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New Dance Horizons

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I snagged a ticket to “New Dance Horizons” at The Touhill a few weeks ago through my friend, Saundra. (Thanks, Saundra!) 

It was a pleasant surprise that several of my students were dancing before the show and during intermission, performing a piece called “The Bus” (or “On The Bus?”) which commented on racism and resilience. I have an image in my mind of the end of the piece, in which my student, Chastity leaned into the standing audience, doing repetitive hip rolls (?) in a clump of young dancers, with a determined, calm gaze in her eyes that made her stand out to me. Or when Tobias jumped confidently and eloquently in bare feet, coaxing a younger, little girl member of the dance troupe to perform for him. Or when Eleanor, a compassionate and sophisticated young white teen, vigorously danced the part of the driver of the segregated bus… They were all costumed in white collared button down t-shirts and navy skirts and pants, (excepting Eleanor’s driver’s cap) which to me, conjured the daily grind, the working class, the to and fro jostle of showing up ready and on-time in a world that wears a harsh and hostile face. 

This intimate, full-force performance was an inspiring prelude to three world premiere dances organized around the theme, “Women Who Inspire.” 

The first piece, by Saint Louis Ballet, was a painterly, spiritual, at once visually calming and stunning tribute to the music of Hildegard of Bingen, a “12th-Century German Benedictine abbess and mystic… who composed an entire corpus of sacred music…” The dancers wore variously saturated flesh tones that felt like the gradations of light in a Renaissance painting.

The image that sticks with me is a line of three (?) male/female partners, with the delicate and emotive ballerina balanced by her male partner as she pirouetted, developéd, and contracted in a syncopated rhythm that felt reverent and prayerful. (Hmm… I wonder how a non-religious person would interpret this piece…)

The second piece by Madco, “Art Is a Guarantee of Sanity,” was inspired by Susannah Cahalan, the author of “Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness,” who suffered psychotic episodes, among other things, as a result of the disease, Anti-NMDA-Receptor Autoimmune Encephalitis. 

The piece was incredible, and very painful for me to watch. It was so riveting, though, I couldn’t look away — in large part, out of plain admiration for the dancers’ athleticism and emotional commitment in the midst of something so physically demanding.

As a drone-like, bluish light buzzed over a dancer hinging, un-hinged-like, to the rhythm of her own loud, anguished exhales, I was struck by a dancer’s ability to express the inner turmoil of a brain so eloquently through the body, through the timing of a breath, the tilt of a walk, and most hauntingly, through intervals of graceful, almost balletic, zombie-esque seated arm movements that convey the numbing effect of high-wattage medication. 

The last piece, by The Big Muddy Dance Company, was called Destino, Roto. Choreographer Stephanie Martinez writes that she was inspired by “many people,” including “the Latino cultural influence my family brings to my life” and texts by poet Gabriela Mistral. It seemed to be the most narrative of the three pieces, and it leaned on a lot of theatrical elements: fire engine red high heels, the Mistral recordings, costume changes… I honestly found it a little confusing, but I’m eager to see more of The Big Muddy.

Just yesterday, one of my creative writing students, Ana, who is also taking dance composition, was exploding with enthusiasm over her ability to create precise formations using Google Slide. Cracks me up — the day before spring break. She’s a kick-ass dancer with blue hair and curves who happens to be a an awesome writer as well.

I was showing my class the movie Dancemaker, about Paul Taylor (she had already seen it) with a list of reflection questions about the creative process for dance/the performing arts versus the creative process for writing. I noticed she was engrossed in her chromebook during the final scene, when Taylor’s company performs a world premiere of a new piece about the transient, exploitative nature of many adult romantic relationships. “Ana!” I called out. “I never get sick of watching this… Can you?” “Eh,” she replied, “It’s kind of formulaic. You know, Mrs. O’Donnell, every dance has a formula.”

I nodded and smiled… What should I have said?? 

38 Minute Sestina

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Every semester, I have my creative writing students experiment with a sestina. I love this form, because it is about playing with language: essentially, you pick six words and weave a poem around them.

Because it’s a challenging assignment requiring a lot of precise rule-following, I challenged myself to write one in a relatively short amount of time.

Here is the product of 38 minutes of wordplay sitting at my kitchen island:

38 Minute Sestina

land (a)
stone (b)
crack (c)
marry/merry/Mary (d)
foreign (e)
walls (f)

Last summer, Padraic and I visited his family’s land (a)
in Connemara, Ireland. Specifically his father’s one-room stone (b)
house, now a stable for a horse, cracked (c)
all over, like dry dirt soil in a Midwestern backyard. Mary, (d)
Cole, Padraic, and I drunk in the foreign (e)
beauty of low rock walls (f)

separating lamb-dotted green turf. Walls (f)
are much discussed today, in my homeland (a)
of the “free,” of the “brave.” Foreigners (c)
being stacked outside our borders like stones. (b)
Love Trumps Hate, some say, to marry (d)
their idea of America with the hate that is seeping through the cracks (c).

On the one hand, it cracks (c)
us up, Alec Baldwin and and Kate McKinnon on SNL, comic walls (f)
to shield us from our fear. Mary, (d)
Cole, Padraic and I also visited Iceland, (a)
a stone’s (b)
throw away from the “emerald isle.” Foreign (e)

is how it felt, to touch ice dusted in volcanic ash, Foreign (e)
is how it now feels, to have a President riddled with cracks (c)
like my father-in-law’s old, stone (b)
house. A byzantine labyrinth of nonsensical walls (f)
is the brain of the surrogate father of my native land. (a)
When Padraic and I got married, (d)

Obama was the president. And the woman he was married (d)
to, was foreign (e)
to some Americans, as they watched the land (a)
of the free granting privilege to one whose descendants were not free. (Cracks (c)
in our country’s constitution, walls (f)
still erected by everyday Americans, offspring of our nation’s shameful cornerstone) (b)

When they go low, we go high, she preaches, stone- (b)
deaf to the marriage (d)
of America with whiteness. I wish Trump could see the walls (f)
in Connemara, how low and cobbled they are, foreign (e)
to sleek city towers and skyscrapers, full of cracks. (c)
Walls meant for walking, and grazing, and relishing the green land (a).

Padraic’s cousin Mattie lived for his land. (a)
For the wet turf, the ripe berries, the limestone (b).
He cracked (c)
up, at me, Cole, Padraic and Mary (d)
trying to cut turf with a sloane. America — its flatness, its size — is foreign (e),
to Mattie. How I long, in this America, to walk among those low, cobbled walls (f).

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:

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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.

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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.

The Meaning of Michelle

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My response to the tornado of events precipitated by the Donald Trump administration has been one of occasional action and full-fledged nostalgia.

On the morning of inauguration day, I changed my Facebook cover photo to a picture of my friend Allison and me on a crowded, neon-lit Michigan Avenue the night Barack Obama was elected. We were wearing Yes We Can Change shirts featuring a tight-lipped, determined Barack Obama, and we held each other with glowing, teethy smiles.

I re-watched YouTube videos of Barack Obama casually chuckling at the potential reality of Donald Trump becoming president, when asked on CBSN one year ago. I indulged in a second viewing of President Obama roasting Donald Trump at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner. I pinned images of Michelle in glamorous, curve-hugging, shoulder-draping gowns at state dinners. 

Then I called and tweeted some congress people, donated some money to the ACLU, patted myself on the back, and visited Amazon to order The Meaning of Michelle, a series of personal essays about Michelle Obama’s legacy.

The first essay I read was “She Loves Herself When She Is Laughing: Michelle Obama, Taking Down a Stereotype and Co-Creating a Presidency,” by Rebecca Carroll. Having just finished Their Eyes Were Watching God with my American Lit class, I was curious about the comparison Carroll makes between Obama and Zora Neale Hurston.

Carroll writes that Michelle is the “embodiment of what black American writer Zora Neale Hurston meant when she wrote: ‘I love myself when I am laughing, and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.’” I think what she means is that both Michelle and Zora are/were both resolutely themselves in the public eye, which, as Carroll writes, was “no small thing for a Black woman in the 1930s, and sadly… no small thing for a Black woman in the 2000s either.” Carroll argues that Barack Obama, struggling to find his place as a biracial black man with an unconventional upbringing, was attracted to Michelle for the very reason that she was grounded in her blackness, and fully immersed in it. Carroll identifies with the former President’s longing for this grounding partner, growing up as a “Black adoptee in a white family.”

In “Lady O and King Bey,” Brittney Cooper writes of the “mutual girl crush that Michelle Obama and Beyoncé share.” Cooper points that Michelle, as First Lady, had an opportunity to reclaim something that black women are often denied:

“In a world in which Black women were always treated as women but never as ladies, a Black woman becoming the icon of American ladyhood is a triumph of the hopes and dreams of all those race ladies of old.”

Given the significance of Michelle Obama’s ladyhood, her public admiration of Beyoncé implies that she also lays claim to another version of black womanhood, one characterized by body confidence and sex appeal, and also a taking of pleasure in “flouting the rules of social propriety.”

For example, when Beyoncé performed “Formation” for the 2016 Super Bowl, critiquing “anti-Black state violence” and wearing costumes with a sartorial nod to the Black Panther Movement, Michelle told Gayle King in an interview, “’I care deeply about the Halftime Show. I hope Beyoncé likes what I have on’ [She] was dressed in a black blouse with black slacks.”

Super Bowl aside, I can imagine there have been many times Michelle may have wanted to channel Beyoncé in “flouting the rules of social propriety.” For example, when “Representative Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin remarked that Michelle Obama had a ‘big butt,’ and thus no business leading the Let’s Move! Campaign,” as Cooper writes. In explaining Michelle Obama’s need for Beyoncé, Cooper writes that

“sometimes ratchet is a more appropriate register in which to check your haters than respectability will ever be. But overtly ratchet Mrs. Obama simply cannot be. Beyoncé can be as ratchet as she wants to be though, and in this, I think the First Lady finds a place to let her hair down and put her middle fingers up.”

According to Cooper, the friendship between Michelle Obama and Beyoncé is both remarkable and “regular as rain,” or rather, “reign.” Their friendship is a testament to the fact that:

“The U.S. is no nation for Black women. It is too limited a container for the magic we bring. And because the American national imaginary is built on the most limited and stingy ideas about who Black women get to be, when we are called to navigate the terrain of racial representation as public figures, many sisters return to the most basic truth we have – we need each other to survive.”

In “Becoming the Wife,” Cathi Hanauer identifies with Michelle’s willingness to set aside a prestigious career to become “Mom-in-Chief.” When Hanauer met her husband, she was an established writer looking to do “something more meaningful” by applying to an MFA program. Her would-be husband was a struggling writer working odd jobs as a ski instructor and a janitor. He eventually became the editor of The New York Times’s Modern Love column, a wild success, as Hanauer gradually increased her role as primary parent and homemaker.

In Michelle Obama’s case, as is widely known, she was Barack Obama’s mentor before she became his helpmate. After she married Obama in 1992, they lived “separate professional lives”… up to a point. As Hanauer writes,

“What did change, work-wise, for Michelle – as it did for me, and as it does for so many college-educated women, particularly once children are involved – is that we both reached a point in our lives and marriages when we agreed to become… The Wife – as our husbands took on the more important and lucrative work role. We did this for the greater good of our marriages, our families, and in Michelle’s case, the world; and maybe even, as mothers, for ourselves. Michelle became Mrs. President. And I became Mrs. Modern Love.”

There’s something refreshingly real about the way that Hanauer frames the choice to become the wife, the helpmate once children enter the picture – that it’s a choice borne out of practicality, human limitations, a humility in not demanding oneself to be everything to everybody. This willingness to inhabit a prescribed role, and a traditional, non-glamorous one at that, seems like a matter of maturing for the younger versions of Michelle and Cathi, embarking solo on their careers with Plans – at once laser-sharp and limitless.

When I mentioned this essay to my husband, he said that the notion of success, in his view, has evolved from sacrifice to achievement. We used to judge women, and to an extent, men, by how much they had sacrificed for others, whereas we judge them now by their individual solo accomplishments. I think one of the reasons Michelle Obama is so popular is precisely owing to the amount and quality of her sacrifice, for her children, for her husband, for her willingness to make her motherhood and wifehood public, assuming a role that seems both demanding and tedious. This feeling of admiration and gratitude doesn’t confer as easily onto Barack Obama, as his public sacrifices seem tied up with his personal ambitions.

And then, in spite of our admiration, there’s a collective instinct to see Michelle pursue her ambitions, full-force. Ironically, perhaps, this is how Hanauer ends her laudatory essay on becoming the wife:

“I can’t wait to see what she does next. And what she does after that, when her children are grown and she can focus with far fewer distractions on her career. She has said she’ll never run for president herself. To that, I say: Never say never, Michelle. Let’s just see where we all are a decade from now.”

Lesson Plan, Persuasive Essays

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Hope you had a restful and scrumptious Thanksgiving holiday. Now that I’ve had a heaping portion of family conversations, music, home cooking, and a hearty dose of museum perusing – my contingent made it to the Saint Louis Art Museum, the City Museum, the Pulitzer Arts Museum, and Contemporary Art Museum Saint Louis in the span of two days — I’m ready to start the push toward Winter Break. A little less than four weeks…

Here’s Monday’s lesson for Writing Workshop, where my students are working on persuasive essays. They are five to six page papers on a topic of each student’s choice, requiring at least five credible sources (all internet-based is okay). Last class, students wrote down their subtopics on a handout and were supposed to finish drafting their introduction and first subtopic on Google Docs.

I learned a couple of things from reading their subtopic handouts and commenting on their Google Docs:

  • Many of my students are wasting class time – the majority of students didn’t meet the goal of intro + one subtopic. (I sent a friendly e-mail to parents and students today reminding them that the rough draft was due for 200 points on Friday, December 2nd, urging students who don’t have their intro + one subtopic completed to work on the paper over the weekend. Maybe that will help? Maybe not?)
  • Students need a refresher on how to organize their introduction (my rationale behind the multiple choice warm up with recall questions).
  • Identifying subtopics is a deceptively complex task – it’s really about organizing large quantities of research — and I need to model the thought process more in-depth.

Warm Up (5 min)

Present students with a handout with the following multiple-choice questions asking them to recall the structure of the introduction, as presented earlier in the unit

I put the questions in multiple-choice format to jog students’ memory more quickly and to make the process of reviewing the correct answer clearer and smoother:

  1. The intro to my persuasive essay should be at least how long?

a) two half-page length paragraphs, double spaced, 12 point font
b) one half-page length paragraph, double spaced, 12 point font
c) one page-length paragraph, double spaced, 12 point font

  1. The first paragraph of my intro should cover what topic?

    a) my argument
    b) the counterargument to mine
    c) background information on my topic

  1. Should the first paragraph of my intro include in-text citations?

    a) Yes
    b) No

  1. The second paragraph of my intro should cover what topic?

    a) my argument
    b) the counterargument to mine
    c) background information on my topic

  1. Should the second paragraph of my intro include in-text citations?

    a) Yes
    b) No

  1. The last sentence of my second paragraph should be…

    a) a transition sentence into my first subtopic
    b) my thesis statement
    c) a quote supporting my argument

  1. It is okay to use the word “I” in my persuasive essay.

    a) Yes
    b) No

  1. My introduction should have a subtopic heading.

    a) Yes
    b) No

  1. When drafting my introduction, I need my research doc/notes open.

    a) Yes
    b) No

  1. The reason I follow this introduction structure is because

    a) it surprises my reader by taking a turn and therefore engages my reader
    b) it builds my credibility and the persuasiveness of my argument
    c) both a and b

Discuss Warm Up/Take Questions (5-10 min) 10 total

(I find with this particular class it’s very difficult to sustain their attention when I do direct instruction, so I am attempting to make DI more interactive by having them answer very guided questions/discuss the answers…)

Answer & Discuss MC Questions About Subtopic Headings (15 min) 25 total

  1. “Facts of Sex Education” is NOT a good subtopic heading for what reason?

    a) this is not a factual essay
    b) it doesn’t explicitly further the writer’s argument
    c) the capitalization of the words is incorrect

  1. Does the following subtopic heading make an argument that supports the argument, “We Need More Sex Education in Schools”?

“Sex Education Is Not Just About Sex, But About Overall Health and Well-being”

a) Yes
b) No

  1. In a persuasive essay, a subtopic heading should articulate a sub-argument that supports your larger argument.

    a) True
    b) False

  1. Given our discussion, is “History of the Black Nation” a good subtopic heading for a persuasive essay about why Americans should use the term “black” instead of “African-American”?

    a) Yes
    b) No

  1. When you listed your subtopics last class, did you refer to your research notes?

    a) Yes
    b) No

(Teacher will write the steps on the board and students will copy them onto their handout)

Handout looks like this:

How To Identify Appropriate Subtopics

  1. _____________________________________________________________
  1. _____________________________________________________________
  1. _____________________________________________________________
  1. _____________________________________________________________
  1. _____________________________________________________________
  1. Subtopics are hard because you are ________________________________ information.
  1. Definition of synthesize: ____________________________________________________________

Board looks like this:

How To Identify Appropriate Subtopics

  1. Go back to each source on research notes doc
  2. Skim each source or simply your notes, if they are detailed enough
  3. Notice where similar sub-arguments pop up among sources
  4. Draft subtopics and guess how much you can write for that topic
  5. If you don’t think you have 4-5 pages of subtopic (sub-argument) material, DO MORE RESEARCH
  1. Subtopics are hard because you are synthesizing
  1. Definition of synthesize: Combine a number of things into a coherent whole

Transition to Chrome Books/Independent Work Time (5 min) 30 total

Write the following on the board:

  1. Names of students who need to share their Google Doc draft with the teacher
  2. Reminder, login to computers
  3. Goal today: 1-2 more subtopics
  4. Reminder deadline: Friday, December 2nd

Independent Work Time (60 min)

As students are drafting their essays, teacher does the following:

  1. Helps students who haven’t yet shared their documents to do so
  2. Works one-on-one with pre-identified students who have IEPs or who are doing poorly in the class
  3. Redirects students and answers questions

Thanksgiving Creative Writing Lesson Plan

George Thomas Open book test. Get the point? CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

We have school Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Those two days can be tricky – on the one hand, the end of the semester is approaching, so it’s important to stay on track with pacing – on the other hand, many students may be absent or less focused than normal, so it makes sense to do something fun and festive.

With that in mind, here is my lesson plan for Creative Writing the Tuesday before Thanksgiving break:

Warm Up (10 min)

(These directions are projected on the board):

Write a brief description of your contest submission to the Walgreens Expressions Contest. This explanation will be included on the form with your submission. Remember to write your name on your description.

Collect warm-ups by passing them to two students at the front of the right and left sides of the room. Teacher counts back from 20 as students pass.

Instruct students to look at handout with independent work instructions and review the handout (15 min)

  1. Put the finishing touches on your submission to the Walgreens Expressions contest.
  • If you are doing a piece of creative writing, make sure your share your document with O’Donnell’s e-mail (on the board) by the end of class.
  • If you are doing a video, make sure you e-mail it to O’Donnell (e-mail address on the board) by the end of class.
  • If you are doing a piece of visual art, make sure you put it in the inbox (the lefthand bin on the front table) by the end of class.
  • Remember that your Walgreens Expressions entry is a summative assessment, worth 100 points of your grade toward the 60 percent category.
  1. Option 1: in the spirit of Thanksgiving, write a poem thanking someone in your life for something.
  • Make your poem chock full of images.
  • Show, don’t tell your thanks
  • Here is an example from The Poetry Foundation 

Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons
by Diane Wakoski

The relief of putting your fingers on the keyboard,
as if you were walking on the beach
and found a diamond
as big as a shoe;

as if
you had just built a wooden table
and the smell of sawdust was in the air,
your hands dry and woody;

as if
you had eluded
the man in the dark hat who had been following you
all week;

the relief
of putting your fingers on the keyboard,
playing the chords of
Beethoven,
Bach,
Chopin
in an afternoon when I had no one to talk to,
when the magazine advertisement forms of soft sweaters
and clean shining Republican middle-class hair
walked into carpeted houses
and left me alone
with bare floors and a few books

I want to thank my mother
for working every day
in a drab office
in garages and water companies
cutting the cream out of her coffee at 40
to lose weight, her heavy body
writing its delicate bookkeeper’s ledgers
alone, with no man to look at her face,
her body, her prematurely white hair
in love
I want to thank
my mother for working and always paying for
my piano lessons
before she paid the Bank of America loan
or bought the groceries
or had our old rattling Ford repaired.

I was a quiet child,
afraid of walking into a store alone,
afraid of the water,
the sun,
the dirty weeds in back yards,
afraid of my mother’s bad breath,
and afraid of my father’s occasional visits home,
knowing he would leave again;
afraid of not having any money,
afraid of my clumsy body,
that I knew

no one would ever love

But I played my way
on the old upright piano
obtained for $10,
played my way through fear,
through ugliness,
through growing up in a world of dime-store purchases,
and a desire to love
a loveless world.

I played my way through an ugly face
and lonely afternoons, days, evenings, nights,
mornings even, empty
as a rusty coffee can,
played my way through the rustles of spring
and wanted everything around me to shimmer like the narrow tide
on a flat beach at sunset in Southern California,
I played my way through
an empty father’s hat in my mother’s closet
and a bed she slept on only one side of,
never wrinkling an inch of
the other side,
waiting,
waiting,

I played my way through honors in school,
The only place I could
talk

the classroom,
or at my piano lessons, Mrs. Hillhouse’s canary always
singing the most for my talents,
as if I had thrown some part of my body away upon entering
her house
and was no searching every ivory case
of the keyboard, slipping my fingers over black
ridges and around smooth rocks,
wondering where I had lost my bloody organs,

or my mouth which sometimes opened
like a California poppy,
wide and with contrasts
beautiful in sweeping fields,
entirely closed morning and night,

I played my way from age to age,
but they all seemed ageless
or perhaps always
old and lonely,
wanting only one thing, surrounded by the dusty bitter-smelling
leaves of orange trees,
wanting only to be touched by a man who loved me,
who would be there every night
to put his large strong hand over my shoulder,
whose hips I would wake up against in the morning,
whose mustaches might brush a face asleep,
dreaming of pianos that made the sound of Mozart
and Schubert without demanding
that life suck everything
out of you each day,
without demanding the emptiness
of a timid little life.

I want to thank my mother
for letting me wake her up sometimes at 6 in the morning
when I practiced my lessons
and for making sure I had a piano
to lay my school books down on, every afternoon.
I haven’t touched the piano in 10 years,
perhaps in fear that what little love I’ve been able to
pick, like lint, out of the corners of pockets,
will get lost,
slide away,
into the terribly empty cavern of me
if I ever open it all the way up again.
Love is a man
With a mustache
gently holding me every night,
always being there when I need to touch him;
he could not know the painfully loud
music from the past that
his loving stops from pounding, banging,
battering through my brain,
which does its best to destroy the precarious gray matter when I
am alone;
he does not hear Mrs. Hillhouse’s canary singing for me,
liking the sound of my lesson this week,
telling me,
confirming what my teacher says,
that I have a gift for the piano
few of her other pupils had.
When I touch the man
I love,
I want to thank my mother for giving me
piano lessons
all those years,
keeping the memory of Beethoven,
a deaf tortured man,
in mind;

of the beauty that can come

from even an ugly
past.

To briefly analyze “Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons,” come up with five different similes for what the piano means to the speaker in this poem. Be prepared to defend your similes.

  • The piano is like ______________________________________
  • The piano is like ______________________________________
  • The piano is like ______________________________________
  • The piano is like ______________________________________
  • The piano is like ______________________________________
  1. Option 2: in the spirit of Thanksgiving, write a poem that uses the imagery from Thanksgiving foods to write about something other than Thanksgiving. For example, you might use “stuffing” imagery as a metaphor for how busy your life is. You might use sweet potato pie imagery to contrast your hard-edged attitude when someone crosses you. Be creative. Here’s an example that I wrote in about 10 minutes. Be playful:

I Sing Anyway

How I long to hold a note
that is smooth and decadent
as melted butter.

To dissect a melody with the swift precision
of my mother’s hands
dicing an onion.

Instead my voice is
crumbled cornbread.
Sticky, cloying,
pumpkin pie,
with a crack down the middle.

I want to lay out a table
with a white linen cloth
and be the centerpiece,
performing an aria
that is as complete and rounded
as one spoonful
of perfectly salted mashed potatoes.

I want to lay out a table
with a white linen cloth
and lull my company
with a trembling lullaby
that makes every spinach leaf
in my grandmother’s heirloom china
gently
wilt.

I want to lay out a table
with a white linen cloth
and belt out some Beyoncé
that is bright and poppin
as some simmered cranberries.

Instead I’ll have to make do
with my dry turkey
of a throat
and sing anyway,
because I’m happy…
and his eyes are on the sparrow…
and I know he’s watching over me.

And because I sing,
anyway,
I am happy,
feeling simple as a green bean.

  1. You are welcome to do both options 1 & 2, receiving extra credit for your second poem. Both poems are worth up to 20 points toward your class work grade.

Independent work time as the teacher circulates and works with students one-on-one (65 min)

“Right Is Right”

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My last post addressed the first strategy in Teach Like a Champion. It also addressed some bloggers’ critiques of Teach Like a Champion and the more broad dilemma between intentionality and authenticity that I personally experience as a teacher.

Despite my appreciation for the criticisms of Teach Like a Champion, I still view it as a valuable resource. So onward and upward…

Technique #2 is called “Right Is Right,” which really resonated with me. This technique is broader and more far-reaching than “No Opt Out,” in my opinion.

“Right is “Right” is essentially having a high standard when it comes to answers that you accept as correct (for me as an English teacher, I’m thinking mainly of class discussions).

Lemov addresses the widespread tendency of teachers to add on to students’ answers, and then to give the student credit for providing a correct answer, instead of questioning students when they provide a partially correct answer until they reach an answer that is 100 percent correct.

In the section, “Hold out for all the way,” Lemov cautions teachers to distinguish between effort and mastery, rewarding effort but encouraging students to build to mastery.

In “Answer the question,” Lemov points out that students learn to skate by in school by providing smart answers to questions that weren’t asked, so it’s important to hold students accountable to the specific question being asked.

In “Right answer, right time,” Lemov encourages teachers to hold students to answering questions in sequence instead of moving ahead, in order to emphasize the process and make sure all students are all learning instead of just one student moving at an accelerated pace. And then, in “use technical vocabulary,” Lemov encourages teachers to get students to use academic vocabulary in their responses.

The whole point of having a high standard for correct answers is to promote rigor and instill confidence and high expectations in your students – in other words, the power to think critically lies with your students and not add-ons coming from the teacher. It’s about showing my students that they are capable of mastering an answer on their own, with the support of questioning rather than add-ons from the teacher.

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