Wednesday, November 16, 2016

I Want to Know What You Think: Asking My Students for Writing Ideas

One of my favorite parts of being an ELA teacher is getting to write alongside my students. In years past, this might have meant that I gave the semblance of doing this by putting some work up on the document camera and modeling how I might approach a piece. Usually, these were spur-of-the-moment pieces of writing that never turned into anything longer--definitely not something I'd bring to completion.

Nowadays, I find there is so much value in actually going through the same process my students are going through with a piece of my own writing. Since we're writing realistic fiction, from the very beginning, I've been brainstorming plot charts, developing my characters and drafting my story with them.

The benefits of this are obvious:

  • Students see me as a writer, which lends authenticity to my feedback and teaching.
  • They know I'm writing my story, which gives me motivation and accountability to finish it!
  • I gain a lot of personal satisfaction from writing for myself.
  • I get to go through the experience with a student's-eye view instead of just looking at this unit as a teacher, which forces me to think about writing process pieces that I might not have otherwise considered.
  • Students get to hear about my successes and difficulties with my story, which models productive struggle (this is so important for students to see--writing isn't easy for anyone, even adults!)
But what's the best part? Getting ideas and feedback from my students about how my story might go. Today, we talked about "stepping into the drama" of our stories, aiming to "become" our characters as we draft. This strategy helps writers get into the flow of drafting--instead of getting bogged down with what happens next, they simply ask, "What would my character do next and how?" 

To help students understand this, I used my realistic fiction piece I'm writing alongside them. My students are familiar with my story, which is about a girl who struggles with anxiety and uses a series of clues and a forgotten journal to try to befriend a guy she thinks she might have a lot in common with. I talk about it every day. They ask me about how my story is going, and since I'm continually writing it with them, it becomes another talking point and often can be an entry-way into a conference point I might be trying to make with a writer. 

At the beginning of class today, I told my writers that I was getting ready to draft my final scene, where Sloan (my protagonist) is waiting at the bookstore for Ryder (the guy she'd like to befriend) to come in. 

After a quick modeling of how I could figure out what happens next by asking myself what Sloan would do (she would totally arrive early, hide behind the bookshelves and move books aside so that she could see the front door when Ryder arrives), I asked them for suggestions. For a moment, I asked them to be Sloan. 

Each hour bubbled over with ideas. Sydney suggested that Sloan pull out her journal and start writing so that she could calm her nerves down. Harry wondered if Sloan might accidentally write in Ryder's journal, which she was supposed to be returning to him (way to increase the tension, Harry!). Jonah thought she might rip the page out and try to hide the evidence. Elizabeth said the reader would want to know what Sloan had written on the page, and mused aloud that maybe she had written something that showed how much she wanted to be friends with Ryder. Camryn thought Sloan should accidentally cause a scene that drew attention to herself (something she hates) just as Ryder walks in. 

As students shared their thoughts, storytelling their ideas (as opposed to summarizing them), I used the 'Suggest' feature on Google Docs to transcribe as much as I could. Over to the side, I added comments that reflected the direction each student suggested. At the end of fourth hour, I was so excited: I had so many new ideas--and they all came from my students! While I won't be able to use them all, taking them seriously and writing them down showed my students that I valued their thoughts. 


This practice is authentic. It puts students and teachers on the same level: that of a learner who is constantly seeking new ideas and feedback from other learners. I know I will be making changes to my story based on my students' suggestions. Seeing the evidence of their advice reflected in my writing will most certainly show them that their opinions on writing are important. They, too, are writers. We all are. And we're all learning from each other. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Power of Paper: Helping Students Make Informed Decisions About Their Writing Process

When we wrote our Crappy First Drafts, I made the decision to have every student start this draft on looseleaf paper.

This was not an easy decision to make. One thing I know about writers is that no two processes are the same. Some writers draft entirely on paper, while others shudder at the suggestion of using anything but a digital device. I even know some writers who type out entire papers on their phone (which makes me feel incredibly old, as I don't think my eyes could handle that).

Much of my philosophy about teaching writing centers around the idea that my job is to help writers discover what works for them, rather than dictating how they approach writing. The former approach is teacher-centered, while the latter is student-centered. Mandating that every student use paper for their Crappy First Draft seemed to go against everything I stood for in the classroom...wasn't I making a teacher-centered choice by deciding what was best for my writers instead of empowering them to discover their own process?

However, as I explained to my students as I stood in front of them while holding a sheaf of looseleaf paper, part of my job is to help them make informed decisions. I'm not going to lie. I had a few audible groans when I told them what was going down. As a 1:1 school where every student has a Chromebook, the gut reaction of many is to type their first draft, simply because the technology is available and accessible. To be certain, there are many, many advantages to drafting on a computer, and I told my students up front that the final decision about how to continue drafting their stories next week would be theirs. They seemed to like that!

But for now, we would all be drafting on paper. I told them my reasoning behind this decision:

  • There is no "red squiggly line" when drafting on paper. Many writers (myself included!) cannot move forward with writing when there's an error glaring at them. Since the idea behind this first draft was to just get it written, I explained that the computer can sometimes distract writers from that goal. 
  • Writing by hand forces you to slow down a little, which can be a good thing--your words might come out more intentionally. 
  • Revision looks totally different on paper, and it's often more visible in a lot of ways. 
Basically, drafting on paper is a unique experience, and it's one worth trying to see whether it works for you.

At this point, I asked my students if they were in: were they willing to give it a shot in order to become more knowledgeable about their process? They agreed. 

Tomorrow, I plan to break down the advantages of drafting on paper and on the Chromebook before inviting students to make an informed decision. I want them to think about these choices as a writer, and having them try out approaches before committing to the process that works for them is so important for young writers. Heck, even I don't know my process completely yet! Writing is discovery, and experimenting with process will help each of my students find the way that works for them and their writing. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Art of the Crappy First Draft

Today, I asked my students do some crappy writing. And it was awesome.

This summer, I was introduced to the concept of giving writers permission to write subpar first drafts through Anne Lamont's "Shitty First Drafts". Essentially, Lamont notes that writing first drafts that are just plain bad is an important part of the writing process. She says that all good writers do it. It's what allows them to write second and third drafts that are better. Trusting in the process is key here, and there's freedom in allowing yourself to write without worrying whether or not it's any good. Because once you embrace the idea of the awful first draft, you're no longer focused on anything but getting the draft out. And that's what I wanted my students to do.

I decided that today, our first real drafting opportunity, was the perfect time to introduce Lamont's idea to my students (though I gave it the more "school-friendly" name of Crappy First Drafts). At the beginning of class, I invited my writers to the carpet for our brief meeting before we wrote. I asked them to look at the plot path that they had chosen (we spent a few days trying multiple paths for our stories) and to ask themselves, "What scene is begging to be written first?" I told them that some writers always, always, always start at the beginning. But others start in the middle. Or even the end! They quickly looked over their plot arcs and made a decision and told their writing partner their plan.

I then told them a brief story about 13-year old me, who loved to write but had a nasty perfectionist streak. I told them of entire drafts that got scribbled up, torn up and thrown away, never to see the light of day again. I told them how I thought I should get it right the first time, not the fifth time. I told them how I wish my teachers had given me permission to write a crappy first draft.

I looked each one of them in the eye, and I said, "Here's the thing, guys. First drafts aren't about getting it right. They're about getting it out. The only writing that is truly awful? The writing that doesn't exist."

I saw many smiles when I told them that I wanted their crappy first drafts. The crappier, the better!

I handed out sheets of lined paper and clipboards (more on my decision to have everyone draft on paper to come in a later post), and my students chose a space that worked for them so that they could hunker down and write. As everyone settled in and got started, I reminded them, "I WANT your crappy first drafts. I want you to just put words on the page without worrying about it."

And that's what my students did. They wrote without abandon and without fear. They embraced the idea of "The Crappy First Draft." Some even proudly titled their paper to reflect the idea!



Most students produced several pages of writing, well beyond the one scene I had hoped for. At the end of the period, I lowered the ambient sounds I was playing while we wrote and asked for my writers' attention. It was like pulling them out of a trance--they were so into what they were writing!

We get REALLY comfortable when we write. One of those lumps is his clipboard! 
As they left class today, my students were talking about their "crappy first drafts," but it wasn't in a defeated, frustrated way. They were excited! As my third hour students finished up today, one of my kiddos handed his writing folder to me, a huge smile on his face, and said, "Mine is REAL crappy, Ms. K."

I laughed and said, "Good! Look how much you wrote!" I opened up his folder and saw he had over four pages of writing.

I think the success we had today is the product of many things: taking the time to truly discover a story we liked, getting to know our characters in depth, and having a plan for how our story might go.

But one of the biggest pieces of today? Freedom. Giving my students permission to make their writing crappy allowed them to write without distraction, without hesitation, and without fear.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Originality is Overrated

"Ms. K, I just don't know where to go with my story."

Victoria, one of my 7th grade students, said these words to me tentatively today during writing workshop. Over the past week, she had developed a realistic fiction story idea that involved an incident in a mall where a main character and her friends are trapped and must escape a potentially dangerous situation. As she reiterated her plot to me, I could tell that she wasn't in love with this story idea. And I told her as much.

 In years past, this might have caused this ELA teacher to clutch her heart in horror and despair over the "wasted time" planning a story that won't ever come to fruition.

Thankfully, nowadays, hearing these words actually excites me a little bit. Victoria clearly wants to care about her story, and she's okay admitting that she currently doesn't.

Maggie Kate, Victoria's writing partner, piped in at that point, eager to share her own writing struggles. Since I was still thinking over how to approach Victoria's predicament, I listened.

"Ms. K, I'm worried that my story isn't original enough."

I laughed when she said this. "Maggie Kate, every single story that exists has borrowed from another story."

 Both girls started chattering excitedly.

"Yeah! It's kind of like how there are lots of books where someone dies, and people have to deal with it or figure out why."

"Or there are tons of books about people who are trying to overcome a disability or difference, like Wonder or Holding Up the Universe."

I nodded my head, excited that they were picking up on what I meant.

"What's also cool is that sometimes, the stories you read or the movies you watch might inspire a cool story idea. And that's okay!"

I told them about how the movie Amelie had inspired my story's plot. I had used the basic trajectory of the movie as inspiration for my story about a girl with social anxiety who is desperate to connect with a guy she sees at her school.

"Your plot might not be 100% original. And that's okay. What makes it a true original work is that no one else will write it the way you will."

Both girls smiled. Their teacher had just given them permission to rip off another story and make it their own! I smiled, because I knew this was how real writers worked. Sneaky!

I knew that the next step in helping Victoria land on a story idea she would want to write was to get her thinking about some stories or movies that she loved. I asked her what she was thinking.

"Well, I really wanted to write a story about someone who can't remember anything, and someone else has to remind them of the past every day...kind of like The Notebook. I love that movie." 

Instead of immediately dismissing this idea as unoriginal (which would be very hypocritical, given how my story idea came about!), I kept listening.

Maggie Kate responded enthusiastically. "Oooh! What if you wrote a story about a girl who can't remember a guy, and he's in love with her?"

Victoria nodded, and she then segued into talking about 50 First Dates, which follows a similar "memory loss" narrative (Lucy has anterograde amnesia and cannot transfer short-term memories into her long-term memory, so Harry, a love interest, must work to remind her of who he is every day).

"Hmm. I think there might be a story inspired by these movies," I mused, thoughtfully.

Gracie and Claire, writing partners who had paused their work and were listening to our conversation, chimed in with some story ideas that Victoria might explore. The five of us imagined several versions of a new story that Victoria might tell: one where a girl suffers from some sort of memory loss, and the protagonist, a boy who falls for her, has to decide whether to pursue her or move on. As we continued talking, the story morphed several times--organically, as new ideas were added to the conversation.

At one point, I suggested a quick Google of amnesia so that Victoria could understand the difference between the two types of amnesia. Learning about retrograde amnesia inspired another potential story idea: a boy and a girl who have a strong relationship that is derailed after the girl suffers a head injury and cannot remember their past relationship.

Victoria quickly scribbled down our ideas as our conversation flowed. As I stood up to move on to another group, she looked up from her work and asked me, "So...is it okay if I start over and go with this story idea?"

I smiled. A student who is okay with completely scrapping previous work and starting over...all because she's found the story she really wants to tell?

You can probably guess my answer: a resounding "Yes!"

****

My takeaways from all of this? Starting over is okay--especially when you've found a story you're excited to tell. The best ideas are often found through organic conversation.

But the biggest, most momentous part of this experience? Originality is overrated.

None of Victoria's new ideas are searingly original. None of ours are. All ideas are derivatives of inspiration gleaned from our experiences. The movies we watch. The stories we love. The poems we read. The places we go.

So what's the point in writing if it's all been said before?

Because you haven't said it. And no one else will say it just like you will.

Part of my job is to help my writers see that the true mark of originality is taking these "unoriginal" ideas and making them their own: through their voice, their perspective, their words.

Originality is so overrated.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Slice of Life: Pressing the Pause Button

Today was just one of those days. When you teach middle school, you quickly realize that your students are often a barometer for society as a whole. As my students trickled in this morning, after a crazy election night, their emotions were raw and palpable, some masking with humor, while others were in disbelief. I knew that we needed to just press the pause button for awhile.

My initial idea was to just give them space and time to write about whatever they'd like to write about, be it their reaction to the election or anything else that was on their minds. But after a quick poll of my students, I realized most needed more time to process. The emotion was too close still for many, and while writing can be a way to sort through your feelings, sometimes, distance is necessary. I get that.

So, instead, I finished reading Orbiting Jupiter out loud to all of my classes. We totally fell behind the Global Read Aloud schedule, but I knew we'd have to finish such a wonderful and powerful book. Today, it felt very appropriate, given Orbiting Jupiter's themes of acceptance of those who come from different experiences and backgrounds.

During this time, everyone got comfortable, making full use of my motley crew of lounging accouterments: pillows that my mom made for me out of fabric scraps, patio furniture cushions given to me by the 8th grade science teacher, and the cheap IKEA blankets that I bought for $2 each.

My students listened as I read like I always do: dramatically, with changing voices and added gestures that let students visualize exactly what Gary D. Schmidt wanted them to see. I've always been a bit of a performer, so I enjoy reading for my students.

As I read, I glanced up from time to time (by fourth hour, I had started to memorize parts), and I loved looking at my students' faces, rapt with the richness of the story. When Joseph's father showed back up, you could hear a pin drop as I read about the situation that spiraled out of control. When Jupiter says "Jackie" for the first time, everyone sighed. And when Jack promised Jupiter that he'll always know where she is, I got a little teary. So did a few others.

My voice is raspy now. My feet hurt from standing and performing for four hours straight.

But it was so worth it to listen to some excellent writing, escape together and press pause. Just for a little bit.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Playing with Plot: Figuring out the Paths of Our Stories

After a few days spent really getting to know our characters, I knew my writers were ready for the next step in our realistic fiction unit: figuring out how their story might go.

I cannot place enough emphasis on how important and valuable it was to take the time to truly delve into our characters and their nuances, and I told my students as much. Truly knowing their characters means that they are in tune with their characters' motivations, and this is what will drive their plot. Determining the path of their story is easier because they know what their characters want.

During our mini lesson today, we took time to look at a few different plot arcs that go beyond the typical "plottercoaster," or story mountain that most students assume is the only way to plan a story.

One way, but not THE WAY.

The "Man in the Hole" plot:


The "Cinderella" plot:
I had them try to guess the plot based on my retelling. They got it quickly!

Showing students these different approaches was essential, because, as I've often found, the story mountain format doesn't always capture the nuances of really well-crafted stories. There is more than one way to plot a story! But all three of these approaches do agree on one point: good plots go up and down. They don't stay stagnant! The tension and the conflict is what makes the story worth reading.

Though there are many different ways to plot our stories, I emphasized that there are common ingredients that all stories contain.

Using Batman as an example, I quickly showed students how Batman's quest to bring peace to Gotham (in any iteration of his battles to do just that) follows the Somebody Wanted But So Then format.



Then, I engaged students in helping me plot out the arc of an excerpt from Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle, a shared text that we had used earlier in the year. While we discussed, I pointed out how Walls had intensified the conflict with her plot choices. As authors, making it too easy for our protagonist to achieve his/her goals doesn't make for compelling fiction!



Before sending my writers off to figure out one way their story might go, I reminded them of a few things:

  • It's okay to let your characters make bad choices! Our characters are our babies, so naturally, you want what's best for them, and it's tough to have them be idiots sometimes. But writers know that intensifying the conflict is what makes for good fiction, so sometimes, the bad choices must happen...
  • ...but in the midst of all of this trouble, there has to be a point. Don't let bad things happen to them without being purposeful about it--what's the bigger message? How do these bad things show motivation or theme? Planting the seed about theme during the plotting phase is essential. It helps writers think bigger when making decisions about how the story will go.
  • Sometimes, you might not know what's going to happen next. Plot your story scene by scene. I used the analogy of driving your car on a darkened highway--you can only see what your headlights illuminate. Writers sometimes plot by asking, "What happens first? Okay, what happens next? And then?"

I projected a screen with a couple of other "styles" of plotting that writers might like to try out today: storyboarding or experimenting with plots that show different choices the protagonist might make & what might happen because of these decisions.



With that, we were ready to plot! Everyone had the same goal today: figure out ONE way their story might go, using a plotting tool to help them do this work.

As I circled the room, I was happy to see a variety of techniques being used. I stopped to have a few conversations with students who seemed stuck. I found that the "headlights" technique worked for many of these students: asking "What happens first? And then? And then?" got them storytelling out loud. All that was left to do was commit it to paper.

For a few other students, I gave quick tips on how to intensify their problem through scenes in their plot. For these students, thinking of more than one way the problem might be intensified will prepare them for our work later in the week, when we push ourselves to come up with more potential paths for our stories.

At the end of class, students left my room, still chatting about plots, scenes and how their story ideas are progressing. Any time my students talk about their writing outside of my classroom is a sign to me that they care about their work. And that is what ensures that these stories are going to be ones that my students remember long after they leave 7th grade.

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Hard-Hitting Interview: Developing Characters by Becoming Them

A common bit of writing advice is to really "be" your character: to look at the world as if through your character's eyes.

What better way to do that than to truly "be" our characters for a while? Today, we did just that. Writing partners interviewed each other...but the person who answered the questions? It wasn't the student. Instead, they answered as their main character.

At the end of workshop today, I called my students back up to the carpet, reminding them to sit next to their writing partners. As they came up to our meeting area, I passed out a sheet with 10 interview questions, which also included space for notes.

I asked partners to quickly determine who would take on which role first: the interviewer or the interviewee. I projected a slide that explained the role of each person:



I told my writers that they'd each have five minutes to interview. Interviewers could just go down the list of questions, but they could ask questions in whatever order they'd like. They might not get to ask all of their questions, because they also needed to jot down some info based on the answers they got.

Interviewees needed to really "become" their character and push themselves to answer the questions as if they really were their character. I reminded them that they may need to think on the fly for some of these answers! But even their "off the cuff" responses might reveal something new about their character that they hadn't considered before.

With the groundwork laid, we were ready to ask the hard-hitting questions.

During this time, the room was awash with talk and laughter. Interviewers were scribbling down answers quickly, noting the most important parts of each response. Interviewees were deep in thought, trying to craft an answer that best captured the heart of the character they had spent so much time getting to know.



At the end of the interviews, I had partners switch papers. Each writer walked away from workshop time today with a list of information that revealed new aspects of their characters. I know that they'll be looking back on these interview questions as they put these characters into action.

As we move forward with drafting our stories next week, I'll be reminding myself and my writers the value of truly becoming our characters.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Sentence Strips & Dossiers: Writing Characters that Ring True

"If you don't know your characters really well, can you really expect your reader to care about what happens to them?"

I posed this question to my students today. After reflecting on the characters we love in books that we've read, we all agreed: the authors had to have known their characters pretty well to write them so convincingly. The characters are a huge part of what makes readers invest in a story.

Though we started this work yesterday with scene boot camp, I knew I needed to give my students time to continue getting to know their characters. For workshop today, I threw out a few options:

The Dossier 
Sometimes, a sweeping overview of a character can help solidify who they are. Since some students like the simple organization of a table when planning their characters, I offered up an easy graphic organizer for them to record their character's:

  • Appearance
  • Personality traits
  • Likes/dislikes
  • Strengths/weaknesses
  • Habits and hobbies
  • Motivation (hopes, dreams & desires)

I modeled with my own characters, noting that I tried to get pretty specific with my character development.

Beginning phases of my character development. Sharing my process with students is valuable.
We talked about traits that make characters noteworthy: quirks, habits, and more that make them memorable. Hashing out these details gives students a starting point and a clearer picture of what sort of character they're drawing for their story.

Situation Strips
Another approach that I offered up to students was to imagine what their characters would do in a variety of situations. I created a little strip to glue into their journals with several scenarios like receiving a failing grade, getting caught in a lie, or having to comment on a friend's disastrous haircut. Students could jot what they thought their character would do next to some or all of the scenarios.

My situation strip brainstorming
Though the proposed situations might not appear in their planned stories, thinking about how their characters would react helps students develop complex characters with varied personalities. This work will shine through when they start drafting--their knowledge of their character will aid them in crafting stories that hold meaning for their readers.

The Pro Approach
One of my students showed me Rick Riordan's tips for developing a character. Similar to the dossier approach, Riordan strives to record the most minute, miniscule details about his characters. Again, even though every detail might not show up in the story, the knowledge helps develop stronger characters.

***
Before they went off to workshop today, I reminded students how valuable taking the time to do this work is for writers. While many of my students are anxious to start telling their stories, taking the time to draw and refine their characters will ensure that, when we do start drafting, they feel confident in writing a story that includes characters that will draw in their readers.

And if they feel confident, great writing will follow.


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Engagements & Boot Camps: Getting Ready to Write Realistic Fiction


Yesterday, my students got engaged.

I know. They're a little young.

Yesterday, after a week of speed dating ideas for realistic fiction stories, we all settled on The One. I figured they could handle that level of commitment. Despite queries about prenups and divorce (they really bought in to my analogy), I knew my students were ready to see how their carefully-chosen idea would play out on the page.

I will beat an analogy into the ground, so this was like our engagement announcement

Today, when students walked in, I told them that this was the day where we would finally jump into the water of writing our stories. Except I'm the kind of parent that throws their kid into the deep end.

You know what gets kids really excited? When you tell them that they'll be participating in a scene boot camp in ELA class.

Just kidding. Probably not a phrase anyone wants to hear associated with school, but I'm glad to report that, in this sort of boot camp, we got to write, experiment and imagine. Three of my favorite things.

When I called my students up to the carpet for workshop, I asked them to make sure that they grabbed a comfy pillow and that they had a writing utensil they liked. At this point in the year, "healthy" pencils are starting to become rare, so I loaned out many pencils and several of my favorite writing pens. After all, we were getting ready to write like our lives depended on it. Having a good writing tool on your side is always helpful.

When we were all cozied up and ready to go, I explained to them that we would be using a technique today that many, many published authors use: taking their characters for a test drive by putting them in an everyday situation and seeing how they'd react. After all, the truth always comes out in the smallest of incidents. Even the way a character eats toast can reveal something about them to the writer.

To start, we brainstormed some general traits for our newly-created main characters. I told them about Sloan, my MC, who struggles with social anxiety and fitting in at her new school. Quickly, we jotted a bulleted list of traits we knew our MC would have.

After a short turn and talk with our writing partners where we shared out a few traits, I demoed how I could take my MC, drop her into an everyday situation, and let the writing show me who my character really was. By writing in front of my students, I showed them how I discovered that Sloan is a bit of a perfectionist simply because the chipped paint on her locker bugged her.

Then, I invited them to pick up their pencils and to drop their character into an everyday scene. I threw out a couple of options: a family dinner, walking into a coffee shop or opening a locker. Students chose one and threw their character into the scene. And we wrote. And it was awesome.

As they wrote, I voiced over with a few moves that my writers might like to make in their scenes.

  • Add a detail about the setting. What's on the walls in the coffee shop? Is there a really annoying bell at school?
  • Have your MC do something, big or small. Maybe she organizes her pencils into neat rows on her desk. Perhaps he adds tons of cinnamon to his coffee. 
  • Let your MC make a choice. Big or small, these actions will be revealing. 
  • Has anyone said something yet? Have someone address your MC. See how he reacts. 
  • What's going on inside your MC's head? Let us peek inside. 
And we wrote. Pencils were moving furiously; the only sound I heard was the scratch of lead against paper and the rustle of turning pages. Most students wrote well over a page. 

Sweat-free boot camp

At the end of class, I asked, "How many of you feel like you know your character a little better?" Almost all of my students raised their hands. 


Gonna call that a win.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Slice of Life Tuesday: Choosing to Go Up

Note: I'm linking up with the Two Writing Teachers Blog for Slice of Life Tuesday for my post today!

Generally speaking, I hate absolutes. But every now and then, I find myself neatly quantified by simple if/then statements.

If there is a display of annoying singing reindeer at the store, then I will turn on every single one.

If there is crème brûlée on the dessert menu, then I will order it.

If there is the right kind of tree, then I will climb it.

The right kind of tree, in case you were wondering, is one that begs to be climbed. One that only requires a look to imagine the choreography of your ascent--the repeating pattern of placed feet, grasped branches, awakened muscles, upward motion.

This past Sunday, while hiking, I saw the right kind of tree. A muscular arm of a trunk jutted out where the blanket of dead leaves gave way suddenly to the loamy banks of a river. Just a simple journey up the nearly-horizontal base to the crooked elbow, where I sat.

Bird's-eye view.

The noise from the ground disappeared. The voices of hikers calling ahead to their friends faded. The whir of bicycle wheels dodging the gnarled roots of the trail melted away. The cheers ribboning up the hill from the cross country meet below evaporated. I floated above it all.

And then.

A new perspective.

Dappled birch branches shedding their bark beneath me. Eyes squinting against the kind of October sun that is hellbent on making me appreciate its strength, reminding me that the watery light of January isn’t too far off. The sky the sort of blue that makes me skeptical because it seems manufactured. Water wrinkled by the wind. Me, aloft.

And I breathed it in. I wanted to hold my arms out and gather up the Missouri horizon as I saw it from up there. Every dying weed, every dry gulp of air, every leaf that never had the chance to change before falling.

Every feeling. I wanted to hold that moment, imprint it on myself for the days when I am grounded.

If given the opportunity, then I will choose to go up.