“Can We Use I In This?”

47134_floral_i_smA recent writing assignment in my college composition class involved telling about a change experienced or witnessed by each writer. One student told about an interesting situation (too personal to be detailed here), but her language was convoluted and highly formal. I almost felt like reading it required wearing a tux.

I told her, “I can’t find you in here.” She said, “Well, maybe it’s because I took out all the Is.”

“Didn’t you have to flip a lot of these sentences to get the Is and mes out of here?” I asked.

“Yeah, but I didn’t know we could use I in this.”

“Can we use I in this?” is a question I’ve heard many times as students begin to frame a new piece of writing, even writing that is obviously personal in nature, such as a reflection on a book or passage, or a college application essay. The question always baffles me.

Why would it not be OK to use first person pronouns? How can anyone write about his thoughts or experiences while avoiding first person pronouns? Why would anyone want to read something personal by a writer who can’t refer to herself?

When I write, I’m using my words and my ideas. I claim them. So referring to myself, either in passing or at length, requires using some form of I or me, unless I want to resort to the kinds of linguistic contortions and hyper-formality contrived by my well-intentioned student.

When I tell students it’s fine to use I, they don’t trust my permission. They’ve heard too many times that I should not be used in writing. Or at least they think that’s what they’ve heard.

To help me understand how this issue looks from their perspective, I asked my students, “What is your understanding of the rules about using first person pronouns such as I and me?” Here are some responses from high school seniors and college freshmen:

“You can’t have Is in papers that are for classes.”

“One of my teachers said that other people can’t relate to it if you use I.”

“Using ‘I think’ takes away from the power of what I’m saying. If I state my opinions as facts, they are more powerful.”

“It’s not your own thoughts anymore when you have to reword it to avoid I.”

It is true that some teachers forbid the use of first person pronouns. Maybe it’s because many schools and teachers are emphasizing research-based writing and seem to be biased against narrative or other personal types of writing. That narrow approach can strangle the voices of young writers.

I’m sure that most teachers have explained the first person pronoun dilemma correctly: Using first person pronouns is fine in some situations, and using first person pronouns is not fine in other situations. But many students process that as “Too complicated. I can’t risk it; therefore, I will never use first person pronouns.” The result is that many high school and college writers are walking around with the idea that using I in their writing is wrong.

The primary consideration, of course, should be the purpose of the writing. If the purpose of the writing is to be personable, we’re going to have to use some Is. If the purpose of the writing is to be completely objective, then we won’t use first person pronouns. (If the writing is persuasive in nature, I still think it’s OK to use first person pronouns. An opinion’s merit isn’t weakened by presenting it as an opinion.)

Sei_Shonagon_artist_unknownIf we want our writing to be formal, even when talking about ourselves, we should probably use the third person one instead of first person pronouns. Writing in the 10th Century, Japanese ur-essayist Sei Shonagon said, “I have been very shocked to hear important people use the word ‘I’ while conversing in Their Majesties’ presence. Such a breach of etiquette is really distressing, and I fail to see why people cannot avoid it.” Interestingly, in this passage Shonagon uses I, apparently opting for informality and granting something less than magisterial status to her readers.

Let’s look at this from a perspective larger than pronouns. The most important ability we can help develop in young writers is decision-making. A writer takes stock of her situation by considering her purpose, audience, and goals. She then makes decisions about how to best capitalize on the contours of that rhetorical situation. When it comes to writing, good decision-makers will follow the right rules for the right reasons. Otherwise, writers will become stuck in their development at the point where their decision-making is trumped by rule-following.

We should guide student writers to become better decision-makers and not concern ourselves too much with guiding them to be rule-followers.

Thanks for sharing your advice about how you help student writers navigate this issue.

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How TIME Magazine Blew Its Cover

ApplesTime magazine’s current cover story is raising some hackles among educators. After reading the article, my impression is that Time magazine goofed pretty badly with this cover.

The actual story deals with challenges to teacher tenure laws, mostly in California. The article by political writer Haley Sweetland Edwards is an articulate, fairly balanced journalistic piece alliteratively entitled “Taking on Teacher Tenure.” The essence of the article is that some very rich people are plowing a lot of money into their visions of what American education should be, and part of their vision is getting rid of tenure laws: “The reform movement today is led not by grassroots activists or union leaders but by Silicon Valley business types and billionaires.” None of this is particularly startling news. Billionaires involving themselves in public education has been a growing trend over the past decade. The actual “news” is that back in June a California lower court judge “struck down five decades-old California laws governing teacher tenure and other job protections on the ground that they violate the state’s constitution.”  That judge’s ruling is now worming its way through the California’s court system’s appeal process.

So, the article focuses on an event that happened five months ago and plants it in the context of a trend that has been obvious for quite some time. I don’t know about you, but I expect a little more timeliness from Time magazine.

Then there is the cover. The bold headline “Rotten Apples” accompanies an image of a judicial gavel coming down on what appears to be a pretty tasty-looking apple. The text says “rotten” but the picture shows the opposite of rotten. In my writing classes, we call that muddled thinking or, at best, a lack of clarity. Does the picture intend to illustrate how perfectly good apples are being smashed by judicial gavels? If so, the headline should reflect that.

Then there are two subheadings below the “Rotten Apples” headline. The first subheading says, “It’s Nearly Impossible to Fire a Bad Teacher.” That qualifying “Nearly” weakens any boldness inherent in “Impossible.” Although “Difficult” might be a better choice, it’s not really accurate. It isn’t “nearly impossible” or terribly difficult “to fire a bad teacher” as the Time cover suggests.

We can all agree there are some bad teachers, just as there are subpar practitioners of any occupation, and we can probably agree that students should not be subjected to those bad teachers. Bad teachers need to be remediated or removed. The agreement begins to crumble, however, when we try to define “bad teachers” and, more importantly, who gets to do that defining.

When I was in a leadership position, I was involved in releasing tenured and non-tenured teachers who were not performing their jobs as well as expected. Although I took no pleasure in removing teachers from their jobs, I did what I thought was best for our students, and it wasn’t “nearly impossible.” Although it can be emotionally difficult, releasing a non-tenured teacher doesn’t require much tactical or legal preparation. Releasing a tenured teacher requires following due process, which involves an investment of some time and energy, but the law is the law.

A common misunderstanding is that teacher unions protect bad teachers, which isn’t really true. As a former union president and a third-generation union member, I’m very comfortable saying again that bad teachers need to be remediated or removed. Bad teachers reflect poorly on the rest of us. Unions protect due process, but they do not protect bad teachers.

Unions also protect teachers from incompetent or predatory administrators. I’ve worked with many administrators who are effective, selfless, inspirational leaders, but I’ve also worked with a few who are, well, not exactly stellar human beings. I wish we didn’t need unions to protect teachers from that kind of administrator, but unfortunately we do.

Back to the Time cover. The second subheading says, “Some Tech Millionaires May Have Found a Way to Change That.” Again, the qualifying “May” renders the statement almost meaningless. The title of the article inside the magazine—“Taking on Teacher Tenure”—more accurately reflects the content of the article and the current state of the topic under discussion.

This topic should have never been the cover story. It’s not timely (no pun intended) or particularly urgent. It’s an interesting, important, developing story, but Time’s hyperbolic cover undercuts any seriousness contained in the article.

But the name of this blog is What’s Not Wrong? So, let’s end with a story that is timely, accurate, and positive. Congratulations to the new Illinois Teacher of the Year, my former colleague Steve Elza! Steve is the kind of person all parents want their kids to have as a teacher. He is a brilliant educator and a great guy. You can read about Steve Elza here.

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Review: EL DEAFO by Cece Bell

41f26kt7UDL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Cece Bell’s new graphic novel El Deafo is a masterpiece. After a brief childhood illness leaves her deaf, Cece makes her way through elementary school and middle school with a large apparatus under her clothes and cords leading to her ears. El Deafo presents what happens during those years but also captures Cece’s thinking and imagining as she interacts with friends, family, teachers, and an environment rendered incomprehensible at times by her malfunctioning hearing aid.

Cece Bell’s child-self earns a reader’s sympathy without melodrama. She is a sensitive child, but she is also resourceful. She is reluctant to speak at times, but her mind knows exactly what needs to be said, and her alter ego El Deafo lets us know that side of Cece too.

24BOUTON-master495-v2The other kids in El Deafo are presented authentically in how they treat Cece. One is so self-absorbed that she virtually ignores her friend’s deafness. Another exaggerates her speech, not knowing that makes it more difficult for Cece to lip-read. There is the dreamy neighbor boy who Cece crushes on, but we eventually see that he has a rebellious side too, and he brings out a side of Cece that hasn’t previously surfaced. El Deafo also includes a bully who is mean to Cece in a way that has nothing to do with her deafness. Cece knows true friendship when it finally arrives, and that emotion comes through clearly.

Visually appealing almost to the point of cuteness, El Deafo will engage a wide range of readers who struggle with finding friends and feeling different from everyone else. As El Deafo helps its readers see themselves and others more clearly, this nudge toward greater empathy becomes a gift in the form of a graphic novel.

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Just Keep Going: Writing Strategies for Elaboration

scribbleIn one of my first class sessions with a group of college writers, I gave a survey asking what issues they wanted us to definitely cover this semester. The most common concern was how to add length to their pieces of writing.  This wasn’t a surprise to me; actually, it was kind of a relief. In their first journal assignments, many wrote paragraphs that took up only three or four lines on a page, so I was glad to see on the survey that they recognized a valid area of needed growth.

Here are some simple suggestions for making a piece of writing longer. Of course, the shape and depth of the ideas should determine the length of the piece, but these practical tips will generate more content.
      1. Just keep going. Oooh, that one’s deep, deeeeep. I know it’s artificial, but when students are practicing adding sentences to paragraphs, and paragraphs to their essays, they need to build up some stamina. So just keep going. Fill the page. Teach them to ask themselves, “What else do I know about this?” or “What else can I say about this?” If the writing strays from the topic, that’s fine for now. It’s kind of like when children are first learning to draw, and they create wild, unrecognizable explosions of colors and then proudly announce that it’s a picture of you. Eventually, with practice, children learn to sharpen their representations. The same is true of developing writers, but before they can practice the skill of focusing, they must have enough material to bring into focus.
      2. When a puzzled student asks how long paragraphs should be, I give two suggestions. I tell her to hold her index finger and thumb as far apart as possible. The space in between is about how big a paragraph should be. Again, I know it’s artificial, but developing writers appreciate that visual guideline, and I can’t tell you how many former two-line-paragraph writers I’ve seen framing paragraphs with their fingers as they try to gauge if their new paragraphs are long enough. It works.
      3. The other suggestion is for those who want to know how many sentences should be in a paragraph. I say, “There is no perfect answer, but aim for seven.” Again, this moves the two-sentence-paragraph writers into new levels of elaboration and provides a certain measure of confidence for those uncertain about what a paragraph should be. After they become accustomed to writing longer paragraphs, this rule and that finger strategy go away naturally.
      4. Longer sentences make for longer paragraphs, so I also show how to revise at least some of the sentences in each paragraph by embedding a detail or descriptive clause.
      For example, Abraham Lincoln was the only president not affiliated with a religious denomination. becomes Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s most admired leaders, was the only president not affiliated with a religious denomination. With this addition, a 12-word sentence becomes a 18-word sentence, adding 50% more words to the sentence. Is this mere padding? Maybe, but the goal here is helping writers learn strategies for adding mass to their writing. Making judgments about that mass can come later.

Beyond simply making existing paragraphs longer, students may wonder what else they can write about when they feel like they are out of ideas. Here are three approaches to try that can add a juicy paragraph or two to a piece of writing.
      1. Provide examples of the main idea. These can be personal examples, hypothetical examples, or factual examples.
      2. Offer an opposing view. In addition to giving one’s own reasons or perspectives on a topic, describe how it might be seen by someone who disagrees or has a different cultural point of view.
      3. Although it probably depends on the purpose of the writing, I believe a narrative section is an appropriate way to illuminate persuasive writing or other expository writing. A narrative section can theoretically appear anywhere in a piece of writing, but students can usually easily see how a brief narrative can function as part of an effective introduction.

Each of these strategies is a way to add words to sentences, sentences to paragraphs, or paragraphs to essays. They will not automatically make a piece of writing better, but they will make it longer. Although some of these may seem gimmicky, they have the effect of asking students to think more, to probe a bit deeper, to push through when the easy part is over.

Writing represents ideas. When the amount of writing increases, the ideas are also likely to be bigger. Writers may not know what they know until they write it down. When we provide ways for them to write more, we are simultaneously helping them enlarge and better understand their own thinking.

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Eight Quick Book Reviews

If Only by A. J. Pine

20798976Although romance isn’t exactly my default reading genre, a guy needs to stretch, right? If they’re all as good as A. J. Pine’s If Only, I might dabble in this again. Everything I want in a story is here: likeable characters, humor, a dash of the exotic, and a narration that drives through to a satisfying conclusion.

College student Jordan Brooks, the protagonist of If Only, is beginning a year of study in Scotland. On the train ride to her Aberdeen campus, she makes out with two different guys—one is a bad boy, and the other has a girlfriend. And we’re off!

The dialogue is witty, flirtatious, and funny, but these characters are smart too. The Great Gatsby, A Room with a View, and Much Ado about Nothing all play important roles in the plot, although a reader not familiar with those titles will have no trouble understanding what is going on.

Travel narratives have two appealing conventions: descriptions of a locale’s most interesting features, and the knowledge that our traveler must eventually go home. If Only capitalizes on both of those ideas, providing a charming, vicarious vacation for readers.

Disclaimer: I was surprised to find myself in the acknowledgements, but I’m proud to be there. A. J. Pine is my friend and former colleague. Friendship is a theme that runs through If Only, reminding us what it’s like to be in an interesting circle of friends.

Knockout Games by G. Neri

20670086Maybe you’ve seen the videos. Random strangers attacked on city streets by kids who seem to have no purpose other than assaulting their victims.

G. Neri, author of the Coretta Scott King Award-winning Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, takes us inside a St. Louis knockout club, a group of middle school and high school kids dedicated to pursuing random violence and capturing it on video. Narrated by the newest member of the club, Erica (nicknamed Fish), a skilled video artist, Knockout Games is as brutal and edgy as it is authentic and important.

Neri doesn’t provide easy answers for why attacking unsuspecting strangers is a gratifying experience for some young people, but readers gain insights into a street culture rarely glimpsed beyond those shocking videos.

Andre the Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown

18465496Because professional wrestling is pop story-telling filled with melodrama and cartoon-ish characters, a graphic novel is the perfect marriage of format and content for Box Brown’s Andre the Giant: Life and Legend. Arguably the best known professional wrestler of all time, Andre the Giant weighed 600 pounds and stood well over seven feet tall. He was world-famous in the wrestling ring, and eventually appeared in movies and on talk shows. Cartoonist Box Brown portrays Andre as a human excessive in his vices but also kind and gentle at times, as well as a sympathetic figure whose size was due to a disease (acromegaly) that made people stare at him in fear from an early age, caused him daily physical pain, and led to an early death.

Andre the Giant: Life and Legend includes a few eff-bombs and sexual situations that may make it questionable for some younger readers, but this is perfect for those who want to read something like Derf Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer.

Deep Shadow by Randy Wayne White

6642072Deep Shadow, the seventeenth Doc Ford novel by Randy Wayne White, is one of the best in the series. I’m not sure what makes this such an excellent thriller–the bumbling mass murderers, the giant reptiles, or the healthy helping of Florida lore. The book’s entire action takes place within a few hours and much of it occurs underwater. Alternating points of view between Ford, Tomlinson, and the bad guys, make this a real page-turner. I recommend reading the Doc Ford books in order, and this one is definitely worth the wait.





Night Vision by Randy Wayne White

8662018Set against a backdrop of human trafficking and illegal steroid manufacturing, Night Vision, the eighteenth Doc Ford novel by Randy Wayne White, is captivating but not one of the best in the series. The elements which make this series so enjoyable for me are still here but they are almost in the background. Tomlinson, Doc Ford’s hippie best friend, appears briefly at the beginning and end of the story. Doc Ford himself is off stage for what seems like more than half the book, as we are brought up close to the bad guys for long stretches with the understanding that Doc Ford is on the way to the rescue. If you’re a fellow fan of the Doc Ford series, don’t skip this one, but it’s also not one of the better installments in the series. The alligator attack at the beginning of Night Vision is my favorite part.

Sisters by Raina Telegemeier

17801394Although it kept my attention, I couldn’t quite get a handle on Sisters. Raina Telgemeier’s two previous graphic novels–Smile and Drama–were satisfying stories, but this one seemed to be in search of what it was really about. Tied together by a family car trip, other episodes are juxtaposed to show how the sisters relate differently to what is going on around them. Young readers may connect with the various episodes involving cousins, pets, and the need to keep electronics fully charged, but I thought Sisters skimmed along too lightly on big issues involving family. To be completely honest, it’s possible that my enjoyment was affected by the fact that the graphic novel e-galley I received was mostly in black-and-white, although the publisher included a note saying that the final version “will be in full color throughout.” So, it was kind of like reading a novel with most of the adjectives removed. I hope to read the full color version after publication.

Congratulations, by the way by George Saunders

18373298Writing a review for Congratulations, by the way—the newest title from George Saunders—feels a little bit like writing a review for an expensive greeting card. But it’s presented to us as a book, so I’ll try to regard it as a book. Actually, it’s a Syracuse University graduation speech, with a good and important message: Be kind.

That deceptively simple message is presented with humor and pathos, and in this edition it is illuminated by a series of abstract drawings that effectively enhances the idea that kindness is a choice we make not only for the good of others but for the benefit of “that luminous part of you that exists beyond personality—your soul, if you will.” Saunders gives us an intellectual defense of why kindness matters, as well as some practical advice on how to get started on being kinder. George Saunders will probably eventually publish a follow-up to The Braindead Megaphone, his excellent collection of nonfiction pieces, and this text would have fit nicely there, but as a stand-alone book, Congratulations, by the way will likely and deservedly reach more people.

I’ve read this brief book three times. Since then, I’ve had a few failures of kindness. In a couple of cases, George Saunders has popped into my mind, and I’ve gone forward with a renewed commitment to kindness. Most graduation speeches flicker out by the time that caps and tassels hit the ground, but this one is sticking with me.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

17333223I see why The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize this year. The story begins with a child, Theo Decker, involved in a compelling tragedy, and then his life is twisted by the fascinating cast of supporting characters. At the heart of it all is a small painting exerting its artistic energy on Theo, leading readers to consider and reconsider the works of art that matter to us.

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SlouchingCvr_211If you followed the St. Paul Saints of the Northern League in 1996 and 1997, you probably remember that your team included several memorable characters. The team leader was a convicted felon with Hall of Fame credentials. His name was Darryl Strawberry. One of the other outfielders under consideration in spring training had no legs.

The pitching ace was Jack Morris, a former major league all-star trying to launch a comeback with personal charm somewhat akin to a rabid Rottweiler. Another pitcher was a converted outfielder who threw a no-hitter in his first start on the mound. Of course, you remember Ila Borders, the first female to play in an all-male professional baseball league. The closer was so handsome that he could use the world’s worst pick-up lines in country bars around the Midwest and leave within minutes with the most beautiful girl in the place.

The St. Paul Saints were also surrounded by quirky individuals off the field. One of the team’s owners was Mike Veeck. The worst promotion in major league history, Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago, was Mike’s brainchild, although his father, 20th century baseball imagineer Bill Veeck, took responsibility for the fiasco. The St. Paul Saints ownership also included arguably the finest comedic actor of our time, Bill Murray, who liked to show up at game time, sometimes selling beer in the stands or coaching first base or tossing out the first pitch by throwing it high over the press box and out of the stadium. The third base coach was Wayne Terwilliger, one of only three men to spend fifty years in uniform.

In the stands you could get a massage during the game. The masseuse was a nun. And one of the radio announcers during the 1997 season was blind.

I don’t know when I’ve had as much fun reading a baseball book as I did with Neal Karlen’s Slouching Toward Fargo, a wildly entertaining account of two seasons with the St. Paul Saints, a very successful independent league team. The Saints motto—Fun Is Good—definitely carries over to Slouching Toward Fargo.

Why did I enjoy it so much? The characters are so fascinating that you could probably make a pretty good book out of any one of them. But they were all in St. Paul at the same time, and Neal Karlen had access to them.

Because my favorite major league team—the Chicago Cubs—is woeful, again, this year, I’ve been paying attention to the Frontier League, another independent league. It’s a competitive circuit with its own quirks (seven-inning games for double-headers, one team that plays all of its games on the road, etc.). Everything I like about independent leagues is on full display in Slouching Toward Fargo.

A bonus for me was two of my favorite former Cubs—Hector Villanueva and Dwight Smith—make cameos appearances as they played for the Saints during these seasons. (Villanueva was tagged with the honor of having the biggest butt in the Northern League.)

But Slouching Toward Fargo isn’t just about fun. The players are trying to live their dreams, although those dreams have various shapes. Mike Veeck is trying to regain major league credibility after the disco demolition debacle from years earlier. Bill Murray is searching for a place where he can find peace. Author Neal Karlen frames the book as a Rolling Stone assignment originally designed to be a hatchet piece on Murray that evolves into something more meaningful in his life as a writer.

I don’t know how I missed Slouching Toward Fargo when it was originally published in 1999, but I’m glad that Summer Game Books has brought it back in a new edition with a fresh foreword by Mike Veeck.

Slouching Toward Fargo is the book you need when you start to miss what you liked about baseball in the first place.

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BBQ_FnlCvr_eBk_-_min_1400x2000_225x225-75As I write this on June 13, 2014, the Chicago Cubs, my favorite team, are twelve games under .500 and twelve-and-a-half games out of first place. I search the standings for signs of hope. A winning record at home and a 6-4 record over the last ten games might be enough to fan the flickering flames of my attention, but I’m going to need some baseball books too.

Thank goodness for Summer Game Books, a publisher of high quality, interesting, new and classic baseball books. Thank goodness too for A Whole Lot of Bar-B-Q and other Baseball Stories by prolific baseball writer and editor Mike Shannon, published this spring by Summer Game Books.

Mike Shannon’s excellent collection appropriately leads off with a story that begins in childhood, and just as appropriately ends with a story about the death of a major leaguer and the legacy he leaves behind for his family. In between are a rich helping of baseball stories dealing with the many ways that the game powerfully intersects with off-the-field situations.

Several of Shannon’s stories involve baseball books and journalism.  Others relate to how baseball’s history is preserved and conveyed to later generations of fans. “Dead Roses,” for example, includes a character who tries to curate a display of Pete Rose memorabilia but is shaken by the recurring appearance of a ghostly vision of Pete Rose as a child.

Of course, baseball’s history also includes segregation and outright racism. Mike Shannon uses that era as the backdrop for two stories, including my favorite in this collection “The Day Satchel Paige and the Pittsburgh Crawfords Came to Hertford, N. C.” When Paige’s barnstorming team meets the town bigots who refuse to serve them before their game against the local team, the Crawfords’ revenge is sweet, perfect, and hilarious.

Although the stories are not specifically related to each other, they do seem to have a thoughtful order. The last half of the book features players trying to adjust to life after the end of their careers as major leaguers. One character must live with making a World Series-ending error. Another considers becoming a team owner.

I highly recommend Mike Shannon’s A Whole Lot of Bar-B-Q and other Baseball Stories to help you get through a long season, if that’s what you’re dealing with, or as a complement to a great year for those of you with a winning team–like all of you Brewers fans.

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Goodbye, Fremdland

On the last day of the last year at the school where I’ve worked for a very long time, it seems sort of oddly perfect to be sitting by myself in a room monitoring detention students who are not here, which gives me a little time and space to reflect. So, what have I been thinking about lately as this year winds down?

1. So many good people have passed through my life within these walls. I’m grateful for the relationships. It doesn’t matter whether they were students or colleagues. We were humans growing and learning together. That’s the most important thing.

2. At a retirement celebration earlier this week, I asked one of my pals who’s been retired for a few years if he had any advice for me. His answer: “Yeah. Don’t get hit by a bus on Friday. That would be really stupid.”

3. The question I’ve been asked the most is “So, what are you going to do next?” The best answer I can give right now is “I’m going to take some time and figure that out.” In recent years I’ve become pretty clear on the distinction between my job and my work. My job is ending. My work isn’t done. I have some inklings of what I’d like to do, but it keeps shifting. I have definite ideas about what I don’t want to do, but that’s not a good platform for decision-making. I’m well aware of how fortunate I am to be 55 years old and retired from a gratifying job.

4. The other question I’ve been asked quite a bit is “So, how does it feel?” Well, it feels pretty weird, probably because it’s a mixture of emotions. I’m happy because I have new opportunities in front of me, even though I don’t quite know what they are yet. I’m happy because I know too many good people who didn’t get to have a retirement, and I’m sad as I think about those friends I lost too soon. The frustrations with my job in recent years have not been resolved, but they will no longer matter to me personally in a few hours, and I believe the issues will soon evolve in a positive direction for the colleagues I’ve leaving behind.

The strangest feeling is one I don’t know if I can articulate. For the last few decades I’ve been soaking up experiences and ideas with this in mind: “How can I use it in class?” The products of my professional life and thinking have played out in my classes, and I no longer have classes. I can’t stop thinking and learning, so how will I spend that processing? That’s an interesting challenge and part of my larger upcoming decision-making.

4. I’ve worked really hard this year. I worked hard every year, but this year I put extra pressure on myself to do things as well as they can possibly be done. I gave thorough feedback to writers in a variety of ways. I spent every ounce of enthusiasm I had on helping students see themselves as authentic readers and writers. When anyone asked me for something that would help their lives, I tried to do it. I never said, Sorry—too busy. I honored my pledge to my students that I would only ask them to do things that I thought had authentic value, and if we had to do something that I didn’t believe in, I would tell the truth about that. I stayed up to speed on important issues in education and used that knowledge for perspective on what I said and wrote throughout the year. I used every possible opportunity to integrate technology into my curriculum. I continued to try new approaches, new materials, and new activities. I feel like I’m crossing the finish line at full speed.

5. My family is the most important thing in my world. Always has been, always will be.

6. So many people have said nice things to me and about me over the last few months. I might even start believing some of it. When my passions boiled over a couple of times this year, I’m especially grateful for those who told me that I was being … difficult.

(The detention student just showed up. She said, “Hi, Mr. Anderson. Are you excited that it’s your last year?” I told her, Yes. She said, “You should write another book.” When I asked her what the book should be about, she said, “Everything.” I like that idea.)

I know I’m lucky because I don’t have to wonder if my career (so far) meant anything. There will be no existential debate about that. The biggest lesson is that Yes, what teachers do matters, so we had better do it well and right. The ripples go on and on, affecting people we remember vividly, some we may not remember clearly, and still others we will never know. Most of the noblest people I’ve known in my life are teachers, and our job is profoundly important. Being a part of that tribe is an inspiring responsibility and opportunity.

So, my future blog posts will be from a guy who used to work at Fremd High School. Thanks to everyone who reads this and uses it as a catalyst for appreciating teachers. Share that appreciation with teachers who have meant something to you or your children.

Career and retirement advice is welcome below. Mwah!

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The Journal Topics

journals photoToday members of our Expository Composition class wrote their final journal entries and handed in their well-worn spiral notebooks. I’m so proud of how many words and pages they wrote, and the profound wisdom and entertaining writing found in those notebooks.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about integrating journal writing into a writing class, how I set it up, grade it, etc. As some readers know, for the past few semesters I have posted our class journal topic on Twitter each day, and it’s always fun when someone tweets a response. Thanks to those who have played along.

Recently I’ve had some requests for the list of journal topics I have used. So, here it is.

Some of these are adapted from other sources, but I’m a little worried that some of the topics listed below are borrowed from sources that I’ve forgotten. If you see something I should attribute to someone else, please do me a favor and let me know.

Those familiar with Natalie Goldberg’s work will immediately see her influence on this list. In some cases, I know exactly who inspired it, and I’ve provided attribution in those cases.

I hope this list helps teachers and inspires young writers to think and write deeply about their influences, outlooks, and experiences.

The Journal Topics

Begin with this:  I remember …

Begin with this:  I don’t remember …

Tell about your favorite clothing item.

Tell about something that happened near water.

Tell about when you’re most comfortable.

Tell about the time you didn’t go.

Tell about a trait you probably inherited.

Tell about when you feel awkward.

Tell about when you feel confident.

Tell about when you don’t want to be disturbed.

Tell about a work of art (painting, song, film, poem, etc.) that has meant something
to you.

Tell how you knew it was over.

Tell what normal means.

Tell about green.

Tell about a memorable car ride.

Tell about something someone (maybe you) said yesterday that is still relevant

Tell about what you don’t understand.

Tell about the games you like (or don’t like) to play.

Tell about something from your refrigerator.

Tell how to do something that you do really well.

Tell about what isn’t fair. Should we expect to be rewarded for doing the right thing?

Tell about your luck.

No words today. Just draw.

Tell about when you tried to be perfect.

Tell about the difference between passion and obsession.

Tell about a memorable meal.

Tell what you think about at night.

Begin with this: I Am From …

Tell about something that starts w B.

Tell about your ideal college.

Tell about an argument.

Tell about your stress.

What else do you need?

Write a 26-sentence alphabet entry. The first sentence should begin with A, the second sentence with B, all the way through to the last sentence beginning with Z.

If you could do whatever you wanted, what would you do right now?

Tell about trust.

How are you intelligent? (from Sir Ken Robinson in The Element)

What food or drink best represents your personality?

What’s your subplot?

Tell how your hair has changed over time.

Tell about leftovers.

Tell about a change you would like to see in your school.

Tell about when you were surprised.

Tell about your favorite elementary school memory.

What are you waiting for?

Tell about what you’ve never been asked.

Tell about a time you couldn’t see.

Tell about a baby.

Without complaining, tell why you felt (or feel) stuck.

Write in praise of something not usually praised–fleas, garbage, mold, etc.

Tell about a first meeting.

Tell about an interesting non-English word or phrase.

Tell about a person you see regularly but don’t really know.

Tell what you wish more people knew about you.

Tell about what surprised you.

Tell about what you tried to fix.

Tell about your music.

Begin with this:  I’m glad my name isn’t …

Tell about wearing high heels or neckties.

Tell about what doesn’t matter.

Tell about one of your responsibilities.

Tell what you would do if you were invisible for a day.

Look through your journal. Tell about what you see in there.

Tell about something minor that turned major.

Write the apology you should give, or receive.

Begin with this: “I used to believe…”

Do we get the lives we deserve?

Begin with this:  No thank you. (from Natalie Goldberg)

Tell about what you see in the mirror.

Tell about a smell you encounter frequently.

Begin with this:  What if…

What do you have stored or saved?

Begin with this:  I want to be ____ because _____.

What did you recently realize?

Tell about your favorite lie.

Tell about your favorite picture of yourself.

Tell about when you won.

Make a list of all you’ve learned in the past week, in school and out.

Tell how you want to live.

Tell about an interesting family member.

Tell about the best advice you have received (or given).

Tell about something someone said yesterday that is still relevant today.

Make a list of your strongly held beliefs.

Tell about your favorite animal.

Tell about a time you screamed.

What is a current trend (fashion, music, media, technology, etc.) that you particularly like or dislike?

Tell about yourself as a little kid. How are you still kind of the same? How are you different?

Tell about something you earned.

In one page, tell about your mother or father.

Tell about one of your dreams.

Tell about a class that should be offered at your school.

Tell about being alone.

Tell about what you eat.

Tell about your manners.

Tell about the oldest person you have known.

Who do you believe (or not believe)?

Tell the president/principal/governor/mayor how she’s/he’s doing.

Choose one word for this year and tell about your choice.

If you could make one rule that would be strictly enforced in the community around you, what would it be?

Tell about someone important to you. Include all 5 senses. (from Kathryn Janicek)

What is your FREMD acrostic–F is for …, R is for …, etc. (“Fremd” is our school.)

Tell a true story involving a liquid other than water.

Tell about Fridays.

Tell about a disguise or costume you once wore (inspired by Natalie Goldberg).

Begin with this:  I wish I had more time to …

Tell about someone you’re glad you know.

Tell about something you think is infinite.

Tell what it would take for you to be more like _____.

Do you consider yourself young? (inspired by Alyse Liebovich)

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#engchat on Monday, May 12: “English Teachers and Families”


On Monday evening, May 12, I hope colleagues near and far will join me for #engchat on Twitter. The topic is “English Teachers and Families.” We will focus on how the lives of families—those of our students as well as our own—intersect with our classrooms and with our profession in general.

Our guiding questions:

  • What circumstances are mostly likely to bring parents into contact with English teachers and how can we best handle those situations when they arise?
  • When are students’ family situations mostly likely to positively or negatively affect teaching and learning?
  • What lessons have we learned about how to help our students’ families understand our classrooms and bring them into closer contact with us?
  • What’s it like to be both an English teacher and a parent? Do the roles ever overlap?

The one-hour conversation begins at 7 p.m. Eastern, 6 p.m. Central, and 4 p.m Pacific, 1 a.m. Tuesday in central Europe, and 9 a.m. Tuesday in Australia. Others elsewhere are welcome too. Please let me know if I can help you figure out the time.

I’m looking forward to a lively hour with thoughtful literacy educators on a topic that touches us all. Thanks for joining in.

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