Writing in School

You write.  I score.
You write. I score.

I teach Writing in elementary schools.  I’ve also taught every other basic subject and I’m considered a specialist in Math.  But this is not about those, this is about Writing.  I teach that.

I am, by nature, a writer.  (You can read my earlier post https://developingourwings.wordpress.com/2015/07/27/writing/ if that’s what you want to read about).  So when I sit down to teach a writing class there is a lot of finding your voice, putting emotion in the writing, and developing character.  There’s a little formatting a five paragraph essay, but I wouldn’t call it my focus.

Then there’s that *wonderful* time of year when standardized testing becomes our lives.  I’ve actually been a grader more than once.  You sit at a table full of teachers you’ve never met with a stack of papers written by kids you don’t know.  You make the introductions.  “Hi, I’m Tabatha.  I’m a fifth grade teacher.  What is your background with writing?”

“What do you mean, background?  I teach it.”

“Oh, okay.  I’m a writer and a poet.”

See, we already hate each other.  We already know we have different approaches to writing which means we will disagree on this process and it will take longer.  Groan, grab a paper, proceed.

You read each paper.  You score it on the six traits of writing rubric.  Seriously, all six.  That usually means reading it more than once.  Then you hand it to the other guy, who does the same thing. Then you have to look at what you both wrote, analyze it, and average the scores.  It takes forever.

Alright, the first prompt.  Tell the story of something you did this summer.  Be sure to include at least three activities and detail.  Okay they lead you right to that five paragraph essay with the “three activities” thing.  I wonder how many kids will be thrown off by the use of the word “story” up-front.  They don’t want a story.  You have two pages and were asked to give three reasons.  They want an essay.

First kid.  Paper is well done.  Five paragraph format.  Topic sentence is obviously a canned sentence teacher taught him, but at least he remembered to use it.  I end up scoring decent, so does the other guy.  Meets for this kid.

Next five papers are pretty much the same idea.

Then the juicy one.  This kid wrote a poem.  It’s a good poem.  The line breaks are perfect.  There’s white space before some of her lines to give the poem shape.  She nailed down the summertime rush of excitement in the pattern of the writing.  She drew you into her summer.  I was impressed.  He was not.  “She didn’t follow the format at all.  There are no paragraphs.”  He complained.

“It’s a poem.  There are stanzas.”

“We’re supposed to score her on her use of paragraphs.  There are none.  Therefore I scored her low on that category.  Now what about her conventions.  You scored her high.”

“Everything is spelled correctly and her lack of punctuation is intentional.  She’s writing about summer.  She starts off by saying the rules of school don’t follow you here.  I think it’s a choice.”

“You don’t know that.  All we know is it’s not here.”  He marks her low.  We average our scores.  She’s Approaching (that’s not a passing score).  I sigh.

More five paragraphs pass without incident.

Then comes the story.  It’s not perfect, but it’s good.  There’s dialogue, punctuated like dialogue should be.  Owing to the short amount of space, the kid didn’t do much of a falling action.  It hits the climax and then rushes to the end.  My guess, he was running out of space.  I read it about six times.  I end up scoring it rather high.  At this point it shouldn’t surprise you that my partner didn’t.

“No full paragraphs again.”  He points out.

“Oh come on.”  I roll my eyes.  “The kid followed the rules of paragraph breaks for dialogue.”

“But paragraphs are five to six sentences on a single topic.  He should have five of those.”

“Seriously?  The prompt says write a story.  Here’s his story.  He’s on topic, he followed the grammatical rules, and he used complete sentences.”

I can’t win this argument.  That’s the point of more than one grader, to ensure the arguments are averaged in.  We average our scores.  The kid is Approaching.

What is my point with this story?  I can teach your kids how to pass a standardized test (it’s about audience, kids) in Writing.  More importantly I can teach them how to write with passion and interest.  I’ve had kiddos who admit after the test that they wrote a poem.  “You said not to, but the prompt was written for it.  It’ll be okay.”  I’ve glanced down at a kid’s writing and seen the familiar look of dialogue, have known they wrote a story.  I’ve watched for those scores to come back over the summer and sighed in frustration when they’re Approaching.

Because here’s the deal.  Those are the kids I want to read.  Those are the future authors of the world.  You don’t win writing contests by writing a five paragraph essay about your summer.  You win a writing contest by taking that same prompt and weaving a poem that makes me feel something.

You have to learn the grammatical rules and then you can break them.

Kids from my class will tell you that.  Kids from my classes will tell you that it’s about emotion and audience.  It’s about creativity in different forms.  What are your kids learning?  Because if it’s not that then you’ll need to supplement.  Writing is a passion.

Pass it on.

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First Line Prompt

The walk of nightmares
The walk of nightmares

As a writing teacher, I’m often asking my kids to write about any given prompt at the drop of a hat.  We change up what style we write, how long we write for, how many words are allowed, or even the first line.  Then you just GO!  It’s fun.  I often join in.

Here’s one that I wrote based on a prompt the kids used.  It’s not a full story, owing to the time limit the kids were put under.  It’s just enough to get people interested.

Feel free to join in on the comments section!

(Credit for the prompt goes to the McDonald Publishing Company, St Louis, Missouri)

The first line of your story must be exactly as follows: “Quick, over here!” said the salesperson as she turned on the flashlight.

“Quick, over here!” said the salesperson as she turned on the flashlight.  I shaded my eyes to hide from the yellow beam.  The woman was in a part of the store I hadn’t noticed before.  My feet were firmly planted between two clothing racks with my favorite word, CLEARANCE, but she was standing where I’m confident there has always been a wall.

Intrigued, I stepped in her direction.  “Have you been standing here–”

“No time for that.  Get in here.”  The flashlight beam was turned onto the ground and I could just make out her features in the fading light.  She was shorter than me, maybe just over five feet.  Her hair was braided down her back in a long dark rope. She was wearing the typical employee uniform; red shirt and tan pants.

“We are in need of your services.”  She rushed to explain.  “Follow me; we’ll see the council and they will explain everything.”

“The council?”  I fumbled for my first question.  “Who’s the council?”  Off she went, down the corridor.  I turned to look behind me, but in the darkness I couldn’t find the doorway we came through. “That’s odd…there should be a door here somewhere.”

“If you don’t hurry, Tana, we will be late.”  The woman’s voice was fading fast down the long hallway.  Despite the fact that I knew  it was unwise to follow a stranger who happened to know my first name down a weird corridor that appeared out of nowhere in the store, I didn’t really see any other options.

I followed her.

Villains

I'm Plotting Your Death, Human
I’m Plotting Your Death, Human

Before you sit down to write a novel, it’s important to flush out that protagonist.  The hero.  The person who will win the day.  You give them physical and emotional characteristics.  You make them realistic and lifelike.  You start to talk to them when no one else is around.  Wait, is that last one just me?  Anyway, you create them.

The problem with protagonists is the story would be boring if they were perfect.  Once upon a time there was a perfect girl in a perfect land where everything was perfect and everyone was happy.  One guy once thought about standing up to her, but she shut him down before he ever even finished the thought.  The end.

See, boring.  Our protagonists have to be flawed.  They have to lose sometimes.  They have to make stupid choices.  Then they can spend the rest of the book fixing that, hopefully.

That’s where the “other guy” comes in.  The bad guy.  The nasty one.  The evil one.  He-who-shall-not-be-named, if you’re a genius like J.K.  When you sit down to write a novel, those villains have to get mapped out as well.  They get physical and emotional characteristics.  They become realistic and lifelike.  You breathe life into them too.

The thing with the antagonists is they’re dangerously close to perfect.  Like scary close.  If they didn’t have that one pesky flaw, they’d be amazing.  Let’s talk Voldemort, since I already brought him up.  He’s brilliant.  He’s hands-down one of the best wizards of his time.  If it wasn’t for the fact that he is willing to fight to control the wizards in the world, he’d have it in him to be an amazing source of good.  Sometimes it’s scary to think about how much potential was wasted on that guy, but that may just be the teacher in me.

When you write a villain well, you fall in love with them too.  How could you not?  In my fantasy novel (available now if you’re an agent looking to help someone publish a kick-ass fantasy book) my villain is a seriously bad dude.  No one is arguing that, least of all me.  He believes the one-ruler system will save his Kingdom and he is willing to take out anyone who gets in his way on that.  In his messed up head, this is justifiable homicide.  But I know this guy inside out and backwards.  I know that deep down, he really can love and that he has.  I know that he had a crappy childhood.  I know that he would lay his life down for a child of his Kingdom, so long as no one else saw him do it.  I know he’s flawed, but I also know why.  Can I forgive him?  Maybe.

The thing about a good villain is that they are at least equally as interesting as the protagonist.  I could honestly flip my story on its head and write it about my villain, instead of my heroine.  I even considered it for a bit.  I tried the outline before I decided to leave it like it is for suspense reasons.  But I know both characters well enough to do that.  I’m starting to think that’s where the money is (figuratively…trust me, there’s no literal money here) when writing.

Part of you must cry a little when you turn that page and learn that villain is not redeemable.  When you learn how deep his flaws go, it hurts.  You have to love the bad guys just a little.

Either that, or I’m completely bonkers (which is possible).  What do you think?

Juvenile Migraines

This post is not about reading or writing.  It’s about parenting.  It’s about life.  It’s about awareness.

My baby boy, who is almost 10 and staunchly refuses to be called my baby, suffers from juvenile migraines.  It’s hard to say he suffers, because if you know my son than you know he loves life and greets every moment and challenge with everything he has.  But the older he gets the more it becomes clear these things run his life.

He wakes up and dashes to the kitchen to drink iced tea for the caffeine and take an allergy pill, because both of those things may be helping.  He fills a huge water bottle for the day because doctors say that should work.  He wears sunglasses (he owns three pairs) and he is always on alert for symptoms.  It’s clearly always on his mind, somewhere.  I see it all the time.  Those moments, when I see him stop to take a huge drink or remember to flip those glasses down on his head, the moments when he is remembering the pain that could come and hoping this little trick will stand guard against it, those moments break my heart.

His first migraines came when he was about four.  We didn’t know what they were.  All we knew was that daycare was calling because he was vomiting.  It happened three times in two weeks.  The third time, panicked because I didn’t have an answer and my baby was throwing up into a cup in the backseat of my car, I took him to my Dad’s house.  It was there, hiding in the dark under a blanket, sleeping, when someone first said “this looks like a migraine”.  He was diagnosed by his amazing pediatrician less than six months later.  Fast forward to today, when we are running about one migraine per week.

There is nothing that can be done for juvenile migraines.  Like adult migraines there are triggers, which are hard to identify.  There are pills, but they only work after the headache begins.  Since he was in preschool my son has been trained to pay attention to his head.  Every single year I stand back as he tells another teacher about them.  Every year a well-meaning teacher will forget, just once, and have him vomiting into their trashcan or in the restroom.  I don’t blame them.  I know he goes from “my head hurts” to vomiting in about ten minutes.  Sometimes I still miss it, and I have six years of practice.

I love my son.  I want nothing more than to take this from him.  I want him to be at every hockey game and never miss another one because he’s confined to a bed in a dark room with a puke bucket.  I want him to never again have to lay down in a dark spot of the nurse’s office at school.  I want him to never need to know the word “migraine” makes adults snap to attention faster than “headache”.

This post is not about pity.  He doesn’t need that.  This post is not about getting your well-intended suggestions.  We are working on ruling out possible triggers one at a time and treating the problem with essential oils.

This post is about awareness.  If one less person tosses the word “migraine” around, good.  If one more adult opens their eyes to the idea that this is real, and not just something a kid may say to get out of something, that’s even better.

All kinds of kids have all kinds of things brewing under the surface.  As adults the best we can do is help them cope and understand.

Thanks for reading.

Writing Everyday

She should be writing but instead she's tweeting with that bird.
She should be writing but instead she’s tweeting with that bird.

Take a writing class as an adult and the number one piece of advice will always be the same.  Set aside time every single day when you put your butt in the chair and write.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

I’m one of the lucky people who doesn’t really suffer from Writer’s Block.  It’s not a problem to make the ideas come.  Sometimes I have to make a choice to flip to another of my projects, but ideas are always there.  My problem has always been finding the time.

I have two kids.  My full-time job involves over thirty of your precious kids.  My personal kids are involved in sports.  I’m involved in sports.  Sometimes, even though the ideas are all there, when I sit down to write I’m just so tired.  It’s much easier to be on Facebook or Twitter than it is to craft full paragraphs, isn’t it?

This time around, with this writing class, I’m taking it more seriously.  I put my husband on “make me write everyday” duty.  It’s so much more effective when someone else is holding you accountable.  My goal is simple.  To hit 1000 words everyday.  I use the computer, so that’s easy enough to track.  Moment of honesty: there are days when I’m fully aware all 1000 of those words will not make it through my first draft.  But they got typed.  My goal was hit.  I think that’s okay.

In the weeks I’ve been holding down this goal some awesome things have happened.  The obvious one is that I’ve made ridiculous progress on my YA sci-fi story.  Like how-did-I-do-that-so-fast progress.  Second only to that is the fact that I’ve gotten a ton of editing done.  Seems odd, but it’s happened.  Somehow making myself write first thing every morning is firing me up for finding time to do other writing tasks during the day.  It’s the weirdest thing.

I should be more tired, right?  I mean I’m getting up earlier to write.  But when that alarm goes off, I want to get up.  I write for about an hour and then I’m just ready to go.  It’s the craziest thing.

I always knew writing made me happy.  But meeting that daily goal first thing when you wake up is a whole new level of happy.  You wake up and check something off your to-do list.  You’re already accomplished, at 6 AM.  Go you.

Hey you, yeah you reading this.  Are you a writer?  When do you write?  I’d love to hear about it!

Random Talents

A traditional Rubik's Cube
A traditional Rubik’s Cube

My husband and I were watching an episode of America’s Got Talent last night (we watch it on Hulu, I have no idea when the episode actually aired) and it led to an interesting thought pattern on my part.  Are there talents out there in the world that are basically useless?  The kinds of things that will never get you recognition.  The kind that will never get you on a competition show.  The kind you only pull out at random parties or events to show off.

Here’s some fun random talents either my husband or I possess.

Solving a Rubik’s Cube

We can both solve one.  Not fast enough to be considered for a speed competition.  Just basic solve.  In fact we can solve a 2×2 and a 4×4 cube also.  As party tricks go this one is pretty cool.

Naming all the Countries in the World

Thanks to http://www.jetpunk.com/quizzes/how-many-countries-can-you-name.php I also happen to know I can name them all in less than twelve minutes.  Random indeed.

Labeling all the Countries in the World on a Map

Okay this one is harder, but related.  Really I only bust this one out to impress Junior High kids learning the map.

Writing Perfect Cursive

Yeah like the stuff they wanted you to learn in school.  The stuff you never use.  Seriously my cursive handwriting looks like the stuff you’d find on those old posters in school.

Now it’s your turn.  I’m dying to know what other random talents exist out there in the world.  I have a feeling some of my characters will end up with these talents in the future!  I can’t wait to read about yours.