Hurray for the Performing Arts Teachers!

South Middle School Choir, Arlington Heights, Illinois

South Middle School Choir, Arlington Heights, Illinois

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve spent time at my kids’ schools enjoying holiday performances and marveling at the quality of artistry displayed by various performing arts groups. As I watched a conductor lead a middle school orchestra through a complicated Mahler movement earlier this week, I thought about how performing arts teachers operate under different expectations than those of us in more academic disciplines.

All teachers have demanding jobs, but the performing arts teachers—those who instruct students in music, dance, or drama—are called to put the results of their teaching in a very public spotlight. At least once a year, parents, grandparents, and community members come to school, and the results of each teacher’s performing arts instruction are spotlighted.

During those extravaganzas, some students fidget, while others dazzle us with magnificent sights and sounds. Most of them do at least some of both. Of course, we applaud those hard-working students, but their performing arts teachers deserve a lot of credit too.

Throughout the year, those of us who teach English, science, social studies, math, and other more traditional curriculum send home a variety of reports, results, and information, but parents rarely see direct results of how we have taught their children. Performing arts teachers stand alongside their students in crowded gyms, theaters, and auditoriums and say, “This is what we have been doing. We hope you like it.”

From Orchesis Holiday Show, Rolling Meadows High School, Rolling Meadows, Illinois

From Orchesis Holiday Show, Rolling Meadows High School, Rolling Meadows, Illinois

As you know, arts programming is threatened in many schools for a variety of reasons, but the arts are an important part of any child’s education. According to Lisa Phillips, author of The Artistic Edge, these are the top ten skills children learn from the arts: creativity, confidence, problem solving, perseverance, focus, non-verbal communication, receiving constructive feedback, collaboration, dedication, and accountability. Good teachers in any classroom reinforce these skills, but public audiences directly judge how well performing arts teachers instill these qualities.

In this time of winter sings and holiday concerts, let’s applaud students, their teachers, and those who support arts education in our schools.

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An Absence Finished: Claudia Emerson’s LATE WIFE: POEMS

Yesterday we learned of the passing of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Claudia Emerson. In honor of her memory, I’m posting this piece that was originally published in Illinois English Bulletin in slightly different form but has never appeared online.

Late Wife: Poems
Claudia Emerson.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
ISBN: 0-8071-3084-2

late wifeOne of the most satisfying literary reading experiences is a narrative told through poetry. In recent years, several excellent books of poetry focused on a single story have found their way through the publishing industry’s usual indifference to verse. These include Ted Kooser’s The Blizzard Voices (Bison Books, 2006), the saga of a devastating 1888 Great Plains storm; Leadbelly by Tyehimba Jess (Wave Books, 2005), a biography of the great folk singer, much of it told in blank verse; and Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), Trethewey’s own multiracial history set against the backdrop of the South’s pursuit of racial integration since the Civil War. (Trethewey’s book was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.)

One of the best in this genre is Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife, a complex, dramatic narrative revealed through poetry. Emerson’s book, which earned the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, is a presumably autobiographical account of the break-up of a narrator’s first marriage and the beginning of her second marriage. Potential readers who simply want to read stories in paragraphs and sentences should not be put off by the idea of experiencing Emerson’s compelling narration just because it is told in verse. The forms of these personal poems emerge naturally from Emerson’s everyday language. She does not engage in obscurity or enjambment calisthenics. The stanza lengths and line breaks enhance the poems’ meanings without drawing attention to themselves.

The book opens with ”Natural History Exhibits,” a poem that establishes several of the book’s motifs. On the surface, this four-part poem deals with women interacting with snakes. The first section reaches into the narrator’s past: “I grew up around / women who would kill any snake” (1). In the second section, the narrator describes viewing live snakes in a museum, and the final two sections deal with a snake found in the silverware drawer of “the first old house we rented” and how it disappeared within the house, foreshadowing the trouble that festers in the house and marriage (1).

Only in one of these sections do we read about what is usually considered a “natural history exhibit,” a museum display focused on some aspect of nature. But that is exactly Emerson’s point. The home that is established early in this book and the complex marital relations that go on inside it are themselves natural history exhibits of a sort, and throughout the book, Emerson presents them as such—interesting tableaus that place her readers in a rhetorical position similar to those viewing natural history exhibits in a museum.

“Divorce Epistles,” the first major section of Late Wife, presents the arc of a failed marriage through letters from the wife to the husband. As we read these letters, which are actually artifacts extending the natural history metaphor, Emerson’s use of personal pronouns draws us deeply into the emotional life of the wife: “I became formless as a fog, crossing / the walls, formless as your breath as it rose / from your mouth to disappear in the air above you” (5).

We learn that the wife sees her life as a kind of natural history exhibit and the items surrounding her as artifacts. In “Surface Hunting,” she writes about her husband’s passion for “the tangible / past you could admire, turn over / and over in your hand,” items such as “[s]pearpoints, birdpoints, awls, and leaf- / shaped blades surfaced from the turned earth” which she compares to “the hours / of my own solitude—collected, / prized, saved alongside those / artifacts for so long lost” (9).

The wife’s attitude toward her life is revealed subtly but powerfully as Emerson describes the couple’s everyday activities and other events in their lives. In “Eight Ball,” for example, her view of the marriage is easily deciphered as she describes playing pool with her husband: “It was always possible / for you to run the table, leave me / nothing. But I recall the easy / shot you missed, and then the way / we both studied, circling—keeping / what you had left me between us” (13). Perhaps the most powerful evocation of her emotional state occurs in “Chimney Fire” after a potentially dangerous but ultimately minor fire: “But slowly the fire turned back, receded / to the familiar—rise of smoke, banked coals, / my eyes, my mouth filled with ashes” (12).

By the end of the “Divorce Epistles” section, the marriage collapses, and the “late wife” motif emerges. In “Possessions,” the narrator contemplates how her former husband may have packed the belongings she wanted from her life with him, “the way / you might have handled a dead woman’s possessions—when you could no / longer bear to touch them” (18). She also realizes that his “lover” may have “packed the many boxes herself, / released from secret into fury, that sick of the scent of me / in the bed, that wary of her face caught in my mirror” (18). The narrator takes a lover herself but writes to her former husband that “it ended badly, but to some relief. / I was again alone in my bed, but not / invisible as I had been to you” (20).

The final “Divorce Epistle” is “Frame,” a poem that brings together the notions of natural history exhibits and a late wife as the narrator suddenly finds herself “admiring for the first / time the way the cherry you cut and planed” for the hallway mirror frame “had darkened, just as you said it would” (21). This mirror, an artifact from her earlier life, literally reflects her current state but is framed by memories that she is now able to consider peacefully.

The second section of Late Wife is “Breaking Up the House.” The poems here deal with various ways that a sense of absence is created and accommodated in one’s life. “My Grandmother’s Plot in the Family Cemetery” describes a grandmother’s status as a “second wife” (a reinforcement of the “late wife” motif), how she was treated in the family, and how it is reflected in her burial plot. In the poem “Breaking Up the House,” the narrator describes how her mother, “only eighteen— / her mother and father both dead,” was forced to “break up the house, reduce / familiar rooms to a last order, a world / boxed and sealed” (25). Here again we see how accumulated possessions, originally meaningful to the possessors, eventually become more akin to artifacts or exhibits.

The natural history theme is explicitly enhanced in “The Audubon Collection,” a poem about John James Audubon’s method of first killing wild birds before preserving them in his art: “He preferred / to work from the dead; the certain / stillness afforded the intimacy necessary / for this much detail, the captured- / alive too resigned or terrified, / the preserved too perfect a lie” (32).

“The Audubon Collection” is followed by “The Practice Cage,” another poem featuring a wild bird. While out on a morning run, the narrator discovers a hawk trapped inside a batting cage on an athletic field (ironically, “the home of the Fighting Eagles”). As she approaches the hawk, she expects it to be agitated and angry, but she finds “instead the taming of despair—his eyes / resigned to this, to me, softened somehow / as though with forgiveness” (34-5). We presume that this narrator is an extension of the wife in “Divorce Epistles,” so her assumptions and realizations about the hawk’s outlook while trapped in this cage are poignant and further illuminate her attitude toward that earlier marriage. After she frees the trapped hawk, she is “elated” to know that every time she passes this cage, she will “see again in that familiar emptiness / something we had revised, an absence finished” (35). This elation suggests that “emptiness” and “absence” are not necessarily permanent; we can do something about them if we so choose.

This notion is reinforced in the next poem, “Atlas,” which describes finding a rather grisly photography book picturing catastrophic injuries of Civil War survivors. The soldiers are shown with missing limbs side-by-side with photographs of them wearing crude prosthetics, “inventions of wood, leather, metal” (36). The narrator is drawn to the “shared expression” on the faces of those wearing the devices, “resolve / so sharply formed I cannot believe / they ever met another death” (37). This book of photographs is another “exhibit” involving loss or absence, if you will. Just as with the trapped hawk, however, the loss is somewhat redeemed by the realization that, with “resolve,” the emptiness can be accepted with a degree of peace.

The final poem in the middle section of Late Wife is “Migraine: Aura and Aftermath.” The narrator describes her perception during a migraine episode that “part of the world disappears” (38). She is “deceive[d] … to believe reality itself / has failed” (38). The hawk in the batting cage, the wounded Civil War soldiers, and the wife in the “Divorce Epistles” section could easily relate to this perception. In the aftermath of the migraine, however, the narrator is “relieved” and “restored to the evening of a righted room,” suggesting again that even in the face of extraordinary challenges, the possibility of a worthwhile future exists (38).

In the final section of Emerson’s collection, “Late Wife: Letters to Kent,” the epistolary form returns, creating the intimacy and immediacy of the “Divorce Epistles” section, this time with a decidedly different tone. The narrator is now the wife of a man whose first wife has died. The concept of “late wife” takes on two meanings, depending on two definitions of late: Kent’s deceased wife is his “late wife,” certainly, but his second, more recent wife is also his “late wife.”

The natural history theme quickly returns in this section with “Artifact,” a poem describing how her husband first lived among his deceased wife’s possessions for three years, then gave away most of them. The narrator seems unsure of how to feel when she is told that his first wife made the quilt on the bed, “after [they] had slept already beneath its loft / and thinning, raveled pattern, as though beneath / her shadow, moving with us, that dark, that soft” (41). Other artifacts emerge in successive poems as the narrator discovers the first wife’s “daybook of that last year” (44) in a box of photographs, as well as her driving gloves in “the trunk / of what had been her car” (49).

In “Old English,” the couple’s sheepdog dies, and the narrator buries it for her husband with the respectful realization that “[e]ven the expected, smaller death recalled / the other” (52) She then “transplant[s] sedum from the garden / to mark the place and obscure it,” suggesting that she is willing to acknowledge the first wife’s role in her husband’s life, just as she wishes to secure her own place in it (52).
This security evolves, not surprisingly, by the accumulation of joint possessions, more artifacts of their burgeoning history together. In “Stringed Instrument Collection, “ her husband begins the new hobby of crafting musical instruments, “mandolins, / mandolas, guitars—cutaways, dreadnoughts— / the upright bass” (51). He considers “them not as possessions but as guests who will survive you, pass to other hands the way they passed to yours” (51). The narrator is pleased when the couple’s voices and laughter echo in the instruments’ bodies and are “for now, sustained” (51). These instruments sand the “sustained” sounds within them belong solely to this husband and wife, not the earlier husband and wife.

In “Leave No Trace,” the couple goes on a nature hike. The wife describes their experience as a “slow, / collective wearing away of stone” (53). She tells her husband that “the trace left that day was as intangible as what the raven’s / wing leaves behind it” (53). The poem ends with her “eye fixed on [his] back on the trail just ahead” as they forge their own relationship and acknowledge its role in what might be considered natural history (53).

In the book’s final poem, “Buying the Painted Turtle,” the couple comes upon two young men playing roughly with a turtle; they buy the animal from its tormentors and release it back into its natural surrounding, probably saving the creature’s life and definitely influencing its future. The poem and the book end on a quiet note acknowledging the importance of such gestures: “We did not talk about what we had bought— / an hour, an afternoon, a later death, / worth whatever we had to give for it” (54). In this case, the husband and wife have not purchased a possession destined to become an artifact; rather they have made a positive contribution, together, to the flow of natural history.

Although conveyed in poetry, Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife is as rich in character, plot, theme, and all of the familiar elements of literary craft as any novel or memoir. The graceful language and useful messages in this remarkable book will captivate its readers.

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What If Students Write for Themselves?

writer“You can write your way out of dark places. I know because I’ve done it.”

My confession emerged yesterday during a class discussion of Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” an essay in which she writes empathetically about a plain moth unsuccessfully struggling to find its way through a window and to the light. Woolf’s essay becomes a meditation on endurance, limitations, and eventually death. Its purpose seems to be nothing more than Woolf reflecting on why the observation of this small moment reverberated in her with such emotional intensity.

Most writers can relate to that. I know that when I’m trying to work my way through some sludge or explore my own state of mind, I need to write about it.

If writing has any utilitarian value, maybe it’s just that: Writing can help us explain ourselves to ourselves. Writers understand this, but how often do writing teachers help students appreciate the value of such reflective writing?

In school we ask students to learn persuasive and expository techniques and approaches. We help them create description and figures of speech. We give them advice about how to organize and develop their writing.

Then we ask students to write for us or for other audiences.

What if we helped students to better understand the value of writing for themselves? What might it mean if students learned that writing can help lead them out of their own dark places? What if young writers could learn to see how writing can be their vehicle for problem solving and conflict resolution? We can help student writers understand that when we put our emotions down on paper, they become more of an object. When our feelings are written down, they are a little more outside of us, which means we can see them better and work on them with more clarity.

Personal writing leads students to spontaneously experiment with words in ways that result in surprising versions of their own writing styles. The satisfaction (maybe even pleasure) derived from this personal writing can infuse other more academic writing with fresh, unique voices. Young writers are more willing to dig deeply as they think about their own situations and issues; they can then apply that deeper level of thinking to the scholarly tasks that schooling demands.

Those of us who approach reading by using class time for both personal reading and literary study can adapt our writing instruction in a similar manner. What if students had time each day to write only for themselves, but we still covered all of our composition goals of teaching students to write effectively in a variety of modes for a variety of audiences?

I can hear the chorus of well-intentioned objectors warming up in the background: “But that kind of writing isn’t on the state test.” “We don’t have time for that kind of writing.” “How do we grade it?”

Those are realistic concerns, and there are ways to address them, but please don’t let that kind of thinking become an obstacle to the most important goal: Help students see themselves as writers.

A student recently said to me, “When I talk, I have a small voice or sometimes no voice. When I write, I have a big voice.” She is a different, more powerful person when she writes. And she knows it.

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Eleven Quick Book Reviews

Here are some of my recent book reviews. All of these originally appeared in other places, in some cases in slightly different form. I hope at least one of the books in this post appeals to you!

jerry leeJerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg
Jerry Lee Lewis, the aging rock legend, sits up in his bed in a darkened room with a loaded pistol on the nightstand and tells his life story to Rick Bragg, our finest chronicler of Southern lives. The result, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, is mesmerizing.

Jerry Lee Lewis isn’t the most … linear communicator, but Rick Bragg listened to Jerry Lee’s version of things and captured the closest version to the truth that we’re ever likely to get. Bragg tells not only the story of Jerry Lee’s entire wild life, but he gives readers The Killer’s way of looking at things. Jerry Lee Lewis never backs down, never gives up, and always does things his way. For example, Elvis Presley received a draft notice and spent two years in the Army that devastated his career. Jerry Lee Lewis received a similar draft notice, tore it into pieces, threw them in the river, and never heard another word about it. The controversies are covered here too: the marriages, deaths, addictions, and criminal run-ins. Bragg brilliantly provides Jerry Lee’s version of things from the perspective of old age while setting the events in a larger, more objective context.

If you like reading about rock history, this book is for you. If you’re a Jerry Lee Lewis fan, you will treasure this book. If you’re a Rick Bragg fan, this book will become one of your favorites. If you’re a fan of both men, as I am, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story will shape the way you think of them for years to come.

hello johnny cashHello, I’m Johnny Cash by G. Neri

G. Neri’s thug-life books for young readers would seem to make him the perfect chronicler of Johnny Cash, the original country music outlaw. Neri’s new picture book Hello, I’m Johnny Cash, unfortunately, is a sanitized version of Cash’s complicated life. The childhood poverty is here, along with the death of Cash’s brother and his father’s meanness, but they are almost lost in the narrative’s rosy follow-your-dreams message. The poems are fine and the pictures are fine, but the instructive lessons for readers that could come from Cash’s struggles with addiction and religion, as well as his work on behalf of the downtrodden, seem like missed opportunities. Hello, I’m Johnny Cash will be a serviceable picture book for students interested in Cash or country music, or for those assigned to read about a “famous person,” but it falls short of engaging readers in the complexity of Johnny Cash.

man on the runMan on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s by Tom Doyle
Framed by the break-up of The Beatles in 1970 and the murder of John Lennon in 1980, Tom Doyle’s Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s is the story of Paul McCartney’s struggles with fame, music, family life, and finances as he tries to create an authentic life while shouldered with a weighty legacy. While the entire book is captivating, the surprises for me were the on-again-off-again relationships between John, Paul, George, and Ringo in the first post-Beatles decade, and Paul’s temper which occasionally boiled over into physical confrontations. He wasn’t as mellow as he seemed most of the time.

Two by Kathryn Otoshi

Two and One are best friends until that green Three comes along, luring away One with the promise that “Odds are better than the rest.” As in her previous excellent picture books One and Zero, Kathryn Otoshi’s Two gives us a playful story of numbers coming into conflict and then finding ways to resolution. Otoshi uses catchy rhymes and rhythms and clever graphics to gently explore how friendships can be threatened and eventually restored. I admire how Two’s subtle wordplay brings out affective and aesthetic possibilities in several math-y concepts: odd, odds, even, greater than, less than, dividing, and angle. Two can be used with all age groups, including older readers who enjoyed One and Zero.

neighborhood sharksNeighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands by Katherine Roy
The engaging text of Katherine Roy’s Neighborhood Sharks provides pretty much everything young readers could want to know about the white shark’s role in one California ecosystem. The drawings will keep shark fans coming back to this book and sharing it with each other as the sharks attack and devour their prey in dramatic, colorful two-page spreads.

lincoln grave robbers
Lincoln’s Grave Robbers
by Steve Sheinkin
Abraham Lincoln’s corpse must be among the more well-traveled presidential remains. After the 1864 assassination, Lincoln’s body was moved several times, finally coming to permanent rest in 1901. One of the strangest episodes involving Lincoln’s body was an 1875 plot to snatch it from the Springfield, Illinois tomb. Counterfeiters by trade, the grave robbers planned to hold Lincoln’s body for ransom.

The characters in Steve Sheinkin’s Lincoln’s Grave Robbers include the motley bunch of “ghouls,” the earnest Secret Service agents who work against them, and the cemetery monument staff dedicated to keeping the bodies of Lincoln and his family safe from desecration. Published by Scholastic, Lincoln’s Grave Robbers engages young readers by focusing on the drama inherent in this scheme with a few colorful touches of morbidity along the way.

Custer by Larry McMurtry

In the years after the Civil War my great-great-grandfather, a Union soldier, went AWOL from the Army in Kansas. An old letter from his daughter says that he was having trouble with a superior officer, and one of them was going to kill the other unless my great-great-grandfather took off. General George A. Custer was in Kansas at the same time, and I’ve always wondered if maybe he was the superior officer mentioned in the letter. I can easily believe that an ancestor of mine could become frustrated with a difficult leader, and Larry McMurtry’s “short life” of Custer shows how the general wasn’t very well liked among those with whom he served.

McMurtry’s Custer is a character sketch and personal reflection on the high and low points of the general’s career. McMurtry, one of my favorite authors, doesn’t attempt to cover every aspect of Custer’s life. In addition to McMurtry’s story-telling, I especially enjoyed the descriptions and photos of the Indian leaders of the time.

Although I learned a few things about Custer, nothing here shed new light on my great-great-grandfather, except maybe this tantalizing detail: “If Custer signally lacked something it was what the rest of the world calls conscience. He had no capacity for empathizing with the pain and suffering of others … Conditions being what they were, desertion was a constant problem, both in Texas or Kansas, sometimes running as high as 50 percent. Custer treated the deserters savagely, often sending his brother Tom to shoot them. Those who made it back to the forts faced cruel punishment.”

mudballMudball by Matt Tavares
This terrific Matt Tavares baseball picture book tells the story of Minneapolis Miller Andy Oyler, the shortest guy in the league, and the day he hit the shortest home run in baseball history. A rainy field might be most players’ nightmare, but with the help of some timely mud, Andy Oyler has his best game ever. Although the story’s accuracy is hard to verify, Matt Tavares renders that meaningless as Andy Oyler’s mudball game crosses into mythology: a compelling tale with a resonating moral lesson. While the entire plot of Mudball takes place in one at-bat, the book’s narrative is enhanced by detailed, dramatic, captivating drawings. (I would love to have a print of the art on the two-page spread holding the publication info and the title page. Yes, Mudball had me hooked from the publication data page.) This is an excellent choice for a read-aloud, and for all baseball fans.

hamlet poem unlimitedHamlet: Poem Unlimited by Harold Bloom
Hamlet: Poem Unlimited offers twenty-five brief ruminations on various aspects of the play from critic Harold Bloom unified by the notion that Hamlet and its main character contain depths of consciousness scarcely fathomable by mere mortals. Bloom says that Hamlet is a character akin to Adam, David, Jesus, Prometheus, and even Shakespeare himself. In his wide-ranging work Harold Bloom rarely seems in awe of anything, but Hamlet leaves him analytically breathless: “Don’t condescend to the Prince of Denmark: he is more intelligent that you are, whoever you are.”

Hamlet: Poem Unlimited has a place in a critical library. I can easily imagine students finding it useful to illuminate their interests in specific characters, episodes, and situations from Shakespeare’s most important play.

waiter rantWaiter Rant by The Waiter
Waiter Rant is anonymously written by “The Waiter,” an experienced server and manager at a high-end New York restaurant. Despite a little too much irrelevant oversharing and psychobabble, Waiter Rant provides interesting and often humorous insights into the life of a waiter and the restaurant industry’s inner workings. My biggest take-aways from Waiter Rant are that restaurants are at their worst on holidays, some customers behave despicably when they go out to eat, and many professional restaurant workers live outside of social norms. Waiter Rant also includes a really good story involving Russell Crowe. If you’re trying to decide whether to read this book, take a look at the appendices. If you find those intriguing, you will probably like Waiter Rant.

night moves
Night Moves (Doc Ford Mystery, #20) by Randy Wayne White

Night Moves is a different kind of Doc Ford novel involving an unsolved World War II military mystery that played out in the Everglades. There are bad guys, but for the most part they are on good behavior as they try not to get caught while hanging around Dinkin’s Bay. This novel has bits and pieces of several other areas of interest, including snag fishing, Indian mounds, drug smuggling, stingrays, a missing cat, and a found dog. Author Randy Wayne White expertly juggles all of this while Doc Ford applies a bit of wisdom from one of his mentors: “The fact that unexplained elements are noted within a similar time frame while in the field does not guarantee those elements are linked or are even significant.” More than in the most recent books, Ford’s relationships with recurring characters Hannah Smith and Tomlinson continue to evolve as we see him trying to figure out where romance and friendship fit into his complicated existence.

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“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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