Slice of Life: Writing with my Students

(This is part of the Slice of Life project)

I love to write with my students. I love that all of us are there, in the moment, together, as writers. Yesterday was one of those days as all of my classes spent almost an hour straight in short story writing, using Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick illustrations as launching points for stories. When I mentioned how much uninterrupted time we would have to write in one class, one girl let out a cheerful and infectious “whoop” of delight. Is there a better sound than someone that excited about writing?

I, of course, gave them some directions: pay attention to establishing a good setting, make sure you are developing believable characters with depth, and effectively use dialogue. Other than that, though, they were free to write.

I gave them the option of either writing stories in their writing notebooks or on the laptops, and close to 90 percent of them chose the computers. I was not surprised, but still … it is interesting. In surveys with my students, many will say that they believe they can writer “better” on the computer. I am not sure that is actually the case, but it certainly is the perception.

So, my young writers were spread out around the room like bohemians in a coffee shop, composing away, and I was right there with them. I chose an illustration from Harris Burdick entitled “The Seven Chairs” which shows a nun in a hovering chair as two priests look on. The caption reads: The fifth one ended up in France. I decided that I would tell the back-story of the chairs and so (making some changes, such as it being six chairs and not seven) I began:

The Woodworker lived for the isolation. He had long ago found that people in general were far more trouble than they were worth. They asked questions. They needed information. They could not think for themselves. It was enough to drive anyone mad. The Woodworker, in particular, could not abide other people who were not smart enough to see this world as he saw it – as something magical that could be carved, created and brought to life with their own hands.

Ten years before, he finally given up on people and went off on a journey to find a space where he could work alone. It was there, in the cave up high in the Andes Mountains, that he could finally do what he always wanted to do: create the Magical Chairs. This had been his vision for as long as he remembered, and he had spent the 10 years before gathering the perfect wood, foraging for the perfect pieces of fallen trees in the rain forests of the Amazon, the dense forests of the Redwood Forest, the oasis areas of the Sahara and so on. The perfect piece of wood was crucial for his work and The Woodworker spared no expense.

Now, with wood in hand and isolation guaranteed, he spent the next 10 years of his life creating the chairs, wonderfully ornate chairs that held unlimited possibilities. His plan all along had been to create 10 chairs – items that would change the course of history forever. He never got that far. At four, he felt the illness coming on – the slight sounds of Death approaching. He vowed to continue and rushed to finish the fifth chair even as the night approached in his sleep, beckoning him to come closer and find peace. The Woodworker resisted and worked on the sixth through the long winter months, with the cold snapping at his body like a ravenous dragon.

The pieces of the seventh chair lay scattered on the floor of his cavern when The Woodworker finally collapsed and this is how he was found three years later when an Expedition into the Andes Mountains in search of an elusive Lost City came into the cave to escape a torrential downpour.  Led by a man who had eerie sense of peace about himself, unsettling really, the expedition had turned up nothing of value after three months of searching. No hints at all of an ancient civilization that came to power with magic, only to lose it all to magic. The lost city that the Leader of the Expedition had promised them was elusive. The crew itself was ready to abandon the wild goose chase and go home. But not the Leader. He was nowhere ready to give up on the things he intended to find.

(you can read the rest of what I have written so far here)

Do you write with your students?

Peace (in the classroom),
Kevin

PS — Not sure what Harris Burdick is all about? Here is a podcast I once did for Just One Book on The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

Slice of Life: Haiku Postcards

(This is part of the Slice of Life project)
This is kind of cheating, but I finally gathered up all of my haikus that I wrote on a family trip to Japan two weeks ago and created this slideshow, so it is a Slice of Life — but not immediately recent. One interesting side note, though, is that I was talking with a teacher at my son’s preschool and he mentioned that he has been writing haikus recently, too, and we are now exchanging our poems with each other. Very cool to be on a poem hand-off with another teacher.

Peace (in poems),
Kevin

Slice of Life: The Beast Across the Street

(This is part of the Slice of Life project)

A conversation with a four year old in the car as we are almost home:

Son: Did you know kitty talks to the beast?
Me: Huh?
S: Our kitty. Coltrane. He talks to the beast.
M: Which beast?
S: The one I was talking about.
M (now thinking of past conversations): Oh. The beast who lives in the woods across the street?
S (nods): They talk.
M: What do they talk about?
S: I don’t know.
M: Do they do other things? Do they play scrabble?
S: Nooooo.
M: How about checkers?
S: Noooooo.
(quiet pause)
S: The beast eats birds.
M: Really?
S: And chipmunks and squirrels.
M: Really?
S: Yep.
M: So does kitty. Maybe that’s what they talk about.
S: What?
M: What birds taste like.
(pause)
S: Maybe. The beast sleeps in winter. It comes out in summer.
M: Oh.
S: So be quiet. Shhhh. Don’t wake the beast.
M: I won’t. Promise.

Peace (in stories),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Listening to Teachers

(This is part of the Slice of Life project)

I spent part of Saturday with a videocamera in my hand, documenting some work being done by the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. Within our network, a group known as Project Outreach (whose mission is around issues of access, equity and diversity for WMWP) has been designing a program for prospective teachers in urban schools who have not been able to pass the state’s certification test for teachers (known as the MTEL). So, WMWP has offered some sessions on how to approach the Writing and Communication exam, and my role was to capture a discussion at the end of the Saturday session.

I felt a bit like an intruder with my camera aimed at them, but they were gracious, and the discussions were pretty amazing, as these teachers — some of whom English is a second language — talked not only about their own struggles with this standardized test, but also how their struggles allowed them to relate more to the struggles of their students; about how they have come to understand that they must find ways to relate to the world of their students to make learning relevant; about what keeps them going in the classroom during difficult times; and about how they must always maintain high expectations of their students, even though they come from families falling apart or neighborhoods that are violent or schools with very little flexibility. They keep their students in the center of their hearts.

As a teacher, it was a reminder to me, too, to keep these ideas close. Many of my students don’t have the same situation, but some do. It’s interesting how sometimes just the act of “listening” to others brings a solid focus into your own situation. I am thankful for those teachers and their willingess to be honest and open, and to share their stories.

The video will be used as part of a presentation by our Project Outreach folks, but also, it will be part of our Western Mass Writing Project website, which we will be redesigning this year. When it goes up live in the coming days, I will provide a link.

Peace (in sharing),
Kevin

Slice of Life: What Happens to the Music

(note: Last year, I took part in the Slice of Life writing challenge with Two Writing Teachers. I won’t be doing this every day, but periodically, I hope to write and podcast about some moments. I encourage you to participate, too. It will push you as a writer and connect you with another network of bloggers. See Two Writing Teachers for more details).

What Happens to the Music
Listen to the podcast

I took the guitar case from behind the couch, clicked it open and stared at the pile of papers on top of and underneath the guitar. It reminded me that I have a lot of songs that have just sat around. Now that my band, The Sofa Kings, is kaput — perhaps temporarily, but more likely, permanently — I have an opportunity to dig up some material that I had shelved, knowing that it might not work for The Sofa Kings. Tuesday night came and went, and I was home instead of at our practice space, and it felt strange not to be up in the attic, playing music. I already miss the other people in the band because they were all friends as much as bandmates. That made calling it quits even harder. But the energy and inspiration had dwindled and we all agreed .. it was time. I’m already making plans with a friend to start doing some recording, and writing new songs, and maybe getting out to some open mic nights around town, so I know music will keep happening. But the end of a band, if it means anything to you, is like the end of a relationship — it leaves you conflicted with both some relief that you are not living in the shadows of better days and excitement that there are new paths to follow into the future.

A Slice of Life: the jet lag blues

(Note: This is part of a regular Slice of Life feature over at Two Writing Teachers)

Jet lag sucks. There’s no other way to say it, other than to use some profanities that I prefer to keep off this site. We arrived home from Japan on Saturday night — in a strange twist of time zones that allowed us to arrive in the US earlier than we left Tokyo — and Sunday seemed fine, even though our bodies were 14 hours behind the time on the clock.

Sunday night … not so good. I slept for about two hours, exhausted, and then … boom … my mind was on full alert and I had to get up. I tried to get back to sleep a few times, to no avail. Then the kids started getting up, too, and the house normally quiet at 2 a.m. was suddenly fully awake. We got the kids back to bed but not me, as my mind continued to dance the cha-cha-cha. Around 5 a.m.  or so, I finally drifted off for about an hour or so, and then up and at ’em again, to get ready for school.

It was a long day in the classroom, although the kids were wonderful and curious about my trip, and we got ourselves back into our unit on Parts of Speech — not exactly the most exciting element of my writing curriculum. I stifled yawns as best as I could and kept my head in the game. Then, after school, I had to drive to a meeting of my WMWP Tech Team, which lasted for about two hours. I didn’t feel too tired, probably because we have so many exciting things going on.

I got home, ate some dinner, and then conked out for the night. I was worried that the jet lag would keep me up again, but that didn’t happen. I slept a good deep sleep, and feel pretty good this morning. Yeah. That darn ol’ jet lag better keep away from me!

Peace (in days),
Kevin

Slice of Life on Ice

Slice of Life Story Challenge
(Note: it has been a long time since I have done a Slice of Life, which is a wonderful writing activity sponsored by Two Writing Teachers. But I felt the end of the year deserved a story of some sort, just to remind myself of the connection with that wonderful community of bloggers and writers. — Kevin)

Earlier this year, during the 24 Hour Comic event, I created a graphic novel about falling into an icy river and being saved by my brother (which I also wrote about for Memoir Mondays at one time). This week, as temperatures rose a bit, my sons and I have been taking a visiting dog (Bella, whose name was also that of our old dog) down to the river. There, I have watched as the older ones have discovered icebergs in the shallow parts of the water and it was as if I were seeing myself as a kid (without the near-death experience).

They kicked, prodded, threw rocks, used sticks as wedges — anything to break the ice free. They imagined they could board the ice and float down the river. One mentioned the waterfall downstream.  The sound was roaring off in the distance. “We’ll jump off the icebergs before we get to the waterfall,” the older one said, and that was that. No thoughts about the freezing temperatures of the water or the difficulty of swimming with winter clothes on. I could tell that they knew that these bits of ice would never hold their weight to begin with anyway. It was all about the imagination.

One the other side of the river, away from the ice, my youngest son and I stood, watching.

“When I get older, can I make icebergs?” he asked, as his brothers slipped around. I nodded my head “yes” and together, we both tossed large stones in the water, aiming to break up the ice chunks that had been set free by the older brothers.

Peace (in stories),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 18

 Slice of Life, Weekly Challenge, Chapter 15

(This is part of a weekly feature called Slice of Life Project)

This is a musical Slice of Life, as I have been working on a new song, possibly for my band The Sofa Kings. It’s pretty rough now and the bridge in the song is going to have to go (it doesn’t work), but that’s what making a demo is all about — what to keep and what to remove.

Anyway, here is the song called Dance the Dance.

Listen to Dance the Dance (or click on the little blue arrow for the flash player)

Peace (in songs),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 17

 Slice of Life, Weekly Challenge, Chapter 15

(This is part of a weekly feature called Slice of Life Project)

I was heading out to the mailbox to get the newspaper. On the corner, near the driveway, sat our trash cans and recycling containers, awaiting the Monday pickup. I noticed that the trash can was knocked over and thought about the vicious thunderstorm the night before. It must have been the wind, I thought.

But then I saw something black, moving near the trash can. A fuzzy butt poked out from behind the container. Oh, I thought, it must be out neighbor’s dog. No, wait a minute, our neighbor’s dog — a big black furry thing — died last year.

Uh Oh. Bear.

Sure enough, there was this medium-sized bear rummaging through our trash like some FBI agent, ripping open bags and digging in. It had a collar, so it was clearly being tracked by the local environmental folks as it perused a path through the neighborhoods. Bears are very common in the place I live, and over the years I have seen all sorts of creatures: deer, fischer cats, and even two moose wandering around our stretch of suburbia. But it still takes me by surprise.

I yelled at the bear. It looked at me and kept right on munching. I went inside to show my son and my wife whistled at the bear. Nothing. I went out and honked the horn on the van. Not interested, the bear seemed to indicate, turning its back on us. My wife finally started up the van and backed down the driveway and the bear jumped up with a start and then lumbered away, moving towards a neighbor’s house.

It’s funny how a brush with nature can remind you that we inhabit this world with others, even if we don’t often act that way.

Peace (in the wild),
Kevin

PS — I have a picture that I will try to share with PhotoFridays this week.

Slice of Life, Chapter 16

 Slice of Life, Weekly Challenge, Chapter 15

(This is part of a weekly feature called Slice of Life Project)

I spent the weekend with a group of friends that I have known for at least 20 years: shooting billiards, debating politics, playing music and catching up on various aspects of our lives. (We also “compete” in what is known in our small circle as the Pool Championship of the World, complete with trophies and heartache and glory. I haven’t won in years. Darn it.). We’ve seen ourselves get married, have kids, get divorced and all sorts of things. Once a year, we gather together (usually in Connecticut, but not always) for a long weekend of re-connections and reminders that friendships don’t need to die off — they need to be nurtured and drawn upon, even when separated by geographic distance.

This weekend, as part of our gathering, we also went to the nearby military base, where two of my friends serve the country and work, and we all toured both a helicopter hanger (one of my friends is a pilot of a Chinook Helicopter) and the air guard base (where my other friend is part of the security detail and a small arms instructor). All of us got to sit inside the helicopter and check out the controls. It was pretty impressive to consider the amount of details that go into flying such a craft. Over at another part of the base, we handled rifles and machine guns (which I have shot before when I was in the National Guard many years ago).

But sitting in the pilot’s seat and feeling the cold weight of the guns also reminded me that we are a country at war. Both of my friends have done tours overseas in military hot zones (one year, we made a video of our annual gathering and sent it along to one of our friends who was in the Middle East on assignment) and the helicopter pilot is off in February for a year-long tour in Iraq. He seems non-plussed about it and says it is what he is trained to do, but the rest of us are nervous for him. This made our late-night discussions about world affairs (we are pretty much a divided group among Democrats and Republicans) interesting and heated and all the more important. We didn’t solve the problems of the world, but we sure as heck got deep into the issues.

Peace (in peace),
Kevin