Guest Post: Sumo in the Time of Covid-19

Love is blind.  I know this to be true because Sumo-Pokey (his hyphenated name derived from his physique as well as his general demeanor) is our blind and mostly deaf pug.  At

IMG_0102
Sumo enjoys the sunshine.

nearly 14 years old, he is becoming more and more like a pillow.  Soft and placid, content mostly to stay in one place most of the time, except around 5 p.m. when his internal alarm clock tells him it’s approaching supper.  It’s then that he begins to pace around the kitchen door, politely (and sometimes sassily) reminding us that another day has slipped by … a day when working from home has meant grading projects submitted remotely by my students, planning (and praying) for their continued online engagement in learning, and helping my wife herd our two granddaughters, Louise and Margaux, as they ride bike (Louise, age 5) and balance-bike (Margaux, age 4) relentlessly back and forth circling the alley behind our house.

Sometimes Sumo accompanies them, resting on the small patch of grass tucked between cement slabs that flank the alleyway, much to the pleasure of Margaux, who calls him “Sumo-Puppy” – an ironic moniker, but one that still holds its own form of truth, because to Margaux this old, blind, deaf pug is still a puppy who patiently receives her hugs and withstands her other boisterous attentions as she attempts to share her enthusiasm for life with him while he rests his oversized head on the memory-foam pillow he seems to love more with each passing week.

When Sumo is not patiently enduring Margaux’s attention, or sleeping on that beloved pillow, he’s usually at my feet while I attempt to work from the dining room table at

IMG_0254
Sumo turns a box into a pillow near the dining room table.

home.  That’s nothing unusual for him, or for me, since teaching duties don’t disappear when the students board their yellow buses every afternoon.  But somehow there’s something more comforting than usual in his regular presence there these days.  He’s a reminder that, despite the growing tumult of the pandemic, and the closure of my school building, the world is still going on in its usual, regular, normal pattern for some.  Indeed, the world will go on in its usual, regular, normal pattern whether or not I eventually contract COVID-19.

Watching Sumo-Pokey snore, his head on my right shoe as I try not to move my foot and disturb his slumber, I am reminded that there have always been diseases, and somehow the world has continued rotating every 24 hours, circling the sun every 365 days.  There’s no need to let anxiety about work or the collapse of the stock market or even the possible

IMG_0224
Sumo relaxes on his family’s deck.

loss of loved ones cause undue sturm and drang in my daily existence.  What will be will be.  I’ll have to be more intentionally like Sumo-Pokey, if the expected symptoms someday arrive.  If he can take Margaux’s poking and prodding without complaint, and wag his tail in the process even without being able to see her adoring face, I should be able to do the same should the coronavirus come calling at my door.  Sumo is a comfort, a living pillow whose patience and affection are offered without expectation of recompense.  I find comfort in his presence.

Author Bio

Smokey and Mr. G-S 1-6-2014Before becoming a high school teacher, Michael Goodrich-Stuart wrote and directed writers professionally for more than 20 years.  His first career was spent working as an advertising copywriter, copy chief and creative director in Michigan, Wyoming, Pennsylvania and Virginia.  During his advertising tenure, he received numerous industry awards, ranging from Addys and Tellys to Caddys and Echos.  Today he draws on his career experience in the classroom – combining a love for the English language with a past that paid him well for using it.  Michael is a graduate of Michigan State University, where he wrote for The State News and earned a degree in Journalism.  Sumo is his second pug.  He and his wife, Jill, have had Bundle and Smokey as well.  He also has four accomplished children, all of whom love pugs, their other pets, and their parents.

Want to share a story about your dog(s)? I would love to read it! To learn about submitting your own story, click here.

They Really Keep You Going: A Personal Narrative About the Littles

A year ago today, Matty and I saw Soda and Nacho (then Scotch) for the very first time. It would be another month before we saw them again, and before we got to actually meet them, as opposed to just seeing them on the other side of their kennel bars. Because both dogs and writing are extremely therapeutic, and because I love both with an unrivaled intensity, it seems fitting to share here, today, a piece I wrote about the role Nacho and Soda have played in my emotional and mental well-being in the last year, but most particularly, in the last few months. Below is that piece.

It is a quintessential April morning. The air smells faintly of lilac and cut grass, silky-sweet, soft, and verdant. The laser-sharp but soothing call of cardinals cascades down from the trees around us, the birds themselves hidden amongst boughs whose leaves are just emerging, ready for their summer’s work. Normally at this time of the morning, I am at school, helping a group of teenagers work on the yearbook, watching the clock as lunchtime approaches and my stomach clenches.

Soda on the back deck
Soda lounges on the back deck while I work from home.

But schools shut down a month ago, so today, after calling students to check on them and sending them digital copies of next week’s assignments, I am walking my two eighteen-month-old dogs, collectively known as The Littles. They’re a pair of littermates we adopted back in June—back when we could still hug our parents and travel and go to the beach without a second thought about our social responsibility or personal health. Back when things were still normal. Before Covid-19 and its swift sweep around the globe.

I am deep in these thoughts when a neighbor stops his riding lawn mower as we walk by and says to me, “Those two really keep you going, don’t they?” He nods toward Soda and Nacho. I look at the two of them, 15 pounds combined. Their dark brown eyes meet mine, joyous, expectant, eager. His words hold more truth than he knows. I have lost count of the times I have told my husband how lonely I would be without them during this experience. Deprived of my routine, my students, my colleagues, and many of my friends and family members, my daily walks with The Littles are one of the few activities that feels normal, their company the only constant companionship I have during any given day. They are my purpose and structure.

Nacho on the back deck
Nacho rests on the back deck while I work from home.

My two small dogs have helped me become aware of the small pleasures of social distancing, instead of dwelling on the inconvenience and deprivation. Jarring alarm clock wake-ups have been replaced by slow wake-ups occasioned by snuggles and nuzzling noses. We go outside together and sit in the sun because it’s out and we can be, too. They are not confined to the crate; I am not confined to the classroom.

And although small, The Littles have cultivated a big appetite for adventure since I’ve been home. Unable to while away the hours shopping, going to movies, staying after school for meetings, or running errands, we have found time to explore secluded trails we didn’t know existed, often traipsing much longer and farther than I thought their short, little legs might carry them. We have stopped and stared at great egrets, blue herons, water snakes, turtles, deer.

We have also found time for learning. While we work together as they learn basics like “sit,” “stay,” “down,” “come,” and “leave it,” I learn to slow down. To give myself and others grace. To digest one day at a time instead of flipping through the pages of my

littles
The Littles, Soda (left) and Nacho (right), relax after a morning walk.

planner to August, and realizing every single weekend is booked until then. To be flexible in the uncertainty—because things are pretty backwards now. I used to make every effort to keep Nacho and Soda out of their crate; after all, they spent enough time there while we worked during the day. Now, we conduct near-daily “crate practice” to make sure that someday, when I start working somewhere other than the couch again, they will remember that the crate is a safe place, and that I will be home. I manufacture reasons to do this—to leave the house so The Littles can practice being without me. Sometimes I go for a jog or ride my bike, sit in the sun with a book, stroll a route The Littles aren’t fond of. They have given me this gift—permission to engage in soul-nurturing activities, time to relish the solitude I rarely had time for before. And when I get home, and crate practice is over, I am so glad it is not an empty house I return to, but one filled with the contagious exuberance and affection and companionship of two tiny dogs with two enormous spirits.

The gentle rumble of my neighbor’s idling mower brings me back to the present moment. I stand on the sidewalk. He looks at me expectantly from his seat, probably glad to speak to someone new for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long. It takes me just a second to remember he is waiting for my response. “Those two really keep you going, don’t they?” he’d said.

I smile at him. “Yes,” I say. I smile at them, the little dogs who make staying home better, and give me reasons to get out. “They do. They really do.”

I invite you to share in the comments how your own pets have helped you stay positive–now or any time.

 

 

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

scavenger hunt fh
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.

scavenger hunt rl vat
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.

 

 

NHS and Beta Induction Ceremony Speech

In many professions, people are rewarded for their hard work and performance with accolades, bonuses, raises, and trips. Earlier this year, my brother won a trip to a tropical island resort for his performance at his job. Three years ago, my husband and I spent a few days at Disney Land because of his performance in his job. One of my best friends has been in the workforce only a year longer than I have, and earns a salary three times larger than mine. As a teacher, I consider my year a success if a few students ask me to sign their yearbooks at the end of the year. (I’m not being facetious; that really does mean a lot to me.)

While I will never be offered a tropical vacation or hefty pay increase for my performance at work, honors like being invited to attend the Senior of the Month dinner and earning the title Teacher of the Year have been incredibly rewarding and fulfilling.

Last night, for just the second time in my fourteen-year teaching career, I was privileged with another honor: delivering the speech at the NHS and Beta induction ceremony. For weeks, I mulled over what to say, and how to say it. Below is what I came up with.

NHS and Beta Induction Speech

November 2019

Good evening and congratulations. I am so happy to be here tonight to share with you a celebration of your achievements and accomplishments. For those of you who might not know me, my name is Mrs. Creasey. I wear a lot of hats here at the high school, but the most important one to all of you is probably my English teacher hat: I teach English 11 and English 11 Honors. It’s precisely the English teacher in me that decided to write a poem to express how I feel about your induction into NHS and Beta, and what it means. Don’t worry; this isn’t going to be some cheesy, rhyming, rhythmic verse—it’s an acrostic poem—a poem that describes its subject matter using the letters that spell the word. It’s called “Honor,” and here it is:

acrostic honor

Some of you are probably familiar with the quote, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” True statement. But I would argue that equally true is this statement: “With great honor, comes great responsibility.”

Now, I know a lot of you, so I know you have a lot of responsibilities, and I know you experience a lot of obstacles to taking care of them. I would almost be willing to bet money that when I say the word “responsibilities,” a lot of you think of some of the following:

Studying

Getting good grades

Going to sports practices

Working a part-time job

Going to club meetings

Passing your SOLs (preferably advanced)

Earning a high score on your SATs

Getting into a good college.

And I would wager that the obstacles you face in achieving these things typically include:

Not having enough time

Not getting enough sleep

Having too much to do.

What does all of this lead to? Stress. A lot of it. So I want you to ask yourself something: What is it all for? Why am I in these honors and AP classes? Why am I involved in the clubs I am? Why am I even here at this induction ceremony tonight? If the answer is because it looks good on your college resume, I want you to reconsider.

It is true that studying, earning good grades, and achieving high test scores are your responsibilities. But accomplishing these tasks is not an end in and of itself. Your true responsibility is not to earn an A in every class you take and get into the best possible college; it is to learn the material to the best of your ability—to really engage with it, understand it, and apply it, so that you can use it to help others, to improve the human condition, to make the world a better place. There is no “A” in “honor.” In fact, there’s no “B.” There’s not even a “C.” Honor does not manifest itself in grades on a report card. Someday, when you’re as old as I am (not that that’s that old, because it’s not), it won’t actually matter whether you got an A or a B in any of your classes. What will matter is what you learned—and what you did with what you learned.

I want to share another acrostic poem with you. This one is about your actual responsibilities as an accomplished, intelligent, capable student—a member of NHS or Beta. I call it “Light.”

acrostic light

This responsibility is not heavy or burdensome—it’s light. Your most important responsibilities are not staying up past 2:00 in the morning to study for that Wordly Wise quiz or running from school to track practice to work, only to complete five hours of homework when you get home. Your most important responsibilities are to be a good influence, use your gifts to give back, develop your talents to develop the world, and lift others up. You are here tonight because you are being recognized as studious, capable, ambitious, hard-working, and honorable.

When you start to feel overwhelmed or stressed out because your to-do list is 500 miles long, tell yourself to do the most honorable thing. “How will I know what that is?” you might be asking. “How can I decide if I should study for math or finish my APUSH outlines or write my English literature portfolio or clean my room or help my mom cook dinner or just go to sleep?” Well, I’m going to share a mantra with you. It’s one I’ve been trying to live by this school year. Next time all of your obligations are vying for your attention and you need to prioritize them, you can use my mantra. Ready? Here it is: You don’t need to get the most done—you need to do the most good. That is how you judge your priorities. Don’t worry about getting the most done; worry about doing the most good.

One day last spring I was driving to school early so Mrs. S. and I could meet with the NEHS officers. I was crossing the bridge over Swift Creek—you know, that bridge over by Wagstaff’s—when I saw a bird, a king fisher, lying in the road. It had been hit by a car. I looked at the clock in my car. 6:55. The meeting was supposed to start at 7:05. I engaged in a little inner battle, one side telling me I had a responsibility to be at the meeting, another side telling me I had a responsibility to help this otherwise helpless bird lying in the middle lane of The Boulevard. I drove another 500 feet or so before turning around. At least I could check and see if the bird were alive, if I could help somehow.

The bird was, indeed, alive. So I wrapped it in a blanket and laid it gently on the passenger side of my car, texting Mrs. S. that I might be a little late to the meeting. As things turned out, I didn’t make it to the meeting at all (though I was at school on time). I stopped to help that bird because I knew it was the right—the honorable—thing to do. When we see someone who lacks what we have, someone we can lift up, it is our responsibility to use our resources and talents. It is our responsibility to lift others up if we have the power to do so—and you do. Your generation is going to face some difficult problems. Human rights issues, a failing infrastructure, political divisiveness, climate change. But each and every one of you in this room is up to the challenge if you nurture your talents, skills, and capabilities, and apply them for the greater good. You have the perspicacity to help solve these problems. We need you—like the bird needed me, we need you. That’s why you’re here. That’s why you’re being honored tonight. You are bright. You are capable. You are dedicated. You are diligent. You are talented. You have been gifted with these traits, and it is your responsibility to use them to improve whatever you can. You should feel honored to do so. Thank you.

Even before I began composing the speech, I was excited about the evening. It means a lot to have a group of young people decide they want to hear what you have to say, so I felt an enormous amount or pressure to live up to the honor. Adding to this was the fact that the day after the speech (today), many of the students I would be addressing were assigned to deliver their own speech to the class for a quiz grade; I had to set a good example.

I knew I had succeeded when, today, several students I don’t currently teach made special trips to my classroom just to tell me that the speech had made them cry, had been exactly what they needed to hear, had hit all the right notes. One student shook my hand. One gave me a heartfelt hug. One told me her mom sent her compliments, but “wouldn’t have picked up the bird.”

Tonight, I spent my Friday evening sitting on my couch with the Littles, reading my students’ Friday journal entries and writing back to them. I closed one and laid it in the basket with the others, reaching for the next one, only to find I had read them all. I was done. And instead of relieved, I felt a little disappointed. I had been looking forward to reading what my next student had to say. Just as they wanted to hear what I had to say, I love to read what they have to write.

 

9 Tips for Writing Your College Essay or Personal Statement

If you’re a high school senior, you might be getting ready to start applying to colleges and universities this fall. Most, though not all, schools ask that you compose and turn in an admissions essay (sometimes called a personal statement) with the rest of your application materials. For many students, this essay proves to be the most difficult element of their application process. What follows are some tips to make it a little easier–and to make your essay that much stronger.

1. Hook ’em!

Many students fall into the trap of starting their essay by simply rewording the prompt the college provides. For example, if the prompt asks: “What is one thing you want us to know about you?”, many students are going to start their essay like this: “One thing I want INSERT COLLEGE NAME to know about me is….” While this promises to answer the question, it’s boring. It lacks personality, color, creativity, and voice. The admissions officer reading your college essay is going to read hundreds of essays–many of which start just like that. You don’t want to bore your reader from the beginning, and you don’t want your essay to sound like everyone else’s. Make your essay stand out right from the get-go by engaging the reader’s attention with a hook–then reel the reader in by following that promising hook with an interesting essay.

Make your essay stand out right from the get-go by engaging the reader’s attention with a hook–then reel the reader in by following that promising hook with an interesting essay.

But…what’s a hook?

A hook is simply an attention-grabbing first sentence or two. It’s interesting and makes your reader want to keep reading (instead of making your reader want to yawn, roll her eyes, and say to herself, “Here we go again…”).

Here are a few tips for writing your hook:

  • Let your hook set the tone for the rest of your essay. If your essay will be funny, your hook should be funny. If your essay will be serious, your hook should be, too.
  • Your hook should relate directly to the rest of your essay. Don’t just write an interesting sentence or two and then follow it by either rewording the prompt, or writing an essay unrelated to your hook.
  • Write your hook in your own authentic voice, and continue in that voice for the entire essay.

2. It’s All About YOU

Remember, the main purpose of the personal statement is for the college to get to know you better. What kind of person are you? What are your skills and talents? What experiences have you had? Who are you? For this reason, make sure the focus of the essay is you, and use the first person (I, me, my, we, us, our). This advice may seem obvious, but there are two traps students fall into.

Trap No. 1: Writing about someone or something else

While you do have to answer the prompt, make sure you answer it in the context of your life and experience. For example, if your prompt asks about a famous figure from history you’d like to meet and why, your essay should focus more on why you want to meet that person than it should on that person himself or herself. Avoid writing a biography or an essay in praise of the person, and instead focus on why you admire them, how you aspire to embody their best traits, etc. This holds true for essays about your favorite place, your favorite word, etc. We refer to this as the 80:20 rule. Eight percent (or more!) of the essay should focus on you, while 20% (or less) can discuss the other person, place, word, etc.

Trap No. 2: Using the second person

Your college essay is about you–no one else, so use the pronouns that refer to you–“I,” “me,” “my,” “we,” “us,” and “our.” Avoid writing something like this: “You know when your mom calls you by your full name, you’re in trouble.” Instead, make it true to your experience–so we know it happened to you, and not just anyone: “I know when my mom calls me by my full name, I’m in trouble.”

3. Be Honest and Authentic

Like I mentioned above, the college wants to know about you–the real you, not just who you think they want you to be (besides–you might be wrong!). Don’t write what you think they want to read (again–you might be wrong). Be honest with who you are, the life you’ve lived, the experiences you’ve had, the dreams you dream. Be the real, authentic you. Write almost the same way you speak, for the most part–but use proper grammar, punctuation, etc. And while you might be tempted to use big words to make yourself sound smarter, don’t. Avoid using big words for the sake of using big words. They usually stick out like a sore thumb, and make your essay sound, well, weird. If you don’t know what a word means, don’t use it.

I once heard a college admissions officer give this advice: “The best essays make us laugh or make us cry. So, make ’em laugh or make ’em cry–but don’t try to be funny if you’re not.” Be true to yourself. If you’re not naturally funny, don’t try to write a funny essay. You want them laughing with you, not at you.

As a quick side note: You have to tell the truth in your college essay. It’s nonfiction. On the application, you will sign a statement that basically says everything in your application packet is true to the best of your knowledge. That holds true for your essay, too.

4. Show, Don’t Tell

Lots of students make the mistake of writing an “essay” that is really just a long list. It reads something like this: “I am a very hard-working student. If I need to get a good grade on an assignment, I will do whatever it takes. I always try my hardest. I love to play football, and work very hard at practice. I work hard both in the classroom and on the field.” And so on and so on. While those sentences tell us a lot of things, they don’t show us anything–it’s not substantiated. Instead of listing your traits, goals, dreams, etc., tell a story of a time that exemplifies the trait, goal, or dream you want the college to know about. For example, if you want the admissions office to understand you’re a hard worker, write about a time you were a hard worker–tell the story about the time that you came in for extra help after school for two weeks to understand chemical reactions, and still got your math and English homework done, and still took care of your little sister and puppy. If you want the college to know you love animals, don’t just tell them, “I love animals.” Use your essay to show the reader that love. Write a story about your time volunteering at a local animal shelter, or the time you rescued the injured turtle from the roadway, or the time you helped that little lost dog find his way home.

Instead of listing your traits, goals, dreams, etc., tell a story of a time that exemplifies the trait, goal, or dream you want the college to know about.

5. Tell a (True) Story

Think of your essay as a slice of life and use it to tell a story. It’s a snapshot from the photo album of your life. You should pick a singular experience that helps express whatever it is you want to express, as explained above.

6. Follow the Rules

Make sure your essay actually answers and addresses the prompt. Stick to the word limit, but not obsessively so. If the word limit is 500 words, it’s okay to be a little over or a little under–as long as each word is absolutely necessary. If the college says to put your full name in the upper left corner, do that. If the college says to include your social security number (SSN) at the bottom, do that. Make sure whatever formatting requirements the college lists, you follow. Also, if you plan to use the same essay for various colleges (which is permissible), make sure you modify the essay accordingly. A big mistake people make is to reuse an essay and forget to change the name of the college. For example, they might write: “I just know Virginia Tech is the college for me.” Then, they proceed to send that to both Virginia Tech and UVA. Oops…

7. Use a Strong, Varied Vocabulary

This advice actually comes verbatim from another, longer post I wrote a while back about common writing errors, but it holds true for your personal statement, so here it is:

Avoid what I call “weak words.” These words include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • great
  • amazing
  • nice
  • good
  • bad
  • stuff
  • things
  • have/has and other “to-be” verbs.

The above list is pretty obvious, but these words appear in countless pieces of writing, and usually unnecessarily so. One place they might belong is in dialog, but they generally do a poor job if employed in description or narration. If I tell you my dinner tasted amazing, you know I enjoyed it, but little else. You could easily wonder what made it “amazing.” Was it the service? The flavor? The atmosphere? The company? And once we have determined the answer to those questions, what was so “amazing” about the element? If we’re discussing the service, was the waiter charming? Attentive? Prompt? If we’re describing the flavor, was the food savory? Sweet? Spicy? Buttery? Be as specific as possible. Allow the reader to taste, smell, feel, hear, and see by employing concrete, descriptive words. As a reader, I cannot conceptualize what “amazing” means. I know it’s positive, but that’s where my understanding ends. However, I can very easily imagine what “spicy” and “buttery” taste like.

8. Proofread

Really, this should go without saying, but I will say it anyway: Proofread. Proofread more than once. And then, proofread again. Personal statements are typically a mere 250-500 words. That’s not very long. If your short essay includes careless mistakes, it says one of two things about you.

  1. You honestly didn’t even know you made the mistake. You truly think you used the correct form of “there,” “their,” “they’re,” but you were wrong. Now, you look uneducated, or maybe even ignorant.
  2. You were simply too careless or rushed to bother reading over your essay.

Obviously, you don’t want your prospective colleges to think you’re stupid or  careless, as those aren’t particularly desirable traits in prospective students.

Also, realize that the spell checker feature doesn’t catch everything–and neither do you. You can read your essay 28 times and still miss glaringly obvious mistakes. For this reason, in addition to doing your own proofreading, you should also ask a trusted adult to read over your essay. Better yet, ask two or three trusted adults. English teachers and guidance counselors are good people to start with.

9. But What Should I Write About?

Sometimes, college essay prompts are pretty specific, making it easy to decide what to write. Other times, they are painfully vague. Some prompts may be as open as: “Write a 400-word personal statement.” That’s it. Go.

If you’re struggling with what to write about, try these exercises:

  • Brainstorm topic ideas by listing your favorite memories, funny stories, favorite vacation spots, future dreams, and goals
  • Read back through old diary or journal entries
  • Look up writing prompts online.

Keep in mind as well that it’s not what you write about, but how you write about it. Your voice, vocabulary, use of literary devices, and ideas make the essay, much more so than the topic does. I once had a student write an essay about a ball of yarn, and because she wrote it so creatively and imaginatively, it was much more interesting to read than her classmates’ essays about, well, anything. Hers is the only essay I remember from that year, because it was so unique.

It’s not what you write about, but how you write about it.

 

 

 

 

Lesson Plans: The Crucible, A Scavenger Hunt through Salem

I’ve been reading Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible with high school English students since I first began my teaching career in 2006. I’ve been teaching Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter for almost as long. A few years into my career, I went on a campaign to convince my family that we should spend part of our summer touring around Salem, Massachusetts. I wanted to experience first-hand the place I had been reading about since I myself sat in a high school English classroom studying these works, and I knew I could gather material that would enhance my teaching of the play, the two fascinating and terrifying time periods it explores (the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy Era),  and the novel. For reasons I don’t remember, the trip didn’t happen, and years went by–but this past summer, my aunt and uncle moved to Cape Cod, and when I visited them in June, they were kind enough to help make my years-long dream of visiting Salem a reality (though it meant about as much time in the car as it did on the streets of Salem!).

Witch House Purple Flowers
The Witch House is one of the many sites my students “visit” on their scavenger hunt of Salem through the halls of our high school.

After visiting, reading about, and photographing The Nathaniel Hawthorne Birthplace, The House of the Seven Gables, The Custom House, The Salem Witch Trials Memorial, The Old Burial Ground, The Witch House, and several other points of interest, I felt exhausted, educated, intrigued–and a little like there was still so much to see, and so little time! Still, I had gathered tons of interesting information to share with my students and satisfy (or pique!) my own curiosity, and I had taken dozens upon dozens of photographs to share with my classes come September.

But what to do with this information and these photographs? Sure, I could throw the photographs up on the screen and give my students the “My Day in Salem” lecture. I could put the photographs and information into a Power Point, Prezi, or Google Slides presentation. I could print them off and pass them around the room.

But none of this was good enough. None of it even approximated the real thing.

Victims' Memorial
The Witch Trials Memorial in Salem, Massachusetts

 

About a month went by, the photos still on my phone, the information still in my head, before I realized that what I really wanted to do was, well, take my students to Salem…

This, of course, was not as realistic as a “My Day in Salem” Power Point. But it would be  so much more effective!

So what if I mimicked the experience to the best of my ability…by turning the halls of our high school into the sidewalks and streets of Salem, Massachusetts? I typed an e-mail to my principal, and with her approval and support, set about creating my Salem Scavenger Hunt. With the help of my colleagues, the plan went smoothly this fall. So smoothly, in fact, that two of my colleagues created their own subject-specific scavenger hunts for their classes. This spring, with the help of Erin Ford, our school’s resident technology genius, I’m confident it will go even better. Erin has helped me incorporate technology like augmented reality to enhance the experience and further engage my students. Using the app HP Reality, formerly Aurasma, our scavenger hunt is going to come to life–to approximate an actual visit to Salem as closely as possible.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Throughout our reading of the play and the novel, my students were still referring back to things they had learned in the scavenger hunt. It was far more effective than a lecture, worksheet, or presentation would have been. As much as possible, it brought the places, the people, and the time period alive for my students. The plans are below. I hope you and your students will get as much out of this as my students and I do!

Below is the original, more “analog” version of the scavenger hunt, which uses photos I printed and laminated from my trip.

A Visit to Salem Scavenger Hunt.docx

Thanks to Erin, you can find the technology-enhanced version below. It will require you to download the HP Reality app and set up your own augmented reality. You will still use the photos available in the analog version above, but when students use the app and hold their phone over specific photographs at each site, they will see videos, articles, etc. relevant to that site (once you have created your specific Aurasma).

Scavenger Hunt Rules

Following the technology-enhanced scavenger hunt, students are then asked to create a presentation using what they learned. They could also do this in the less technologically involved version, as well. Find a template here:

Travel Log

Regardless of whether you opt for the more analog version or the more technological version, you will need:

  • enough copies of the rules/worksheet packet for each student
  • colleagues willing to chaperone your students in the hallways
  • photographs of the sites, placed ahead of time at various locations around the school
  • enough copies of a map of your school, marked with the locations of the sites, for each student or each group of students.

My execution of this technology-enhanced version is slated for February, and I can hardly wait to see how it goes!

Witch House IV
The kitchen of the Witch House, where the trials initiated.

National Day on Writing: #WhyIWrite

Today is already a good day. It’s Friday. The sun is shining. My honors students are going to write their own Gothic stories, modeled after Poe, Faulkner, or Gilman, later on this morning. In addition to all this–it’s also National Day on Writing, sponsored by the Why I write IIINational Council of Teachers of English. All week long on my Instagram account, I’ve participated in their #whyIwrite campaign, posting one reason each day for, well, why I write. This blog post is the culmination of my daily musings on why I write.

Reason 1: I love to write.

This one is probably pretty obvious, but I figured I’d elaborate, anyway. I have been compelled to write since the day I was physically able. Boxes and boxes of journals, begun when I was in just third grade, occupy a significant amount of the storage space in the eaves of my attic. I love to write articles, diary entries, poems, stories, narrative Why I Writeessays, novels, blog posts. There isn’t much I don’t like to write. The feeling I experience when I know I have written something just the way it needed to be expressed is the same satisfaction produced by the sound of a softball smacking a glove in a perfect catch. That sense of achievement and precision is priceless.

In addition to the simple satisfaction writing provides for me, I find the act of writing therapeutic. Writing provides a physical, mental, and emotional means to let go. It allows me to process my emotions and thoughts, and offers a form of catharsis.

It also reaffirms for me my place in the world, and my identity as “writer.”

Finally, I find flow through writing. There is nothing quite like the sense that the piece I am writing–the very words pouring from my pen or fingertips–stems from some secret source I have magically tapped into. I am just the conduit. It is effortless. Finding myself in this state is truly a spiritual experience, one I have not achieved through any other activity.

The feeling I experience when I know I have written something just the way it needed to be expressed is the same satisfaction produced by the sound of a softball smacking a glove in a perfect catch.

Reason 2: I write to remember.

One of my favorite things about writing is going back, sometimes years later, to read things I have written. Many times, I find I wrote about things that, had I never written about them, I would have forgotten them. They never would have resurfaced in my mind. I love rediscovering scraps of experience that, without writing, would have been lost to my consciousness.

Reason 3: I write to be remembered.

Writing offers a form of immortality. It helps me preserve something of myself for future generations–for my nieces, for my nephews, maybe even for their children and their children’s children. Often, when I write something, particularly diary entries or personal narratives, I wonder who might read them decades down the road, and think about me–and know a little more about me, about herself, about the world as it was when I was here, for having read it.

Writing is a handshake, a hug, an invitation to empathy and understanding. It is one way to strengthen the bond of the human family.

Reason 4: I write to get perspective.

Writing helps me get my thoughts in order, helps me sort myself out.

Reason 5: I write to connect.

One of the most rewarding aspects of writing is when people tell me a piece I wrote resonated with them. People’s reactions to what I write about my family and marriage, the lessons I have learned through my mistakes or misconceptions, or the effect nature seems always to have on me are so touching–and encouraging. Writing is a way to reach out to humanity as whole, across oceans and mountains, to cry out into the abyss, “I am here! You are here! And we are not alone!” Writing is a handshake, a hug, an invitation to empathy and understanding. It is one way to strengthen the bond of the human family.

Why I Write II

 

 

 

S-Town from an English Teacher’s Perspective

IMG_7377
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

IMG_7424
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.