So, you finished your “poem” in whatever genre of poetry you are writing, and you turn it in and proudly think, ‘There is no way any teacher can grade me down after I poured my heart and soul onto the page!” And you know, I do have a hard time deducting points from poetry. I know how hard it is to write good poetry that works for other people as much as it works for the poet itself (and yes, a published poet, after abandoning a poem to posterity, is an “it”) so I tread that fine line between encouragement and helpful prodding.
My solution is twofold: one, I ask you to write a metacognition that explores what you are trying to accomplish in the poem and how you do this. Second, I beg, plead and cajole you into going back to the poem like a wall builder goes back to a stonewall to see where the gaps are too large or the stones too small to support something as timeless as a wall. As poets, (unlike with true wall builders) there are plenty of stones laying around from which to find a better stone to build a better wall.
For those of you who hate my metaphors, this means to relook at every line and rethink every phrase and reexamine every word; otherwise, you have no right to call yourself a poet. A poser maybe, but not a poet.
In practical terms, this means to look at how your words power the poem. Are you simply trying to convey an idea or thought, or are you manipulating the actual words and lines to create an effect in a reader? Are you employing anything from the long list of poetic terms and rhetorical techniques that have proven themselves for, in some cases, thousands of years? Are you creating phrases—the literary equivalent of riffs and chords and bass runs in music—in ways you have never heard or seen before?
In short, do you give a damn?
If you do, do it.
If you don’t, it won’t.
― Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights
The most powerful and enduring connection we share as a human race is our desire and need to share stories. We engage in the art of storytelling more than most of us ever realize; whether we are describing our kids’ soccer games, critiquing the latest HBO series, telling a ribald joke, or remembering a long lost friend, event, memory, book, or experience. We listen to stories in songs, in long-winded meetings, in late night BBC broadcasts or self aggrandizing talk radio, on long car rides, and in intimate conversations with friends and lovers. We tell stories for reasons that are so deeply embedded in our psyche and DNA that storytelling is a natural and intuitive response to almost any situation.
Sometimes, when stuck with a rather boorish person, we wonder why the sam hill that person insists on telling insipid stories; but, most of the time we listen, reflect, and respond—usually with stories of our own. It is out of this verbal give and take—our personal and cultural oral tradition—that we reflect and grow and expand the range of our limitations. It is our way to “shuffle off our mortal coil” while still alive. Through stories we live outside and beyond the confines of our short sojourn on earth, but while we are here and struggling through the vicissitudes of everyday life, it is stories that feed our roots and spread our canopy upwards into an infinite sky.
Stories that are worth telling once are worth retelling again and again. Out of this stream of unconscious revision a story is perfected until that story becomes part and parcel of our personal, interconnected, and communal eternity. The best stories survive the ravages of time because we know and sense with an almost mystic unknowingness that a particular story is too good or important to forget. These stories become the canons of our universal literature. We go back to those stories like spawning salmon to the streams of their birth. We need to know our source, and the best and most enduring stories lead us there, even against the tides, currents, and shoals that seem to bar the way. We need to tell and hear and read the stories that bring us to these places.
We need to limit the trivial and search for and embrace the profound stories that have weathered the ravages of time. We need to ask ourselves why we read what we read, listen to what we choose to listen to, and tell what we feel needs to be told. We can’t go on accepting the debased and vapid simply because it is there and easy at hand in its glorified, extolled, and commercialized abundance. We need to seek the higher fruit and walk among the dappled grassand pluck until time and time is done, the the silver apples of the moon [and] the golden apples of the sun.*
Today is as good a day as any to look back and in and begin moving forward. Shut something off, and turn something else on. There is something else on your shelf, something in your mind, and something within your range that is waiting for you.
The Song of Wandering Aengus
BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
Some thoughts from the trenches…
Not everything can be put into a box. For years I have been trying to teach middle school and high school age boys “how to write” by using a series of extremely detailed rubrics that leave little to chance, but maybe (I can’t believe I am writing this) I should just stick with helping them think imaginatively, take risks, learn the meat and bones of effective writing—and then write, write, write, write, write…
I am serious. It seems like every time I try to “teach” writing, I am met with sincere, yet vacuous eyes almost pleading to be freed from the contradictory admonitions spewing out of me like smoke from a tall factory stack on a wild and windy day.
When I simply let them write and blog and journal about “whatever,” they sooner or later become better writers, more interesting writers, more confident writers—writers who are invested, engaged and inspired by the “process” of writing. They are more like kids at recess playing whiffle-ball for the sheer joy of the game. Not baseball you might say—but pretty damn close. By and large, when the boys come to like writing, they might actually listen to my droning. Heck, they sometimes even (maybe) want to write the classic five-paragraph expository essay.
I need to get back to the more magnanimous and enlightened practice of allowing my students to write instead of mega-focusing on teaching them how to write. In the same way they learned to speak, they will figure it out how to say what, and when and why what they write works or doesn’t work. (How’s that for convoluted writing!) I am not ready to can my rubrics and chuck them in the trash. I just think they have become the cart pushing the horse for me—an easy fallback that gives shape and form and meaning to content—never a bad thing!
A writer needs to feel that he or she is the engine pulling the train and not the passenger being pushed to a dark precipice. Every English teacher should let kids write. (Even better, every English teacher should be a writer—a flesh and bones writer in the same way our music teacher knows and plays his music and is, hence, a real musician!) Writing for the sake of writing should be, front and center, a part of every academic day. As a parent, I would be more than willing to let go of some “critical” component of the schools curriculum to allow it to happen. The old adage: “Readin’, Writin’ and ‘Rythmatic” rings pretty soundly for me. Everything else is tasty, but proscribed, icing on the cake.
Sometimes nothing works. No matter what I do as a teacher, some few of my students will learn little, write little and leave my class little the wiser, which is a sad, but hardly debatable, reality. We just don’t reach everyone, and we often don’t reach the students that need to be reached the most. In those times, all we can do is keep the red pen of criticism wisely at bay and hope they see that the door to our heart is always open and that the starting line is still there.
And let them tell their story.
And show them how to tell it well.
And hope they listen…
I am constantly asking my students (and myself) to reflect on the literature they, and I, read. As I have grown older—and not necessarily wiser—I find myself only reading literature that I am sure will prod me out of my intellectual and emotional torpor, like a lizard basking in the newfound warmth of spring. Right now it happens to be The Brothers Karamazov, a book I first read as an eighteen-year-old literary newbie. It might have been the first time I didn’t turn away from a book because of the daunting length of the text and the panoramic sweep of life it covers. It is now a completely new experience, though it still resonates with the young and restless soul that even now permeates the fibres and sinews of my aging and ageless self. That book made me think.—and forced me to think beyond and into my myopic experience of life thus far.
In short, I could not read without responding. The reflections of my mind needed an outlet, so I found myself arguing and assenting long rambles in notebook journals or with anyone who would listen to me, argue with me and explore with me. In that way the novel became—and still is— a part of me. The more I wrote about what I read the more I knew the book. By knowing what I knew (and did not know). I realized that only by exploring through reflection could I answer through an essay.
Most of us have to write essays about subjects we know precious little about; hence, our essays have the taint of soured milk—still milk, but hardly worth drinking…
Our teachers mark us down for inserting the I voice into our writing as if “we” don’t really exist—as if there must always be proof beyond ourselves that “knows” more than we know—as if that is something we don’t already intrinsically know. To me, a good essay reeks of what we know, what we have explored and what we are seeking to know, and it is a damn pity when a teacher robs us any part of that triad.
You are only wrong when your facts are wrong, distorted by prejudice or bigotry, or so steep in self-indulgent arrogance that your words fail to resonate with any kind of lasting ring—like a drum without a skin or a harp without a string.
You are equally wrong when you simply spin words into a song without music, words without meaning and foundation in your own heart—without the essence of the real and palpable you to speak with a clarity that helps others to see and feel and experience “your” experience.
A reflection is simply your recreation of your inner experience of experience. In reflecting we see our warts and blemishes clearly until those imperfections are diminished by the truth and sincerity of our search for meaning and substance to give voice to that search—and that search should extend beyond yourself. No doubt if you wondered something, someone else wondered the same thing, and maybe even wrote about it.
Keep exploring until your inkwell is dry and your head is emptied.
And only then should you write your essay…
Teaching Traditional & Modern Skills for Reading, Writing, Creating & Sharing in a Digital World
Create a Better Classroom
for You & Your Students
Teaching Traditional & Modern Skills
for Reading, Writing, Creating & Sharing in a Digital World
Creating video essays out of traditionally constructed essays bring a whole new dynamic and range of possibilities for every student. A hard wrought and well-crafted essay is no longer a static piece of paper tucked away in a teacher’s desk or stashed in a crowded hallway locker. It is a multi-dimensional project that is shared with the world. Check out some of these that were created by my eighth and ninth grade classes.
It’s Over: A Final Reflection
~Paul, Eighth Grade
A Trip with Thoreau
~Charlie, 9th Grade
A New Way of Creating Rubrics
No longer will the term “rubric” create dread in your students. The Crafted Word Rubrics are not checklists; they are guides to help students respond to almost any assignment in a clear and confident way.
Try them out!
Few of us can do well if we don’t feel confident in what we are doing, but neither can that confidence be a misplaced confidence that is more succinctly called arrogance–a presumption of skill rather than an actual skill. Every time I create a teaching unit or plan a lesson–or even when I sit down to write something like this–I have to ask myself: “Do I really know what I am teaching, and am I teaching what I know in a way that all of my students are learning what I presume I am teaching?” I have to keep asking myself if I am the sage on the stage or the guide on the side; I have to keep asking if I am teaching essential skills and content or am I teaching what some reading workbook or English composition textbook says I should teach. Thankfully, at heart, I am still the shop teacher I have been for almost twenty years, but I am also the writer and teacher of writing I have been for more years than that.
Teaching shop is pretty cool because every kid comes into the shop with an untamed enthusiasm and eagerness to build something that is already in his or her head, and they are remarkably unfazed by their limited woodworking skills or by the scope of their dreams. I remember well an old student of mine who came into seventh-grade shop some years ago with detailed plans for building a one-man submersible submarine (as if you could build a non-submersible submarine:) and he begged me to give him a chance to try and build his design. Somehow he settled for something like a knapkin holder, but I heard the other day that he is now in Navy Seal training, so his ultimate dream never died; however, he learned that dreams can be realized and built out of a series of steps, an accumulation of skills forged out of the iron of real life and a dogged clinging to a vision of what he ultimately wanted to build.
Young writers (all writers) need that dream and vision, too. They need to love the possibilities that writing offers to build something as awesome and real as a six-board chest or a sparrow whittled out of a piece white pine. They need to go to the empty page with the same sense of possibility as the kid walking into the woodshop, and they need to want to learn the skills that will get them to a place they want to be as craftsmen and craftswomen of words and sentences and paragraphs and stories. Most importantly, they need a place and a way to learn and practice those skills: a workshop of their own to walk into and dream and learn and create.
The Woodshop as a Metaphor
THOUGHT: The woodshop is a metaphor for what should be possible in the classroom
- “Ah, the shop!” It smells good!
- They can move:
- They get to use cool tools
- They learn to “cut the board all the way through.”
- They need help–hence collaboration is natural and reciprocal.
- Their hands work as much as their heads.
- They own what they are building–and it has a purpose and a destiny.
- They get the teachers undivided attention–at least some of the time.
- The teacher leaves them alone–most of the time.
- Mistakes are fixed, not criticized.
- They “never” worry about their shop grade.
- They are surrounded by the future possibilities of shop class.
- They can see that building their toolbox is just a first step towards something like a boat, a chair, a bed, a table, a sculpture, etc: [We can do this in the classroom by having publishing parties, sharing digital portfolios, blogging—anything that allows students to see where their education is going.]
- There is a completion of a cycle: Though my students usually have smaller whittling projects going on the side, there is always one “big” project that takes them the entire term to complete, and it is always a source of pride.
- What you build stays with you for your life, if you wish.
How Is Your Classroom Experienced?
Your classroom should reflect your students needs, not your comfort zone–and definitely not a pedagogy which is not your own.
- A class is a physical place but also a metaphysical place:
- We can alter both the physical and the psychical to create a better classroom.
- What does your classroom look like?
- Is it yours? Or are you part of the shared classroom model?
- Does it reflect that part of you that you want to reflect.
- What does your classroom feel like?
- Where do you sit, stand, or move when teaching? (There really is not a right way if it keeps the students engaged, interested, and ready).
- Is there any cool factor?
- Is your class any different than the classroom next door? Should it be?
- What is the temperature of the emotional warmth?
At your next faculty meeting have the faculty sit in rows of desks. Raise hands only if you know the answer.
- Only 30% can respond
- No talking allowed when leaving the room.
- The results of the problem are never published.
Have another faculty meeting where a common school problem or issue is presented and ask if small groups could possibly come up with some solutions. Have this group meet in a room with comfortable chairs or couches, and some refreshments. Let this group present their solutions to the rest of the faculty.
Respond To the Primal Needs of Your Students
How do you respond to and prepare for the real and most primal and essential needs of your students?
- They need you to be genuine: if you can’t then you shouldn’t teach.
- Notice them. As much for the good as the bad. Class Dojo maybe?
- Say hello when they show up for class. Students need affirmation that they are welcome in your classroom.
- Give feedback–verbal, visual, & written. They need affirmation that their efforts on your behalf will never go unnoticed and unappreciated.
- Show students you care about more than how they are doing in your class. This is where the power of blogging is unparalleled. In the shop, the very nature of the mentoring makes kids feel connected because the shop teacher really is helping “them.”
- Say goodbye when your students leave: make some sort of tradition surrounding the end of class. Your students last impression is a huge one, so make your goodbye a good and affirming ritual.
- Have special days, reward days, random acts of “let’s do something different days.
What Does an Engaged Student Look Like?
What does an engaged student look, act and feel like?
- What is Engagement and what does it took like?
- How do we create an engaging classroom?
- How do we nurture and sustain engaged students?
- How do we assess engagement?
- Create Rubrics, Folio’s, Videos, and blogging communities.
- You know it when you see it.
- An engaged student is willing and happy to figure it out.
- An engaged student feels like he or she has accomplished something worthwhile.
- An engaged student appreciates the value and or necessity of the content.
- An engaged student is alert, involved, and curious.
- An engaged student “can’t believe shop is over.”
- An engaged student will actually talk about what they did in class while driving home–and they might even bring it up on their own.
- An engaged feels like his or her time in your class is time well spent!
What Does a Disengaged Student Look Like?
It seems like there are a few switches that engage students, but a lot more that turn them off and disengage and disaffect, so focus on what turns them on–and keeps them on!
- They can’t move.
- Everything is boring.
- The content and delivery is predictable.
- They can only use a pencil and paper.
- They work on their own—even when struggling with the basic concepts.
- Their heads are exhausted.
- Their bodies are exhausted.
- They’re hungry.
- They don’t know how to do what they are being asked to do.
- They only get help when they raise their hands.
- There is nothing palpable to show when class is done.
- They don’t know what they just learned?
- They don’t know how they did it?
- There is no endgame.
- The teacher hates them.
….And, yes, the list can go on as long as there is strength in the body.
Limits, Rules, Expectations & Values
Kids spend a huge portion of their childhood in your classroom. What “family values” can and/or should carry over to your classroom?
- Set Rules, Limits, Expectations with the same passion and resolve as you would with your family.
- Let them in!
- Set rules, standards & expectations.
- Create traditions.
- Do fun things together.
- Laugh a lot and tell stories.
- Point out right and wrong. The moral compass!
- Forgive and Move on.
- Treat everyone equally. Get rid of tracking unless absolutely essential! It is a caste system by any other name.
- Treat each student uniquely: know your kids, accept them for who they are. This is quite different than being a “friend” to your students.
I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government
from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.
We need to give our students projects and possibilities that they create, own, oversee, and present. We should not try to own what they create.
- There should always be a project going on.
- Projects should include collaborative and individual work.
- There should always be some sort of self-assessment.
- Students need to be able to claim genuine ownership, be free to pursue new directions and ideas, and exercise responsible and mature judgement when developing and creating that project.
- There needs to be an endgame of sorts–some way to showcase and curate that work for future generations to share.
The Power of Portfolios
We need to create portfolios that capture and collate a history of every student’s journey through school.
- Collect. Collate. Curate: A new mantra for change!
- Our profession is only possible because of those who collected, collated and curated our bodies of literature, art, philosophy, history, and culture.
- Metacognition: It is important to remember, reflect and respond as a way of understanding who and how we are as learners (and teachers).
- Use journaling as a way to enable and practice metacognition.
- There are practical and affordable(as in free) ways to start doing this today!
- There is no downside. You are just being lazy if you don’t! (sorry)
The Perils, Pitfalls & Promises of Technology
We need to start bridging the digital divides that are separating teachers and department and find fertile ground (not common ground) to allow our collective and individual digital fluency to evolve in a dynamic and energizing way.
- Are technology decisions being made for the right reasons?
- Are there a few people making the decisions for all of you?
- Do you want it that way?
- What is holding you back from using more–not less–technology?
- Does technology engage or simply distract?
- Does it simplify or complify (I need this word to exist)?
- Keep the focus on focus!
- Does technology make you grumpy?
- Do you, as a teacher, fully grasp the implications, limitations, and possibilities of technology?
- Is being engaged with and connected with a broader, diverse world important to a child’s education—to you?
- Managing classes and curriculum: Using an LMS such as Schoology, Edmodo, Haiku, Canvas, Moodle, Lore, etc., allows for easy access and sharing of assignments, grades, student and parent communication and a relative transparency of process.
- Allows parents to “see” children’s grades as they are posted: [See “What doesn’t work” ]
- Extending the classroom: online discussions, portfolio sharing, flipped classrooms…
- Increasing collaborative opportunities.
- Leveling the playing field.
- Rethinking pedagogy.
- Teaches how to manage a digital footprint
What doesn’t work…
- That which attracts, distracts–and vice versa–that which distracts, attracts…
- Complicates the classroom experience: too many logons, computers don’t always work, not enough access at home, hard to find work.
- Allows parents to “see” children’s grades as they are posted.
- Introduces a world the kids may not be ready for emotionally
- The learning is too distant from the classroom: kids don’t bond with each other in the same way.
How To Help Teachers
How do you help teachers who are struggling to engage their students? How do you help teachers let go and grow and love and cope and change?
- As a teacher, you are the root of the problem or the source of inspiration. [No one wants to admit that they are not able to do well what they’ve been hired to do, nor do schools, private schools in particular, like to air their dirty laundry, and so change is made behind closed doors; administrators give advice, make demands, and press the issue and the teachers being questioned are fearful of losing their jobs, bitter at being unfairly targeted, and often still unable to change.
- Metacognition: Encourage teachers to “self reflect.” Explore and possibly embrace initiatives such as The Folio Project. [It has to start with how can we best adapt, change, evolve–whatever–in ways that make us better, more engaging, more joyful, and more effective teachers.]
- What can schools do to help teachers be more engaged and engaging?
- Set high, yet realistic, standards that encourage and enable teachers to feel empowered and energized by their career choice.
- Let teachers make the best use of their time.
- Get rid of content driven faculty meetings and focus on process driven meetings that invite participation, reflection, and renewal—stuff that might possibly energize, enlighten and transform—not simply educate and inform.
- Do all meetings have to be synchronous?
- Do all meetings need to be mediated by the same few people with responses generated by the same few teachers?
- USE TECHNOLOGY WISELY: Use discussion threads and require teachers to respond within a given time frame.
- Post power points and/or presentations online with a comment thread instead of making teachers sit through them.
- Take steps to lessens the work and time that keeps teachers from the core expectations of their jobs. Many schools still operate under the assumption that our parents only hear from us once or twice a semester, and so schools place great value on formal communications: conferences; mid-term comments; end of semester letters, etc, all without any built in time to accomplish these tasks in the course of their school days.
- Meet less or meet more, but never meet just to touch base unless it is a truly mutual meeting.
- Consider allocating days to parent meetings (a lot of schools already do this).
- Have a comment writing and proofreading professional day. If you give teachers the time—even if they do not use that time when it is given.
- Use an LMS/CMS that is open, interactive, and dynamic and which gives teachers room to evolve in their teaching practices and maintain communication with students, advisors, and parents.
Are You Ready?
Writing an essay for me is relatively simple. I choose what I want to write about, and I start writing. There is not a soul in the world who is expecting anything out of this essay—or even know it is being created, which will be great if it dies an early and ignominious death. I don’t have a teacher pushing me in any one direction–like I am pushing you. The writing prompt and the inspiration is already in me; but, though I try to write well, there are no real-life repercussions when I don’t write well. My audience for this (which is you—my upper school English class) is remarkably small and polite, and as much as I’d like to think that you are captivated by my writing, I know that in reality you are a “captive” to my writing, because, as my students, you are a prisoner in my classroom. You are somewhat doomed to read what I write, but your actual freedom to write is hobbled by a teacher who is intent on extracting (by what must sometimes feel like any means possible) what you know and think about a narrow range of literature–in this case, the first chapter of Walden: the essay called “Economy.” Throw into the mix your other classes and what do you get: a few more books, an era or two of some history; some idea of why leaves turn red; a handy way discerning volume from the breadth and width of a fruit–a smattering of Spanish words or Latin roots: a bookshelf from shop and an abstract oil painting for your wall. Don’t forget your soccer and football teams, the school play, band, and student life, and now your day is completely filled.
But is it full?
It is certainly filled with an exhausting range of activities designed and structured to educate, enlighten, inform, and inspire. Your teachers are a diverse mix of people who really do give a damn about you and who spend more time than you might ever imagine trying to create and perpetuate this living and breathing machine called school, but, as Thoreau writes, “we[teachers and students] labor under a mistake.” We fill the day, but we rarely fulfill the possibilities of each day, and we never will until we remove the blinders that keep us on the beaten path. Frightening as it sounds, the lunatics must run the asylum: students must be allowed to take the reins and become learners and explorers, while teachers and administrators must adapt or die. “New ways for the new; old ways for the old.” (HDT) The world really is a different place now. The “noosphere” or “omega point” predicted by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin almost a hundred years ago is becoming a reality. People can be–and are–connected in ways unimaginable to the visionaries and teachers who broke the backs of tradition to create the schools we have today. But times have changed. The desk is more a ball and chain of myopic restraint, while our opportunities for true learning–for all of us–have never been greater.
Something has to give. Society and its schools have become as much slaves to assessment as we are creators of destiny. Measuring someone by “the content of their character” seldom makes it onto report cards. Instead, we measure your progress and achievements with a reptilian calculation of the merits and deficiencies of your responses to specific inquiries and lessons we are convinced we have taught well. We critique what and how you write, but rarely consider why you write. Though we seem compassionate and practice empathy, we still erect a barrier that only a few of you can get over unscathed–and those are the celebrated few: the smart, hard-working, and diligent students who somehow manage to do it all. Everyone else plays catch me if you can, and so this paradigm is set in motion, and it becomes the foundation of almost every school and university in the world. The gifted student becomes a recognizable icon, sculpted, shaped, and polished by the whims of academia. As parents we stumble over each other trying to weave our child’s place on the honor roll or his or her SAT scores–or even the average score of the whole town in comparison to every other school in the district–into the most casual of conversations. On the flip side of this coin, these honors are hardly as respected by peers and classmates (perhaps because they sense the inherent fraud and advantage to the system) and past prowess as a student soon makes for unsavory and indelicate talk even just mere hours after graduation.
Maybe doing well in school is not such an impressive accomplishment. It is pretty cool that we have a black president raised by a single mom–and we use this as praise for what educational opportunities can do; but history is full of great individuals who rose from humble beginnings. It is a recurring theme of humanity itself. It is part and parcel of what Joseph Campbell has termed “The Heroic Cycle.” Schools do not create greatness; our primal need to be great is what creates greatness. No one reading this is precluded from realizing his or her individual greatness. We don’t have to be Telemachus facing up to the rowdy suitors in his house, but all of us have challenges that are unmet and untested, and we must meet them and we must test them if we want to be a hero. There is courage and strength of each of us, but not as much motivation, perhaps because the tools we use in school are not the best motivators. We instill as much fear as desire, and there is a subtle paralysis that takes hold. Only if the doors open wider and the walls fall down will we see the expanse of our opportunities–and only if you give enough of a damn to reach for the dream at hand, and then only if you see the dream. Realizing your dream should be your accomplishment, and layering dream upon dream should be your life.
Life has a way of doling out hardship in unequal proportions, but school should not be one of them. There is certainly very little that is fair about who goes to what school, but that is the unspoken inequity. We praise the notion of an egalitarian educational system, but we shudder at the thought of implementation. Few of my Concord friends would ship their sons and daughters to our schools in Maynard because…well, just because. Ironically, few of my Maynard friends would feel comfortable with their sons and daughters trying to mingle in a Concord milieu. And so we keep up a pleasant caste system that feeds off the tension between the rich and the poor. It’s like the old camp song: “Don’t chuck your muck in my backyard/my backyard’s full,” but because of the internet, our backyards have merged; the demarcation line is blurred, and there really is a chance for every kid to play on the same field–if we let them. Caesar accidentally burned down the Royal Library at Alexandria; we shouldn’t do the same with our new library of knowledge. During the first solo circumnavigation of the world, the Afrikaners in South Africa scoffed at Joshua Slocum’s claims that the world was round, even as he was ninety percent of the way around the globe! Wouldn’t it be ironic if our schools lost the race for knowledge because we dithered at the starting gate?
I certainly did not start this narrative with any plans to take on our educational system. Sharper minds than mine could tear this essay apart, but only because they have had so many generations to practice. The hurricane yesterday gave me a rare gift of time today, so I was just hoping to give you a few words to help you get started on your Walden essay. Words have that effect on me. Maybe my own rereading of Walden made me listen more closely to the drumbeat of my heart no matter how measured or far away; maybe in these political times of gloating, bitching, and belittling I didn’t want to be one of the thousand hacking at the branches of evil; I wanted to be the one striking at the root. The beauty and bane of Thoreau’s words is how easily they can prove either side of an argument, and my mind is so scattered that I could never get around to organizing all the facts; instead, I’ve simply scattered some seeds among the compost of my experience. Hopefully, one or two will be like the mustard seeds in that parable of Jesus. If not, I’ll have to till again and plant more thoughtfully.
All I know is what I sense: change is coming, and if you have your wits about you, you will be riding the edge of that wave.
Do You Really Want to Be a Teacher?
Let Kids Write
There are plenty of smarter, more gifted, and more interesting writers out there than me or you–but there shouldn’t be a more passionate writer. For better or worse, your blog is you–as my blog is me, and until you want a better you and I want a better me, readers will find another place to go.
Few things in life are more important than having a passion for something. It is an offshoot of “give damn.” To have a life without a focus on some something or somethings to do and explore and develop on your own is a pretty pitiful life. When I was your age, I had a rock collection that filled a bazillion egg crates with chippings and scrapings I hammered off ; I had snake and reptile aquariums that had specimens of most any cold-blooded creature in the White Pond area of Concord. I had a shortwave radio that I made with my father–and a huge antenna on the roof to help pick up conversations happening anywhere in the world. I had a collection of fishing poles and rods and reels and lures and baits to somehow tease trout, bass, horned pout, kibbers, pickerel and anything else out of the Concord River, Walden Pond, the Assabet, Nashoba Brook and Warner’s Pond. Best of all my family had a plywood sailfish sailboat my father built in our garage from plans he got in somehow to magazine, and in that 12 feet of arc, I got my first taste of sailing–a taste that is as strong today as it was back then. My bedroom was a mess of magazine both strewn and piled–but always read: Boy’s Life, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Field and Stream, Sears Roebuck, National Geographics and any other magazine, book, or journal that fed my passions. Most of those publications are still around to buy in some way today, but there is an even larger world of bloggers out there who cover everything those magazines covered–and a whole lot more. These blogs and websites are where people go to feed their passions and develop their own knowledge and skills. It is where you go and where I go, and the better the blog or the better the site, the more often we return, and the more we return–the more of a mark that writer has left on the world. And that mark says something about that person. You. Something good, I hope.
In ancient Rome there was a saying: “De gustabus non disputantum,”otherwise known as “There is no accounting for taste,” which is a good thing because it keeps the world to this day interesting, diverse, and dynamic. We don’t have to like what other people like, nor are there any compelling reasons why we should–but we should like something; we should want to be knowledgeable about something, and be good at something, and to constantly be getting better at something. Think of your passions, and think of what you can do to live out that passion or passions and share it with the world. Think of what you are going to leave behind as your footprints in this life. You do not want to be like the drunk sailor Elpenor who fell off the roof and died a death that no one remembers or cares about. As Odysseus himself said: “No songs will be sung about him.” Your “digital footprint” is the song that is sung about you.
When I first started blogging with my classes–now close to ten years ago–most people were paranoid about kids names being “on the internet,” and so we built firewall on firewall behind private servers to keep you safe and removed from the real internet. In most ways it has been great. It gives you guys a safe place to practice living and sharing in the digital world without the dangers of anyone knowing you are out there. But times have changed. Soon you are going to want your name be out there–and out there in a good and positive way. You are not going to want someone to google your name and come up with…nothing. I am really proud to have discovered that it is relatively hard to study haiku and not come across my website at some point in your studies. I like that if someone googles my name they get the best of me and not the worst of me. I want that for you, too.
If you’ve got a passion, then keep learning and practicing and experimenting, and then share it with the world. If the seed dies with the flower, there is no beauty left behind.
Don’t Do It
I was eighteen and designing a production line for making stepladders at Fitchburgh State College—the only college I could afford, and probably the only place that would have me. I remember thinking, ‘Man, this ain’t no life for me.’ I barely had a working idea of what life meant, but I was pretty sure it meant I didn’t have to do something without any meaning or purpose—and I certainly didn’t want to spend my life designing a better stepladder.’
But, what did I want to do? Did I have the courage to even make a change in my life? If I had read The Odyssey, I might have known what to do; I might have known that I was on a heroic journey and that my call to adventure was the churning confusion in my gut, and I might have known to look for a helper and an amulet to get me over the threshold—that no quest is real until you realize that you cannot go it alone.
My helper was my English professor. I can’t even recall her real name, but she was old and sweet, and so we called her Aunt Bee—and she was sweet enough to ask me to stay after class to meet with her one day early in the fall. (Although I was petrified she was going to have me expelled for charging five dollars to any kid in my dorm to write their English papers for them.)
Instead, she held a paper in her hand that I had written, and a paper in which I actually cared about what I wrote. The day before she had told us to take a walk through the city and then write about the walk. Most of my classmates stayed in the dorm, laughed about how naive Aunt Bee was, and wrote some insipid scrawls that they thought would qualify as an essay—or they tried to get me to write an essay for less than five dollars.
But I took the walk. I wandered through the poorest streets in Fitchburgh; I sat on front steps with little kids and old men; I sat with drunks and dreamers, and I wondered. I wondered if my walk was actually real, or if I was even real, and then wrote some story about a kid who couldn’t tell if he was awake or dreaming or even which state of mind he wanted to live in. Aunt Bee shook this paper in my face and said bluntly, “You shouldn’t be an industrial arts major. This [shaking the paper even closer to my face] is your gift!”
Never once had anyone told me I had a gift of any sort, except perhaps for whittling birds out of scraps of soft pine. I don’t think Aunt Bee knew how ready I was for a change—any change. I seemed to take her off guard when I responded, “Okay. So what do I do?”
“Leave this place,” she answered.
So I left.
Never had a decision been so easy and so hard at the same time. It was easy because I knew in my heart that Aunt Bee was right, but it was hard because my parents thought I was throwing my life away—and I was: I threw my old life away and charted a new course into a world of words and literature—a world that I really knew nothing about.
That decision in 1976 is the reason I am writing this to you today. It has been the proverbial long and winding road, but I have never been let down by a book or hobbled by anything I wrote, even though much of what I’ve written is pretty dumb and forgettable.
There was very little academia in my new journey. I learned to write by writing. I learned to write better by listening to what people thought and felt about my writing. I joined some writing workshops where each week each person would bring in some poem or story to share with a circle of other would be writers. I learned what worked in my writing and what didn’t work—at least to the small universe of my writer’s circle. I never thought I was a good writer, and so I was never really bothered by what people said. I just thought, ‘Cool. I guess I should change this….’
Even after a few workshops, I still never thought I was a writer, until I one day a friend introduced me to his friend by saying, “This is Fitz. He’s a writer.” I protested that I was not a writer, and my friend just said, “Then what the hell else are you?”
“I don’t know. An apple picker, I guess,” for at the time I was picking apples with a crew of Jamaicans in a New Hampshire orchard.
“At any rate, Fitz is a better writer than he is an apple picker. That much I’m sure,” my friend said, sealing the deal and sealing my fate—a fate which, by and large, has been good to me.
But be careful, for you, too, might become a writer; and once you become a writer, you can’t turn back; you can only turn away. Such is the power and allure of writing. If schools really knew what happens when a kid becomes a writer, they would ban the teaching of writing. It’s like giving a ten year old the keys to a bad-ass car; it’s like pointing across a canyon and screaming, “Jump!” It’s like opening the window and pointing in every direction and saying, “This is all you need to know and everything you’ll ever try to know.”
Writing is unfettered and audacious freedom.
Don’t do it.
I stood in a long line waiting with Pipo for his first ever ride on a roller coaster. Things that move in strange ways are a big deal to him. When he first came to live with us, he was eight years old and had never even been in a two story house. On his second day here, we took him to Floating Hospital in Boston and strode into the elevator with an insouciance, which, in retrospect, reflected an utter lack of cultural awareness for a young boy in a strange land. The door shut, the elevator moved, and Pipo screamed and clutched me in his fear. Now, eighteeen months later, he stood wringing his hands, intermittently laughing and grimacing at the thought of the “The Yankee Cannonball.”
“Will it be scary?”
“Will I scream?”
“Will I throw up?”
“I don’t know. I might.”
“You better not!”
“We really don’t have to go.”
“Yeah, we do.”
I could see his head racing a hundred miles an hour. I distracted him by yelling at some high school kids who were swearing at each other. “Don’t do that.”
“Why? They shouldn’t be swearing.”
“What if they beat you up?”
“I’ll hide behind you.”
“Mama will beat them up if they beat you up.”
“She better. Comb your hair up so you’re forty eight inches tall.”
Leaning on his toes he was just the right height. Squeezing into the car the single safety bar held me in a crushing gut squeeze while leaving Pipo astonishingly free to squiggle and squirm. “Do people ever fall out?”
“What does ‘rarely’ mean?”
“It means that only kids who ask a million questions fall out.”
The cars slid toward the first hill and were grabbed by the chain. He held the hand grip, smiled, and raised his eyebrows in mock fear. “There’s the bus! I wish I was on the bus. I like the bus.”
“I like the bus, too.”
The first hill caught us both by surprise. “Oh, man.”
I couldn’t stop laughing. Pipo squinted his eyes and held the bar in front of him. I think he held his breath for ninety seconds. The girl behind us used every form of the F-word ever created. “Was it fun?”
“Want to go again?”
“No. Never again.”
We found the rest of the family in the water park. Dripping and shivering, they all ran up to Pipo and asked if he really went on the Yankee Cannonball. “Yup, but never again. No way, Jose’. Who wants to go on the bumper cars?” Denise looked at me like I was a bad father forcing his son to be a man. “He wanted to go.”
“Yeah, right. Was he even tall enough?”
“With a micron to spare. It was another one of those things he just had to do.”
Denise and I both understand that part of Pipo. When he decides to do something, he’ll do it, no matter how much angst it causes him—or us. He is not so much interested in overcoming fear as he is in facing his fears. He embraces fear as an experience and not merely as an emotion. It is a lesson in courage from which we can all draw inspiration.
The Yankee Cannonball is also a perfect metaphor for the written word. The empty page looms in front of us like the rickety roller coaster. We can’t call ourselves writers if we refuse to get in the car and go. We can’t call ourselves writers if we don’t tell the whole story, replete with every dip and turn of our inner and outer experience. We can’t give in to the temptation to leap from the car at the first sign of fear, and we can’t tell the story from a distance. But, that is exactly what so many writers do. They mistakenly believe that the cold reality of fact is more important than the multi-dimensional dynamic of experience. It is much safer to have opinions than to question assumptions. We want facts, and we want a sense of assuredness that we are making wise decisions in our lives, but are we always willing to take that ride with Pipo through the hairpin turns of experience? Are we willing to distill our facts through the directness of experience? Without the parable there can be no sermon.
Our lives our full of the parables upon which we can contribute an enduring legacy to the world. Those legacies are the journal entries, poems, songs, stories, novels, and essays that capture people’s imaginations and fires their passion, or simply stirs the embers of a world that needs pondering. I have no problem with the well-wrought essay that presents an impeccable line of reasoning and logical argument, but if I sense a fallacy, a hypocrisy, or a lack of magnanimity, I quickly create a distance between myself and the writer who is simply out to set me straight. Seek out the writers who know of what they speak, and you will be rewarded with a truth you can cherish and turn in your mind for years to come. To become that writer you need to return to the source of your own wisdom and chip away at the stone of memory until it takes a shape—the infinite and varied shapes of literature and writing—that can be held in our eyes and opened in our hearts, and our minds.
For years I have had an idea for a novel, but I never actually sat down to begin writing it. The idea was too complicated, the characters to diffuse, the length too daunting in the face of a busy lifestyle, but I thought of Pipo getting on the Yankee Cannonball in spite of every rational fear he had of roller coasters. So I began to take an hour or so out of every day and began writing my book. My car caught the clicking chain and took me to the point where gravity took over. I am barely down the first hill, but the ride is exhilarating and real. I see the track laid out before me, and, like Pipo, I’m not sure what every turn and twist will bring, but I do know there is an end to the ride, and that is where I draw my strength. Maybe I will walk away woozy and say “never again.” But at least I will know.
Think of what you “really” want to write.
And begin writing.
To Create Effective Transitions in Essay Writing
The Power of a Natural and Logical Flow
The crazy thing about transitions is that we are already masters of transitions. All of us have been practicing and perfecting a natural and logical flow for as long as we have been speaking. So whats the big deal when trying to employ effective transitions in our writing?
In all of my years of teaching and writing, no one has really defined what a paragraph is that has left me feeling like “Whoa, now I know!” When I write, I create new paragraph whenever it “feels” like a paragraph is needed. Where and how that “feeling” happens is the fodder for debate.
For the most part, my shifts are pretty much in line with accepted paragraph usage. I transition to a new paragraph when my thoughts shift in a new direction or there is a change—often even a very slight change—in mood and tone. Sometimes, I’ll even just hang a sentence out in space to give the reader a break or a pause for thought, but never as a break or pause for the writer, which would be like stopping in the middle of a conversation just because you want to rest.
As humans we have a great intuitive sense for how to complete a thought, how to move to a new thought, and how to end a conversation with some degree of grade and normality. A good writer develops the confidence to trust that intuition; a bad teacher hyper-analyzes it.
The annoying thing is that most of us have been taught (usually by that hyper analyzing teacher) that transitions are some kind of visible and mechanical bridge, and without the bricks and mortar of that bridge an essay will fall to pieces and crumble into a disarray of babbled words and incoherency.
Not true! An essay falls apart when the unifying theme of the essay becomes unglued or weighted down by too much extraneous stuff—stuff that does nothing to further your essay, stuff that makes a reader say, “I have no idea what you are trying to say!”
Simply put: know your topic and stick to it. Everything else will fall into place.
There is an Irish story of twin brothers, one who was very studious and the other not studious at all. Their assignment in English was to write an essay about a pet. After the papers were graded, the teacher called the less studious brother aside and said in a chiding way: “ Your essay about your pet dog was exactly the same as your brother’s essay.” To which the he responded, “What did you expect? It’s the same damn dog.”
The point of that story? If the reader knows what you are writing about, and you stay more or less focused on that topic (or topics) your reader will not be confused by how you structure your paragraphs or craft your transitions between paragraphs. If it reads like a conversation from your head and heart, no lasting damage has been done to the fabric of the universe.
But it still might be a lousy essay. And maybe it is lousy because of the way you transitioned (or more than likely did not transition) between paragraphs. Maybe your essay resembles more of a trip down a mountain ski slope in an old VW Beetle with your little brother punching you in the arm and yelling “Punch Buggy” the whole way down the hill.
The bottom line is that an essay needs—as in really needs—a natural and confident flow. A reader needs to feel that the writer is in control from start to finish, and anything that interrupts that flow is more annoying than it is engaging; otherwise, your essay is doomed to that anonymous dropbox in the cloud where most essays go when they die.
So make your essay live. Don’t just write—breathe! Make your essays as alive as you are. Be real and write about what you know, and if you don’t know, don’t fake it—learn what you need to know, and then start writing. And opposed to what many teachers teach, use the voice that is most alive in your head—even if it is the dreaded “I” voice. It is, after all, you who are writing. Be real. Avoid words you don’t already know and use. You don’t want to be one of those “phoneys” that Holden Caulfield singles out in Catcher in the Rye. Be real because you really are real and no one is better than you at being you.
So easy for a wordy English teacher to preach, and I am not the one writing the essay (Oh my god, he used the I voice in an essay!) and you are not the one who assigned the writing prompt, but like Odysseus sailing into the Straits of Skylla, the only way out is through, so write you must.
My long-winded preamble is over, and now I will give you a few tricks to help you create transitions in a traditional five-paragraph essay or any kind of formal essay that might be graded in a traditional and rigorous way by the mighty red pen of academia.
SOYET ANDOR NORFORBUT
My little acronym is meant to sound like a Russian spaceship, but it is merely a disguise for the all of the hidden coordinating conjunctions—those cool little words that connect independent clauses to create longer compound sentences, and which tie together two or more “related” thoughts.
That’s the main point: “two or more related thoughts.”
Now here is my little trick: “If” you could (thought you won’t actually do it) add a conjunction to the end of one paragraph and lead into the opening line of the next paragraph you have created a logical transition—a bridge between paragraphs that a reader can cross to your new thought without falling into the roiling water of confusion.
Huck Finn escapes society by escaping from his abusive father, but Jim seeks freedom from slavery for himself and his family.
The transition sentence at the end of the paragraph is:
Huck Finn escapes society by escaping from his abusive father.
The topic sentence or narrow theme of the next paragraph is:
Jim seeks freedom from slavery for himself and his family.
Stealing and Thievery
Technique number two uses the coordinating conjunction trick and takes it one step further.
Steal a theme, a topic, an idea—or even just a word—from one body paragraph and use it to start your next paragraph.
The cunning deceits of Odysseus help him overcome the trials he faces while trapped in the Cyclop’s cave, [but] without bravery, Odysseus could never pull off his cunning plans.
The transition sentence at the end of the paragraph is:
The cunning deceits of Odysseus help him overcome the trials he faces while trapped in the Cyclop’s cave.
The topic sentence or narrow theme of the next paragraph is:
Without bravery, Odysseus could never pull off his cunning plans.
The Conjunctive Adverb Trick
Like a coordinating conjunction, conjunctive adverbs connect two or more related independent clauses—but even better, conjunctive adverbs show the relationship between those independent clauses.
Conjunctive adverbs are words and/or phrases like:
accordingly, furthermore, moreover, similarly,
also, hence, namely, still,
anyway, however, nevertheless, then,
besides, incidentally, next, thereafter,
certainly, indeed, nonetheless, therefore,
consequently, instead, now, thus,
finally, likewise, otherwise, undoubtedly,
further, meanwhile, in spite of, on the other hand,
in contrast, on the contrary, ETC…
In the same way as techniques one and two, “if” you could put a conjunctive adverb at the end of a body paragraph and lead into the first sentence of the next paragraph, you have an effective transition—as long as you are using the conjunctive adverb correctly.
In Walden, Thoreau urges us to live more simply and thoughtfully; moreover, Thoreau gives an example of his own life and his own idea of simplicity and thoughtfulness through his experiment on Walden Pond.
The transition sentence at the end of one body paragraph is:
In “Walden,” Thoreau urges us to live more simply and thoughtfully.
The opening sentence of the next paragraph is:
Thoreau gives an example of his own life and his own idea of simplicity and thoughtfulness through his experiment on Walden Pond.
The Dangling Paragraph
This technique can save an essay from itself. Oftentimes, we have a paragraph or thought that is hard to connect to the next paragraph. The dangling paragraph comes to the rescue.
A dangling paragraph is a paragraph that is very brief compared to the body paragraphs it is sandwiched between. It’s effect on the reader is meant to be clear, concise and compelling—and even startling. It can be a statement, a question, or just a philosophical pondering.
Because I can imagine myself sailing in a twilight breeze across Pleasant Bay, I will put up with these days of gluing, screwing and painting, varnishing and rigging my old sailboat. Sometimes I wish I had the money to just buy a boat that doesn’t need so much of my time, but like anything else in life that steals my time, I must figure it’s worth it—and it is. I do other things with my time where I don’t have the same clarity of purpose. It is a rare moment of quiet in my house; the kids are all off with Denise somewhere, and though the grass is absurdly high; the van desperately needs an oil change, and the gutter is hanging by a twisted coat hanger, I sit here and force a few words out of emptiness. A part of me wants to show the folks in my writing communities that I practice what I endlessly preach to them—face the empty page! But it’s not that simple; I’ve been doing the same thing for almost thirty years, seldom with any goal but the action of writing itself.
Is it worth it? [This is the dangling paragraph!]
Everything that I write returns to me obliquely. I’ve never written for a publication; I’ve never even tried to get anything published, save for a small book of poetry and a couple of CD’s. I’m a whiz when it comes to writing recommendations, and I can write a decent song or poem for any occasion, but I still can’t say that I write out of a labor of love or because I have some over-arching goal. I write because it gives purpose and meaning and clarity to my life. It stills me when I need to be still, and it roils me out of my ignorant slumber when I need to wake and see the light of day. Used wisely, writing humbles my arrogance and helps me open my arms and doors when I might otherwise retreat into a self satisfied shell of complacency. It is worth a long day on the water to be there when the wind and tide help beat the way to a new harbor.
My goal with my short dangling paragraph was to shift my topic and to get my readers to ask the question with me. It’s purpose is to get the reader to stop, read, rethink and shift gears—as in to redirect the topic of the next paragraph. It allows a writer to avoid an otherwise messy transition and move his or her essay in a new direction.
Make sense to you?
That last paragraph is an example of another dangling paragraph! Used with care and discretion, it is an effective technique.
Used as a habit, it will soon become a bad habit.
Both 8th grade and 9th grade are working on opening paragraphs, and I bet more than a few of you are a bit stumped on how to start. Some of you may even be working on a conclusion.
Wouldn’t that be nice.
My best advice is to use the latest version of my iBook “Fitz’s Literary Analysis Rubric.” The latest version is in the Materials section of your course on iTunes U. If you do not have the latest version, simply delete your version in iBooks and upload the new version.
You can also go to the Opening Paragraphs site on my Resources and Rubrics Page, which has essentially the same information as in my iBook.
Here is a good opening paragraph for The Odyssey already turned in by Ahbinav Tadikonda. It might give you an idea of what might work for you–in your own words and ideas!
Everyday is the same: Odysseus travels the vast seas with his crew in hope to return home only to be disappointed day after day. Enduring the pain of a thousand men Odysseus keeps moving on, being the hero he is. But what is a hero anyways? When most people think of a hero, they think of a tall, muscular, and handsome being that could do no wrong; however, Odysseus is not all that perfect. Odysseus, is often rude, disrespectful, and not always the most attractive male. However he is still a hero. He shows he is a hero by the way he handles difficult times. For Odysseus disaster as constant as the sun rising everyday. Even getting out of bed has become dangerous for him. From battling cyclops’s to being away from family for over 17 years, it really makes you ask: how is it that through all the terrible times Odysseus still shows his maturity, bravery and courage?
For you ninth graders, check out this opening written by Mike Demsher a couple of years ago:
Throughout human history, we have advanced. Whether it is electronically, medically or socially, we have moved forward to a better society; however, could we be moving in the wrong direction? We have advanced our lives to a point where we are constantly hurrying with everything we do. We have been moving into a world where there is no real thought. We are in a philosophical dark age. The only way to snap ourselves out of it is to slow down and think. We must live deliberately each day and remember who we are meant to be. In Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Thoreau urges us to live our lives purposefully and to not give up who we are. He wants us to live with our eyes open and not to fall into the blur that society is moving towards. Henry David Thoreau wants us to live deliberately.
Done with all that…?
If you are working on your conclusion, go to my “Essay Conclusions” website and see the rubric there, which is geared towards concluding a literary anlaysis essay.
Please steal my rubric from me!
For the ninth graders writing an essay on Walden, the example essay on my “How to Write Literary Essays” site uses a Walden essay ( and a fine one) as an example of how to put together an entire essay.
It’s a big project, and I am really only hoping that your write carefully and use the rubrics carefully. If you do, you will do well.
I hope this helps!
I am surprised sometimes
by the suddenness of November:
beauty abruptly shed
to a common nakedness—
of people I’ve lost.
It is left to those of us
dressed in the hard
barky skin of experience
to insist on a decorum
that rises to the greatness
of a true Thanksgiving.
This is not a game,
against a badly scheduled team,
an uneven match on an uneven pitch.
This is Life.
This is Life.
This is Life.
Not politely mumbled phrases,
murmured with a practiced and meticulous earnestness.
Thanksgiving was born a breech-birth,
a screaming appreciation for being alive—
for not being one of the many
who didn’t make it—
who couldn’t moil through
another hardscrabble year
on tubers and scarce fowl.
Thanksgiving is for being you.
There are no thanks without you.
You are the power of hopeful promise;
you are the balky soil turning upon itself;
you are bursting forth in your experience.
You are not the person next to you—
not an image or an expectation.
You are the infinite and eternal you—
blessed, and loved, and consoled
by the utter commonness
and community of our souls.
We cry and we’re held.
We love and we hold.
We are the harvest of God,
to a new Thanksgiving.
Have a great break. Thanks for all of your good work this semester. No homework until you return!
Take your foot off the brakes, but keep your eyes on the road
Once, back in my days as a logger, I cut through a big white oak. I didn’t realize that the trunk was mostly rotten and hollow until my chain saw was most of the way through the monstrous tree. After the mad crush of the tree to the ground I noticed blood on my saw and on my legs. In cutting the tree down, I inadvertently massacred a whole raccoon family: a mom and seven incredibly small babies. I was pretty bummed about it all, but while moving the family out of the stump, I noticed the smallest ball of fur hobbling way on three legs.
One had survived. I picked him up and named him Rocky (after the main character in The Beatles big hit “Rocky Raccoon.” He fit into my shirt pocket with plenty of room to spare.
When I got home, I put him on the table in a cake dish filled with straw. I wasn’t even sure how to feed it. Its eyes were still closed. I heated up some milk in a pan on the stove and sucked some warm milk into an eye-dropper, and as luck would have it, Rocky slurped it up.
For the first few weeks warm milk was all Rocky could eat, but as time went on he grew into a fun little terror who would eat almost anything. He even learned to open the refrigerator door himself. He laid on his back in the mornings when I was milking my goats begging for me to squeeze the teats milk all over his face. He would steal the chickens’ eggs as if it were his birthright.
I felt like a young dad doing everything a dad needed to do. I wanted to raise a raccoon that could live in both worlds: the wild world and my world. After about six months Rocky was a pretty stout and healthy three-legged raccoon. I felt more and more confident that he could now live in both a feral and a wild world.
So I let Rocky outside on his own.
Later I saw a hawk circling overhead the hay field. I saw a coydog skulking in the tangle of brush beside the woods. I heard the awful cry of a fisher cat somewhere deep in the swamp.
Maybe I let Rocky go too soon. Maybe I should have given him a better rubric for life.
But that is no way to live…
Do you really need a rubric for this assignment?
I wrote this short story about twenty years ago after hearing an old folk tale retold by Jerry Bell. I took the gist of the story and remade it as a story set in a prison in Maine to retell myself as a story. Eerily similar to The Shawshank Redemption—though Hollywood is not knocking down my door. At any rate, I like it as a good story for Halloween. If you like understated creepiness, this is for you.
It was down mid coast Maine where this all occurred. A long way still from Boston where I am telling you this story. I was there in Stonington, in the state prison serving five years for the thieving and scuttling of a pair of dory’s belonging to the Bainbridge brothers—a no good pair who’d been hauling and stealing lobster from my own traps…and many another I suspect. I’m a decent, honest man. I owned up to everything I done. I didn’t want a lawyer so I didn’t even take me a lawyer. I thought they would see right for right, but it didn’t work out that way. Hit my family hard to lose me for so long…but that has stories of it’s own and nothing to do with the queer thing I was privy to as the cellmate of a certain Enoch Jones, sentenced to life in that hard place for the alleged murder of his entire family…his wife, his wife’s parents and five young children. Enoch always denied anything to do with that horrible and sensational crime…and we believed him…not that it is much solace to a lifer. I’d hear him some nights writhing and a turning in his bunk: “No,no,no…my babies…my babies.” Other times he’d sit and stare, tears just streaming down his face. Not the angry tears a lot of us shed just for being holed up in that hell of a prison. No, he was touched in a special way that even the meanest john doe in there couldn’t take to him unkindly. All the injustice in the world was wrapped up in that poor man…so much so that I know I wasn’t the only one who would very gladly trade places with him if it meant he could get out of that prison and lay some flowers on the grave of his family, and maybe, with God’s grace, find a little peace in his tortured world.
True fact is that a lot of people die in prison. Some that been incarcerated for so long, and out of touch with their kin for so long, that their death goes pretty much unnoticed. Those poor souls get buried in a field just north of the prison, carted out the west gate in Homer’s horse drawn wagon. Homer runs the carpentry shop. We prisoners all build things and they sell them in the Prison store right there on Route One. Mostly white pine furniture…some ship models too. Warden says it buys us turkey dinners on thanksgiving and clove ham on Christmas…cigarettes and stuff. Mostly it’s a way for us to kill some time, time being the biggest enemy of any prisoner. They say Homer had been there for fifty years or more, and that he didn’t have no other place to go. At least the State of Maine give him a roof, meals and a little something to do. At any rate, when one of them inmates died, they’d toll the prison bell in a slow mournful way for a good ten minutes or so. About the only tribute most of them ever got in their lives. That would be the signal for Homer to get a coffin built. He’d never have one ready beforehand—saying that it gives the dead man a little dignity to have his final resting place be custom made. Them coffins were nothing fancy but they were solid built out of the clearest pine we had in stock. Homer and Enoch had a real bond. They were an odd couple: the rich white businessman from Portland town and old Homer, growed up he said somewhere down south, but now so Maine he looked forward to the brutal winters, the smell of woodsmoke mixing in the stench from the processing plant. Everyone felt for Enoch, even so far as the guards and the warden himself. No one gave it much thought how much time Enoch spent in Homer’s shop. Doubt anybody would figure that Homer would be behind the first prison break in Stonington since the last war.
It wasn’t like there was a lot of dying going on in that Stonington prison, but in early November of 1972 Joshua Corkin come down with a truly severe pneumonia. Enoch spent a lot of time caring for Joshua, reading to him long poems and even longer praying with him from an old hymnal of Homer’s. One night Enoch sat on my bunk and very forthright told me the plan that he and Homer and Joshua had worked out. He said he owed me the truth for all the years I stood by him. And now that Joshua Corkin was so near to dying, it was time to make his escape from that hell in Stonington Maine. It was only then that I realized how desperate Enoch was to get out of prison. He said a wrong still had to be made right. That there was a man out there who had brutally slaughtered his family and that justice needed to be served. He said that Joshua laughed to think that they would be bunkmates for a while.
They all conspired to seal their fates on the evening that Joshua died. It worked like this: When Joshua died old Homer would retire to the shop and build for Joshua that custom coffin he so deserved but, maybe, given the circumstances, slightly larger. Enoch had the run of the place more than any man before or since, so it wouldn’t seem too peculiar for Enoch to give his friend Homer a hand in building the coffin. Before Joshua’s body was to be hauled away Enoch would sneak into the shop, climb into that coffin and find a space sidled up next to poor dead Joshua. Homer had rigged up a latch so that Enoch could lock the lid from the inside also. Homer would then haul the coffin up to the graveyard to be buried. After a few terse comments from the local parish priest Homer would fill in the grave and return to the prison like he done so many times before. The warden would never bat an eye when Homer asked to go out a few hours later and set a stone on the grave: Homer would carve it out of a foot square of granite: just a name and number—and the day that Joshua was born and died. It was then that Homer would dig Enoch free and set him on his way, with not a soul (aside from Homer and myself) knowing how he made his escape.
Well, that very next evening, just before dinner the mournful bells began their tolling and all of us in that prison in Stonington Maine bowed our heads in personal prayer for the soul of Joshua Corkin. Only a man in prison, deserted by family, and never at peace with God, knows the true horror of lonely, senseless death. I felt bad for Joshua but I also felt that he was dying a hero of some sort. I saw Enoch talking to the chief guard… then he winked at me. Last time I saw Enoch he was heading across the yard towards Homer’s carpentry shop. Best I can figure, and it haunts me some to think about it, is that everything happened this way: Must have been when Enoch got to the shop the coffin was already set to go. He must have heard the priest, the warden and Homer coming across the yard towards the shop. Enoch must have climbed into that coffin pretty quickly. It wasn’t as big, I imagine, as he hoped it would be. Air would be scarce during the next few hours and a little extra space would buy a little extra time. It wasn’t long before the horses snuffed and stammered and pulled out of the prison gate and made their way to the graveyard. The priest would never say much before the shoveling in would begin. I reckon Enoch was happy that the service was as short as it was.
It must have been a God awful quiet down there. I’m sure the dead don’t make for pleasant company. Time just crawling by and the stench of a corpse beginning to decay. I suppose at some point Enoch risked losing a little air for a look at his pocket watch. I try not to think of Enoch in that dark chamber, in the last flickering and dying light of his matchstick, gasping uncertainly for what little air was left, staring with a certain horror into the face of his old friend and would be savior, Homer.
I didn’t discover anything until mid the following day when I saw Louis, the stone mason, wrestling a block of granite into the Wagon. Simply said: “Homer, a friend to many.” I put it all together from there.
The State of Maine spent a long time trying to find Enoch. The warden said he felt betrayed and took it out a bit on us. Joshua died the very next day. I went and said a prayer with him just before he passed. I told him to hold on, that Enoch and Homer were on their way over.
Memories are long and truth, I guess, should always be told. I’m a good and decent man and so got my parole at my first hearing. On the first dark and moonless night I dug up Enoch and took him and buried him alongside his wife and children; I cut the turf so neat clean and replaced it so tight that no one ever knew. Then I scattered the prettiest flowers the world has ever seen. I also took care of Enoch’s business for him. I was his cellmate for over three years. I knew where to find the bastard. It is strange how you can take a life and not feel a thing. Enoch’s nightmares were always a torture to me.
But no more.”