28 December 2011

How Do You Compose?

I'm a new blogger, and to be honest, sometimes I question the practice. It's the speed of it all, the immediate publishing. I suppose now that I'm committed to regular posting, I'm more likely to defend it. And that's one of the things I like, this blog, and others, makes me think and write often. However, there's something about the composition style that irks me.

Over history the way we write, and therefore the way we think and communicate ideas, has changed - some would say it's more than changed, it's evolved. I'm not so sure technology serves us as well as we suppose.

Before any form of writing, people told stories and exchanged news orally. Since then there have been rapid developments: ink and scroll, printing press, typewriter, word processor (I'm sure there are some gaps in my small timeline). The idea behind each advancement is that we can speed up the process, and therefore improve it.

I'll concede the speed argument, but I'm not altogether sold on improvement.

22 December 2011

A Blur

This Christmas, don't let everything fly by. Better yet, let's make that a goal for all of 2012.

19 December 2011

It's an Elizabeth Taylor Christmas!

Who am I kidding? What I really love, LOVE about Christmas is not the family gatherings, not the lights, the trimmings, the trappings, not new sweaters, not those cute nativity scenes. No, it's really Elizabeth Taylor - especially like this:

An oldie, I know, but such a goodie! Doesn't this just say, "It's Christmas!" to you? It's the hair that gets me, the hair plus the poker game; I just love a hand of poker after I rip open my brand new bottle of cologne!

When all the romance starts oozing out of the television, I know, I KNOW it's time to celebrate the birth of the King! It used to be the Chia Pet, now it's this:

16 December 2011

Deja Vu - So, I'm a Teacher

As a part of the blogfest Deja Vu, hosted by Lydia Kang, DL Hammons, Katie Mills, and Nicole Ducleroir (check out the launch page here as well as each respective blog), I am re-posting "So, I'm a Teacher" from last year. The idea of the blogfest is to give a bit more attention to an old post - a great idea, I thought. So thanks to our hosts!

I hope you will read the post below and see how I was first inspired to launch the independent reading program in my classes. I have continued with the program this year, and I'm finding it very challenging and rewarding. Enjoy!

14 December 2011

Teacher Resource: Biography

I couldn't resist angry Bill Shakespeare over there! Maybe if they learn to read the whole book now, they just might read the whole book later...

One of the many benefits of the reading program I've got going in my classes is the variety of genres I require my students to read. In fact, because I will complete the goal myself, it has freed me from my own reading cycle. I trend toward fantasy mostly, especially when I need an escape (George MacDonald seems to be the best antidote).

It's true of us all - we get into a comfort zone with a certain style of writing, a certain type of story, and we stick with it. We even go back to the same author over and over, don't we? Yet another reason YA books perform so well as a series!

Like I said, it's been good to branch out a bit. I've found that I've read very few biographies, and it's a personal goal to cycle back more often. I just read a decent bio of C.S. Lewis, by his stepson Douglas Gresham.

12 December 2011

Embracing the Mundane

It's hard to find time to write or read; so many times I've wanted to escape into a quiet room with a large old leather chair, plop down, and read. Sure, it's in those times (rare in the years of children) I've had the most inspiration for writing. But things change, and finding time to think about stories, or mull over new ideas for poems, has changed as well.

I now find my evenings filled with domestic chores (after a splash of afternoons where I am James the train helping Thomas and Percy with their loads, or Blizzard fighting Iron Man - or Iron Men, as it were); folding laundry, scrubbing dishes, picking up toys, and gathering trash, all these things require my (and our) attention.

07 December 2011

Word of Encouragement to Insecure Writers

I've been pondering what it is about writers that is so easily associated with insecurity. What's curious is from the outside, from the perspective of readers (specifically those who don't write), this association is confusing. What the reader sees is the finished product, the sales numbers, maybe even the prestige. Even for writers who haven't published anything, when those who don't write hear of our bent for crafting words, they don't immediately think we're as insecure as we may be.

From my experience, the reaction people have toward writers is quite positive. We (ha! we) seem to be seen as gifted, intelligent, and imaginative - not insecure.

This is my view of other writers, too, especially the published-famous variety. One writer in particular, one who made a significant imprint on American Literature, who ended his own life due in part to his insecurities comes to mind: Ernest Hemingway.

05 December 2011

Writing Cycles and Rest

I've been doing some reflecting on silence lately, and specifically how it and stillness relates to this Christmas/winter season. Just before winter truly hits, the fall rains move in; the sound a slow, soaking rain makes is melodic; I can't help but pause and take it in.

Those are such good days. They're book and fire days, or, more popularly in our house, living room-fort building days. Then, of course, the snow itself falls silently, and whatever the rain didn't mute, it blankets and holds in a sort of spell. The air is still; the birds only move when they need to; and the quickest thing around is smoke from nearby chimneys.

A sycamore in rest

I want this atmosphere around me to not only remind me to slow down, but to also be a kind of analogy for myself. A few years ago I discovered that the winter months are not the greatest in which for me to write. I suppose I realized my body actually does react to the weather; what I decided was that I should use that down time wisely and rest.

02 December 2011

Linus on the Meaning of Christmas

It's the first week of December - are you ready to scream your head off like Charlie Brown because of all the crazy Christmasing going on around you? I'm almost there. And I'm not surprised by it, really.

Yes, the consumerism drives me crazy. But that isn't what's on my nerves this year. Mainly, it's the bustle of activity, the plethora of events if you will ("Yes, Christmas, you have a plethora of cattle - uh, events I mean").

We've got to slow things down.

We need to take the cue from creation. Especially when a blanket of white covers the grass, the undergrowth, the streets - everything is silent and still. There should be a collective hush among us humans, too. I'm going to do my boyscout-best to make still my soul this year, which includes crossing some activities off my list. A gathering here, a church service there, but I want my heart to be hushed because it's in awe of what happened on that first Christmas morning.

Here's what Linus had to say - notice the awed Charlie at the end:

29 November 2011

Thanksgiving In 12 Pictures

Illness kept our family home for the holiday. The result was a lot of down-time, with the exception of two great walks with the boys while Mommy rested. Below are a few pictures I took on our explorations.

It's amazing what boys will pick up and treat as treasure.

21 November 2011

Teaching with Energy

Whenever I need a refresher on my motivation to teach, I catch up on reading student letters. It's a Monday and I'm tired. I have emails to catch up on. I have plans to make. I have grades to enter. Yet, for the last twenty minutes or so, I've been answering student letters.

And there it is - this is why I teach.

17 November 2011

Doxology, & Dry Bones, by Gungor

It's only been a few days since I first posted some of Gungor's music, but I just couldn't help myself. The more I listen, the more I'm convinced their music is worthy of the title "fantastic!"

This first one is called "Doxology" - insert your own words or prayer to this one.

Next is "Dry Bones." It has a very Middle-Eastern feel, and at some point I believe they're singing in what sounds like Hebrew to me - but I could be way off! And that keyboard/accordion thing she's playing is amazing.

16 November 2011

Teacher Resource: Science Fiction

Science fiction is one of those genres readers either love or hate. So many good ideas have been ruined in the minds of readers and viewers by badly designed special effects - and now too much is spoon-fed to the viewer by excellent special effects! Therefore, the best place for science fiction is in the mind; the best way to do "special effects" is with the imagination.

(I suppose this is true of most books that are turned into movies, but good science fiction contains so many moral questions, and so many imaginative ideas that it's a shame so few people get into the genre.)

One great example that immediately comes to mind is The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis. Thankfully, at least to my knowledge, these books have not been turned into movies. Characteristically, Lewis takes what is true about our existence, namely what is true about God and humanity, and molds it all into a compelling narrative. Instead of Narnia, the protagonist Ransom travels first to Mars (Out of the Silent Planet), then to Venus (Perelandra); the trilogy closes with the "gods" making an appearance on our own planet (That Hideous Strength).

Whether a fan of Lewis or not, every fan of science fiction needs to pick these books up - all three are a must read in my opinion.

It has been one of my great accomplishments this year (in my mind anyway) that I got one of my seventh graders to start reading Out of the Silent Planet - and he's stuck with it! We'll see, when he writes to me about the book, how much he is comprehending, but the fact that he's trying it is progress.

Speaking of writing about books, I realized it's been awhile since I've shared a resource I'm using in my classes. Below you will find both writing prompts I use for science fiction. Feel free to use them in your classes, or share what you do in your classes!

14 November 2011

New Page: Photography

This post is to announce a new page: Photography. As I mention on the page itself, I'm not a pro. However, I do enjoy taking pictures. So I hope you enjoy looking at them!

The one below was taken in Arizona on our vacation this summer, imagine oppressive heat as you look at it...

My eyelids are burning...

10 November 2011

Beautiful Things, by Gungor

I don't have many words as of late, so this song is going to have to speak for me:

Be encouraged.

04 November 2011

An Open Letter to Marilyn Nelson

Dear Ms. Nelson,

Thank you for writing Carver: A Life in Poems. The voice you achieved was incredible; at times I found myself reading as though the Doctor himself wrote the poems. Of course, he would have been capable. As you revealed so skillfully, Carver was a true Renaissance man.

I'm finding that there's something magical about mixing science, good science mind you (as you and Carver know it), and all that's poetic. I have half a mind to say that's what the Lord, the "Great Creator," had in mind all along; beauty dancing with the naked elements of all that's been made. I have half a mind to say that's how "The Lace-Maker" saw things as well. For (as you know), the man of your book could see a flower for its delicate, passing-away appearance as well as its function. Perhaps, he might say, its function contributed to its beauty as much as the way it glimmered in the moonlight.

30 October 2011

Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke

One of my students asked me the other day, "Is that a good book?" After I said that it was, he said, "I should make you write me a letter when you're done with it!"

Touche, my little friend.

As some of you know, I have challenged my 7th grade classes to read 21 books this year. When they finish with each book, they have to write me a letter depending on what genre the book belongs to. So, why not write a bit about what I'm reading? Maybe it will make my minions happy when I tell them...

My first reaction to thick Young Adult books is, "I'll pass." I wasn't looking forward to another long book with little to no literary connection, and a plot soaked in action-for-the-sake-of-action-so-the-kids-will-buy-more-books kind of action.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by Inkheart.

The best place to start is with an excerpt. Mo, one of the main characters, tells his daughter Meggie:

If you take a book with you on a journey...an odd thing happens: The book begins collecting your memories. And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it. It will all come into your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice cream you ate while you were reading it...yes, books are like flypaper - memories cling to the printed page better than anything else.

25 October 2011

Educational Matters

Sometimes, education doesn't matter.

There are days I get so wrapped up in how I'm going to present new concepts, or cover all the required material, or "get that kid to get it," I forget that sometimes giving a student an education is my second job.

Just this week I was bemoaning the fact that my classes are behind according to the curriculum map. I even told a friend, when he asked what I can do about it, "Well, just stay behind I guess." I was thinking how absurd it is to rush my students on, and especially, how sorry I was feeling for myself because of all the daily challenges I face - besides simply being behind.

Then one of my students told me, "I've been gone because my mom's boyfriend kicked us out, and we'll be moving in two weeks." She's new to our school district this year. This won't be her last move. To top it off, she's behind as far as reading skills, which puts her behind in most of her subjects. When she moves again, she'll have to "catch up" with her new teachers, and the cycle begins again.

Getting her to read every day, adding words to her vocabulary, and explaining new literary concepts and text characteristics to her, all those things that are important to her education, seem a pitiful cause when compared to her life with her broken family.

21 October 2011

The Storm in the Barn, by Matt Phelan

I just finished reading the graphic novel The Storm in the Barn, by Matt Phelan. It's set in Kansas during the Dust Bowl, and told through the eyes of Jack, an eleven year old boy. Jack is desperate to please his father and contribute in some way, but, as his sick sister points out, the dust has taken away his chance to grow up.

Matt Phelan's sketches are what really tell the story. In the Author's Note Phelan says, "It was the faces. Against a backdrop of a vanishing farmland, these faces stared at the camera with haunting directness." He was speaking of photography from Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, but it's his sketches that have the same effect in The Storm in the Barn.

The faces of the men who have nothing else to do but play dominoes at the town store, the faces of Jack's parents as they struggle to provide and care for three children, the faces of the town bullies after they partake in a jackrabbit drive - all of them hint at the plight of real people.

16 October 2011

Writing as a Profession

I'm tired of reading about the profession of writing. I've read a few posts by "writers" lately who are so focused on defining the parts of writing as a pro, or establishing themselves as a full time writer, that they seem to be distracted from capturing what called them to be a writer in the first place. That is, they seem to be forgetting that they are called to create something beautiful.

Maybe I'm splitting hairs, and I know I have a lot of the same dreams - I DO want to write full time - however, the last thing I want is to be distracted by this notion that I'm only a professional.

Am I a romantic? A flake? Do I place writing on too high a pedestal?

Here's a quote by Pico Iyer that I really like:

The less conscious one is of being "a writer," the better the writing. And though reading is the best school of writing, school is the worst place for reading. Writing...should be as spontaneous and urgent as a letter to a lover, or a message to a friend who has just lost a parent...and writing is, in the end, that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.

12 October 2011

Winnie the Pooh

The bear necessities...
Oh, that bear with very little brain, that poet-bear, that eater of honey, friend of pigs and donkeys, and companion-comforter of children for decades! Oh bear, we do love you!

My parents gave me the complete collection of Winnie the Pooh on CD for my birthday this year, and the last few days I've been listening to the stories on the way to and from school. I find myself laughing out loud.

As a child, I had a couple cassettes of the same recordings by Peter Dennis, and I all but wore them out. Dennis does such a great job with all the voices, and he has been endorsed by none other than the real Christopher Robin. Check out a sample of his readings here, and I'm pretty sure this is the only place to get the CDs - I haven't been able to find them anywhere else anyway.

Disney doesn't have anything on Peter Dennis - or the original stories for that matter! The whole set also includes When We Were Very Young, and Now We Are Six - 79 poems that are just as compelling as Pooh at their best, and cute and laughable at their "worst." Of the poems, the one that has stuck with me the most is called "The Emperor's Rhyme." The Emperor uses simple math (or not so simple math) to calm himself in sticky situations, such as when the queen misuses the starch.

In The House at Pooh Corner, Pooh finds himself in the middle of a major conundrum; whom shall he go see this morning? Not Owl, because he uses long words - maybe Rabbit, because "he says sensible things like, 'help yourself Pooh.'" A bear with very little brain? I think not!

08 October 2011

New Page: Quotes

One of the ways I remember things I've read is to record small quotes. When I first began this blog, I added a couple of quotes from George MacDonald that inspired me. But because I have so many that I think about adding, I've decided to dedicate a whole page to quotes.

You can click here to go to the page, or click on the "Quotes" link just below the blog title.

Here's one to whet your appitite:

You say grace before meals.
All right.
But I say grace before the play and the opera.
And grace before the concert and the pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.

-G.K. Chesterton

05 October 2011

Teaching Students to Read Meaning - Not Just Words

My classes are just finishing a unit on story structure and I'm preparing for the next. So, in order to find some good examples to share during the next note-taking round, I did some research about inferences. I did find a couple paragraphs for my students to read and make conclusions about, then we'll discuss what was meant and what was actually said.

It's so difficult to convey to a 7th grader that you indeed have to "read between the lines." (You see, now we have to back up and explain, yes, this phrase is an idiom, yet another form of figurative language you have to know. The phrase means you have to use what evidence you see in the text and fill in what the author isn't saying. [All this time I've been ignoring the hand at the back of the room, yes? What's figurative language?] Sigh. At least they're asking!)

Ah, back to reading between the lines. Always I hear things like, "but I don't get it," when we've finished reading a story or article. And, besides a gap in vocabulary, a deficiency in attention, or an inability to read quickly enough to garner meaning, this is where we have to build a bridge between what's said and what's not. It's a constant battle for myself, let alone for my students - and we wonder why children who haven't been exposed to reading don't like books!

They don't get it.

02 October 2011

Morning Commute

A few weeks ago I left for school early so I could take a few pictures. I'm not even close to a professional photographer, but sometimes my camera finds some good looking stuff.

 It was raining the way to my pit-stop, and the sun was just approaching. The color change was amazing when I faced the west:

 To the east again, this time behind some full-grown grasses:

 The clouds were so smoke-like, but they were just warning me of rain, not fire:


I had to get these flowers, which I think are called sunflowers, although not the seed-bearing type. The second one was blowing a bit hard:

25 September 2011

"The New Normal" by Donalyn Miller

I recently discovered a great post on Donalyn Miller's blog. Mainly it's about independent reading, and how her classroom's "normal" is centered around books. In light of the state of the public system - low budgets, high expectations - independent reading can seem like a luxury.

I'm glad to say a reading culture in my classroom is my goal, and that I think I'm well on my way to it. After week five of the school year, I've already challenged students to read every day, write thoughtful letters to me based on what they've read, and - what's most important - they're actually doing it!

The writing prompts are intended to support the benchmarks, or indicators, they will be tested on come NCLB testing time. However, my students are also being challenged to think through the issues their books bring up. I'm not sure why, but this has come as somewhat of a surprise to me. I've seen thirteen year old students drawing from the abuse-filled life of David Pelzer - the author of A Child Called "It". Already we're getting at what literature should do for a culture, that is, speak for those who don't usually have a voice; in this way we live many more times over than we would if we did not read.

19 September 2011

A Late Education?

As an educator, I'm always in thought, and often in conversation, about what "works" for students. How do we get children to learn? Why do some children learn quickly, and others struggle? Often these simple questions are answered through "labels." That is, the child has behavioral problems, or learning disabilities. However, there are some who, in my limited experience, are simply behind. According to certain tests, or experts in our district, these students do not qualify for special help because they know just enough - and yet, are still vastly behind their peers.

I don't claim to have answers. Really, I just have questions. One of them is what if more school, that is, starting children in school at 3 or 4 years old, is actually harmful to educational development?

I just read an article from BBC News about the educational system in Finland. Finland, as of 2006, is on top of the world in reading and math (reading they're #1, math #2). And one thing they do differently is start children in school "late." According to the article:

"Children in Finland only start main school at age seven. The idea is that before then they learn best when they're playing and by the time they finally get to school they are keen to start learning."

I would add that being at home until that age has the possibility to give children a chance to build emotional bonds with their parents, which then acts as a springboard to other development. I teach over 100 students during my day, and many of those "low" achievers come from broken homes, and have been in school for many, many years. Would they have been better served if they had had the chance to be at home until they were seven? The numbers put up by Finland suggest they may have been.

The article also mentions that Finland lacks diversity, especially those children trying to learn a language and achieve in that second language. Their school system also combines secondary with primary grades, giving teachers longer to "get" to every student.

18 September 2011

Realistic Fiction: Three Books

In my last post, Teacher Resource: Independent Reading, I shared one of the writing prompts I have my students use when they finish a book from the realistic fiction genre. There are actually three writing prompts in all for that genre to match the three they are required to read (I'll post more later).

Because I believe my students should see as many adults reading as possible, and especially their teachers, I follow the same reading regimen as my students. I didn't plan on finishing all three realistic fiction books back to back, but that's only because I was sure Bridge to Terabithia was a fantasy.

Here's a few words about the first three reads of the school year:

Tinkers, by Paul Harding, was loaned to me by a fellow teacher. My goal is generally to stick to books that my students will pick up, or might want to pick up. However, when I started reading this one, I didn't want to put it down.

The story is centered around a man named George. He is just days from dying, and his ability to control his thoughts is all but gone. We learn about George's father and then his grandfather, and both histories highlight their paternal knack for failure, which is compounded by illness. And even though George is the main character, the portions about his father, who is a poet and epileptic, are what kept me attached to this story. With a delightful and beautiful style, Harding describes the plight of George's father, as well as his power of observation - which led me to believe that Harding is a poet himself. In fact, this is one I'll read again.

My Side of the Mountain, by Jean George, is quite a different book. Like I said, I want to read books my students will be likely to read. The story is very straightforward: Sam, an early teen, wants to get away from his crowded home and return to his grandfather's failed homestead to prove he can survive on the land.

In short, as the author states in the introduction to the second edition, Sam carries out what every boy dreams of doing. In fact, he does what I would like to do as a grown man - he uses his book knowledge (yes, my lovely 7th graders, books contain recipes for adventure!) and makes himself a tree-home, hunts with a falcon, and makes his own deerskin clothes. The book is filled with sketches that detail certain plants Sam eats, as well as some of his projects. This is one I'll be reading to my own boys.

I dove into Bridge to Terabithia fully expecting a fantasy, which just may be my favorite genre. I can't really say I was disappointed, just wanting to escape to another world. However, as I read, I did escape with Jesse and Leslie to their kingdom in the woods.

Jesse comes from a family of sisters who mostly take advantage of him, and a father who ignores him, and Leslie has just moved to the area and has no friends. The two of them rely on one another for comfort, and Leslie introduces Jesse to the wonderful world of story through Terabithia. On more than one occasion this book brought tears to my eyes, and reminded me of my responsibility to lift my sons up - even as simply as paying attention to them.

Thanks for reading.

13 September 2011

Teacher Resource: Independent Reading

All my students are required to read within certain genres, and as long as they follow the guidelines I provide, they get to choose each book they read. One of those requirements is that they read three books from the realistic fiction genre.

Once they've finished reading each book, they write me a letter proving they read the book; the letters are not a lot of work, but I ask them specific questions depending on what they've read.

Below is the prompt upon finishing their first realistic fiction book:

Reading Response: REALISTIC FICTION #1
One thing that moves any story along is characters. You should be familiar with the protagonist of your book, who is the main character, and the antagonist, who is the villain (or anything working against the main character).

You will include THREE things in your letter:
  1. Introduce me to the book’s protagonist – tell me all about him or her.
  2. Introduce me to the book’s antagonist – tell me all about him, her, or it.
  3. EXPLAIN how the protagonist and antagonist interact throughout the story. 
Like I said in my initial post about the reading goal (click here for initial post), I really like the letter writing format for differentiating instruction. Just this week I've had several conversations with students about what exactly a protagonist is; I've also had conversations about the same prompt, but the conversation is centered around a better description of the protagonist.

Feel free to comment upon the above questions or methods - I'm always open to suggestions. And also feel free to use these ideas as well! 

10 September 2011

Independent Reading for My 7th Grade Class

A new year brings a new stab at challenging my 7th graders to read their brains out. I've made some necessary changes for this year, such as requiring fewer books and more writing, and after three weeks, most of my 100+ students are off to a good start.

I started my students off last year with a hefty reading goal in the middle of January - after reading Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer (a must read for any teacher of reading - especially in the lower grades [5-8], and, depending on the class, for high school lit teachers as well). This year I hit them hard the first day (well, even before that - at our open house I made it very clear they were going to be challenged to read 21 books this year). Even though this year's students will have much more time to complete the reading itself, the writing part of it all is much more challenging this year.

For every book my students read they have to write me a letter based on the genre of their book. This was another thing Miller does with her classes, however, I have very specific prompts that are designed to hit specific indicators, and according to her book the letters she had her students write were based mainly on aesthetics.

I really like the letter writing for three reasons: it's a great way to communicate one-on-one with every student, a simple way to keep them accountable, and I can differentiate instruction on that same one-on-one level every time I write back. This includes pushing the students who would have read over 20 books anyway, and encouraging those who will barely finish 10 - or one for that matter.

Besides getting every one of my students to read, the most difficult part of this program is convincing my students they actually can sit still. Right at the beginning of each class period we read quietly for 15 minutes. After three weeks we're all settling in to the routine, but it has taken every day of that three weeks to do so. 7th graders by nature are not good at being still - and neither is the rest of our culture - but good and faithful practice does wonders. Of course, I will fight with a stubborn few the whole year, that's just the reality of the beast (I'll fight them on everything else I want from them too).

In future posts, I'll share what I'm reading as well, as I intend to complete the same 21 book goal.

Read about last year's attempt by clicking here: Reading Goal (along with yet another endorsement for George MacDonald).

06 September 2011

A Writer Waits: Week Seven

It seems like it was such a long time ago that I first sent my proposal. In fact, it seems like another life now that school is in full swing, and I'm thinking again about lesson plans and my hair is falling out because of classroom management nightmares. Summer was good on so many levels, not to mention a great time to write.

The agency I submitted to said to wait eight weeks before giving up (they didn't say it so bluntly, but they may as well say it that way). So, one more week and I can move on (okay, give up - on them anyway). The frustrating reality is I won't get to any new proposals until a nice break in the school calender. It's hard knowing I have what I think is something good to publish, yet I can't work on it during this season.

Interestingly enough, it's also a reality I'm learning to appreciate. I of the opinion that any writer should read more than write, and this season allows me to read with my students and look forward to coming back to my book with fresh eyes.

I'm reminded of a quote (I can't think of the source): something like, "The best thing that could happen to the craft of poetry is for poets to take a one or two year break from writing."

There's not enough observing, listening, thinking for much good writing to be created. So, I'll take a deep breath and wait. When I come back to my work, I'll be glad for the break.

Thanks for reading.

11 August 2011

Memories of Childhood & an Interruption

While we were on vacation, during some much needed veg-time, my three year old son said to me, "Dad, I love the way you talk." My heart melted. Compliments are good, and I'll take them from anyone as long as they're genuine. But spontaneous remarks from my little boy top anything I can think of.

I was in the middle of this post when my above-mentioned son said:
--Let's have a meeting.
--What kind of meeting?
--A meeting about obeying and disobeying.

Then he said:

--Let's pray about football a lot, and baseball, Jesus, disobeying, obeying (love the order there), letters, lights, trees, Jesus - that he died on the cross for our sins, windows, bricks, walls, boxes, chairs, wheels on our car, ceiling...(thoughtful pause)

--What about people you can think of?
--Daniel, Wes, Tim, (my brother), Momma, scrapes...
--Um-hm, fingers, hands, arms, head, feet, legs, diapers, shorts, undies, shirts - you're typing all the things that I said?
--Papa! You're typing so well!

At that point, he started climbing on me, so the meeting ended. Interruptions like that are the best...

So, to pick up where I left off: "spontaneous remarks from my little boy top anything I can think of." And they are. The main reason they're the best is because of the unblemished love he has for me - and I can say that because I remember having those same feelings for my dad when I was a boy.

I remember visiting my dad at his office and trying to time my breaths with his. In my little-boy head, I wanted to be exactly like my dad, even to the point of breathing in and out at the same time for the rest of the day.

I remember wanting to sit close to him so that I could look at his hands, look at his face, and look at the way he did things so I could do exactly the same thing. Now, when I receive comments from my son like that, about the way I talk, it makes me want to build on every moment I can to his advantage.  I want to see the love in his eyes, receive it, and fully express my love for him.

I want to gush love to him.

May it be so.

09 August 2011

A Writer Waits: Week Three

This one will be short and sweet: still no answer from the original proposal - five more weeks until I write them off as uninterested. In fact, and this is sad, I would almost rather they reject my proposal at this point (today) than never answer (I'm starting to think "never answer" is going to be the response, if you can call it a response). When I began this week-to-week update of my proposal status, I really thought I'd have more details on my rejection by now.

What a disappointment.

Not only is it disappointing as far as what I can share, it's also a bummer because it means they haven't even looked at my work...

Waiting produces some interesting thoughts. There's a whole line of thought that deconstructs everything you've written, and it happens the longer you wait. Should I have done this in the query letter; would it have been better to summarize these points instead; all the way to: why did I ever think this would ever be published?

And so, I wait. A swirl of thoughts still ricocheting through my mind, and I'm forced to wait.

02 August 2011

A Writer Waits: Week Two

It's hard to believe it was only two weeks ago that I first sent my proposal - it feels like months. I didn't post yesterday because my family and I were traveling, and to be honest, it was a great distraction from thinking about all things related to writing and waiting - especially waiting.

(I'll have to post some pictures of our beautiful surroundings later...)

I've been working on the whole waiting thing for some time, and every once in a long while I think I'm getting good at it...then I send a proposal for my novel that I've poured myself into for the last three years and waiting seems like sitting in a room full of needles.

There are lasting moments that are, in fact, moments, yet it's as though everything but myself is moving at break-neck speed; I'm treading through quicksand watching the events of my life zip by on walking escalators. Then, when I'm really seeing things clearly, I realize just how much I can miss when I'm letting my impatience rule over me. I struggle from the slimy quicksand, leave my writing dream in capable hands, and again join my family.

I think (I think) I'm still hopeful about getting published, yet the hope I had last week wasn't quite as tempered with impatience. This week, I'm making it a goal to wait with optimism, and not let anything pass me by - especially on vacation.

27 July 2011

Parenting Panic: Creating "Normal"

Raising children puts everything into such a sharp perspective - especially when you're not expecting any new insights. Just yesterday we were going along with our daily business, I think I was following my little boys into the next room, and this thought hit me like a heavy diaper:

"We create 'normal' for our children."

It's not such a deep thought, it's not even surprising when you really think about it. Every time we talk with our children, every time we ignore them, every time we sit down at the table to share food (or don't), every time we discipline (or don't)...you get the picture. Just about everything we do on a regular basis, and we do it without thinking about it because it's "normal," we shape our children's view of how people live.

Remember the first time you went over to a friend's house and saw the way they ate together, did laundry, spoke to one another...? It wasn't until the summer after my sophomore year of college that I found out that women could whistle (a song at least, my mom can blow your eardrum out). And it's not like I ever even thought about it. I stayed with a friend all summer, and his mom would whistle little tunes. The first time I heard her I thought it must be his dad - then I walked around the corner and saw who it was. It was in that moment I knew what my "normal" was for whistling music. Of course, the next moment I knew how absurd it was. More often than not, normal is shaped for us without our knowledge. In fact, it just might be the only way.

I know my boys will have experiences like that, and it probably can't be helped, nor do I think I have to "fix" it. But it's another heavy load to carry as a dad. I want my children to see normal, but not see it so much that they think their way is the only way. I mostly want them to see what God's normal is, that is, love and hope and peace. And when they see the absence of these things in other people and their families, I want them to work toward being vessels for Him to work through to establish them.

After all, it's His normal that is the true normal.

26 July 2011

A Writer Waits: Week One

It's been one week since I submitted my proposal to a literary agency. This particular agency says it could take up to eight weeks to respond - if they respond at all. So, I thought a weekly update on my state of mind would be apt, or at least mildly amusing.

Week one state of mind: hopeful (still). I'm well aware this hope could (and probably will) quickly deteriorate into hopelessness. As for now, I'm picturing my proposal in some email database just waiting for the right eyes. And of course they haven't seen it yet - how could they have seen it? Surely they would have fallen all over themselves to call me and beg me to send the rest of my novel.

Hope is such a good thing. In fact, because I'm full of it now, I'm going to be sending out more proposals to more agents and possibly publishers. This whole writing career I'm seeking (and hoping for) seems so close, yet even now my hopeful state is salted with reality; my skin is going to have to grow another layer, and I need to develop a taste for rejection. (My previously mentioned hopeful state is now speaking things like, "Rejection is just a chance to grow!" "You don't want anyone who isn't excited about your novel anyway." Blah, blah, blah. I guess the longer I write this post, the more reality seeps in and turns my hope to pessimism.)

Better sign off before I decide it's all impossible. Besides, the natives are restless.

22 July 2011

A Word About Writing

Any writing here has taken a back seat for quite awhile. Two little boys have demanded my attention this summer, and I, willing most of the time, have obliged. However, my writing has not altogether stopped.

My goal for this year, no matter how unreasonable, is to snag an agent for my novel. And, after much work in the early morning hours over the past 4-5 weeks, I sent my first proposal on Monday. My wife deserves so much credit - she edited until her eyes popped from her head - and I refuse to think about comma placement and the details of other grammar minutia for the present.

So now for the best part: waiting. Waiting for the rejection. If the average number of rejections most published authors holds true for me, I'll be in for at least 40-100 - at least. And that's if it ever happens. The way of seeking an agent first seems to be the right thing to do these days, so I suppose there could be more rejection after I find one of those, or if I do.

Writing is joy, no?

19 May 2011

The Summer Is Upon Us...

...And there will be much reading,
Much sleeping and writing.

And then, there will be silence;
Ah, the silence, the sound of which
Will echo into slumber of the mind,
A slumber bringing back a breeze
Of fluid thoughts, which, flowing
Kindly, chill the burdened forest floor.

And, so, the summer whispers...

20 March 2011

The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie

As one more step in my reading goal, and the beginning of another reading challenge - read about that challenge at the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge here - I have finished The Secret Adversary. I have read many of Agatha's books, but this was my first one that included the sleuths Tuppence and Tommy.

Like every other book of Agatha's that I've read I was absorbed. Yet with this particular one, it took a bit. The story as a whole was good, but was thinner than some of her other work. I know now that it was only her second publication, and it makes sense. I wanted more of Tuppence and Tommy; I was well into the story before I really cared for them. It may be that if it was any other detective story, I might not have continued after the first chapter or so. However, because I've grown to trust Agatha, I knew she would make me happy in the end. And she did.

Tuppence and Tommy are the best of friends, have been since they were children, and go into business together as amateur detectives. A series of events lands them a job with a mysterious Mr. Carter, who needs certain papers that a Jane Finn is thought to possess. Many times they are thrown off the right track, and both come close to death, but in the end Tommy sniffs out the culprit of it all, the anarchist Mr. Brown.

The two main characters grow close, despite their uptight Englishness - which Agatha seems to be poking fun at throughout the book - and we are left wanting more of them both. I liked best a portion of the book where Tommy finds himself caught in the nasty rendezvous of the well organized anarchists. While hidden away, Tommy sees and hears many of the members arrive and report to a meeting. They gather around a table, at the head of which sits a bearded German. Each crook gives a number instead of their name, each one coming from a different level of society, and some from different countries. Eventually Tommy is caught, we have to wait many chapters to find out if he's alive, but the descriptions of the evildoers are classic.

17 March 2011

I just watched the sun set

And now I remember colors and light.

As I rotated slowly backward, the sky was an alive and burning yellow - the yellow threw itself into orange, an orange that gave way to mild blues and pinks. When I looked straight up, there swayed regal purple and sorrowful blue. Looking into the sky like that is like looking into a deep pool of water; it swirls and changes with new currents, and flows one color into another.

I sat still. In the grass, only interrupted by a few sleepy birds, I sat still. Oh, how long it's been since I've been that still for that long. Finally I rose and looked up, only to see the mirror of the sun. I stood still. The moon, not quite full, was already throwing its share of color on the darkening sky. She was veiled by a thin dress of cloud, and, like her sire, surrounded by ribbons of blue and purple.

I can't help but think of what MacDonald said through Anodos in Phantastes: "The moon, which is the lovelier memory or reflex of the down-gone sun, the joyous day seen in the faint mirror of the brooding night..." and, "the enchantress moon...with her pale eye...sank into my soul..."

And now I remember colors and light.

15 March 2011

High Tech Toys for Boys

As a father, I want to give my two boys the absolute best. And these days there are so many things out there to buy. I just searched a little bit on Amazon to see what kinds of toys are being advertised on their main page, and it's all very eye-catching. In fact, my older son said, "what's that-and-that-and-that-and-that?" when I first got on the site. There's everything from remote control cars, to train sets, to four wheelers, to movies - and not to mention video games, scooters, singing toys, guns that shoot, guns that make noise, and the list goes on...

Don't get me wrong, my son has many of the things listed above, and I'm sure he'll continue to get use out of them and have great fun in the process (and I will too). But what's got me to thinking about all of this is the fact that I'm discouraged with the level of imagination that I see day to day at school. I can't seem to get into some of my student's brains, can't seem to get them to explode on a book like I used to do. I want them to be excited about the ideas they read about, but mostly they seem bored.

10 March 2011

He is here

So much of what I'm feeling and thinking recently has to do with where I am throughout the day. Of course, when I'm at home, I'm thinking about being at school, and when I'm at school, I can't wait to get home. That's just part of who we are as humans - we can't quite grasp the present, can't quite see things the way they really are.

I just read a great post on The Good Book Blog called, "Hello, My Name Is YHWH." (It's a great site, by the way.) The author of the post, Kenneth Way, refers to an article he read himself about what the

08 March 2011

Martha Baum's Paintings

I don't know much about art. A few years back I was out of work, and I would go to the library almost every day (oh, that was good in so many ways!). My first stop was the art section where I would grab the same copy of van Gogh; I would turn to the same pages every day: The Road Menders, Starry Night, and anything else of his with trees. There was just something about those colors and the way the lines moved my eyes over them - I couldn't get enough.

These days I don't look at much art, but I've stumbled upon Martha Baum's paintings. For some reason I thought of those days with van Gogh when I saw her work, which is not much like his. Yet, something in the colors, again, makes me go back. There's also something about lots of the subject matter. Many of her paintings are of boats, and it's these simple works that I like so much.

05 March 2011

The Poetry of C.S. Lewis

I've been a Lewis fan since I was a young boy. I started with The Chronicles of Narnia in my preteen years, only to read and reread them many times since. When I go back to those seven books, I travel not only to Narnia, but also to my childhood. That's the beauty of a book; those experiences you had so long ago roll back under your nose and you breathe them again. I remember well sitting on our front lawn on a sunny day in southern California reading about Prince Caspian and his rebel forces. I remember the rainy days too (as close to winter as we got), curled up in front of a fire, galloping through the air with Fledge. Now I look forward to making those same kinds of memories with my boys. In fact, I just might look forward to those times even more fervently than I look back and long for another day full of reading as a child.

01 March 2011


Toward the end of January I started to carry a book in the halls of my school. Most students walk by without making eye contact, even the ones I know (sometimes especially the ones I know). One student, though, seemed to make it a point to poke fun at the fact that I "always have my nose in a book." After a few consecutive encounters with him, I asked,

"Do you like to read?"
"Well, no, not really."
"Hm, I think you might like some of the stories I read..."
"Yeah, but if my friends saw me carrying a book, they'd just laugh."
"Ah, I see. Don't you think the skills you'll gain from reading are more important?"
"Yeah, I know."
(Surprised at how quickly he responded in my favor) "Yeah - there are some great things to read out there..."
"Yeah, I know."

24 February 2011

Reading Goal

I have given my students the requirement of reading twenty books by the end of the school year. I assigned the requirement the second week of January, and I am giving them up to the very last day of school, May 26th, to fulfill it. So, naturally, I am going to meet the same goal. You can see my progress on the left side of this blog.

My inspiration came from a book by Donalyn Miller called, The Book Whisperer. I have been astonished at the difference this goal has already made in my classroom - which is, of course, combined with at least fifteen minutes of reading time every day. Just barely over a month and my students have read and written more

20 February 2011

Reflection on Yeats' "Leda and the Swan"

I finished reading my little book of Yeats. It wasn't the first time I had read it, and I didn't realize how much he wrote about mythology, and especially about Troy and Helen. The poem in the title of this post, "Leda and the Swan," is about the rape of Leda by Zeus. In the myth, Zeus takes the form of a Swan and forces himself on the beautiful Leda, who then bares Helen. The poem Yeats wrote about it is short, and if I didn't know the myth I would have been lost.

Yeats mentions Helen and Troy in several of his other poems, such as "No Second Troy," and, "A Prayer for my Daughter." All of these poems got me to thinking about Zeus and how he functioned as the god of gods; "Leda and the Swan," the poem and the myth, make him a father to beautiful Helen.

Zeus the deadbeat.

05 February 2011

An English Teacher Confession

Here it is: I'm a horrible speller. I lean on spell check heavily. So heavily in fact that the other day, when I was responding to student letters, I opened a Word document to check myself (this is a normal practice). I just typed the words in and left them there throughout the day.

Well, when I was done with my document, I looked at the words I had checked. And they are:

Butterflies harbor dying succeeded likable similar easier nickname criticize suspenseful? Awful verse sonnets explain nonsense mean description rereading

I'm not sure where the question mark came from, but it fits, doesn't it? Maybe this doesn't make any sense to anyone else, but I thought it was entertaining. Not to mention the "Awful verse...explain nonsense mean...rereading." Ha! I love poetry, but I know there is so much awful verse out there. If you can call it verse at all - does anyone actually try and write verse anymore? And don't tell me free verse is "verse." Gag. That's poetry (poetry?) I rarely read because I find it so lacking.

I recently picked up my lone copy of Yeats. I'm rediscovering a few gems, including lines like, And live alone in the bee-loud glade, ("The Lake Isle of Innisfree") and, Come away, O human child!/For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand, ("The Stolen Child"). And even though I don't like all that I read of his, Yeats has his moments - some very profound. I like what he says about the nobleness of his well-beloved in "The Folly of Being Comforted." Not a quality of a woman that is much praised these days.

My human child is crawling on me, so I'll stop.

31 January 2011

Harry Potter vs. Lord of the Rings

I once made a vow never to read any of the Harry Potter books. It was one of those things I said just to sound a bit smarter than all the other folks who had read them. Well, I'm halfway through The Sorcerer's Stone. Vow broken.

The main reason is to hold up my end of a bargan with a student, you know, as part of my plan to encourage students to read more - even better (!) - books. We were arguing, my student and I were, about whether Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings was superior.

Our conversation went like this:

Without a doubt, Lord of the Rings is better (says the teacher).
No way (student), Harry Potter.
Have you read L of R?
Have you read H P?
Well (hm, how do I say this?), no.

So, again, I'm halfway through book one (he, by the way, is working his way through The Hobbit - ha!)

Let's just get one thing straight before we go any further: J. K. Rowling has nothing - nothing - on Tolkien.

Yet (stay with me here), I couldn't put my finger on the "how" quite like I can now. And this is it, Rowling, in her haste to write a good story, wrote a story that moves quickly. It's easy to read, and the characters are likable when they're supposed to be. Tolkien, on the other hand, didn't just write a story. In fact, he spent most of his life creating a world, a very beautiful world I might add.

So when I'm reading Harry Potter and I'm enjoying myself, I'm enjoying myself in a much different fashion than when I'm reading about Middle Earth. When I read about Harry making his path at Hogwarts, I smile because I want him to make it, and I want Malfoy to biff it on his broom. But when I read about Lothlorien and the trees of the Golden Wood, I am struck by awe. Or when the unlikely friendship between Gimli and Legolas develops into a bond beyond brotherhood, I am reminded that love for others breaks down the thickest and oldest of walls. And lastly, and maybe the most sobering, is the sacrifice of Sam for Frodo to the very end. Just typing about it makes me smile.

Basically, I want to be able to read a page and appreciate it for its beauty alone - not just read a story.

And that's it. Depth of thought.

Could this be THE problem with our withering literary landscape?

25 January 2011

So, I'm a Teacher

I teach 7th grade Language Arts. This is my first year. If you've taught at all, you know those words are pregnant - ready-to-pop pregnant.

State assessments are about a month away. All the material that I haven't taught yet is pointing a fat finger at me, and all the lessons that flopped over the last few months are rolling around on the ground laughing their heads off. (Would my students be able to pick out the figurative language I've used in this post so far? Ah, good question.)

So, what will I do with the month that's left? abcsdefgnnjhijkjkkklnmnloopqrstuvvvvvvwxyz. (Just a brief interlude by my son who's learning his letters. It probably won't be the last.) Where was I? One month to go, right.

For Christmas I received a book called The Book Whisperer, by Donalyn Miller.  And, wow, I was so convicted about my methods up to that point in the school year, that I'm now (as of yesterday) taking much advice from the book. Miller is an experienced 6th grade Language Arts and Social Studies teacher in Texas, as well as a consultant with the North Star of Texas Writing Project. (Article about Miller here, her blog here.) The gist in one sentence: in order to improve reading, wait for it, students have to read (cue light bulb above head). The simplicity gets you, no? Especially since I KNEW that already. Because, as a reader, even as a student-reader who hated assigned reading, I know that I still loved to read the books I wanted to read.

Independent reading with instruction that will help students engage their own books - that's what the rest of the school year will be like in my classroom.

And even though the state assessment just might make me puke before it's all said and done, I will push for the end of the year goal of 20 books per student. I'm gonna do it too. And maybe, just maybe, I'll inspire some non-readers to become readers, and some already-readers to read better and better literature.
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