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On Writing, Raw and Slow-roasted

star5112 Balancing or falling? CC BY-SA 2.0

A couple months ago, I met with a writer friend of mine for some advice about re-stepping into the freelance world. “I wouldn’t blog,” he said, in the form of a question mark, after a brief hesitation. I was asking him about the dilemma I encountered freelancing a couple years ago:

On the one hand, your blog tends to get the bottom pile, backlog version of your best ideas, which are saved for (potential) paid publication; on the other hand, after querying and researching and syncing your words with whatever brand you’re lucky enough to land that month/day/week, it’s like coming up for air to write whatever the hell you please for friends, or at least, friendly, generous readers who have formed a little community around your site.

On the one hand, blogging is something of a distraction from bigger projects that involve more risk and revision, requiring more gestation to discover what they actually are — I’m thinking of the collection of short stories I’ve decided to start for which this blog post, in part, is a thinly veiled form of procrastination.

Then again, there’s something life-giving and soul-soothing, and less narcissistic than Facebook, I think, about being able to scroll through your past reflections when you’re feeling down or disillusioned. In its simplest form, a blog is a record of experiences — like all writing, a confirmation that this “one wild, precious life” of which the poet Mary Oliver speaks is being lived with a measure of meaning.

If you’re still reading, thanks for putting up with all this navel-gazing about blogs. It’s part of a larger conversation I’m having with fellow teachers/writers about the role we want writing to have in our lives. I think it’s a conversation about focus, and meaning. It’s a conversation I find myself having with my husband, too, about where he wants to go with his passions for Irish fiddle and writing poetry, and what does it mean exactly to develop your passion? As I explained to my colleague at the brunch I blogged about last week, I’m realizing that freelancing for magazines here and there is edifying (hah) and fulfilling, in its own way, and I plan to continue that, but I’m finding that I crave a bigger project, one that’s born out of a desire to write for writing’s sake, whether or not the writing is published or paid for.

Which brings me to roasted vegetables… One of my struggles with the Paleo lifestyle is the same struggle I speak of with writing… This need for immediate gratification, and this reluctance to put in the damn time for something that is primarily created for, and consumed by…yourself. If blogs are raw carrots in the food universe, then surely my student Kumari’s manuscript — a fantasy novel about wolves that she has been writing for four years that her English teacher (ahem) encouraged her to revise (with my help, ahem) for another year before she submits it to a literary agent — is balsamic roasted sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Meanwhile, my husband’s book-length files of poetry and extended essay on the meaning of organized religion is more green beans with onions, mushrooms, and peppers than ants on a log.

I write this to encourage myself, and any readers that I may have (hello! thank you for reading!) to take it slow, and pursue any passion project — with the patience and pureness of heart that passion requires.

Today I had the privilege of observing my students participate in a workshop by Antony John, a young adult novelist who happens to be a parent at the school where I teach. We are at the beginning of our short story unit, and I told my students I would write a short story with them. The two short stories I am in the process of writing for my “collection” are semi-autobiographical and deal with rather personal, adult themes, so I needed to start from scratch. Inspired by an article in the Feb 13 & 20 New Yorker called “Valley Cats: Are L.A’s Mountain Lions Dangerous Predators or Celebrity Guests?” I thought I’d put myself in the position of lion P-45, who has a cult following of sorts but keeps eating people’s pets.

To generate this idea, I, along with my students, all shared our favorite of 10 conflict-crisis-resolution formulas, but today Antony John steered us in a better direction: focus on character first. Events are secondary. (On Tuesday we’ll be drafting character sheets.)

When my student Sophia asked how to get unstuck when you’ve started a short story but don’t know how to finish it, Mr. John returned to the idea of character and embodying them like an actor to figure out what they would do. Also, he pointed out that that we often start short stories with an opening scene in mind, and figuring out the plot, aka, getting unstuck, involves working backwards: what events led to this opening scene?

Before the students came back from lunch, Mr. John and I had a brief conversation about the challenges of setting parameters for story writing versus poetry. I’m no more an amateur short story writer than I am an amateur poet, but I find short stories a lot harder to teach than poetry. He mentioned that his visit to last semester’s classes occurred two weeks before the election, and now, in the Trump universe, he’s been reflecting on the broad value of storytelling as a form of empathy. In that vein, he encouraged my students to draw on what they know, but to veer from the autobiographical and create composite characters.

This emphasis on empathy, and its heightened virtue in our narrowing, fear-mongering political climate, helps me justify the next few hours I’m about to spend on this Friday evening writing for writing’s sake, working on a character I’ve decided to call “Cora” who’s grappling with having children (or not) in a different way than I am, though I’m drawing on my own struggles. I’m going to let myself love on this unpaid, unpublished writing project with the same attention I gave to these green beans and brussels sprouts a few weeks ago:

screen-shot-2017-02-24-at-5-58-54-pm

Green Beans with Onions, Mushrooms, and Peppers
Adapted from The Whole30 Cookbook

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup white or yellow onion
  • 1/2 cup mushrooms (any variety)
  • 1/2 red bell pepper
  • 1 lb green beans
  • Salt and pepper
  • Ghee, or clarified butter

Instructions

  • Thinly slice the onion. Thinly slice the mushrooms. Cut the bell pepper into thin strips.
  • Fill a large bowl with ice and cold water. Place the ice bath in the fridge.
  • Salt some water and bring it to a boil. Blanch the green beans in the salted water for 20 seconds. Drain them and immediately plunge the beans into the ice bath.
  • Heat some ghee (clarified butter) in a large skillet over medium-high heat, and swirl to coat. Once the fat is hot, add the sliced onions, and cook until translucent.
  • Add the mushrooms, and cook, stirring, until they begin to soften.
  • Add the peppers and cook until both mushrooms and peppers have softened to your liking.
  • Turn the heat to high, and add the green beans. Toss and stir the pan, cooking the green beans with the other vegetables for a few minutes longer.
  • Season the mixture to your liking with salt and pepper.

screen-shot-2017-02-24-at-5-59-40-pm

Balsamic Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Brussels Sprouts
Adapted from The Whole30 Cookbook

Ingredients

  • 1 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 sweet potato
  • 1/2 lb Brussels sprouts
  • 1/2 red onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • Ghee, or clarified butter
  • Salt and pepper

Instructions

  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • Boil the vinegar and then reduce to a simmer — you want it to be reduced by about half, 20 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, peel and chop your sweet potato, slice your red onion, mince your garlic, and trim and halve your Brussels sprouts. Then mix the chopped sweet potato with some melted ghee in a bowl. Spread it on the lined baking sheet.
  • Add some ghee to a large skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl to coat the pan. When the fat is hot, add the Brussels sprouts and cook for a few minutes, allowing them to brown. Add the onion and the garlic for about a minute. Season the mixture with salt and pepper.
  • And the sautéed veggies to the sheet pan of sweet potatoes and spread everything out in an even layer. Roast for about 15 to 18 minutes, until the sweet potatoes and sprouts are tender.
  • Drizzle the pan of roasted veggies with the balsamic reduction.

To Teach “Like A Champion…”

Brian Angell Summer's Almost Over CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Hello Friends,

Happy early Thanksgiving! You’d think on a food blog inspired by the act of melting butter in a pan, I’d be posting food-oriented thoughts around this time of year, but instead I’m going to throw you a curveball and process my thoughts about the book – I want to call it a cult classic in the charter world — Teach Like a Champion.

As a matter of fact, I am about to grocery shop for my family’s beloved (to me) stuffing recipe, involving mirepoix, bacon, cornbread, spiced pecans, chicken stock, butter…

Anyway. I’m a bit of a crossroads with my writing: in a fit of renewed enthusiasm for freelancing, I renewed my subscription to Writer’s Market and Media Bistro and I wrote a short story earlier this semester that I’ve submitted to a few publications as well as a query about gifted education.

Fellow writers, this site is super helpful if you’re interested in publishing a short story:

Where To Submit Short Stories

When I introduced the idea of “braiding” short stories to my creative writing class, I got all pumped up and started writing a braided piece about August 2014, intertwining my grandfather’s death, Michael Brown’s death, and my own personal struggles in Chicago, removed from it all, a piece that has now stagnated for me that I’ve somewhat abandoned. I’ve been in touch with a freelance writer/family friend and he’s encouraged me not to blog, instead seeking “some” compensation and editorial feedback for my writing. But alas, I feel myself returning to this cluttered, messy, haphazard website that has at times served as a springboard for my freelance “career” (hah), other times as a personal form of documentation, marking the passage of time with my musings on recipes tested, books read, and trips traveled, and right now, much like the end of the summer when I posted a flurry of lesson plans, a way for me to process and publish my thoughts on my job – the teaching of teenagers. As with my students, the act of putting my thoughts about teaching into writing, and more importantly, sharing them with an audience, however small, is about writing to learn, and writing to better myself, and less about the quality of the words I put forth on the virtual page. So bear with me. Read ahead if you like.

One of my biggest dilemmas as a teacher is the balance between intentionality and authenticity… (This is a topic that I’d really like to pitch to a magazine, one that I feel I could write a long article about, but I mention it here as a segue way into Teach Like a Champion). This is my sixth year of teaching, and in my earliest years – like 1, 2, 3 – I placed more of an emphasis on intentionality to the point of writing down scenarios and scripting my responses in the beginning of the year, and even scripting my daily lesson plans to a certain extent. Granted, that’s probably appropriate as a beginning teacher, and now certain responses are engrained in me and I don’t need to really think much about certain responses – in other words, some of my reactions to students naturally fall into both categories, intentional and authentic. But I’ve found in years 5 and now 6, especially, that I lean increasingly towards responding to students in a spontaneous, human way, rather than in a scripted, “this is how a teacher responds” sort of way. And I’ve found that it has yielded very effective results, especially as a teacher of juniors and seniors, the oldest kids in the K-12 system, in building close and authentic relationships. When older students see your humanity, and feel that you interact with them comfortably as one person to another, I’ve found that it builds trust and respect. And avoids power struggles.

Then again… I feel that a classroom is always a performance space to a certain extent, and it’s crucial to run a tight ship. So as I sweep floors, and wipe countertops, empty trash, and otherwise prepare for my favorite holiday – Thanksgiving!!! – I’m delving into a little professional development at the same time, and summarizing what I’m reading for no other reason than to record and clarify for myself some strategies I want to try in my classroom. This post isn’t really about writing, or blogging, it’s for myself, honestly – but whether or not you’re a teacher, most of us have been in school at some point, so I find that most of us are interested in what goes on in schools and are invested on that level alone to make teachers better at their jobs. So, with no further adieu, Technique #1. As I do with my students when I ask them to summarize, this is Teach Like a Champion as I understand it, in my own words.

Technique #1: No Opt Out

So the basic idea behind “No Opt Out” is that you want to teach your students that you won’t let them off the hook when they either don’t know the right answer, or they don’t want to try for it. So the simple idea is, whenever you ask a student for an answer, and they can’t answer the question, you find a way to circle back to that student and have them answer the question. This does a variety of things: it builds individual students’ confidence, it expresses your high standards for all students and your emphasis on 100 percent participation, and it builds a spirit of collaboration, for starters.

It’s very easy to implement, and Teach Like a Champion identifies five different and simple formats for implementing this strategy:

  • Provide the answer yourself, then circle back to the student and have him/her simply repeat it.
  • Seek another student’s help in answering the question, then circle back to the original student and have him/her repeat the other student’s correct answer.
  • Depending the on the nature of the question, invite the whole class to call out/chant the correct answer, then circle back to the original student and have him/her repeat the correct answer.
  • Provide a cue with additional information that helps the student answer the question; then have the student answer the question correctly
  • Call on another student to provide a cue that helps the original student answer the question correctly

What I love about Teach Like a Champion is that the strategies are highly specific and very simple. With so much to think about, not to mention a long to-do list, it’s nice to write on my lesson plan, “No Opt Out” and just strive to hold students accountable more effectively when some of them want to opt out of thinking critically. There’s a part of me, heavily influenced by the charter world, that really believes that in education, the devil is in the details and it’s the small adjustments that count for a lot.

But then again, the struggle between intentionality and authenticity. The fact that we are adult human beings dealing with young human beings. The dichotomy between being told that teaching is “all about relationships” and yet about these draconian, yes, highly specific strategies. Here are some criticisms of Doug Lemov/Teach Like A Champion that get at that central dilemma, in my opinion – What do you think?

Peg Robertson Eviscerates Teach Like a Champion

This School Year Don’t Teach Like a Champion

Why I Stopped Teaching Like a Champion

 

 

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