Learning with Second-Language English Writers

One of my biggest learning challenges this year has been figuring out how to help writers for whom English is a second language. These are students who have completed English as a Second Language (ESL) programs and classes but who are not completely fluent in English. They are fluent in their native languages–Serbian, Ukrainian, Jamaican Creole, Polish, Spanish, Japanese, Turkish, Korean, and Hindi—but their English includes non-standard idioms, expressions, and mechanical errors.

Interestingly, I can converse with these students almost perfectly. They may have accents, but I have an accent too. With the help of eye contact, vocal inflections, and gestures, we can understand each other easily. I’ve enjoyed fascinating conversations with many students this year about cooking, culture clashes, technology, and schooling. But when it comes to writing, the communication begins to break down.

The most common types of English errors from second-language writers include missing articles, missing or misused prepositions, and variations on irregular nouns and verbs. I can understand why these are tricky for those still learning the finer points of English. Of course, I also see errors in tense, sentence formation, spelling, and punctuation, but native English speakers frequently make these kinds of errors too.

So I find myself wrestling with how to separate the second-language issues from the other composition concerns. In other words, as I look at a student’s writing, I try to understand what its strengths would be if it were written in the student’s native language. Even when the writing is somewhat garbled, I can usually tell if the thoughts are organized, developed, and focused. In many cases, the writing includes significant amounts of explanation, detail, and even some humor.

I’ve always believed that clear writing represents clear thinking, and unclear writing represents unclear thinking. For a second-language English writer, I’m not sure that’s true. His thinking might be completely clear in his native language, but his lack of facility in English muddles that clarity in the version I’m seeing. Like I said, the clarity isn’t completely obliterated; it’s just muddled. But it might be perfect in his native language.

When working with students in our writing center, I usually begin by asking how I can help them. Many second-language writers say, “Tell me all of my mistakes. I want to write in English perfectly.” So how do I help these motivated but sometimes frustrated students move forward as writers?

First, I look for patterns in their errors. I learned this diagnostic practice from Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations back in the 1970s, and it’s served me well for several decades. For example, if I can point out to a student that she is missing articles in several places, she will frequently say something like, “Oh, yes. In my language we do not have articles, so I make that error.” Then we can go from there. Of course, I’m limited by my understanding of my students’ native languages, but they usually are expert enough to help me help them if I point out a consistent error pattern.

The second approach is to urge simplicity of expression. I frequently see students who write complex sentences to convey sophisticated ideas, but that complexity increases the likelihood that a sentence’s grammar wheels will come off. So, I suggest that the writer break down the complex idea into shorter, simpler chunks that he can manage linguistically. My hope is that as he becomes more adept at manipulating shorter, simpler sentences, he will eventually develop the ability to manage more complex sentences. Learning to walk before trying to run seems like good advice, but it also feels a little condescending to ask writers with big ideas to practice simplifying them.

The third aspect of my approach with these students is to be sure they know what they are doing correctly. My feedback always includes commentary about the depth of their ideas and the quality of their development, in addition to my focus on their mechanical issues. If we concentrate only on negative aspects of a student’s writing, she will frequently overgeneralize and think, “I’m a bad writer.” On the other hand, if we can let a student know that she has good ideas but is still learning some linguistic nuts and bolts, we can hope that eventually her mechanical abilities will catch up to her high-level thinking, with the result being complex ideas expressed in clear, correct English.

Am I on the right track? I’m grateful for any suggestions you have for helping students at this level of development as English-language writers.

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Reading Between the Lines with Jo Knowles

FingerFinalCoverNerdy Book Clubbers can celebrate: Jo Knowles has a new book! And it’s really good!

Read Between the Lines, Jo’s sixth novel, gives us a son bullied by his father, a girl suddenly ignored by her friends, the embarrassed children of a hoarder, a star athlete hiding his homosexuality, a “chubby” cheerleader, and other compelling characters in a powerful story about the unpredictable ways our lives affect others. Each chapter of Read Between the Lines focuses on a character whose actions and attitudes affect other characters in different chapters. And each chapter includes at least one person flipping a middle finger to somebody else.

I’m happy and grateful that Jo agreed to participate in an email interview about Read Between the Lines.

Can we start with my favorite questions for adults who work with young people? What were you like in high school? Are you still the same in some ways, and how have you changed?

Knowles HeadshotOh my gosh I am totally cringing just thinking about it right now. I was very quiet and shy, and incredibly insecure. Soooo insecure. I was not very smart when it came to boys (understatement). I was a chronic worrier (sad to say I still am). I wanted to be invisible when I couldn’t be, and often didn’t want to be invisible when I was. Basically, I was kind of a mess. I’m still shy and a bit insecure, and I still worry a lot, but I’m not the scared girl I used to be. I wish I could go back and tell teen me it will all work out.

Every episode in Read Between the Lines has a moment where someone gives the middle finger to somebody else. As the title suggests, that gesture can have many different subtexts. I wonder if since finishing the book you’ve witnessed any new instances of people using their middle fingers to express themselves.

I see it EVERYWHERE now. Teens especially seem to use it as a friendly way to say, “Oh shut up” to their friends. But it’s also in the news in funny ways, too. I actually started a Pinterest page to pin my favorite stories and photos: https://www.pinterest.com/joknowles/read-between-the-lines/

The structure of this book is one of its most appealing aspects. Readers find that the characters’ lives touch or connect to each other in surprising ways. Was that a literary convention for shaping this story, or is that how you see things—that we are all somehow connected?

Oh, we are definitely all connected. You might post something on Facebook like, “Hug a teacher today!” Say 200 people will see it. Those 200 people will all instantly have 200 different associations with the word teacher. Good memories, bad memories. Regrets. Feelings of gratitude. Whatever. But planting the idea of “teacher” in all of those minds could actually change the course of each person’s day. We don’t realize what a big impact even small interactions with each other can have. Eleven years ago, my husband honked the car horn at a man who was about to drive into us. That man gave us the finger. I was upset because we didn’t deserve it. So upset, it soured my day and I couldn’t stop talking about it. The next thing I knew, I started plotting a book about all the different ways we see the middle finger in our daily lives. For the next eleven years, I worked on that book trying to figure out how to tell the story. So you see just one moment in time, a brief interaction with a complete stranger, shaped a significant part of my life for a very long time. And it resulted in a book! You just never know how a dirty look or a smile or a gesture or a word could change a person’s life, and I loved exploring those possibilities while I wrote the book.

What were the challenges and joys of writing a story with so many character threads?

The biggest challenge was keeping everyone’s schedules straight. The book takes place in one day, but all of the characters overlap, so you might read the same scene from two different points of view. Since the characters are different ages, they wouldn’t have the same class schedule, so I had to keep track of where everyone was throughout the day. I actually created class and job schedules for them so I would know where they were at all times.

Much of what we read in Read Between the Lines is each character’s interior thoughts, which seem to be a complex mix of vulnerability, confusion, anger, frustration. But when they speak out loud to other people, it’s frequently more forceful and direct. What do you understand about the language we use to make sense of ourselves to ourselves versus how we present ourselves to others?

Well this is really the whole point, isn’t it? That none of us on the surface are the same underneath? I could meet two people at the same time and talk with them for ten minutes and then if you asked them to describe me they might give you two completely different interpretations and I would probably be shocked by how off I thought both of them were. I was just talking to some students this week about how we are all carrying some pretty heavy stuff inside, but we don’t show it. I asked them to imagine if everyone knew their secrets, their worries, the stuff they’re dealing with at home. They were all nodding and sort of squirming just thinking about it. But they also started looking at each other differently. It was kind of amazing to watch. Because it dawned on them that if they had secret struggles, most likely everyone else in the room did, too. They instantly saw one another on a deeper, more meaningful level. We learn to wear our invisible armor at such a young age. But what I think we need to learn at an equally young age is that we are ALL wearing it. A little empathy goes such a long way.

You’re a master of evoking the concerns and feelings of today’s adolescents. How do you stay so in touch with this age group?

Thank you so much. You know, I don’t think adolescents and adults are all that different, to be honest. The more time I spend with my fifteen year old son and his friends, the more I’m reminded of this. We’re all human. We’re all vulnerable. Sometimes we’re unbearably insecure. Sometimes we’re annoyingly cocky. Maybe we’re insecure and cocky about different things, but the raw feelings and emotions are still pretty much the same, really. I think when writers for young adults stop trying to “think like a teen” and just think like a human, that’s when their characters feel most authentic. That’s when their truest writing comes out.

Teachers comprise an interesting group of characters in Read Between the Lines. Although a couple of them are kind of blustery, we also find that some of the teachers wrestle with insecurities similar to those of their students. Can you say anything about how teachers’ lives and students’ lives reflect each other?

I suppose this reflects a bit on what I’ve already said, about all of us being human. It doesn’t matter what job we’re in, we’re all still struggling to get through each day. But thinking as a teacher, I feel a huge responsibility to be positive and encouraging. I know what an influence teacher comments can have on a student’s self-esteem. I’ve had teachers who made me feel very small, and I’ve had teachers who gave me the most generous encouragement. If it weren’t for certain teachers I’ve had, I would not be a writer. I try to remind myself of this every time I send students feedback on their writing. In terms of reflection, a student’s “success” (and I supposed I define this as when a student falls in love with writing and revising and doubles their efforts) is my success. We all really fuel one another, don’t we?

A lot of things in Read Between the Lines happen in and around vehicles. There are dream cars, boring cars, a stinky “total mommy car,” a school bus, and several other important cars. What have you noticed about the role of cars in the lives of young people?

This book is a lot about wanting to “escape,” and especially for teens, cars often represent freedom. But the ticket out for each of them is going to require a lot more than simply running (or driving) away. I think the vehicles help to illustrate the deeper level of entrapment each character is feeling. They circle the town but can’t leave, just like they circle around and around in their situations, struggling to find a way to break out.

This question is probably just an English-teacher hallucination, but Read Between the Lines has some Dickensian aspects: mean grown-ups, plot threads that eventually connect meaningfully, a stray dog named after Oliver Twist. There are also shout-outs to The Outsiders and Death of a Salesman. Are you trying to sneak in some book recommendations for your readers?

Me? Try to sneak in book recommendations? Never! You know, if I’m going to be perfectly honest these references really did just come naturally to me as I developed the stories. Books I read in high school influenced my life in such huge ways, so it just seems realistic to have them influence my characters, too.

Robin Wasserman and Jo Knowles

Robin Wasserman and Jo Knowles

The Acknowledgements page tells about Robin Wasserman’s role in keeping this book on track. I’ve met Robin a couple of times, and she’s a force of nature. Can you tell us about how she affects your life or work?

Haha. I wonder what Robin will think of that description! Robin is one of the first people I told about this crazy idea I had to write a book with connected stories revolving around the middle finger. Every time we met up, which was a few times a year, she would ask me how the book was going, and eventually convinced me to share pieces with her. She is the first person I dared to show any of this too, and one of the people I trust most to be honest with me if something is really terrible. She was so encouraging after reading one story that I decided to try another. And that’s pretty much how it went as I slowly put the book together.

So many of the characters in Read Between the Lines talk about being empty and feeling that they are nothing. At one point Claire tells herself, “Maybe I just need to be able to feel the significance of my own existence.” How can we help young people who feel like their lives are empty?

For one thing, we can treat them as the smart, thoughtful people they are. Talk to them. Ask their opinions. Show them respect. If there is one phrase about teens that drives me nuts it’s: “Today’s teens…” followed by some disparaging generalization about how they “don’t read” or “spend all their time staring at screens.” I live with a teenager. I carpool with teenagers. I watch them struggle with school and relationships and I watch them lift each other up. These kids care deeply about the world and world events. And they have a lot of really great ideas for addressing the problems our world faces. Sure, that teen you see staring at a screen may be scrolling through Instagram, but he might also be reading a link a friend sent to him about [insert the big world news story of the day here]. Want to make a kid feel like her life is less empty? Ask her to share her opinion about something. I guarantee she will have one, and feel like you gave her a voice by asking what it is.

With Read Between the Lines, Jo Knowles continues to build a body of work that approaches the lives of young (and not-so-young) people with empathy, humor, and a sense of drama that keeps her readers eager for more. Her audience knows that Jo Knowles always shows us ways to move beyond mere acceptance of others to the importance of embracing and supporting each other regardless of our differences or how we present ourselves to the world.

Visit Jo Knowles online at www.joknowles.com and follow @JoKnowles on Twitter!

This post originally appeared on Nerdy Book Club in slightly different form.

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Some Good Baseball Books: 2015 Spring Training Edition

2015 baseball books
We’ve almost made it through the winter, and for Cubs fans this is looking like a better year than we’ve had for a while. Some are prognosticating greatness for this year’s North Siders, but I’ll be satisfied with 85 wins and whatever comes with it. As we keep an eye on spring training, here is my annual round-up of good baseball books to get you through to opening day.

Whole Lot of Bar-B-Q and Other Baseball Stories by Mike Shannon:
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.

Slouching Toward Fargo: A Two-Year Saga of Sinners and St. Paul Saints at the Bottom of the Bush Leagues with Bill Murray, Darryl Strawberry, Dakota Sadie and Me by Neal Karlen: If 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 whose personal charm was 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—were woeful, again, last year, I paid 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 search 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.

Veeck–As in Wreck: The Autobiography of Bill Veeck by Bill Veeck: Bill Veeck was one of baseball’s great characters from the last generation. As a baseball executive, he never lost his put-the-fans-first perspective. His autobiography provides many entertaining insights into the art of trades, building teams, and conducting business in the pre-Moneyball era.

Mudball by Matt Tavares: This excellent 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.

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson: Kadir Nelson gives us a compelling look at the Negro leagues through the dramatic art that is his trademark, and text that gives voice to Negro League greats, as well as those who are almost forgotten. This is an important book to share with young fans.

Nobody’s Perfect: Two Men, One Call, and a Game for Baseball History by Armando Galarraga, Jim Joyce, and Daniel Paisner:
After retiring twenty-six batters in a row, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga is one pitch away from achieving a perfect game, one of the rarest feats in all of professional sports. Then Indians shortstop Jason Donald smacks a 1-1 pitch toward the right side of the infield and takes off full bore to first base. Galarraga runs over to cover first base, and the throw from first baseman Miguel Cabrera is on the mark just ahead of Donald’s foot. Perfect game.

And then veteran umpire Jim Joyce raises his arms and calls “Safe!”

Immediately after the game Joyce watched the replay and knew right away he not only made a mistake, but he also robbed Armando Galarraga of his place in baseball history. Sure, it’s just a game, but sometimes the game reveals important things about humans, and what happened next was extraordinary.

Jim Joyce admitted his mistake in front of reporters and apologized face to face to Armando Galarraga. Joyce invited Commissioner Bud Selig to fine or suspend him. He accepted full responsibility for his mistake and invited the consequences of his error. And Galarraga did something extraordinary too. He immediately forgave Jim Joyce and then went home to walk his dog and take his wife out for midnight cheeseburgers at Sonic.

I clearly remember the media coverage of this incident and how impressed I was by the grace displayed by both men. There is no shortage of stories of professional athletes behaving despicably, but this story featured two professionals behaving, not quite heroically maybe, but certainly admirably.

In Nobody’s Perfect, Daniel Paisner strains a bit to make a book out of one split-second botched call, but I enjoyed reading about Galarraga’s path to professional baseball from his middle-class upbringing in Caracas, Venezuela and Joyce’s journey to professional umpiring. Paisner expertly captures the voices of Galarraga and Joyce, presenting them in alternating chapters leading up to the moment that forever links them in baseball history.

As always, thanks for reading, and please leave your suggestions for good baseball books in the comment section. My previous posts about baseball books can be found here and here and here.

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¿What’s Not Wrong?: The Shirt

ww gearI’m super-excited to visit Fremd High School in a few weeks as part of Writers Week XXI, a top-notch writing-palooza. This is the first edition of Writers Week that I haven’t been involved in as an organizer, and I’m as proud as can be of how it’s coming together under new leadership.

This year the organizers have produced a line of Writers Week gear that includes a ¿What’s Not Wrong? shirt. A little part of me wants to hide under a rock at the idea of anything that seems like self-promotion, but mostly I’m whoop-honored to have ¿What’s Not Wrong? on a Writers Week shirt. And really, I’m glad they are lifting up the idea that we can make ourselves and those around us a little happier if we focus on what isn’t wrong at least as much as we focus on what is wrong.wnw shirt

In addition to ¿What’s Not Wrong? shirts, you can also order shirts featuring other Writers Week XXI guests, including a Tony Romano “If You Eat You Never Die” shirt, shirts with poems by Mary Fons and Sierra DeMulder, FANBOYS shirts, and other Writers Week XXI commemorative gear in various designs.

So, if you’re inclined to support Writers Week, or put more of the ¿What’s Not Wrong? attitude out in the world, or if you just need another t-shirt or two, please head over to the web site and place an order. The good people at Fremdland will ship it out to you if you’re not local. The web site is www.janorsports.net and your password is writers2015.  Each sale benefits the Writers Week program, which is awesome.

(Maybe you can tell that I like the inverted question mark used by our Spanish-speaking friends. Don’t you agree that it’s kind of nice to know that a group of words is a question right off the bat instead of being forced to wait until the end of a sentence? When I use ¿What’s Not Wrong? in class, that inverted question mark is always part of the deal.)

Thank you.

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My 2014 Reading

2014 books graphicI probably should have gotten around to posting this sooner, but here is the list of books I finished in 2014. Other people’s lists interest me, so maybe someone will find something of interest here.  2014 was kind of a tumultuous year for me, and I’m grateful for these books that kept me focused, thinking, entertained, and enlightened.

I’ll begin with my top five favorites of 2014, arranged alphabetically by author’s last name.  These are the books that thoroughly engaged me as I read them, and continue to stay on my mind weeks or months after finishing them.  To see detailed reviews, you can clink on the links to where I originally reviewed these books, either on this blog or on Goodreads.

Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg

El Deafo by Cece Bell

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A. S. King

Unleashing the Positive Power of Differences: Polarity Thinking in Our Schools by Jane A. G. Kise

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

Apparently, I never reviewed Ordinary Grace–probably because I read it while on vacation—but it’s a mystery story with a midwestern flavor, appealing characters, and important ideas about post-traumatic stress disorder, trust, and grace. (One other book, Slouching Toward Fargo, was a favorite too, but I will deal with it in an upcoming post specifically devoted to baseball books.  Another favorite on the list below–Read Between the Lines by Jo Knowles–actually comes out in 2015, so I didn’t include it my 2014 favorites list.  I know I’m making up the rules as I go along, but I’ll have more to say about this excellent book later.)

As I reflect on my 2014 year in books, I don’t really see that much in the way of trends, which doesn’t surprise me.  I have the attention span of a flea, so I jump around a lot in my choices, usually reading at least three books at the same time.  I consumed a lot of Randy Wayne White thrillers, and I’m now completely caught up on his Doc Ford books and eager for his new one—Cuba Straits—which comes out in March. I also see that my interest in books about education is continuing, although it seems to be expanding beyond literacy into broader issues involving how schools function in today’s culture, and how they can do better.

For 2015, I haven’t really set any reading goals. I put 52 as my goal on Goodreads, but that’s just a number. Last year, I set 114 as the goal. I ended up reading 111 books and then was too growly with myself about falling short by three books. I do hope to delve more deeply into my shelves to finally read some of those books that I’ve been meaning to get to for, oh, five or ten years. I’m also interested in more books about education, specifically higher education, learning theory, creativity, and innovation.

  1. Chip Kidd:  Go:  A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design
  2. Jess Walter:   Beautiful Ruins
  3. Jane A. G. Kise: Unleashing the Positive Power of Differences:  Polarity Thinking in Our Schools
  4. Nina Laden: Once Upon a Memory
  5. Billy Collins: Aimless Love:  New and Selected Poems
  6. Kevin Guilfoile: A Drive into the Gap
  7. Audrey Vernick: Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten?
  8. Sarah Lewis: The Rise:  Creativity, The Gift of Failure, and The Search for Mastery
  9. Michael LoMonico: That Shakespeare Kid
  10. Karen Kaufman Orloff:  I Wanna New Room
  11. Kevin C. Pyle:  Take What You Can Carry
  12. Greg Pizzoli:  The Watermelon Seed
  13. Charles J. Shields: And So It Goes:  Kurt Vonnegut:  A Life
  14. Joelle Charbonneau:  The Testing
  15. George F. Will:  A Nice Little Place on the North Side
  16. Kate DiCamillo:  Flora and Ulysses
  17. NoViolet Bulawayo:  We Need New Names
  18. Michael Ian Black and Kevin Henkes: Chicken Cheeks
  19. Meenoo Rami:  Thrive
  20. A. J. Pine: If Only
  21. Helen Grant: The Vanishing of Katharina Linden
  22. Aaron Reynolds: Here Comes Destructosaurus!
  23. Scott Magoon: Breathe
  24. Ashley Spires: The Most Magnificent Thing
  25. Jack Prelutsky:  If Not for the Cat
  26. Diane Ravitch:  Reign of Error
  27. Chris Raschke:  Cowy Cow
  28. Chris Raschke: Crabby Crab
  29. Randy Wayne White: Shadow Deep
  30. Adam Lehrhaupt: Warning Do Not Open This Book
  31. Mike Shannon:  A Whole Lot of Bar-B-Q and Other Baseball Stories
  32. Bob Shea:  Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great
  33. Donna Tartt:  The Goldfinch
  34. Kadir Nelson:  Baby Bear
  35. Joe Blair: By the Iowa Sea
  36.  Ayun Halliday and Paul Hoppe: Peanut
  37.  Michael Ian Black: Naked
  38. Rosy Lamb:  Paul Meets Bernadette
  39.  G. Neri: Knockout Games
  40. Paul Acampora:  I Kill the Mockingbird
  41. Barb Rosenstock:  The Noisy Paint Box
  42. George Saunders:  Congratulations, By the Way
  43. Antoinette Portis:  Froodle
  44. Edmund Morris: Colonel Roosevelt
  45. Neal Karlen:  Slouching Toward Fargo
  46. Matthew Quick:  Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock
  47. Karen Russell:  Vampires in the Lemon Grove and Other Stories
  48. Peter Brown:  My Teacher Is a Monster
  49. Frank McCourt:  Teacher Man
  50. Bob Staake:  My Pet Book
  51. Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner:  Think Like a Freak
  52. Herve Tullet:  Help!  We Need a Title!
  53. Randy Wayne White:  Night Vision
  54. Box Brown:  Andre the Giant:  Life and Legend
  55. Randy Wayne White: Chasing Midnight
  56. Kevin Henkes:  Junonia
  57. William Kent Krueger:  Ordinary Grace
  58. Bill Veeck, with Ed Linn:  Veeck–As in Wreck
  59. Tom Doyle: Man on the Run:  Paul McCartney in the 1970s
  60. Randy Wayne White:  Deceived
  61. James M. Lang:  On Course
  62. David Ezra Stein: I’m My Own Dog
  63. Pat Conroy: My Reading Life
  64. Randy Wayne White:  Night Moves
  65. The Waiter:  Waiter Rant
  66. Cece Bell: El Deafo
  67. G. Neri:  Hello, I’m Johnny Cash
  68. Bob Newhart: I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This!
  69. Raul Colon:  Draw!
  70. Deborah Wiles: Revolution
  71. Harold Bloom:  Hamlet:  Poem Unlimited
  72. Matt Tavares: Mudball
  73. Bill Geist and Willie Geist:  Good Talk, Dad
  74. Randy Wayne White:  Bone Deep
  75. B. J. Novak:  The Book With No Pictures
  76. Shawn Colvin:  Diamond in the Rough
  77. Laurie Halse Anderson:  The Impossible Knife of Memory
  78. Lorrie Moore :  Bark
  79. Kelly Bingham:  Circle, Square, Moose
  80. Nickolas Butler:  Shotgun Lovesongs
  81. Jose Jorge Letria: If I Were a Book
  82. James Patterson:  I Even Funnier
  83. Richard Byrne:  This Book Just Ate My Dog!
  84. Oliver Jeffers: Once Upon an Alphabet
  85. Jo Knowles:  Read Between the Lines
  86. Jacqueline Woodson:  Brown Girl Dreaming
  87. Chuck Klosterman:  Killing Yourself to Live
  88. Patrick McDonnell:  A Perfectly Messed-Up Story
  89. E. Lockhart: We Were Liars
  90. Steve Sheinkin: Lincoln’s Grave Robbers
  91. Mac Barnett:  Sam and Dave Dig a Hole
  92. Larry McMurtry:  Custer
  93. Katherine Roy:  Neighborhood Sharks
  94. Kevin Brockmeier:  The Brief History of the Dead
  95. Rick Bragg:  Jerry Lee Lewis:  His Own Story
  96. Randy Wayne White:  Batfishing in the Rainforest
  97. Jon Meacham:  Thomas Jefferson:  The Art of Power
  98. Kathryn Otoshi:  Two
  99. Amy Poehler:  Yes Please
  100. Mo Willems:  The Pigeon Needs a Bath!
  101. Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki:  This One Summer
  102. Tavis Smiley: Death of a King
  103. Haruki Murakami:  The Strange Library
  104. Charles Dickens:  The Old Curiosity Shop
  105. Charles Osgood: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House
  106. Deborah Underwood: The Christmas Quiet Book
  107. Jan Brett:  The Animals’ Santa
  108. A. S. King: Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future
  109. Rebecca D. Cox:  The College Fear Factor
  110. Jory John:  Goodnight, Already
  111. Raina Telgemeier: Sisters
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What Does “College Ready” Really Mean?

169349475_4c3f07cff9Not long ago I finished the semester with a wonderful group of first-year college students. Most of them were fresh out of high school, but there were also a handful of students with some other life experiences. I’m proud of the progress so many of them made in how they think about writing and how they approach writing for academic purposes and for themselves.

Some of these students struggled with issues that have nothing directly to do with writing. The demands of college-level work, in my class and in other classes, seemed to take them by surprise. By their own admission, they were not college-ready. On an end-of-the-semester reflection, one student wrote, “I’ll be honest with you. I started off college as if it was high school–you know what I’m saying–doing enough to get by. I don’t want to be that guy anymore. I want to be the one who gets the job done the first time and doesn’t have to ask if can I turn things in late.”

But isn’t college-readiness at the center of so much of what is happening in secondary education these days? How could these students emerge from some very good high schools and not be college ready?

Maybe it’s because so many high schools are overly focused on standardized testing, and the standardization movement puts the college-readiness buzzword at the core of its rhetoric. Three examples follow here, with italics added for emphasis.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation includes this statement in its College-Ready Education Strategy Review: “More than 45 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards for student learning. The standards offer a roadmap of clear expectations for college readiness, deepening what students need to know at each stage of their schooling.” The Gates Foundation overtly connects college readiness with the Common Core State Standards.

The testing vehicle for Common Core in numerous states is the PARCC test. This is how PARCC defines itself: “The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is a group of states working together to develop a set of assessments that measure whether students are on track to be successful in college and their careers. These high quality, computer-based K–12 assessments in Mathematics and English Language Arts/Literacy give teachers, schools, students, and parents better information whether students are on track in their learning and for success after high school, and tools to help teachers customize learning to meet student needs.”

ACT also equates college readiness with testing results: “The ACT College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS) are the backbone of ACT assessments. Empirically derived descriptions of the essential skills and knowledge students need to become ready for college and career, the Standards give clear meaning to test scores and serve as a link between what students have learned and what they are ready to learn next.”

Am I wrong in understanding that these powerful institutions are equating a student’s college readiness with that student’s standardized test performance in specific curricular areas?

Is it possible that as high schools move to standardize instruction in the name of college-readiness, they may actually be moving students farther away from the mindsets needed to successfully navigate the college experience?

The biggest challenge I see to my students’ readiness for college has at least as much to do with habits of mind as it does with curricular content. Of course, if the habits of mind are missing, the curricular content isn’t learned, but the lack of content knowledge that might be discerned by a standardized test doesn’t get at the possible causes for the deficit: poor work habits, intellectual limitations, poorly delivered instruction, or an unsupportive environment outside of school.

What I’m trying to say is that we are spending a lot of resources in high schools to establish college-readiness, at least as it is defined by the standardized testing industry, but maybe high schools should be putting more emphasis on helping students develop the habits of mind that are at least as important as the curricular aspects of college-readiness. If standardizing the high school experience for the sake of consistency is a priority, as I see happening in many schools, I’m not sure that is helping students become ready for the heterogeneous nature of college classrooms.

If we really want high school students to be college-ready, here are some suggestions for promoting a college-ready mindset in high schools:
1. Vary behavioral expectations according to grade level. High school freshmen are only months beyond junior high. High school seniors are almost legal adults, and developmentally different beings from those freshmen. Academic policies that apply to all students should instead be scaffolded so that those leaving high school have experienced at least a taste of college-level decision-making.

2. Encourage teachers to vary policies from one another, especially for upperclassmen. Students departing from high schools with four-year homogenous policies have a difficult time adjusting to the heterogeneous ranges of policies they encounter on a college campus. For the most part, college professors set their own grading, attendance, and participation policies.

3. Connect attendance to academic results. Many high schools consider attendance separately from academic performance. Of course, if a student’s attendance is poor, that student is likely to have poor academic results, but it’s not automatic. There are many ways that a high school student with poor attendance can still have a decent academic record. In many college classes, however, attendance directly affects grades. In other words, it’s not uncommon for a student’s grade to be revised downwards if absences reach a certain point. The policy in my college class is that the semester grade is dropped a full letter for every absence beyond five. This policy is one of the more lenient attendance policies in our department.

4. Encourage group work with individual accountability. The ability to work with other people is an important life skill in virtually any professional environment. High school students struggle socially with group work sometimes because they know (or think they know) their classmates so well, and some of their personal perceptions can be obstacles to group productivity. That dynamic virtually disappears with college students, especially first-year college students. They do not know each other, and their own desires to be accepted and successful lead them to treat other group members with maturity and respect.

5. Encourage personal decision-making. This one is a little tricky because high school students are minors, and college students are adults. For most big decisions involving high school students, parents are major stakeholders and should be consulted and informed frequently. That is very different for college students. College professors are not allowed to discuss a student’s situation with anyone, including parents. Parents are important partners in a high school, but they have no such role in college. Because high school students and college students have different legal statuses, the rules have to be different, but high schools should look for ways to encourage students to practice making good decisions independently.

The strongest students will be college ready in both ways: academically and behaviorally. Those who slop through high school and then arrive on a college campus with the same attitude will not make it without major attitudinal adjustments. Those who are behaviorally ready but not quite there academically will find ways to succeed in college by perseverance and support from the academic services available on most campuses.

Isn’t it time to reconsider what college-readiness means by looking at it through a lens that goes beyond standardized testing paradigms to include what it actually takes to be successful in college? True college-readiness cannot be distilled into a number. True college-readiness includes both a focused, mature mindset and academic preparedness.

What are your thoughts on what it takes to be truly college ready?

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Remembering Donna Douglas, Little Jimmy Dickens, and Miller Williams

For those of us who lean country, it was kind of a rough weekend as we learned of the almost simultaneous passings of Donna Douglas, Little Jimmy Dickens, and Miller Williams. Blame it all on my roots, but I’m lucky to have some memories involving each of them.

Donna Douglas is best known for playing Elly May Clampett on the popular 1960s sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies,” although she also starred in the silly Elvis Presley movie Frankie and Johnny. Long before Laurie Partridge, Elly May was my first celebrity crush. These kinds of fascinations cannot be precisely explained, but when I about six years old, Elly May was my kind of beautiful. When “The Beverly Hillbillies” was on, my mom liked to encourage me to pucker up and zero in to plant a kiss on Elly May’s black-and-white image on our television. Of course, the funniest thing in the world was when the shot changed at the last second and I ended up smacking Granny instead.

Little Jimmy Dickens was a Grand Ole Opry fixture for more than sixty years. Although small in stature, his stage presence and raucous singing made a big impression. I don’t recall my grandpa having many opinions about music, but I remember my dad saying that Grandpa liked that Little Jimmy Dickens song “Take an Old Cold Tater and Wait.” I can’t blame him because it’s a pretty good song, but two other Little Jimmy Dickens songs were probably the first things I learned by heart, and I still sing them to myself on a fairly regular basis. “Truck Load of Starvin’ Kangaroos” and “When the Ship Hit the Sand” were the two sides of a 1966 Little Jimmy Dickens single that we had around the house. When I was eight or nine years old, I thought they were hilarious, and I listened to that record over and over.

Miller Williams was a great American poet with a common touch. Although I wouldn’t say he appealed to the cornball side of life as much as Donna Douglas and Little Jimmy Dickens, I always thought his poems were likely to appeal to people who don’t interact much with poetry. Miller was also known as the father of singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, and as the 1997 Inaugural Poet at President Clinton’s second swearing-in. I was privileged to spend the better part of a couple of days with him as he visited our school’s Writers Week a few weeks after those inaugural festivities.

Tony Romano and I arranged to meet Miller at a book signing in downtown Chicago and then bring him out to the suburbs for his school visit the next day. After the signing, he wanted to unwind a bit before getting in the car, so we went to a place next door and made quite a bit of wine disappear. (I think Tony was the designated driver.) Miller liked to talk, and Tony and I had a master class in poetry as we visited in the bar and during the car ride. I remember him saying that he liked to write by getting comfortable in a chair with a pen and a legal pad, and then just starting to play around with a phrase or a line or two. Miller made us feel like honorary family members as he showed us the little photo album he carried with him on his travels. One picture showed a cookout at his house. Lucinda was there, along with country singer Tom T. Hall and some fellow named Jimmy Carter. (A couple years later, our principal sent Tony and me to a Jimmy Carter event with the hope of also luring him to our Writers Week. Meeting the former president was a thrill for us, of course, and when Tony mentioned “our mutual friend Miller Williams,” President Carter said, “Oh,yes! Miller helped me write my novel.”)

During his time at our school, Miller Williams was warm and generous and funny and friendly. His presentations were amazing. He began one poem and then stumbled over some words. He stopped, grinned, look at the students in our auditorium and said, “It’s your fault. You’re so beautiful that I lost my place.” He also held court in our hospitality room, charming everyone he met there. The week before his visit, our school newspaper had published “Of History and Hope,” the poem Miller composed for the Clinton inauguration. Unfortunately, there was a word or two that appeared incorrectly. The newspaper adviser suggested that the student editor show it to Miller Williams and admit responsibility. That was probably a difficult confession, but the young man did it with maturity. I wish I could remember exactly what Miller Williams said, but it was something to the effect that the misprinted version was just another version that might actually have value. We communicated with Miller a few times after his visit, and he was always helpful, kind, and liked to say that his time with us was one of his most memorable school visits.

Their work on earth might be finished, but I’m grateful for my memories of Donna Douglas, Little Jimmy Dickens, and Miller Williams. Your memories of them are welcome here too.

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2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 25,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 9 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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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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