All posts tagged writing

Summer Challenge: My Walden Experiment

Published August 3, 2014 by Susan Woodward

How perfect is it that I am able to combine my Summer Challenge with preparation for the upcoming school year?

When I return to work after this summer respite, I will be teaching juniors for the first time in my district. After looking at the curriculum possibilities, I have decided that I will begin the year with the Transcendentalists. What better time to read Emerson’s “Self Reliance” and Thoreau’s Walden? Thoreau, in particular, was fond of writing his essays as personal narrative. It is ironic that both Emerson and Thoreau fall into the list of Common Core works when the ELA author of the Common Core State Standards, David Coleman gave a presentation at the New York State Education Department in 2011 titled, “Bringing the Common Core to Life” in which he said:

Do people know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today? Texting someone said; I don’t think that’s for credit though yet. But I would say that as someone said it is personal writing. It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or it is the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with those two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.

I beg to differ.

The single most important piece that students will write is the college essay. It’s not a persuasive argument, and it’s not a literary analysis. It is a personal narrative about why the student wishes to pursue his/her higher education at a particular institute and what life experiences have brought him/her to the decision to apply. No matter how many arguments or analysis essays students produce, with no real practice in writing about themselves and what they really think/feel, the college essay will be an incredible source of stress for them. So in order to prepare them to write about themselves, we will look at essayists who did write about their thoughts and feelings. And what better place to start than with Emerson and Thoreau?

Because I will be asking students to write about their own experiences, I made an effort to model that behavior with my own Walden Experiment. To begin, I went so far as to rent a small cabin in the woods (yes, all by myself) and hiked about the area as much as possible. I recorded my excursions on MapMyWalk, a phone app that records your progress, and I took plenty of pictures, both of which I shared with my friends on FaceBook to whet their appetites for when I would write my blog entries.

You know…Thoreau would have LOVED modern technology. Oh, he may complain about man’s infringement upon Nature with his trains and fences, but as one who desired to share his Walden Pond experiences, I am certain that he would have blogged, tweeted, MappedHisWalk, and shared with the social networking cyberworld. As he said about his decision to live in a small cabin in the woods, “I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as Chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake the neighbors up” (Thoreau, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”, Walden).

This is Thoreau’s cabin:

Thoreau CabinAnd here is the cabin I rented for five days:Feeder Creek Cabin Framed

It may not have been as rustic a Thoreau’s little place that he built (yeah…it had air conditioning and DishTV, which I avoided using…well the TV anyway), but it WAS in the woods and on a pond. It was also extremely economical, of which Thoreau would approve. Personally, I highly approved of the modern conveniences rolled into my experiences in Nature. I was especially grateful for the WiFi that was available! No hating about electronic devices! Thoreau would have approved of the ability to get the word to the masses.

Speaking of Chanticleer, I have been lied to my whole life about a rooster crowing at sunrise. Feeder Creek’s Chanticleer crowed ALL day and even into the evening! He, too, wanted to make his voice heard at every opportunity. So, like the rooster, I crowed on FaceBook and MapMyWalk every day.

And I kid you not, there were even bean plants growing in the garden right behind the cabin. As a place to partake in a bit of what Thoreau wrote about, I could not have found a better place without going to Massachusetts. And what was even better was that it was only about a two and a half hour drive from home. Because of it being in Upstate New York, I also was able to double dip the experience to include it as part of my Summer Challenge. I love how things work out perfectly.

Feeder Creek Cabin Interior

Feeder Creek Cabin Sitting Area

cabin kitchenette

Bean Fields

Even with all the lovely modern conveniences that made me feel comfortable, I still partook of the outdoors in Throeauvian fashion. The first place I explored immediately after unpacking was Grindstone Mill Pond. The owners of Feeder Creek Lodge and Cabin, Bill and Barbara VanWormer, offered me use of a canoe to aid in my explorations.

“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows” (Thoreau, “The Ponds”, Walden).

And so I hopped into the canoe…after first tipping it and myself with my first attempt to get going. Truth be told, I was afraid that there might be spiders in the canoe, and so I was tipping it into the pond to wash them out. Yes, that is the story I am going with! Thank goodness I had the foresight to put my cell phone in a plastic bag in my pouch…it serves as my camera. Once I finally got going, a huge spider DID make its way across the rim of the canoe, and I swear he was begging to join his friends for a swim. I was only too happy to oblige him. Thank goodness the remainder of the ride was arachnid-free! And was was glad to have sprayed myself with 85 SPF sun screed and Deep Woods Off. It really did make for a much more enjoyable afternoon on the pond.

Pond 3

Pond 5


View From a CanoeRather Monet-esque if I do say so myself…

pond 2

Canoe Ride on the Pond

And so, as the afternoon wore on and I returned to my cabin, I spent the remainder of the evening outdoors in my lounge chair enjoying the words of Henry David Thoreau and contemplating how I might experience the joy of Nature that he felt for myself.

And I am grateful the Deep Woods Off helped to make that experience more joyful! I do not know how Thoreau managed the bugs!


Still Emerging… Bit By Bit

Published December 3, 2012 by Susan Woodward

I haven’t written anything in a long, long time.  For some reason, I have found it hard to sit and do the thing that I actually love to do… write.  I’ve felt unmotivated, dry, and actually a bit dead inside.   Maybe a part of me has died.   I spent the entire summer working on rebuilding an entire curriculum based on the Common Core Standards and the PARCC framework.  It was completely unlike what I have done in the past with my students, and seemed as if it would be so overwhelming to them and to me.  And my heart sunk.  My creative spirit felt sucked out of me, and I wondered how I would be able to inspire myself to keep going, let alone inspire kids.  With that went my personal spirit.

My heart has not been in the things I have loved for so long, and I am not sure how to overcome that.  It has been dark and dank inside that cave, and some of that darkness has crept inside me as well.  I want and am trying to emerge from it, but every time I reach that entrance, I run into a situation that sends me scurrying back inside– usually a situation of my own doing.  I say and do the wrong things and then feel guilty or angry with myself, so I retreat.  It’s a hell of lot easier there.  With a few exceptions, I have spent most of the past six months inside not reading, not writing, and not really connecting.  Just existing.  And worrying.  And fearing that I wasn’t going to be able to meet the demands that I knew were waiting for me in September.

At first, I was just taking a break from the hectic end of the school year.   I was exhausted and all I wanted to do was rest.   I told myself that I was going to finally write, write, write… and then nothing.   I’d open the files and my heart wasn’t in it.  And so I just shut it down…and after a bit, shut myself down.  The re-boot button came with the new school year, and I have thrown myself into this new mess of APPR, CCSS, PARCC, SLO, PLC, and a host of other acronyms.  All those capital letters are like someone shouting at me, screaming across the screen, and I push and I push myself to try to live up to what “they” in Albany want.  I have managed to do what I need to in order to be in compliance with all that is required of me, but at the cost of my spirit.  Compliance.  Not the best word to describe someone who really is passionate about teaching… but I felt the life getting sucked out of me in order to meet these new demands.

All I really want to do is teach literature.  I want to teach poetry.  I want to do all the things that I have done in past years that have gone successfully with the kids.

I’ve tried my very, very best to take it all in stride and make the necessary adjustments.  New lesson plans for new units, all being presented in completely new ways.  Non-fiction, informative texts as prescribed, with as much literature as I could weave in and still be in compliance.  I modeled everything I did after the PARCC framework and made sure that I hit as many of the Common Core Standards as humanly possible with my lessons.  The first quarter was daunting and exhausting.   My lessons were meticulously aligned, but it didn’t feel like me at all.  I felt robotic, and even though I tried to be enthusiastic, I felt so overwhelmed.  The amount of writing assignments I gave fit the PARCC to a “T” and I tried to be diligent in grading them; however, the harsh reality is that with the 4-6 analysis pieces, the research paper, the narrative writing, the persuasive writing, the routine writing, the vocabulary work, and the reading quizzes for over 120 students, the paperwork turned into an avalanche that buried me.   Evenings and weekends became practically nothing but papers, papers, and more papers.  I pushed myself to finish by the deadline, and I was nearly dead inside myself.   I didn’t see the meaning in making kids jump through all these new hoops and I found myself crawling through an ever narrowing tunnel that threatened to squeeze the very life out of me.  And I began to shut down even more.

And now we are in the second quarter.

I know from past years that I have done good work with my kids.  I know that my passion for the work of Joseph Campbell has fueled my lessons, and I know that I have had kids come back in later years to tell me that I did a good job.  So this quarter, I am going back to what I know.  I can tweak things to make sure all the Standards are being hit, but I am not going to put my kids or myself through those PARCC hoops again… at least not until it becomes mandate.  For right now, I am trying to reach in and bring forth the teacher that I have been in the past.

And fortunately, good news has arrived.  It’s possible that NY State might reject the framework after all!  Oh happy day!  I can finally see a ray of light at the mouth of my cave, and maybe, just maybe I can re-emerge.

But coming out of that self-imposed darkness isn’t as easy as I’d hoped as it has crept into my soul.   When I do leave the house other than for work, I find that I am anxious to just go home again.  With the coming of advent, I have once again inched toward the door, hoping that with the coming of the light will be the coming of my lost spirit.


Using the Right Tools: Drop the Teaspoon and Pick Up the Shovel!

Published January 7, 2012 by Susan Woodward

One thing that all teachers try to do is give their students the right tools to be successful in completing tasks.  We can give them the tools, but it is totally their responsibility to pick them up and use them.  Many are so comfortable using what they have always used that they resist anything new.  When it comes to writing and analyzing, I want them to dig deeper.  If the assignment is to dig a hole three feet by four feet and five feet deep, it’s very frustrating to give a kid a shovel only to have him try to complete the job with a teaspoon!  He may eventually complete the task, but it will take much more effort, require a hell of a lot more sweat, and the desire to quit will be at an all time high.

What is it about letting go of the old that is so difficult?  Hanging on for dear life to old patterns that have long outgrown their usefulness really leads to a lot of anger and frustration… but the idea of leaving something behind is also frustrating.

Part of making those long-term changes for 2012 will require me to let go of comfortable, yet destructive behaviors.  There are better tools available to me: healthier foods, reaching for a bottle of water instead of another cup of coffee, picking up a pen instead of a cigarette… all tools that will serve me well if I can just let go of the old stand-bys.   We are eight days into the new year, and so far my cigarette usage has decreased a bit.  It hasn’t ceased, but it has decreased.  That’s a bit of progress.   I’m still working on the healthier food alternatives.  My next grocery shopping trip will involve some changes in what goes into my cart and what doesn’t.  Not Earth-shattering, but a start.

One thing that I will keep in mind as I begin reaching for better tools is how I can help make the same transition for my students.   I work hard to give them the writing skills that will help them be successful.   Everything I give them is something else for them to add to their toolbox, but if they never open that box on their own, the tools will just sit there.   By using the tool analogy with them in the classroom, it will help to keep the idea forward in my own mind to do the same.   Like no one can take my old, comfortable tools away from me without resentment on my part, I can’t take their teaspoons and force them to use the shovel.   It’s something that each of us has to do for ourselves.   I see many who are becoming much more proficient with their new tools, and a few even astound me by bringing out a backhoe and going even further than asked!

That’s what I want to hang on to and learn from myself.   I need to be strong enough to not only stop picking up the wrong implements, but getting rid of them altogether.   But, like my students, it will happen a little at a time.

2012: Mayan-Sized Endings

Published January 2, 2012 by Susan Woodward

Every year at this time everyone talks about resolutions to make changes… me included.  And every year, my resolve weakens about the third or fourth week in, gets invigorated in the spring after the winter hibernation, ebbs and flows throughout the summer, and then falls totally short once the new school year begins in September.  It’s been my pattern for so many years, but January 1 is always right there around the corner every 365 days just in time for me to make similar resolutions that will also fall short.

With all of the attention being given to the Mayan calendar ending in 2012, I want to pay attention.  This is an ending that won’t have a 365 day renewal policy.  While many are certain that December 21, 2012 will be the end of the world, I simply see it as a time for preparing for the end of an era.  And with the end of a long cycle needs to be the end of some long-standing resolutions… at least for me.  2012 also marks a milestone birthday for me… I will turn 50 in February, and it is time for some long-lasting changes.  I am ready for 2012 to be an ending of long cycles of behaviors in my life, starting with my annual pseudo-resolutions.

Long-Standing behaviors that I want to end throughout 2012:

1.  Self-Poisoning:  I need to stop poisoning my body and my mind.  This has been life long battle for me.  I eat too much of the wrong foods, I smoke, and I fill my mind with doubt.   I have been fearful too long, and have self “medicated” with overindulgence to the point where I have reached toxic levels… poison.

2.  Isolation:  Because of my fears of rejection, I have kept myself from really connecting with others.   I put myself in a self-imposed desert state, and it’s time to move more toward civilization.  While it may have been good for me to think of it as solitude and reassessment for a period of time, I have become too comfortable being by myself.   A certain level of safety has arisen from being alone, but that wall of safety has cut me off from so much.  Now even more at social functions, I retreat from the crowds to find a quiet corner.  Because I am afraid that anything I might have to say is not anything that anyone would want to hear, I shy away from conversation and simply watch from a distance.   I have done this for most of my life, but not to the level that I have currently reached.   This is a pattern I so desperately want to break because there is so much that I want to do with what is left of this life.   I cannot do what I truly want if I hide away from the world.

3. Fearfulness: My fears have caused the above behaviors, particularly the fear of rejection.   It has kept me from connecting with people, caused severe procrastination in my writing, provided me with an excuse to self-medicate with food and smoking, and kept me in this self-imposed desert state.  By working to conquer #3, that should take care of knocking off #1 and #2 above.

So fighting fearfulness is where I begin to make these long lasting changes.   And from past experience of resolutions, I am not going to try to go cold-turkey.  This cycle of endings came after a long period, and so my endings cannot just happen overnight… but they will happen.

– I will quit smoking, but I will do so gradually, giving me a better chance at long-lasting success.

– I will improve my eating behaviors, but I will not tell myself to stop eating any particular thing altogether.   I will work toward moderation so that I will not feel deprived and then fall back into over-indulgence.

– I will get out of the corner at social functions.  No, I won’t be the life of the party… but I will avoid being too shy to talk to new people.   I’ll start with talking to one new person at a time, and just go from there.

– I will get off the couch and exercise more.  No marathons, no Olympics… but getting out to do something I really love… swimming… will do much for me physically.   With less smoking, I will be able to build stamina in doing laps.  As my body becomes stronger, I will be less inclined to indulge in eating too much.

– I will make time to write a bit a couple times a week and work my way up to doing a bit of writing more often.   I don’t want to put a time line on my novel because that is self-defeating, but I will keep a steady pace at it and it will be complete in its own time… as long as I chip away at it.   A few pages at a time and before I know it, I will have all the pages it requires.   I will stop worrying about whether or not anyone else will like what I’ve written and just do it for myself.   I actually DO like the story I’ve plotted out, and as long as I like it, then that will be a very good start.   If I care enough about my own work, then I will be able to find others who will care about it, too.

While these may seem like the same resolutions I make year after year, I am going to be much more mindful about how I tackle my issues.   It took a couple thousand years for the Mayan calendar to come to an end, so I will not have high expectations of my life-long behaviors ending at the drop of a ball.   It will be a year of endings, and when December 21, 2012 arrives, a whole new era will begin.  That is my goal… to get ready for new beginnings.

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 November 25, 2011 by Susan Woodward

I’d mentioned before that two cards kept appearing in my readings.  I’ve already talked about The Hermit, and today I want to examine the Nine of Pentacles.  Both have to do with solitude… but the Nine adds the element of gratitude.

This card is gorgeous.  I love the colors and the flowing lines.  I especially love how, although the woman is alone, she seems not to be concerned about that.  Life springs out of her creative expression, and the warm colors suggest that she is comfortable in her solitude.  Purple is a color of creativity, while green is life… my two favorite colors in the world.  With the water-based conch shells, it suggests that her world and music are filled with emotion, and the fact that she is seated on a conch suggests that she is comfortable in her emotional state.  She holds her head high while admiring the fruit of her talent.  The roots of the tree spread out wide on the earth, as do the roots that seem to spring from the shell.  She is grounded.   The branches of the tree reach high into the Universe, suggesting that her music is not meant to be kept to herself, even though she is alone in composing it.  Her hands seem relaxed as they are poised above the keyboard, and I imagine that if I could see her face, it too would be in a peaceful state.

I want that.  If I must be alone for now, I want it to be a peaceful solitude.  I want life to spring from my creative endeavors, whether it comes from my novel, my guided visualizations, my poetry, my music, or my theatrical performances… I want to bring life to my art.

I also want to find that sense of solace from being alone.  What I wish is to be comfortable in my solitude instead of feeling lonely.  Going from a house full of people to an apartment by myself is still an adjustment, even after a year and a half.   Sometimes it’s just too quiet.  What I am attempting to do is fill that quiet with the words of the my characters and the sounds of the world I am creating in my novel.

Snape could never be in this picture… and that makes me feel sad for people like him in this world.  My heart goes out to those who have loved and lost because I have been there.  However, the most important thing I can do for myself is not to get stuck in old memories.  I am ready to make new ones, even if I have to do it alone.  Would I be willing to accept someone into my world?  Of course… but not simply to alleviate any loneliness I feel.  When and if I were to be with someone, it would have to be a coming together of two like souls.  Convenience is not an option; that’s too easy.   I want something that has time to blossom and grow, like the tree springing forth in the picture.   Someone who also has a creative spirit who will help feed that tree, and not allow it to wither and die away.

I did that.  I allowed my creative writing to wither away because someone else didn’t appreciate what I wanted to do.  I gave in to doing what he wanted and stepped back from the things that were really a part of my soul.   Meditation and a soul retrieval ritual helped me to reclaim that part of me, and I will not let it go again.   A life of creativity is what I am called to.

And so I will write.  I will continue to write here, even if no one ever reads these words.   Like the tree, I give these words to the Universe.  I am perfectly okay with simply sending them out there.  Who knows where they will land, if they even do?

Today, as the sun streams in through the windows this gorgeous day-after-Thanksgiving, I will write.  I will be filled with gratitude that I have been given the gift of time to do so as well as a creative spirit.  I shall fill the silence with soft music and allow my imagination to fly me to the world I am creating through my fingertips.   Perhaps one day the world will share this imaginative journey with me when I finally publish the fruits of my solitary labor.

Power in a Blank Sheet of Paper

Published October 27, 2011 by Susan Woodward

First of all, I want to admit that I got the idea for this exercise from a teacher on FaceBook.  Secondly, I want to say that this was probably the most powerful lesson in Symbolism that I have ever given in my 15 years of teaching, and I intend to use this from now on to introduce the concept.

I teach 9th grade English, and I’ve been working using Visible Thinking tactics to better reach my students.  As a lead in to the short story “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst, I wanted to find an exercise that would teach students about the power of symbolism in literature.   Who says that FaceBook has no value other than social networking?

I had students take out their writing journals and a clean sheet of paper.  In the journals, they had to put the heading “Symbolism” at the top.  They were then instructed to look closely at the clean sheet of paper sitting on their desks and to write (in the journals) anything that they saw about the paper.  They had to preface the notes with “I see…”.  I then asked them to preface a few sentences with “I think…” as they continued to look at the blank sheet of paper.  The kids looked at me like I was nuts, but they wrote in their journals anyway.

As soon as they finished writing, I told them to take the sheet of paper and crumple it up.  They could stomp on it, they could pound it, they could bite it… but they just could not tear it in any way.  That they got into.  Kids were balling up the sheets, throwing them on the floor and jumping on them.  One put the wad of paper into his mouth and chewed on it (I had to tell him to be careful about ripping it).  Then I had them put the wadded paper on the desk in front of them and repeat the writing exercise.  They had to preface each section with “I see…” and “I think…”.  They seemed to have more to say this time because it took them a bit longer to do the writing piece.

Once they finished that, I asked them to very, very carefully (so as not to rip it) unfold the crumpled ball and flatten it out as best they could.  While they were doing that, I instructed them to say, “I’m sorry” to the piece of wadded up paper.  Ok, so some kids got silly with it and started kissing the paper while apologizing, but they managed to get them opened up without tears.  Some were trying to use the edge of their desks to run the paper along it to try to flatten it.  Once they were ready, I had them repeat the writing exercise, prefacing with “I see…” and “I think…”, but this time I added the extra component of “I wonder…”.

After they finished that portion of the exercise, they then had to write their own definition of Symbolism… whatever they thought that Symbolism meant.   As a sign that they were completely done writing, I told them to hold their symbols high in the air (the pieces of paper).   When all students had the papers over their heads, I told them to now hold the paper right in front of their face and look at it while I talked.

As they looked at their papers filled with creases and footprints and, in some cases, saliva, I told them that they were looking at a symbol of a bullied person.    The creases in the paper symbolized the effects of bullying, and even though the paper was still whole and as completely usable as its unmarred counterparts still in the notebook, it will never be exactly as it was before it was crumpled.   I told them to remember that even though they said, “I’m sorry” to the paper as they were unfolding it, no amount of apologies could take away the scars left behind.  The creases may lesson over time, but they will never fully go away… much like the hateful behavior left behind by bullies.  Unkind words and brutal actions leave their mark, even if the one who did it says, “I’m sorry”, or “I was just kidding…”.   Kids sometimes just do not realize the power of words, especially negative ones.

I then asked them to write in their journals about the exercise.  I wanted them to write once more, “I see…”, “I think…”, and “I wonder…” after they were told about the meaning of the symbols.  I also asked them to write about the effectiveness of symbolism based on this exercise.

As I explained this, some kids laughed.  Some kids got very quiet and then hurriedly picked up their pens and started writing when prompted.  Some put their crumpled papers down and just looked lost in thought for a bit.

One in particular hung his head down, staring at the blank paper.  It was the boy I wrote about in an earlier post who had been bullied by many of those same kids sitting in that room at the moment.   I knew going into the exercise that this was going to impact him, but I felt it was an important lesson, especially the part about still being whole in spite of the creases.   I also asked the students to carefully fold up the pieces of paper and put them in their pockets to take with them and to look at from time to time throughout the day.  That one boy was very meticulous about folding his paper and putting it in the pocket of his binder.  I also asked that they share the exercise with their parents and ask them to sign the paper so that they could be returned to me the next day.

I have been holding onto these signed pieces of paper for five months.  Many may have forgotten about the exercise, so I will remind them when I return the pages to them before Spring Break.

All in all, I felt that it was a very powerful exercise.  Sometimes people don’t realize just how much power their unkind words can carry… and now I hope that some will make that connection and stop the crumpling.  Even if only a couple of kids got the message, that’s a couple fewer potential bullies for the time being.

I hope and I pray, though, that there will be a whole lot fewer for life.

And the Universe steps in…

Published October 15, 2011 by Susan Woodward

So I’ve been telling myself that I need to enjoy the desert time… need to slow down and not rush toward each potential oasis that I think will relieve my thirst, albeit temporarily.  Nope, the Universe decided that it was going to make sure that I followed through… funny how that happens, you know?

The newest gift from the Universe is Bell’s Palsy.  Yup… you got it.  Facial paralysis is a great way to keep me from running around here and there, my ego being too great to allow myself to spend much time in public looking like Two-Face from the Batman movies.   As much as I am dismayed at the temporary set-back, I guess I have to realize that the Universe is telling me to just slow down and stay close to home for a while.  How will I learn to learn the difference between loneliness and solace if I am too busy flitting about?  So here I am.  No potential dating for 4-6 weeks, no performing, no eating out (since I can only chew on one side and keep biting the inside of my mouth, it’s really not at all attractive), and only shopping for necessities.  Even going to work is a “get in, get out” situation for a while.

So where does that leave me?  Well, once I get over feeling sorry for myself, I can focus on the blessings that my home offers that I haven’t taken as much advantage of as I could have in the recent past.  I have my books, and there are a couple sitting there waiting for me to pick them up.  I have my computer, which I need to use for more than FaceBook and checking email. And I can take the time to cook for myself for a change.

What I really do want to do is write.  Now there are no excuses.  I’m not too busy, I don’t have to be anywhere, and no one is coming over (except for my son to watch football with me).  The mind WANTS to write, but I have to motivate the rest of me.  My novel sits there waiting to be worked on… all I need to do is make myself comfortable, make a pot of tea, a bit of toast (it IS cold and rainy today, so it’s a “tea and toast” day!), and just start typing.  Once I get into it, the story will take over.  Yup… that’s what I need to do.  Open the file… start typing…

Ok, so what’s holding me back now?

I guess it all boils down to fear.  Fear that no one will even like what I write.  Fear that I’ll never even get anyone to read it.  Fear that if they DO read it that the criticism will come.

Did J.K. Rowling feel like this?  How about Poe?  Or L. Frank Baum?  How the hell does Nora Roberts keep pumping those novels out?

Well, I’ll never know for sure unless I just go ahead and do it.  I know I want to… I just have to get over my insecurities and start typing.

Ok… I’m going to open the file now… soon as I make some tea… and some toast…

The Universe has given me this time… I need to make sure not to squander it in doubt.

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