School’s (Already) Out for Summer: Educational Enrichment During Covid-19

Across the country, schools are shuttered in the face of the current Covid-19 pandemic, in some states (like mine) for the rest of the school year. Yesterday afternoon, Governor Northam of Virginia announced that all private and public schools will remain closed through at least the end of this academic year. This announcement no doubt panicked parents, and I know firsthand, saddened many teachers. To their own surprise, even many students were disappointed. Within minutes of the Governor’s announcement, I received a flurry of emails from distraught students, many of them containing messages like, “I never thought I’d say this, but I really miss school!” For my own part, I feel cheated out of the time I thought I still had with a group of students I really enjoyed and care about, and that just scrapes the top of the iceberg of my emotions right now.

No one knows yet what this extended closure will mean for grades, graduations, or promotions, but in the meantime, we need to make sure our children and students stay engaged, active, and productive. This could be a great opportunity to get to know each other, our neighbors, our communities, and ourselves better. Below are some resources colleagues have shared with me, as well as some I created myself, to help children, parents, and educators navigate these uncertain times.

All Ages

Listen to a Story

This morning, a colleague of mine who is also a parent shared that while schools are closed, Audible is offering free audiobooks for kids and teens. If you’re working from home and want to offer your children more than another TV show or movie, offer them an audiobook! You can ask younger children to draw pictures of what they heard, and older children to write summaries or reviews.

Become a Citizen Scientist: Zooniverse

Another colleague notified all of the teachers in our city at the middle and high school levels about Zooniverse, which allows students (and parents and teachers!) to become citizen scientists. The hands-on involvement in real projects and studies lends to the authenticity of the task, and can be not only educational, but also empowering. Children can choose which projects to be a part of, according to their own interests, talents, and skills. Projects are available for various ages catering to all kinds of interests with a range of topics, including art, language, biology, climate, nature, medicine, social science, physics, and more.

Preschool to Early Elementary

Write to Pete the Cat

Our superintendent sent along an invitation to become pen pals with Pete the Cat. Many young children are familiar with the beloved feline literary character. Right now, children can engage with him through letter-writing. Writing a letter to Pete the Cat could help activate your child’s imagine, as well as help him or her practice his spelling, handwriting, and grammar skills. You could even pick a certain topic to focus on (writing a specific letter your child struggles to write, spelling a specific word, using a specific type of punctuation, etc.) as you help your child write the letter.

Scavenger Hunts

Scavenger hunts can be a great way to get outside, get moving, and activate the mind and imagination. So far, I have created and completed two, both with children between the

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The Littles (Nacho, left and Soda, right) during our scavenger hunt at Forest Hill Avenue Park in Richmond.

ages of 4 and 7. One is geared towards teaching children a little bit of the history of their city (in this case, Richmond, Virginia) while the other teaches them just a little bit about ecology and the food chain. Make your own or, if you’re local, use mine!

The Rocketts Landing and VA Capital Trail Scavenger Hunt takes place in Rocketts Landing and on the Virginia Capital Trail. If you turn right, which is what we did, the out-and-back route is about 2.75 miles long. Our group of two children, five adults, and two tiny dogs completed it in just under two hours.

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Nacho during our scavenger hunt along the Virginia Capital Trail in Richmond.

As its name implies, the Forest Hill Avenue Park Scavenger Hunt takes place in Richmond’s Forest Hill Avenue Park. It’s about 1.6 miles long and our group of three adults, four children, and two little dogs took about two hours to complete it (we spent a lot of time playing on the rocks and in the creek).

Late Elementary through High School

Become a Primary Source for Historians: Journal

Writing in journals is a good practice for the mental health and emotional well-being of people of all ages, as well as for improving their writing skills; stimulating their minds and imaginations; and, in these unprecedented times, providing genuine, primary sources for historians in the future. Before asking your children or students to write, have them read this article, shared with me by a colleague, on how important their journal entries could become. Sometimes, writing for an actual audience increases motivation and purpose. As poet Denise Riley writes, “You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity.” The ideas in the article should provide young writers with this “feeling of futurity.”

“You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity.”

-poet Denise Riley

Middle and High School

Read a Book

Students often don’t have time to read for pleasure, with homework, part-time jobs, extracurricular activities, and sports practices monopolizing most of their time. This period of social distancing is the perfect opportunity for students to enjoy a good book (or several). Below is a list of book recommendations I shared with my high school students a few days ago. I would recommend clicking the link to learn more about any given book before handing it off to your child or recommending it to your students. Some are better suited to specific age groups than others.

  • My Grandmother Asked me to Tell You She’s SorryFredrik Backman (I am reading this right now and it is SO GOOD!)
  • Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys (I read this about a year ago and recommended it to my parents and my neighbor, all of whom loved it. It’s YA historical fiction, based on real events that happened during WWII. It’s a look at WWII that you’ve probably never gotten before.)
  • East of Eden, John Steinbeck (One of my all-time favorite books, this novel is by author who wrote Of Mice and Men and Travels with Charley) **Note: My academic classes read Of Mice and Men earlier this year, while my honors class read Travels with Charley as one of their summer reading books.**
  • Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  • Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (another one of my all-time favorite books)
  • Dog Songs: Poems, Mary Oliver (Admittedly, I haven’t read this yet, but I want to!)
  • Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl (really uplifting read; nonfiction by a Holocaust survivor–yes, an uplifting book about the Holocaust…!) **Note: This would be a particular timely read given the current pandemic.**
  • The Things They CarriedTim O’Brien (somewhat autobiographical essays about the Vietnam War from a Vietnam War veteran)
  • Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living, Shauna Niequist (nonfiction; about living a life that is more important and meaningful to you instead of trying to always conform to society’s expectations; it is SLIGHTLY religious, FYI; really spoke to me when I read it!)

Rewrite the Ending

Ask students to think of a book, the end of which they did not like (most of my students were appalled at the way Of Mice and Men and The Crucible ended). After having them read a summary of the work or watch the film (if available) to refresh their memories, ask them to rewrite the ending as they wish it had been.

Reasons for Optimism

While much about the current times can seem bleak, scary, and confusing, this period of social distancing and sacrifice can also prove a time of increased creativity, new perspectives, innovation, introspection, and enrichment.

Consider the advice provided in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: “To keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your while development; you couldn’t disturb it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to question that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer.” Or, perhaps even more timely: “But your solitude will be your home and haven even in the midst of very strange conditions, and from there you will discover all your paths.” And finally: “…it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.”

“But your solitude will be your home and haven even in the midst of very strange conditions, and from there you will discover all your paths.”

-Rainer Maria Rilke

Though many people feel isolated and alone due to quarantines and social distancing, we are fortunate that in this day and age, we have innumerable resources available to us to stay connected: social media, cell phones, FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, etc. While there has been concern that people, in particular young people, have become too reliant on or even addicted to their devices and technology, this period of relative isolation might serve to remind us that while screens can provide for temporary connectivity, the human presence–face-to-face conversation, a hug, a handshake, someone to sit beside at the movies or the dinner table–provides an invaluable connection. While texting and calling can help us stay in touch right now, I believe we will also all be reminded of the importance of interpersonal communication and genuine relationships.

 

 

Planning a Night In for the Literary

In my neck of the woods in central Virginia, the weather has been unseasonably warm, with the exception of a five-day cold snap a week or so ago. We’ve had no excuse this winter to snuggle up inside and hibernate (at least not yet). In fact, if you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen lots of photos of the Littles running around outside without their sweaters on. Still, there’s something about these winter months that puts me in the mood for cozy nights in, and if you’re in a clime colder than mine, you might be looking for ways to stimulate your creativity out of its cold-induced stupor. Here are a few ideas.

Game Night

  • Scrabble

  • Liebrary

  • Balderdash

Of course Scrabble is the go-to game to exercise your lexicon, but what about your creativity and bookishness? Liebrary requires players to write a fake first line of a real work of literature in an attempt to fool the other players into believing it is the genuine first line of the work. The “liebrarian” rolls a dice determining which genre the work of literature will come from, and then draws a card from that genre. The card bears the title, author, and summary of the book, as well as the real first line. The liebrarian shares with the players everything except the first line. Players then compose a first line and hand it to the liebrarian, who reads off all the first lines, including the real one. Players have to guess which line is the true first line. Essentially, it’s Balderdash for books.

For more writerly games, check out “5 games for writers” by Kevin Paul Tracy of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.

Movie Night

  • The Professor and the Madman

  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

My husband and I rented The Professor and the Madman from a RedBox in the Northern Neck back in the fall. We loved it so much that instead of returning it to the RedBox the next morning, we went ahead and bought it from the RedBox instead. Watching this movie allows viewers to learn the history of the Oxford dictionary and appreciate the intricacy of language. I have to admit that the history of the Oxford dictionary was never something I wondered about. In fact, I suppose I’ve generally just taken the existence of the dictionary for granted. This movie made me see its existence, creation, and continual evolution in a whole new light, and gave a human story to the history.

I haven’t yet seen The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but I want to. It tells the story of post-WWII writer who, while writing about their experiences during the war, forms a relationship with the inhabitants of Guernsey Island. It’s told via letters shared between the writer and the residents–so basically, it’s a story told through writing, about a writer, writing a book. What’s not to love?

Netflix and Chill

  • Anne with an E

  • You

One of my favorite book series growing up was the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery. The character of Anne Shirley not only contributed to my desire to be a writer (I have vivid memories of incorporating the phrase “alabaster brow” into much of my writing in middle school after reading it in an Anne of Green Gables book), but also influenced my personality and life philosophy. I wholeheartedly embrace(d) the idea of kindred spirits and at least partially because of the description of Anne “drinking in the beautiful sunset,” a line that has stayed with me over decades, I have an insatiable thirst for natural beauty–largely manifested in an obsession with sunsets and sunrises. I also share Anne’s dislike for math, and as a middle school student, found great comfort in our shared torture at its hands. You can imagine, then, my delight when I discovered the Netflix series Anne with an E, based on one of my childhood literary heroes. I have watched the first season and just started the second. It is just as whimsical and lovely as I remember, and also tackles some interesting contemporary social issues (to be sure, Maud’s writing did the same in its own historical and social context).

You tells the story of a struggling writer and grad student, and her ill-fated (total understatement) romance with a bookstore owner named Joe. To read an analysis deeper and more insightful than mine, click here.

Writing Contests

If it’s too cold to get outside, stay in and send your writing out instead. The contest windows for the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) writing and photography contests close February 1 and February 15, and the Poetry Society of Virginia (PSoV) Annual Contest closes every year on Poe’s birthday, January 19. You might also want to download this free guide to 2020 winter writing contests. Chilly winter days are made for summoning your muse out of hibernation, thawing out your creativity, and snuggling up on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate, a couple of dogs, and your ideas.

 

School Year’s Resolutions

Today marks the final day of 2019, the final day of the last decade. As we look ahead to a fresh decade and think about our New Year’s Resolutions, I want to share the way I like to start a brand new, fresh school year with my high school English students.

Setting Goals

Sometime during the first week of school in September, I show my students the goals for our class. (Once on the site, scroll down to the section titled “Our Goals.”) We read through and discuss them together.

After that, I instruct students to fill out this School Year’s Resolutions handout, and share what they come up with the small group of students sitting around them.

Following their discussion, each student creates a small poster based on his or her goals. The poster includes a list of written goals, and pictures to go with them. Then, they tape or glue their School Year’s Resolutions handout to the back.

When students have completed their posters, they display them on our classroom bulletin board, titled “School Year’s Resolutions.” If we have time, each student also stands up and presents his or her goals to the class as a whole.

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This portion of the activity serves as an ice breaker, gives me invaluable insight into my students, helps students understand the context and purpose of the class and associated material, requires students to present information orally, and gives students insight into me–for I, too, set and share my goals.

This school year, the goals I set and am working on are:

  • Get more sleep
  • Reduce stress
  • Get back into running
  • Read at least three books for pleasure before school ends in June.

Reflecting on Progress

At interim (progress) report time, or around when report cards go out for the first grading period, I assign students a journal topic that requires them to assess the progress they are making (or not) or have made (or not) towards achieving the goals they set at the beginning of the school year.

This part of the activity asks students to reflect and requires them to write.

As for my own progress at this point in the school year, I would say I’ve been fairly successful at getting more sleep. During the week, I typically succeed at getting to bed between 9:00 and 9:30, and I get up around 5:15, give or take a few minutes.

I’ve also experienced moderate success in terms of reducing my stress. My job is just as stressful, if not more so than usual due to changes coming down the pipeline from the state level, but I love my students and have made and mostly kept this promise to myself: I will work eight hours a day, Monday through Friday. No more, no less. The only exception to this rule is if I happen to feel inspired to work longer hours, in which case, I will. I bring work home every night in the event that this happens, and sometimes it does. In the past, however after spending roughly eight hours at work, I would bring home an additional one to three hours of work to complete in my family room or out on my back deck. My husband would say, “Do you want to watch a show tonight?” And if he was asking any time between September and June, 99% of the time, my answer was a pat “I can’t; I have papers to read/tests to grade/projects to evaluate/plans to make.” Now, I remind myself that while I was at work, I worked. Now, I am at home. And that means I don’t have to work at the moment. I’ve discovered that somehow, I still complete all the work I need to complete. Just not as quickly. And that’s okay.

As for getting back to running, I’ve been less successful there, but it hasn’t been a total bust. I used to stick to a strict regimen of runs. I planned my mileage out for each week–or, if I were training for a race, months in advance. And I stuck to these running routines religiously. After saying goodbye to Jack and Sadie, adopting Nacho and Soda, and totaling my car, for the first time in over a decade, my running sort of fell by the wayside. I had deep emotional and minor physical injuries to recover from, and running, once at the top of my priority list, wasn’t even on the list at all. I do miss it, though, and currently, I am running when I feel like it, or when I enjoy some found time here and there. Some weeks I might run one mile. Others, I am fitting in one or two miles three, maybe five, times a week. It’s coming along. It’s a work in progress. So am I.

Finally: Read at least three books before the end of the school year. I would say I have been the most successful here. I started reading Madeline Miller’s Circe in September, and though I didn’t finish until December, finish I did. (And I highly recommend it. I immediately loaned it to a colleague, a Latin teacher, who, last I checked, was also thoroughly enjoying it. It’s thought-provoking to the point of an existential crisis–in a good way.) Following Circe, I picked up Elin Hilderbrand’s Winter Solstice, which my sister recommended and which seemed seasonally appropriate. I read that considerably more quickly, using winter break to my advantage. Just a few days ago, I started reading Present over Perfect by Shauna Niequist, a book my best friend recently gifted me for Christmas, with the inscription that it’s the highest recommended book for my Enneagram type (Type 1, with occasional deviations to Types 3 and 6). I’m on page 33, and let me tell you–the book speaks to me. So, I am on book three and we’re not even halfway to June yet. Definite progress there.

Further Reading

For more on the subject of resolutions–whether for the upcoming calendar year or a future school year–check out my blog post about student me, and why it’s important we teachers don’t forget what it’s like to be students.

Reading Recommendation

No matter what your Enneagram type, Niequist’s Present over Perfect is a fabulous read to ring in the new year. If you are looking to slow down, simplify, and live a life more authentic to the true you, start with this book.

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If you are looking to slow down, simplify, and live a life more authentic to the true you, start with this book.

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

My Writing Buddies have Four Paws

It all started on a walk with my dogs. Which shouldn’t be that surprising, as every day starts with a walk with my dogs. We eat breakfast, leash up, and head out. Every day begins with a dog walk–and so do many of my essays, poems, blog posts, and book chapters. One of my essays, about to appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog (in bookstores April 9), was not only inspired while I was walking my dogs, but is also about walking my dogs. It tells the short tale of how letting Jack take the reins (or should I say, “leash?”) and determine our walking route one morning led me to a beautiful view–and taught me a valuable lesson: I don’t always have to be in charge.

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The view I was treated to when I let Jack decide which way we should walk one January morning in 2015.

The essay had humble beginnings. It started as a January 2015 diary entry, penned after returning home from our walk, and eventually morphed into a blog post on my now debunked, little-read personal blog, where it sat for several years, largely unnoticed. In 2018, while scrolling through a Freedom with Writing e-mail (if you’re a writer and you don’t subscribe already, you should), I learned that Chicken Soup for the Soul was accepting submissions for several upcoming books, one being Life Lessons from the Dogs.

I remembered my diary-entry-turned-blog-post, and, after a few revisions, submitted it. Almost a year later, I received one of the most exciting e-mails of my life to date. The essay I wrote, at the time called “Northern Neck Dog Walk,” had been shortlisted in the selection process for the upcoming Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog.

Radio
Kat Simons, local Richmond radio personality, was kind enough to have Jack, Sadie, and me into the studio for an interview this afternoon. We talked about my upcoming fundraisers for two local animal shelters and the soon-to-be-released Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, in bookstores April 9.

Trying in vain not to get too excited, I started a group text including my parents, three siblings, in-laws, and half a dozen friends, and texted out my happy news, complete with far too many exclamation points and smiley face emojis. I e-mailed all of them, too–to make sure they got the message. Though it was difficult, I did manage to resist the urge to post my good news to social media, in the event that, in the end, nothing came of it.

Then, I waited–telling myself it was a big success to have made it even this far.

A few weeks later, I received official word that my essay had made the cut, and would be featured in the book, a fact I quickly plastered all over my Facebook and Instagram accounts.

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Sadie and Jack pose with a few copies of the book they’re in.

My complimentary copies of the books arrived last week, and I have been busy setting up fundraisers for Richmond Animal League, where my dogs inspired me to volunteer in their honor for roughly five years, and the Richmond SPCA, where Jack and I completed (and LOVED) several agility classes.

If I don’t already have enough to thank my precious little dogs for, I can now add publication, book signings, fundraisers, and a radio interview to the list of experiences they’ve given me.

 

Found Time: 5 Tips to Find Time for Writing (and Reading)

You might be familiar with the term “found time,” which refers to time that unexpectedly opens up in our schedules–when a flight is delayed, when an appointment is canceled, when we miraculously finish the to-do’s on our list before we thought we would. Because one of the greatest obstacles to writing (and for me, to reading) seems to be finding time for it, it’s imperative that we A) find time and B) use found time to its fullest potential. While we’re all always incredibly busy, we might have more found time in our schedules than we realize, and we can use this time to support our literary lives, even with the rest of life seems to be getting in the way.

Make the Most of Mealtimes

If you find yourself eating a meal unaccompanied, write or read while you eat. You have to sit down and be still anyway–you can’t clean the house or go for a run while you eat–so it’s a great time to get out your laptop, journal, diary, or book and write or read. Plus, it makes you eat more slowly, which I’ve read is good for your health.

Be Prepared

In order to use found time, you have to be prepared to use found time. If time opens up in your day, but you don’t have the tools you need to use it (your book, pen, notebook, laptop–whatever), you’re going to be hard-pressed to be productive. For this reason, bring a notebook and writing utensil or your latest read with you everywhere. Then, when unexpected time arises, you can use it to write or read.

Use the Bathroom

Read or write when you use the bathroom. It might sound crass and it’s probably not hygienic, but it works. No one is going to bother you while you’re in there and, as with eating, you’re sitting down and being still, anyway. Take advantage of the time! What else are you gonna do with it (I mean, besides a No. 1 or a No. 2)?

Go to Bed

Or at least say you’re going to bed. Then, spend 15 to 30 minutes writing or reading before you turn out the lights for the night.

Keep a List Handy

For writing, make a list of topics, experiences, ideas, or memories you know you want to write about. That way, when you end up with a little unexpected time, you won’t have to waste any of it wondering what to write about–you can just pull out your list and pick from it.

While our lives are inevitably busy and sometimes chaotic, little pockets of time unexpectedly open up in our schedules now and again. When they do, be ready to use them to nurture your love of writing and reading!

Book Review: Yellowstone Has Teeth, by Marjane Ambler

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My husband, sister, brother-in-law, several friends, and I were fortunate enough to spend an entire day in Yellowstone in February.

I picked up Marjane Ambler‘s memoir Yellowstone Has Teeth at the Yellowstone National Park Store in the Bozeman Airport in Bozeman, Montana, back in February when my husband and I made the trip out west with my sister, her husband, and a few friends. Though my aim was to read it before our day-long winter tour of Yellowstone, I kept so busy hiking, snowshoeing, site-seeing, and socializing, that I didn’t begin the book until my husband and I were back home in Virginia. In at least one way, it worked out for the best: Reading this book after my return home allowed me to seemingly extend the trip. Each time I opened its pages, I found myself transported back to the wintry clime of Yellowstone in the snow.

One mark of a really good book is that upon finishing it, you feel a sort of sorrow. Some irrational part of your being hoped you’d be able to go on reading the book indefinitely, despite the dwindling pages behind your bookmark. This was the way I felt when I finished Yellowstone Has Teeth. Luckily, I have a whole cache of books waiting for me to read them, but that was my only consolation. I felt a nagging sadness when I closed the book for the final time. But this was not just because the book was behind me; it was also because (spoiler alert!), as I was finishing the book, Ambler was finishing the cherished chapter of her life that was living in the park. Ending the book this way of course made logical sense, but it was also artful and purposeful. Reading about the end of her time in Yellowstone as I approached the end of my time reading the book resulted in an emotional impact that could not have been achieved had she ended it some other way. Our feelings ran parallel: She was loathe for that chapter of her life to end, and while I commiserated with that sentiment, I also experienced my own grief about ending the book.

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At the base of a mountain and on the banks of the Madison River, bison use their noses to shove snow out of the way in an attempt to reach the grass underneath.

If the book’s ending made an impact, its pages did as well. The book explores many intriguing and important issues, including man’s relationship to the natural world, women’s changing role in a male-dominated profession, rugged individualism and independence versus the need for community and interdependence, and man’s futile attempts to control nature, to name a few.

Ambler also does a superb job of illustrating the juxtaposition between the “civilized world,” and life in the park, in statements such as this one: “I read the animal tracks in the snow instead of a newspaper to discover the news of the day” (30). A page later, she describes the way her husband, Terry, would listen to the traffic report in Los Angeles as he drove his groomer down the snow-covered and deserted park roadways. As he heard the radio announcer advise LA motorists to find an alternate route because “‘An accident has stopped all westbound traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway,'” her husband “smiled at the contrast on his roadway. His headlights illumined only bison tracks breaking the surface of the newly fallen snow” (31).

The book explores many intriguing and important issues, including man’s relationship to the natural world, women’s changing role in a male-dominated profession, rugged individualism and independence versus the need for community and interdependence, and man’s futile attempts to control nature, to name a few.

In addition, Ambler’s imagery sticks with you. When writing about the historic fires of 1988, she describes the sky in the following way: “…huge cumulous clouds…boiled over Two Ocean Plateau, the clouds stained red from the fires below, like cauliflower boiled in blood” (148).

In short, I am so glad Ambler sat down and wrote this book. It provided so much food for thought, and so many insights. I can only imagine what a gift it must be to so well–so intimately–know a place so well-known and infamous. Ambler helped me imagine it a little bit better. Now, there are so many people to whom I want to recommend this book. This week, it will be in the mail on its way to Rocky Mountain National Park, where I hope one of my best friend’s best friends, a female ranger in the park, will enjoy it.

 

Readers vs. Monsters: Read Like a Writer

When I was working on my capstone project for my graduate degree back in 2013, my husband came home from work one day to find me surrounded by books, index cards, highlighters, and notebook paper. I was scribbling away–in pencil–in one of the books. My potty-mouthed, inked-up, motorcycle-riding husband was horrified.

“Are you writing in that book?”

I looked up from my pile of research materials. “Yeah,” I said matter-of-factly.

“You can’t write in books!”

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The note “animals don’t know they take ppl to hang,” hastily jotted down in my copy of The Crucible as I read with a group of students one day, ultimately inspired my sonnet, “Salem’s Indifferent Ox,” which will be honored with a second place award in the Nancy Byrd category of the Poetry Society of Virginia‘s Annual Awards Luncheon later this month.

At that point in his life, my husband had yet to read a single book all the way through, so I struggled to imagine the reason behind his disgust. That he, of all people, should care whether or not I wrote in my books was a bit perplexing. I shrugged. “I mean, I’ll erase it later–since they’re library books.”

“They’re library books?! You can’t write in library books!”

I don’t see writing in books as delinquent or destructive. I see it as proof of engagement with the text.

But I can, and I do–all the time. I write in almost every book I read. You’ll never find me reading a book without a pen in my hand.

All of my books look like they’ve been through the wars. Their pages are dog-eared (I use bookmarks to mark my spot, but I dog-ear pages to mark spots I want to revisit). Their margins are full of scribbled questions, ideas, inspirations, criticisms, and exclamations. Words are underlined. Typos are corrected in blue or black pen. If they’re paperbacks, their spines are cracked and broken. They are well-loved, if not ratty.

I specifically remember the very cynical notes I read in my used copy of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative.  It was as if the reader who read the book before me were quipping back at Gornick’s every idea or assertion–a disgruntled child talking back to his mother under his breath.

For years, I figured everyone read like this–pen in hand. How could it be otherwise? How could anyone resist scratching down an idea inspired by a passage, or underlining a particularly delicious turn of phrase? How could anyone not circle an unfamiliar word for later exploration? How could anyone read actively, critically, or analytically without writing in her books? Impossible.

It was only recently I found out I was wrong–and that a group of readers very unlike me exists. My fellow blogger, Charlene Jimenez, of Write. Revise. Repeat., is one of them. These readers refer to readers like me as “monsters.” Readers like me destroy our books as we devour them. We can’t help it; it’s how we read.

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If monsters only dog-ear pages, I am absolutely the most villainous ogre imaginable.

In addition, I actually enjoy reading books fellow monster-readers have written in. I like reading their notes almost as much as the book they pertain to. I feel like I am having a conversation not only with the author, narrator, and characters–but also a like-minded friend, one who writes in her books–just like I do. Sometimes I agree with the previous reader’s assessment; sometimes, I don’t. Oftentimes, I feel like I get a sense of who the person behind the notes is–her outlook on life, her general mood, her beliefs and questions and insecurities. I specifically remember the very cynical notes I read in my used copy of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative.  It was as if the reader who read the book before me were quipping back at Gornick’s every idea or assertion–a disgruntled child talking back to his mother under his breath. While I agreed with very few of the marginal notes that graced the pages in a fading, gray pencil scrawl, I found them amusing–and they told me a lot about the previous reader.

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My copy of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is peppered with notes regarding things I want to make sure I address with my students–stylistic techniques, literary devices, etc.

Despite the disdain it apparently draws–from bibliophiles and bibliophobes alike–I won’t stop writing in my books. Not out of obstinacy or spite–but out of necessity. I don’t see writing in books as delinquent or destructive. I see it as proof of engagement with the text. I don’t read like a monster; I read like a writer.

Despite the disdain it apparently draws–from bibliophiles and bibliophobes alike–I won’t stop writing in my books. I don’t read like a monster; I read like a writer.

 

My Current To-Read List

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I’ve started to allow myself about 15 minutes of pleasure reading before I close my eyes for the night most nights. Currently, I’m enjoying Yellowstone Has Teeth, by Marjane Ambler.

I don’t get to read much during the school year (unless, of course, you count the nearly never-ending string of my students’ persuasive essays, journal entries, literary analyses, and research papers). But last month, I spent several hours in the Bozeman airport waiting for my travel companions’ plane to land so we could make the trip to Big Sky together. Though I admit to reading several persuasive essays during my wait (yes, during my vacation…), I also perused the little airport shops.

And I found books. Lots and lots of books.

There were at least a dozen I wanted to buy–and probably would have, if my luggage had not already weighed 52.5 pounds when I left home that morning. I always have a long Summer To-Read List, so this year, though I limited my Bozeman book-buy binge to three books, I decided to get started early. Most nights of the week since I’ve been home from Montana, I’ve been allowing myself 15 minutes before bed to read for pleasure. Currently, I’m about 100 pages in to Yellowstone Has Teeth, and in the beginning chapters of Salt to the Sea, which I’m reading as part of the novel-writing class I’m taking (and loving!) at The Visual Arts Center of Richmond.

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Currently Reading

Yellowstone Has Teeth, by Marjane Ambler

One of the planned activities I was most excited about during my trip was a day-long coach tour of Yellowstone National Park. I couldn’t wait to see the park and its feature in the snow. The last time I visited, it was summer and I was in elementary school. I was looking forward to the spectacular juxtaposition of colorful hot springs with white snow. I bought this book thinking I’d have time to start reading it before our visit to the park,  but all I managed to read during the entire trip were persuasive essays. Still, starting the book once I returned home has been a nice way to savor my memories of our snowy day in the park.

I also bought this book because I love books about people’s lives. I am incredibly nosy about everyone’s routine, right down to the most mundane details, so I’m enjoying reading about how Ambler and her fellow winter residents managed to tote groceries home on snowmobiles, the ways they managed to keep warm, and what their day to day job obligations were.

If that weren’t enough, I always love books about nature. Reading about other peoples’ observations in and connection to nature helps me better appreciate my own time in the out of doors, enhances my own ability to be aware and open and in touch. I enjoy the introspective reverie of one alone in nature.

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Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys

IMG-1980A fellow writer in my novel-writing class who happens to work as a librarian recommended our class read this book as an excellent example of writing craft. It’s a Young Adult (YA) novel about four teens during World War II. So far, it’s an incredibly fast read. It’s riveting. The book is impressively thick, but the chapters are incredibly short and it’s not hard to read several in one sitting–not only because of their brevity, but also because of their pace. The chapters alternate between the perspectives of each of the four characters. So far, each chapter is a first-person account of the same experience or moment.

My To-Read List

A Modern Dog’s Life: How to Do the Best for Your Dog, by Paul McGreevy

You can probably tell from this blog and my corresponding Instagram account that my dogs are a huge focal point in my life, so it’s no surprise that the title of this book caught me eye. It seems to promise A) that will learn about how my dogs experience life and B) that I will learn how to make their lives the best lives possible. I actually came across this book while I was conducting research for an article I was writing for ScoutKnows.com, and when my brother asked me a few days later what I wanted for my birthday, I asked for this book and he delivered. I can’t wait to learn more about my dogs and how to make their lives better, and I have a feeling the information in this book will also help with my writing for Scout Knows.

What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, by Jon Young

I want to know the secrets of the natural world–and I like birds–so this book seemed like a no-brainer purchase. It’s another that I bought at the Yellowstone National Park Store in the Bozeman airport. I’m excited to read about what I can learn from my backyard birds.

I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, by Maggie O’Farrell

I haven’t purchase this book yet, but I first heard about it on NPR a few weeks ago, and then read a review of it in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. In both cases, it sounded intriguing and thought-provoking. I have a feeling it will alter my perspective on many things.

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, by Edward Abbey

I think my cousin Katie originally told me about this book, and it’s another my brother bought me for my birthday. As I wrote above, I love introspective writing like I expect to read here.

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Just a small pile of some of the books on my to-read list

Ol Major’s Last Summer: The Story of a Very Special Friend, by Richard Sloan

This is my third Bozeman airport book buy. Each purchase of this book donates money to animal causes, and it’s written by a local writer. Plus–it’s about a dog. How could I resist?

I do expect this book will make me cry, so I have to plan my reading of it wisely.

Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo

One of my best friends bought this book for me for Christmas last year. He hates reading, but this is his favorite book, so it must be good. I’ve actually already read it, but I was a sophomore in high school and remember very little.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

I’m a firm believer in reading the book before seeing the movie (or, in this case, show), but I let my husband talk me into watching Season One of The Handmaid’s Tale before I read the book.

I am also a firm believer that the book is always better than the movie (or the show)–so I have got to read this book. If the show is any indicator, the book must be mind-blowing.

Lastly, the novel I’m currently writing is, according to my instructor, speculative fiction, so I am sure I can also learn something about craft from reading this book.

 

 

S-Town from an English Teacher’s Perspective

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As my husband selflessly and singlehandedly drove us to Florida Wednesday, we listened to the podcast “S-Town” and I submitted several pieces of my writing to various contests and publications, as well as worked on some freelance projects.

Wednesday, my husband and I hit the road to visit family in Florida, and to help keep us awake and alert during our ten-hour stint on 95 South, we listened to the seven-chapter podcast, S-Town, by Serial and This American Life. It was thought-provoking, emotional, entertaining, and worthwhile. I laughed, cried, and marveled. It’s the kind of podcast that stays on your mind for days–probably weeks–popping up in your day-to-day when something seemingly inocuous inspires a memory of an emotion, thought, person, or question brought up in S-Town. It brings up big questions, like: What is fulfillment? How do different people achieve it? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? How can people achieve meaning in their lives? Do familial relationships trump relationships with friends, though in some cases, the friends are closer than family? Should familial relationships be given legal priority in every case? I could compose an entire post consisting solely of questions S-Town makes me ask myself, but I’ll spare you (listen to it yourself, if you haven’t already, and find out what questions it brings up for you). Besides, this post isn’t actually about the effect S-Town had on me personally; it’s about the connections I can make between it and my career as a writer and English teacher (though to be honest, the personal musings are far deeper than the professional ones).

The Mad Hatter

As a child, I enjoyed the cartoon version of the story Alice in Wonderland. As an adult, in a children’s literature class for my graduate degree, I had to read the full-length book–and I enjoyed that, too. Like me, you’re probably familiar with the story and its characters, including the Mad Hatter. You might also have heard the term, “mad as a hatter.” In listening to S-Town, I learned where that phrase comes from: In the 1800s, hat-makers (hatters) used a dangerous chemical compound to turn fur into felt for hats. Inhaling these chemicals on a regular basis caused many of them to go crazy, and even die prematurely.

“A Rose for Emily” and “The Masque of the Red Death”

One of the short stories I read with my students during our Gothic literature unit is William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” one of John B. Mclemore‘s (only click that link if you don’t mind a spoiler alert) favorites. The theme song of the podcast, “A Rose for Emily” by the Zombies, which I’d never heard before, alludes to the story and helps elucidate the meaning of the title, and the story, to a degree. I’m currently working on the best way to use it to A) enhance my teaching of the story and B) boost my students’ understanding of the literary device, allusion. In addition, my honors students complete a Literature Portfolio project throughout the course of the semester, requiring them to write short essays (Connections Essays) connecting a work of art, a piece of music, a work of literature, or a current event to the work of literature we are reading in class. Connecting the song “A Rose for Emily” to the story by the same name would perfectly exemplify the expectations for this assignment, as would connecting the short story to S-Town itself.

On a similar note, another Gothic author mentioned in the podcast is Edgar Allan Poe. One of his stories my students and I read is “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which the hourly striking of a large, black clock in a room of crimson and ebony provides a constant reminder to a group of revelers that their time is running out, and their hours are numbered. John B. Mclemore was an antiquarian horologist who built sun dials and restored old clocks. Herein lies more potential for a stellar Connections Essay.

Paradox

At the risk of spoiling everything for you, I will just say that S-Town also provides an excellent example of paradox: time as both a punishment and a gift. (In addition to spoiling things for you, I risk going way too far into my musings on the concept of a lifetime and time if I continue!)

New Words

At least three new words jumped out at me as we listened:

  1. proleptic
  2. mellifluous
  3. peregrinate.

Zora Neale Hurston

Although some might see the sometimes racist characters in S-Town as the farthest possible thing from anything relating to Zora Neale Hurston, two similarities stood out to me. First, Hurston lived part of her life in Eatonville, Florida, which the earliest residents helped build from the ground up. Janie, the protagonist in Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (which I read each year with my students), also lives in Eatonville, and is there for its incorporation, her husband having become the mayor and working hard to incorporate the town. John B. Mclemore played an integral role in the project of

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During our visit, I spent lots of time building Florida snowmen (sandmen) on the beach with my niece, who has taught me many valuable lessons and inspired many of my personal narratives, availabe at richmond.com.

putting Woodstock, Alabama (originally North Bibb), on the map as an actual town. Second, Hurston had a deep appreciation for folklore, and for spoken language and culture. While many African-American writers were attempting to create characters and narrators that sounded like, well, white characters, narrators, or writers, Hurston’s characters spoke in the vernacular of the people she knew, to the chagrin of many of her contemporaries, who perhaps saw her as proliferating negative racial stereotypes. Hurston, though, seemed to see herself as advocating for the beauty of these speech patterns, rhythms, and nuances. To learn more about this (and then some!), check out this audio guide by the National Endowment for the Arts. Like Hurston’s characters, the people in S-Town often speak in artful and unique phrases–without even realizing it; it seems to come naturally. They speak in clever metaphors without consciously crafting the comparisons, and use figurative language without even trying or, perhaps, realizing. Consider these two examples:

  1. “He may have had a little sugar in his tank” as a way of saying someone might be gay.
  2. “He’d drank enough Wild Turkey to make anyone gobble” as a way of saying he’d had enough alcohol to make absolutely anyone drunk.

These aren’t direct quotes, but they’re pretty close, and good examples of phrases that stood out me as particularly unique, amusing, or clever. Hurston’s characters, too, often express themselves in equally eloquent and creative terms.

Making Connections

One of the surest ways to support retention and critical thinking is helping students make connections between what they learn in the classroom, and the outside world. I found that as I listened to S-Town, I was experiencing what I hope my students experience when we read, discuss, and write: direct parallels between my own experience and education, and the real world.

 

Expand your Vocabulary: Read

Recently, I got to spend some time with my niece from Florida, who, just having reached the age of five, will begin kindergarten in about two weeks. She knows my husband and I collect sea glass, and as we were walking down a sidewalk in town, she picked up a broken glass bottle and held it up, exuberant.

“Look! I found some glass for you!” she exclaimed, impressed with her find.

My sister, her mother, quickly told her to put it down.

“But she gathers glass,” my niece said, clearly confused about the difference between sea glass and any old glass you might find in the street. After we cleared up the confusion, and her protest echoed in my head, I thought, “‘Gathers?’ What five-year-old uses a word like ‘gathers?'”

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Because sunset and twilight are two of my favorite times of day, one of my favorite recently-acquired words is “crepuscular,” a word I came across in my reading, and that could be used to describe the scene in the above photograph, which I took in the Outer Banks of North Carolina earlier this week.

Other words I heard her use over the course of the next day or so included “scurry,” “scuttle,” “scamper,” and “scepter,” all of which she would casually and correctly use–just as if she were using the word “run” or “walk.” I started keeping a list. My niece knew about this list, and a few days after she returned home, I got a call from her.

“Hi, Aunt Amanda,” she said. “I have another word for you to add to your list.”

“Oh, you do?” I said, amused–and touched that my list had made such an impression on her.

“‘Glimpse,'” said my niece.

“‘Glimpse,'” I repeated. “Can you use it in a sentence?” My niece knew that in order for one of her words to qualify for the list, she had to use it correctly in a sentence. A few days prior, I had denied the inclusion of “humiliated” on the list, because although she had used it in a sentence, it hadn’t made any sense. (Though I must admit, I was impressed at her attempt, and told her as much.)

“I could barely see the bunny–I only caught a glimpse of him,” she said.

“Very good! You’re right–another one for the list.”

My sister’s voice came over the phone.

“Where does she get all these words?” I asked her.

“Well, we read to her all the time,” my sister said, matter-of-factly. And of course she’s right–the regular reading sessions every night and at various points throughout the day, as requested, no doubt play a significant role in my niece’s impressive and ever expanding vocabulary.

Read. If you want to learn, read. If you want to escape, read. If you want to relax, read. But, most especially, if you want to write, read. Words are the most powerful tools we writers wield–and we can acquire more of them simply by opening a book.

My niece’s enthusiasm for her growing vocabulary reminds me of my own experience with words. I can remember in third grade learning to use and spell the word “conservatory.” I felt so important, possessing such a large, polysyllabic word. Later, I can remember encountering the word “alabaster,” specifically in the phrase “her alabaster brow” (I think it was in an Anne of Green Gables book), and using it in my own writing every chance I got. It was exhaustive, really. The number of times you’ll find that phrase in my early writing is laughable.

When I first started this blog, I was rather good about composing a weekly Word of the Week post, and though I haven’t been very consistent with that recently, I still keep my eye out for new words, many of which I find in my reading. Currently, I’m (still) reading Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and in my last sitting alone, I became acquainted with the following new words:

  • epigones–inferior imitators
  • impecunious–habitually poor (a word I can, unfortunately, employ regarding my own circumstances!)
  • philatelic–having to do with the study of postage stamps
  • crepuscular–relating to or resembling twilight (which might be my favorite of these newly acquired words),

just to name a few.

And, as it past my bedtime (my niece might say I should have scurried to bed long ago; I might say I should have started my crepuscular routine before allowing myself to grow this tired and the night to grow this old), I’ll wrap this up simply by saying: Read. If you want to learn, read. If you want to escape, read. If you want to relax, read. But, most especially, if you want to write, read. Words are the most powerful tools we writers wield–and we can acquire more of them simply by opening a book. The stronger our individual words are, the stronger our overall writing, and the more striking our impact, will be.