the C-F range.   They simply are not exhibiting the skills required to perform the task successfully.

It’s like driving a car where they have to keep in mind a whole series of small tasks simultaneously:  “Ok, how hard to I put my foot on the accelerator?  Which way do I push the lever to turn left? How do I turn the wheel to make the car go 90 degrees to make a left hand turn?”  There are a whole litany of small tasks that go through a beginning driver’s mind.  That same idea can be applied to writing: “How do I spell ________?  What’s a complex sentence again?  Do I underline the title of the novel, or do I put it in quotation marks? How do I cite that correctly?”  There are just as many small tasks that must be completed to produce a successful paragraph.  With all those things to keep track of, it is probable that the student will not do it 100% correctly the first time.

Like driving, they are just not ready to go tooling around the block yet.  They need to stay in the parking lot a bit longer… and accept the fact that they didn’t get it perfectly on the first try.   And don’t get me started on parallel parking!

That only makes sense.  In a car, this whole concept seems logical, but not in the classroom.

WHY do I get floods of emails and phone calls from angry parents when a child gets a C on a test or quiz, or a D on a writing assignment?  WHY do I most often hear, “Well, she was a straight A student in middle school!  She couldn’t have made the honor roll or the principal’s list if she couldn’t perform!”  Right… in MIDDLE SCHOOL.  Welcome to the world of HIGH SCHOOL where students must learn to go beyond plot line and actually begin analyzing a work of literature.   They must learn to understand inferencing and how to read between the lines.  They must learn to draw logical conclusions from a text that are not spelled out for them by the author.  They must learn to understand the Writer’s Craft and how an author, like an artist, CREATES a work of literature.  And they MUST learn how to communicate that information clearly and correctly through the written and spoken word.

A handful of students can do that fairly successfully right from the get-go.  Is it perfect?  No… but some come pretty darn close.  Those are my A’s.   Those are the kids to whom I might want to say, “You know?  You did a pretty good job with that one.  Let’s do another and see if you can do it again.”   Sometimes the second try isn’t as successful… the literary work is of a different complexity than the first, or the writing assignment is measuring different skills.  That one might earn a C or a B… sometimes they get a D.  Does that make the kid a failure?  NO!  He/she is still learning!

But the phone rings.  Or the email will shortly arrive.

Let’s go to the other end of the spectrum.  MOST of the kids will fail miserably on their first writing assignment.  Most often, it is because they fail to follow directions (or the FCA’s… Focus Correction Areas).  However, THAT’S when I get the demand for parent conferences or, better yet, a request for a teacher change!  Really?  If I was teaching that same kid to drive, and he failed to put on the brake and hit a tree, would that be MY fault?  Following the above logic, it would seem to be.   He knows where the brake is… he simply failed to use it correctly.  Is he ready to go around the neighborhood yet?  NO!  He failed to stop correctly.

It’s not until the child learns to use the tools he has been given that he will know just how much pressure to put on the brake to come to a smooth stop.  Get it?  HE has to learn to use the tools… I don’t have a brake on the passenger side to stop the car for him.  And I certainly can’t drive FOR him… the driver’s seat just isn’t large enough to fit both a 14 year old and my ample body.

Parents are simply afraid to let the kids fail.  They think it’s a blow to their child’s self-esteem to see red ink all over a paper and anything less than an A or a B at the top.   And just because a kid is used to getting A’s or B’s on everything in middle school, they feel entitled to the same grades in high school.  It’s a whole new world with a whole new set of skills!  Once the students and parents begin to think of 9th grade English as an empty parking lot where it’s okay to fail now and then until they get it right, tension and performance stress will decrease.  And with the decrease of tension and stress, practice will eventually make passable.  Sometimes there will be perfections, but not every time… but they will be a lot closer to that first trip around the block than the first time they got behind the wheel.

So think of my class as the empty parking lot where failure on some tasks is expected and learned from.  Then they can move on to 10th grade and drive around the block a bit, or maybe in a lot that actually has some parked cars in it.   Once that has been mastered, it’s time for driving on the city streets among traffic in 11th grade.  After that, they can learn to drive on the 490 or the Thruway in their senior year.  THEN they will be prepared for the road test to get that ever-prized driver’s license (or diploma).

But, for now, my class is your child’s empty parking lot.


Published December 10, 2011 by Susan Woodward

Yeah… that’s me on the far right.

Staying connected… not something I have always been very good at, except for my immediate family.    I think the reason I see myself in a desert is because it’s someplace without connections… and it is sometimes easier to travel alone than to risk being hurt again.  In a technological world that lends itself toward maintaining connections between people, I seem to be more inclined to keep to myself.

When I divorced and moved a hundred miles away, all the friends I thought I had just drifted away from me.  I remember making calls and trying to keep connected, but most of them just seemed to distance themselves from me.  And so I felt cut off… “unplugged”.    I was in a city where I knew absolutely no one, and I tried very hard to hang on to the connections I thought I had.  Between the physical distance and the distance I heard in their voices when I called to talk to them, everything I ever knew just seemed to float away from me.  It hurt, and I guess that hurt has helped me to build a wall around myself.  Cliched, yes… but true.  Abandonment issues stem way back to my childhood, and I probably carry some of that into my middle years by holding back and being more reserved.  I think that I probably have better cyber connections than I do in real life.  Funny how the internet has allowed for the creation of a whole other world… an alternate reality.   But that alternate reality does allow a sense of safety and personal distance for someone like me. .. and I am certain that there are more like me in that virtual world.  However, that’s not a world I really want to “live” in… because it isn’t “living”.   It’s more like Harry Potter’s Mirror of Erised; staring into a screen and not another’s eyes.

I was in a relationship for more than nine years after my divorce… well, on again/off again anyway.  I thought I’d finally been able to connect… I tried so hard.  Unfortunately, he also got swept up in the alternate reality that is the internet, and that escape from what he viewed as a miserable existence in the real world became more important to him than trying to build something real with me.  Like me, real connections scared him because of past experiences.  That became the latest “unplugging”.

I do connect with friends, albeit periodically.  I actually do not think that I have anyone that I could call at 4 AM to take me to the airport… another cliche, but another that I think is true.  And it’s not that people haven’t reached out to me… they have in very wonderful ways.  But I cannot seem to break this wall.  I let people in only so far.  I do love and care about them, but this intrinsic part of me always holds back.  And so I find myself wandering in this desert because solitude has become safe for me.   I have become so afraid of being abandoned that I am hesitant about my connections.  I worry about shortages, power surges, lines being cut, and plugs getting ripped out, and so I pull back from plugging in.

But that’s Snape’s world.  Although I am not clinging on to old memories to prevent me from moving forward, I am clinging on to the belief that being by myself is safer than taking a risk to connect with others.   But I really do not wish to stay this way.  The only thing is, I don’t know how to break out.   I do go out, and I do socialize… but only up to a point.

Connecting is risky.  While “plugging in” can bring light, there is always the fear of an outage in the back of my mind, I guess.  I’ve had my share of power surges that end up with me being in the dark again.   After having the plug pulled so many times, I have a fear of putting the plug back in again.

Well, recognizing the problem is the first step toward a solution.  In this complex world where there are so many people, like me, who have disconnect problems of their own, how does one make a lasting circuit?  In this season of light, I don’t want to be unplugged.   Like the return of the longer days of light, I want to have more light in my life.  I want to plug in to what life has to offer and actually unplug myself from the virtual world more.  But again, that’s risky.  I have to find a way to break that fear, knowing that not all connections will stay lit.  There have to be some that will, though.  I have it with my children, and so I know that I have the ability to connect; I just have to be willing to take the risk.

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