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Cues from My Students: A Writing and Peer Review Assignment

Several years ago, I witnessed three of my students who, after reading Ruta Septeys’ book, Salt to the Sea, decided they wanted to emulate her writing. These girls, all in my eighth-grade ELA intervention course, started a book club to discuss how Septeys’ used language to convey meaning. Thanks to these girls’ enthusiasm, I revisited the concept of writing center groups in the classroom. After all, teachers strive for students to question how authors convey meaning with words and sentence structures during peer review.

My class was finishing up a unit entitled The Long Journey Home. We read A Long Walk to Water, excerpts of Nelson Mandela’s speeches, a short story called “Diamond Land,” and watched a film entitled The Lost Boys of Sudan. 

I studied Flower’s paradigm of the madman, the architect, the carpenter, and the judge and also learned to rename rough drafts to downdrafts; therefore, I chose to employ some of these methods in the draft process. I told my students to think about everything we read in class and, for the entire ninety minutes, write their thoughts down, write the connections between the stories and film, and if they found any connections between our unit and their independent novel. I told my students we were in the madman phase.

 

Frances Christensen, in his book, Notes Toward a New Rhetoric, stated, “In composition courses, we do not really teach our captive charges to write better – we merely expect them to.” (Christensen &; Christensen, 1967, p. 129) During the school year, teachers have little time to teach a type of writing before they take a high-stakes test on the writing. There is no time to develop fluency or sentence writing skills. 

Collins, Lee, Fox, and Madigan from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 2017 completed a writing-intensive reading comprehension study. They observed that using interactive writing assignments with critical thinking questions about the reading as opposed to fact-finding questions would increase reading comprehension. 

I was praying my writing assignment, via the madman stage, asking students to ask questions and critically think back to our discussions and notes, would help their writing and comprehension. When the students completed their 90-minute madman downdraft, I collected the papers, read them, and wrote what I felt their thesis was and gave them a more targeted paper to write by connecting their thesis to a specific issue and audience.

 

A couple of days later, I set the students into groups of three for peer review. I gave them a peer review sheet I wanted them to answer as best they could, and I wanted them to CRISP their peer’s writing. I kept in mind that these were still grade-eight students in a struggling reading course and needed guidance. Each group used a set of various colored highlighters for the crisping activity.

My three girls took this writing assignment and peer review to new heights as they poured over their sentences in their papers and compared them to Ruta Septeys’ sentence structure. Their final drafts indicated a new advanced level of writing they credited with reading and discussing Septeys’ book.

In the current trend of student-centered learning, the idea of students self-teaching may be a plus; however, “Despite the frequent use of self-teaching, it fails to capitalize on the potential benefits of the social environment on learning. Also, not using models may limit the level of skill acquisition.” (Schunk &; Zimmerman, 2006, p. 14). In Schunk and Zimmerman’s 2007 study on self-efficiency and self-regulation, they scrutinized various past studies. They completed studies determining teacher-directed lessons via modeling help to teach student efficacy and self-regulation strategies. One such review from 2002, summarized research on college writing editing skills. “Students were assigned to one of six conditions. Mastery modeling students watched a professor demonstrate the revision strategy flawlessly; the coping-model students observed a model who initially made and corrected errors; and the no-model students had no exposure to a teacher or writing example. Results showed studying the coping model led to greater increases in writing self-efficacy.” (Schunk &; Zimmerman, 2006, p. 20) The final results also showed students who did not have any model made no gains in their writing abilities or self-regulation. 

Another instructional context would be student-led peer revision groups. Circling back to my eighth-grade students, even though their model (and teacher in a way) was a flawless, published book, they learned from me using examples of rough drafts, revision notes, and final draft writing since the beginning of the year.

My students had the best of both worlds, modeling writing in all its frustrations and revisions with me, falling in love with a book and wanting to use it as a model for writing, and trusting in one another during peer review.

Bibliography

Christensen, F., & Christensen, B. (1967). Notes Toward a New Rhetoric: 9 Essays for teachers (3rd ed.). Bangor, ME: Booklocker.com.

Collins, J. L., Lee, J., Fox, J. D., & Madigan, T. P. (2017). Bringing Together Reading and Writing: An Experimental Study of Writing Intensive Reading Comprehension in Low-Performing Urban Elementary Schools. Reading Research Quarterly, 52(3), 311-332. doi:10.1002/rrq.175

Schunk, D. H., & Zimmerman, B. J. (2006). Influencing Children’s Self-Efficacy and Self-Regulation of Reading and Writing Through Modeling. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 23(1), 7-25. doi:10.1080/10573560600837578

 

 

Developing Authentic Voice through Saturation Research Writing

A long time ago, I taught New Historicism Literary Criticism for Of Mice and Men and Romeo and Juliet to my ninth-grade students. Since New Historicism aims to study a piece of literature through a cultural context, I assigned my students to write biographies on Steinbeck and Shakespeare. After priming activities and schemata building about the time era in which the stories take place, I was hoping for biographies that dug deep into a cultural time and how those times shaped the authors. Instead, what I received was a glorified timeline.

Author Biographies:

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 outside of London, England. He married Anne Hathaway and had three children.

His first play was Romeo and Juliet. There is controversy that he stole the play from an Italian author who wrote it centuries earlier. He went on to write many more plays and died in 1616.

He coined many words that we still use today and theatres across the country still perform his works.

He died in 1616.

John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. He lived through The Great Depression and worked many odd jobs to survive.  

There is a belief that he worked on many ranches and that is how he came up with his idea for Of Mice and Men.  

He grew up with three sisters and in 1919 went to Stanford College but eventually dropped out. That is when he started working at different jobs.  

(Figure 1: A sampling of what the biographies looked like from my ninth-grade English Honor students.)

After two years of these biographies from students who I knew were much more skilled, much more capable, I knew I had to make a change in how I approached our school’s required biographical writing paper. 

Around the same time, 2003, I took a graduate-level course at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania entitled “Reading in the Secondary Classroom.” Our required text, The English Teacher’s Companion, by Jim Burke, included a chapter that focused on writing biographies. The recommendation, two-fold, was to have students only focus on one-to-three significant moments of the person’s life and to write in first person point-of-view as if they were that person.

Intrigued, I decided to try this out with my print journalism students, a class that was a mixture of grade 9-12 students and all levels. Up to this year, every year my students had given an oral presentation on a journalist. Every year, even with my advanced senior and junior students, the presentations began the same way: reported name, reported birthdate, reported place of birth. I could tell the students followed a templated pattern they learned in their earlier educational career.

The textbook recommendation, known as the Saturation Research Paper, did not go into much more detail, but it did have the first two paragraphs of a student model written by Alyse Rome about Harriet Tubman that has since been published on the Docest.com website in 2018. I shared these paragraphs with my journalism students. 

It was 1849, the year I got my freedom. Mind you; it wasn’t given to me. The only thing Master Ed and Miss Susan ever give me was a sore whippin’, an’ I’s got scars an’ calluses all over my stocky black body to show for it (Petry 5). It weren’t many a poor Negro slave that got freedom given to him. Lord no. He had to go on out and run to catch his freedom. Run faster and farther than he ever did from master’s whip. Faster and farther than he’d ever pray he’d run agin. And that’s just what I did, that night in 1849 (Humpherville 129).

I had reasoned this out in my mind, after hearin’ those forbidden stories whispered agin and agin, quietly around the fire – stories of the slave revolt brought on by Nat Turner (Jackson 121) and of the   runaways ridin’ to freedom on the Underground Railroad. I figured they was one of two things I had a right to: liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have the other. No man should take Harriet Tubman alive. I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted; and when the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me (Sterling 60). 

                                                                                                                        (Rome, 2018)

After reading together in class, we discussed its narrative elements and how they could incorporate these same elements in their writing. Besides discussing the narrative elements, we looked at how the student author used citations to show what ideas and paraphrasing she took from 

other texts. The following are a couple of my former students’ first sentences from this new form of biography writing known as the Saturation Research Paper.

“I sat on the hard bench of my jail cell, not sure when I would get out or if I ever would, but one thing I did know is that government corruption should not be tolerated, and it is my job and all reporters’ jobs to write the truth.”  ~J.M., Grade 10, Paper about John Peter Zenger

“I’m not scared, I told myself over and over, as I stepped through the doors of Blackwell Asylum. I worked as a sweatshop worker to help women; I can be an insane patient if that is what it takes to do the same.” ~B.C., Grade 9, Paper about Nellie Bly.

“My place is in America, my place is in your home, but my place will never be in just one home with my wife.”  ~ J.S., Grade 11, Paper about Charles Kuralt.

(Figure 2: First Sentences from my print journalism students in the 2003-3004 school year.)

I continued this assignment with my students until the end of the 2010-2011 school year. Each year, I would continue to use the beginning of the Harriet Tubman student model and one of my student’s papers from my first year.

Now, nearly two decades later, as I reinvestigated this type of writing for my history students, I found an online Teaching English as a Second Language Journal site, an article written by Johansen Quijano Cruz for the Center of Multidisciplinary Studies in Puerto Rico. Cruz’s article on teaching the saturation research paper includes the following six steps: Preparation, Saturation, Choosing the Significant Moment, Writing, Polish, and Present. (Cruz, 2008).

In the past, I showed my students the models and discussed elements, but I never thought about how to break them down. I gave my students a timeline of when the paper was due, and that was it. Now, since my current students need more step-by-step instructions, the following steps would be given in a more scaffolded assignment, with research and drafts due on specific dates.

Step one: The Preparation Process. In this step, the students choose a historical figure and spend time gathering information about the figure. Decide what type of style you want the students to use and take time to teach or reteach Chicago, MLA, APA, or another style you or your school may use. For this type of paper, I prefer Chicago since I found the parenthetical citation of other formats take readers out of the story. Chicago formatting allows a reader’s focus to maintain on the story. Depending on the subject being taught, students do not have to only focus on historical figures; they can choose to write about someone who is still alive. If they choose, encourage them to reach out to the person. 

Step two:  The Saturation Process: The students will read, absorb, and take notes. If you have specific guidelines they follow for where and how they keep source information and notes, you will want to make sure your students use methods they are already familiar using. If it is the first time they do any research writing, you will want to create mini lessons on how you want them to keep their notes. I have students who still prefer index cards, others who use a worksheet template with three notecards per page, and others who use online notecards with my teacher subscription to Noodletools.

Step three: Choosing the Significant Moment: After the students have saturated themselves with their historical figure’s life, they need to choose a significant event in that person’s life and determine what emotions are present to create a voice that will carry through the paper. Examples of significant moments include John Peter Zenger’s arrest for libel charges in 1734, Kesey’s job as a night orderly in a psychiatric hospital, and the first time George Washington witnessed how the Native Americans fought against invaders. The events chosen should be something that changed them in some way, whether that be a belief system or their career trajectory. In narrative terms, the events would be known as the catalyst or inciting incident that propels the person into a new path. I have used graphic organizers to help students define significant moments, describe the emotions involved, and how that inciting incident led the character to a significant life-changing moment or decision.  

Step four:  Writing:  This is the part where the students write their drafts, insert their quoted evidence, and revise. In this step, the students use their notes to write and find an authentic voice for their subject. An idea for a whole classroom activity is to give students time to present their person and their person’s moments with the class, either as a whole group activity or in a group setting. Giving students a chance to discuss events with their peers can also help them find the right voice. It is best to have a model example; I continued to use Alyse Rome’s model on Harriet Tubman or a volunteer student’s paper to model how evidence will be injected into the first-person narrative style of this report. The first draft is peer-reviewed, the second draft is read by the teacher, and the third draft is ready for polish.

Step five:  The Polish:  This is when the students finalize their papers by proofreading, double-checking style requirement, and double-checking for any needless words that could be omitted or checking for awkward sentences that need to be fixed. A great way this works is to list needless words such as that, started to, in this paper, seem, really, on the board, and any other important element you want the students to double-check. Then group students into three or four. Have multiple color highlighters and have one reader just focus on searching out certain elements and highlight those with one color. One example is every time the word that is used, one reader will highlight it blue; then another reader will focus only on typos or spelling mistakes and highlight those in another color, and so on. Giving each person something specific to look for in the final proof doesn’t overwhelm them.

Step six:  Present to class. This step is optional. 

There are ways to modify the paper. One is to have the students take the person and the event out of place and time. An example of this is George Washington in a war room as he witnesses the military using drones to attack areas. Another is to have their character be a spectator to the event, such as the first time Amelia Earhart stepped inside a plane. If they are artistic, they can create a graphic novel but still use the event and quoted evidence. Finally, they can use story mapping programs like Northwestern University’s Knight lab programs that work in conjunction with Google programs.  (Mago Torres | magiccia & Hannah Barton, 2021)

Since I was reinvestigating the saturation paper and teaching U.S.  History, in which I am not certified, I had my U.S. American tenth graders, who were working in pairs creating a two-day presentation on different time eras, practice how saturation writing will help them synthesize information for one of the historical figures they had already been studying for several weeks.

I jumped right into the assignment the way I began twenty years ago instead of using the six-step approach for two reasons. One, I wanted to see if there would be any different results since I was working with a general history class instead of higher-level English and journalism students. Secondly, since my students had already been researching a historical time frame for a couple of weeks and completed annotations and graphic organizers for their research, I knew they would already have a background on a historical figure. 

I asked students to name some of the historical figures from their research. Most named the president at the time; some named other prominent figures. Since at this point, my students should have already been saturated with important details about the figure they chose, I had them take twenty minutes to do a bit more research and write the beginnings of a biography on the figure they chose. When asked how the biography should be completed, I told them to think back to how they had been previously taught. My goal was to see how they naturally began a biographical sketch.  

Once the twenty minutes were up, I asked my students if anyone wanted to volunteer to share their first paragraphs. The first paragraph of every student’s paper incorporated the name and date of birth. After my students shared their work, I asked them how they would feel if they read over a hundred papers that began the same way. Once we got past the “I will never be a teacher” and “I hate reading” remarks, the students admitted they would get bored and not know how to grade even with a rubric.  

At this point, I explained to my students I would give them another half an hour to dig a bit deeper into one or two significant moments of their person’s life and to rewrite the beginning of a saturation research paper. I went over the saturation research prompt (included) and modeled ways to start the writing from a piece of my personal writing on a historical figure from the late 1600s.

The following examples are some of my students’ beginning sentences from their first biographical sketch and then their rewrite as a saturation research paper.

Original

Rewrite

“William Jefferson Clinton or Bill Clinton served as the 42nd president of the United States of America from 1993-2001. Clinton was born August 19, 1946, as William Jefferson Blythe III. He later took his stepfather’s surname Clinton. Before coming president, he served as the Arkansas State Attorney General from 1976 to 1978. In 1978 he ran for and won the position of governor of Kansas.”

“I am a criminal. I am a fraud. I am a scoundrel. I have known this for most of my life, as most politicians do. Over the many years of my service to America, I have discovered that a politician’s job is not about loyalty, courage, or morals, but a game in which we strategize to hide our sins. I have failed that game. I sit waiting for a trial convicting me of sexual assault.”

(Figure 4:  Bill Clinton by Sophia R. Grade 10)

Original

Rewrite:

“Sandra Day O’Connor served on the Supreme Court as the first female supreme court justice in the United States. She was born on March 26, 1930, in El Paso, Texas, and throughout her childhood lived there with her grandmother., since at the time education for women was much better in El Paso than in other parts of Texas. Her education from there on out consisted of her excelling in school and graduating early at 16 to attend Stanford University.”

“People have asked me if it was stressful. If my heart was pounding or if my mind was racing a million miles a minute. My answer? No. This is what I had been waiting for almost my entire life; just me, the Chief Justice, who at the was Chief Justice Warren Burger, and the eyes of America and history itself watching me with my hand on the bible, swearing to serve my country.”

(Figure 5:  Sandra Day O’Connor by Brigid S. Grade 10)

Original

Rewrite

“Woodrow Wilson was the 28th American Democratic president of the United States. He served his time from 1923 to 1921 serving through WWI. He was born in 1856 in Staunton, Virginia. His full name is Thomas Woodrow Wilson. When the Civil War ended, he moved to Georgia from South Carolina because of all the destruction the war had caused. It was said that Wilson was dyslexic and did not read until he was ten.”

“As I sit on the hard bench of this horse-drawn cart, watching as the horse uses all his might to pull my family and al our belongings through the wreckage of the aftermath of war, I can now read the signs of hate since my reading skills have improved. Signs of hate and signs of people abandoning their homes in search of something new. I think to myself, someday, I will make this country better.”

(Figure 6:  Woodrow Wilson by Ethen C. Grade 10)

Original

Rewrite:

“Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was America’s 32nd president. He was born on January 30, 1882 and died on April 12, 1945. He served as president from March 4, 1933, to April 12, 1945, the day he died. He passed just as soon as he was starting his fourth term in office, and he remains the only president to serve for more than two terms. He was first elected in 1933 and beat Hoover by a landslide.

“I walk onto stage and hear the crowd screaming my name. They are tired and they are hungry. But they are still using what energy they have to scream my name. I feel a sense of guilt and pressure that I’m not sure I can handle. What if I disappoint them all? They need a president who will. Listen to them. I see a woman in the crowd, she is skin and bones, and she is holding a baby who has no idea what kind of world is surrounding them.

(Figure 6:  Franklin D. Roosevelt by Frankie H. Grade 10)

Original

Rewrite

“Born in 1908, on the 4th of November, Joseph Raymond McCarthy was quite the powerful individual. Raised in Appleton, Wisconsin, McCarthy grew up to serve in the U.S. Senate as a politician representing his home state. McCarthy was a political force to be reckoned with, dominating the U.S. political climate in the early 1950s. The man dominated through his impeccable charges of communist subversion within government’s highest circles.”

“I am a hero. Many people may disagree with that statement, but I know with all of my heart that what I say is no falsehood. What I’m doing is for the greater good, for the sake of my country. We are being faced with an evil, the evil of communists infiltrating our home and pretending to be one of us. When I joined the senate, I did so to protect my country, my home from any threat that may try to bring it harm.”

(Figure 7:  Joseph McCarthy by Grayson C. Grade 10)

While reading the beginning of the saturation research writing, I noticed that the students were bringing in those first-person elements and, as a result beginning to world-build and create ideas.  

The Saturation Research Paper teaches students to synthesize information in ways they have not thought about before. In the original writings, the students are regurgitating information they read but not feeling the emotions or ideas; in the rewrites, the students found a voice that puts the reader in a moment and thus transports the reader to time and place.

The students finished the last several steps of writing and polishing. Due to time constraints in the history class, I did not take the time with my students for a longer peer review or individual council with me, but after the first day, the students had a week to finish writing and then a day in groups to peer review. The next class, the students turned in their papers. I discovered through reading that some students took time to digest their historical figure and use the research they had already completed to create a story with voice and visual elements and some different perspectives through dialogue instead of a list of facts. Other students took the papers in a completely different direction and began creating actions that never occurred in history.  

I learned that the next time I do this activity, I need to give directions before any research is completed and add a step where historical accuracy is fact-checked. I do not see this as a part of the teacher’s job, but instead could be added in as a class lesson on fact-checking. This could be used with a graphic organizer (adding a column to the one I attached) for resources used for the significant event. These events could be fact-checked on the graphic organizer as a first step, and then another graphic organizer created for the peer reviewer to note information that needs to be double-checked

“Digging for Claims”

I love the feel of sand between my toes, I love how when I get close to the ocean’s edge, the water can sneak up on me and splash all around my ankles, and I love watching as my dog dives his nose deep into the sand in hunt of buried treasure which is usually in the form of some half-eaten crab leg.  I am a tactile girl: I prefer the feel of a pencil or pen in my fingers as I glide my hand across a sheet of paper. 

I keep hearing kids are digital and their minds are only wired for electronics and computers; from my experience with remote learning, I no longer believe that is true.  It started with my first-time use of NoRedInk. 

NoRedInk’s mission is to “unlock every writer’s potential.”  The program, created by former English teachers, is an online grammar and writing program that adapts to each student.  I decided to have my tenth and eleventh graders work through a series of lessons about claims and evidence.  They struggled.  During a one on one zoom session, I had a student share his screen with me. I thought that this one-on-one was helpful because I learned he did not understand how to determine claims or proper evidence; therefore, we walked through the problems the program presented him.  If we were in the classroom, teaching claims and evidence this way would be beneficial to my students. 

Recently and metaphorically, Isaac Newton’s apple hit me on the head: there is a correlation between understanding claims and evidence and being able to properly peer review.  In the past, when I have had to cull my own research for a literature review, I made sure I was curating peer-reviewed articles. The peer-reviewing wasn’t about grammar and mechanics or even sentence structure; instead, the focus was on claims and evidence – were they accurate, were they valid, were they reliable. I never realized that it is this same concept I want my students to do in a peer review.  

 It is time I teach them.  Armstrong and Paulson bring up definitional points in their Peer Review terminology paper, “Perhaps the most significant distinction between peer response and peer review is that the former tends to be a more audience-focused session that is typically structured to involve discussion-driven feedback.” (402) Since we teach our students that their writing, no matter the genre, needs to be for a wider audience – not just the teacher or classmates,  I related Armstrong and Paulson’s idea of the audience-focused session to more scholarly peer review that I would like my students to emulate. 

How will I get my students to understand claims and evidence and the importance of writing them and understanding them in their classmates’ papers? This should be easy, since every time we read a short article, we go through the rhetorical devices, inference, discussion, etc.  I thought my students understood these concepts until NoRedInk opened my eyes. 

“When instructors ask students to perform peer review, they must consider exactly what they are asking students to do to develop a peer-review activity that fits instructors’ specific goals for students. Then, and only then, can instructors provide a language for such an activity that allows students to see these goals, make the connections, and benefit from peer review.”(Armstrong and Paulson 400). 

I want my students to see these goals and make the connections: I want my students to be tactile in their learning in a way that goes beyond using a pen or pencil, computer keyboard, or highlighter.  I want my students to feel the sand between their fingers as they dig for claims. It will get messy, paper towels, hand sanitizer, and a broom will be on guard, but it might help switch from short-term memory to long-term understanding. 

First, I want to have a series of whole group lessons where we utilize NoRedInk on the Smartboard and go through several of the questions and talk through what makes a claim and what isn’t and what makes proper evidence.  Again, though my students do this with our article readings in class, they cannot transfer the lesson from one task to another. 

The second phase is digging through a tabletop sandbox or sand bucket for claims and evidence.  This will happen in groups.  I will have three cut out claims and statements of facts with three evidence pieces for each claim and several non-evidence pieces.  The group will have to sift through all of them and match the proper pieces of evidence to the appropriate claim.    

Once they have successfully completed this task, they will create a quick time video verbally explaining why the evidence matches the claim. After this part, each member of the group will watch the other members’ videos and ask the student how they would elaborate more. 

Finally, the students will receive a menu of different genre writings and choose one of them to write a paper using their claims, evidence, and rationale.  The genre could be a blog, a series of memes, a social media post, a letter to the editor, a newscast, or a speech. I want the genre to be different from the five-paragraph essay so the students understand that they will encounter claims and evidence in a variety of ways throughout their lives. 

I invite all of you to find your sandbox and tactile ways to teach claims and evidence. 

Works Cited:  

Armstrong, S. L., & Paulson, E. J. (2008). Whither “peer review”?   

terminology matters for the writing classroom.Teaching English in the  

Two Year College,35(4), 398-407. Retrieved from https://search- 

proquest-com.proxy1.library.jhu.edu/docview/220963655? 

accountid=11752 

Call to Action Assignment

My brother is dead. His silver, special lead-lined casket cascaded through the water as the soft rains sent ripples in the ocean. My brother is dead.

About a week ago, I received some hate mail on Facebook messenger: my brother deserved to die. My brother deserved to die because he is white. That is what she wrote to me. I blocked the person; she was a former creative writing student of mine who, up until a year ago, would post historically accurate research of Irish discrimination in America.

I know the protests will die down. I also understand what George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s family will spend the next several years fighting for; I know the nasty tricks that will be used to discredit them and keep the police officers out of jail. I know their wrongful death suits may possibly unravel. I know because I’ve been there.

I know what it is like to have panic attacks when I see a police officer or a police car; I shake, my breathing quickens, I am about to hyperventilate, my pulse skyrockets, I sweat, I fear. 

My brother is dead. I spent the next five years being pulled over by cops and harassed, spat at, pulled out of my car, frisked and worse, yelled at – being the worst kind of criminal on the planet. “What did I do, officer?” “I don’t need to tell you.” Of course not, because I didn’t break any laws. I also know if I were black, one of those times, I might have also died. Being white didn’t save me from being harassed and assaulted by police officers and denied the ability to take action against them during my family’s wrongful death civil case, but it did keep me from being murdered at the hands of law enforcement.

It didn’t stop my brother’s murder.

I believe systematic racism exists, and I could spend the next couple of pages listing all the examples through history, but that won’t bring my brother back to life, it won’t bring George Floyd back to life or Breonna Taylor’s.

Yet, according to my former student, it is because systematic racism exists; my brother deserved to die. I don’t think that is the message we want to send. We should show solidarity and not division.

Like Breonna, my brother never committed a crime; however, he was targeted because he was different: diagnosed with bi-polar disorder years earlier, he was in a manic phase, with a long red-beard; full mountain man look.

The police officers didn’t murder him, but they also did not follow proper protocol. Five hours after the woman who agreed over the phone to rent my brother an apartment called the cops and lied about his trespassing, they took him into custody by dragging him out of his place of employment – a church. Instead of taking him to the emergency room for a psych evaluation or to the police station for a proper booking, they drove him straight to jail.  

The guards accidentally murdered him while having their kicks – induced hypothermia via forced cold water from high powered fire hoses then physically beating him.

My brother is dead, and even though per capita more black people die at the hands of law enforcement, it doesn’t mean my brother deserved to die.

My former student, who now in her early thirties, still called me Momma T, still came to me for advice, still when feeling creative would ask for a writing assignment, called me racist this past week because of what my demands are:

  1. A four-year criminal justice degree for ALL police officers before being admitted into the police academy.
  2. Stop training police officers that citizens are the enemy, and it is an us vs. them world out there.
  3. Psychiatric evaluations for guards, wardens, and officers to stave off those who would abuse their position of authority.
  4. Overturn Qualified Immunity

These have been my demands since my brother’s murder. They will always be my demands; I will not waver; I do not believe they make me a racist; in fact, these changes could help curb some of the systematic racism.  

I am not protesting on the streets; I am protesting through words and letters to our congressmen and other government officials.

My brother is dead, and he didn’t deserve to die. Nor do all the other victims of color or other unique qualities that make someone different.

Based on my experience, I strongly feel that it is crucial to recognize privilege, but understand that recognizing it is different from pretending one has not suffered, has not experienced injustice.

What can we do, we can set forth a multi-layered call to action. As a teacher, the ways we can engage our students would be to discuss the following actions and then give them a “pick one” writing option post discussion. 

  1. Recognize that systematic racism exists and is hurtful to minorities.
    1. Write letters to politicians demanding changes that include one or more of the following and/or other elements you feel strongly about to help stop Systematic Racism.
      1. Create a national curriculum and board for police officers.
      2. Stop the current overzealous standardized test practices. 
      3. Stop the gerrymandering of district lines.
      4. Stop the redlining practices that are still in existence today.
  2. Recognize our privileges and our injustices
    1. Write a narrative that includes all or some of the following:
      1. What are your biases, and how do/why do you believe you have them?
      2. Describe your privileges.
        1. How are your privileges different from someone who
          1. is of the same race.
          2. is of a different race.
      3. Describe and give examples of injustice.
        1. What injustices do minorities suffer?
        2. What injustices do Caucasians (the majority) suffer?
        3. What are some of the similarities and differences?
      4. How/ why are those with disabilities – physical or mental considered minorities who suffer systematic racism?
      5. Explain with examples how pretending one has not suffered; one has not experienced injustice no matter the race be harmful to stopping Systematic Racism?

The September SVWP teacher conference

I never expected to be yelled at today.  Nor did I expect to be yelled at two different times for two different reasons.

This morning I went to the writing conference at Shenandoah University.  This conference is when this summer’s teacher consultants for the National Writing Project/Shenandoah Valley Writing project present their professional development to outsiders (as in other teachers around the area).  It is a special day for the consultants.

The first workshop I attended was given by a high school teacher who went through how she uses the I believe project by NPR.  This teaches students how to read and analyze a very short I Believe essay, respond to it, create a question from it, write about that question and try to answer it, and finally create their own I Believe narrative. For today’s workshop, the teacher had a class set of I Believe This books and gave us directions to peruse through and stop at an essay that interests us.  Being that I have a sense of restlessness, I read an essay entitled, “What I learned from my restlessness and jagged edges.”  It was not what I thought.  It was written by a lady who embraces her highs and lows of her bi-polar.  I thought it would be what people learn who feel like they are missing something in their lives and are on a quest.  The essay reminded me of what a nurse once told me about police bringing in a bipolar in a manic phase who was in the process of nailing himself to a church cross.  That nurse also mentioned that with some people with the disease, it is possible to feel god-like while in a high state of the manic phase.  My question was why do those with bi-polar sometimes have a god-complexion when experiencing a manic phase.  I am not capable of answering that question, and I did not know at the time I wrote it that I would have to attempt to answer it.  But I did, and afterward a lady started yelling at me for trivializing the disease, explaining that there is no god-like complexion,  and then assumed that I could not possibly know anyone with bi-polar.  I calmly responded that I did, but that he has since passed away, and that he, like patients of this nurse, had times where he believed he was God.  I understand that everyone is going to have different experiences, and I in no way wrote what I did to attack anyone with the disease.  Also, as I stated earlier, I am not qualified to answer why it happens.

After the lady verbally attacked me, the presenter calmly explained that my essay was a result of the story of the man nailing himself to the cross and my wondering about how he managed to feel he was God.  At the end of that workshop, another lady walked up to me and apologized to me for how I was treated by the other workshop participant.

Below is my question and my response:

What happens to the brain to make the owner believe he or she is God?

This is a difficult question to answer and for some reason it makes me think of the controversy surrounding John Lennon’s quote that the Beatles were bigger than God. What makes someone God-like?  And to refine that even more what makes an individual Godlike for me.  Would it be how that individual sees God?  Is he all-knowing and can that make the person a busy-body?  Is he wise and does that make someone studious? Is he kind and does that make someone want to do good in the world?  Or is he the God of the Old Testament and therefore an ego-centric asshole who (or that) requires pure devotion which can cause war and strife?  Or in the end is God just energy and electrical impulses?  Does someone with bi-polar have awry electrical systems in their brain?  Do the synapses not work well enough and cause depression?  Then to make up for it do those electrical pulses cause a surge of energy that brings the person to a God-like state of Creation and Myth?

I never meant to offend anyone with this essay.  I also did not share with an entire group the rest of the day.

The second time the yelling wasn’t really at me, it was just a teacher in our group of three who during a group question and share moment went off on how our keynote speaker, Jeff Anderson, was teaching to put a comma before the and in a list.  She was angry.  According to her it is passé, goes against creative writing, and should never be done.  Another teacher brought the idea up to the entire crowd and Jeff mentioned how (after visiting several styles that require it – APA, Chicago, MLA – the only style that does not require it is AP.  I could feel the hot steam rising out of her ears when he said that.

Jeff Anderson gave a great and hysterical keynote address.  He mentioned DoLs.  These are the Daily language exercises that I am embarrassed to say I once did.  When I first started teaching, a veteran AP (this time accelerated placement not associated press) teacher gave me a list for the entire year.  It is a sentence with mistakes, you place it on the board, the student is to copy it, and then correct it.  As a teacher, you are to go over it after the students have had time to work on it.  Even after I started working with mentor texts (before I even knew that was the term), I didn’t think to stop the DoL’s.  Finally, at some point I did, but It was because I lost my original sheets, not because I wised up.

The beginning of the school year I went to a professional development given by an unnamed person (he was bad so I won’t name him).  My table just shredded everything he was teaching us because everything encouraged the brain to remember the wrong information and be praised for it.

Anderson mentioned that doing the DoL’s does the same thing – activating the RAS, reticular activation system, to learn and store the wrong information.  That made me glad I lost my DoL sheets a long time ago.  Anderson mentioned using mentor sentences to teach grammar and the art of sentence writing and how that can teach inferring and comprehension and compare contrast and so much more.  Don and Jenny Killgallon believe the same thing, along with Kelly Gallagher.

Before Jeff Anderson’s speech, I went to another teacher consultant’s workshop and the TC gave an excellent assignment for teaching metaphor via a metaphor writing assignment in describing yourself.  He had us go through our own rough drafts.  I am not going to write mine down here.  But, I will share my other writing.  the title is fictional memories and the idea is to take a real memory, write in third person point of view, and fictionalize it.  I chose the time I ended up with nitrogen narcosis while diving the Blue Hole in Belize.  The real story is that it was a guided no-compression dive, I thought everything was cool, too much nitrogen was slipping into my bloodstream, and the dive master had to grab my elbow, and swim with me back to the boat.  There was no more conflict than that, and especially not with my then husband/now ex-husband.  But, if there had been it would make for a better detail in the writing if I had time to continue.

Below is my rough draft of the writing:

Marianne’s hand twitched in the cold water as she played with the smoke that billowed out of the lavender tube like a mini-volcano about to erupt.  She laughed and then choked on the oxygen released by her regulator.  The laughing felt good, a release of built-up tension from the fight she had with her husband the night before.  he was with her now, pulling her away from the billowing smoke, but Marianne didn’t want to leave.  Her hands caught the smoke and released it, caught the smoke and released it, and continued to do so until the colors faded from her vision.  this should have clued her into the dangers ahead, but she found it all so funny.  Marianne, in her attempt to catch more smoke, felt that the heaviness around her was inhibiting her progress.  She opened up her weight belt and threw the one to two-pound sandbags away.  She watched them float and drop away into the sea below.

NWP, ILA, and NOLA

Last summer I had the honor of being accepted into the National Writing Project – in the world of education this is big.  How big:  it is where Kelly Gallagher started his publishing career.  When I interviewed for the program, I discussed how students aren’t reading longer books – how they hold books and parade them in front of people, how they skim through the book, how some read every third chapter, but they don’t read the entire book.   For some students, they don’t even do that because the size of the book intimidates them, and as a result, they never pick the book up from the shelf.  If we want to build readers, we need to publish shorter books.  At that interview I was told if accepted, my personal writing project would be to write that shorter YA novel.  Hence the character of Pearl came alive.  Before the end of the school year I talked to my students and garnered ideas from them.  I also overheard a conversation between two of my eighth  grade students who wandered back into my classroom after they finished their end of the year standardized test.  The boy openly said in front of me that he is breaking up with his seventh grade girlfriend because she is pressuring him into having sex and he is not ready.  I felt proud of him for his decision.  I also asked permission to paraphrase their conversation in my writing project.  They happily agreed.

I want to backtrack to when I was in sixth grade and read one of my to this day favorite books: Lois Lowry’s A Summer to Die.  Years ago, I ordered that book for my classroom.  I reread it, but as an adult thought I wouldn’t think it was as good.  I was wrong, I still cried, I still felt all the emotions, and still thought, “Wow, what a great book.”  A Summer to Die has a word count of 33,916.  Every student who has read that book in my classroom wants to reread it, has cried, and wanted nothing more than to talk to me about it.  That is a sign of a good book. Lowry’s later book, The Giver, also a fantastic read, has 43,139 words.  These are the word lengths more authors need to achieve to create readers out of students who would never otherwise read.  Yet, it is more than that, teenagers are just that – they are teenagers.  As such, no matter how much they act like or want to be an adult, they are not.  Their minds are not fully developed to have the attention span to read and comprehend completely the longer novels.  It isn’t about wanting instant gratification, but about normal development.

Of course, I also know adults who have told me they don’t read because they don’t have time to invest in such a long story – some of those adults are probably struggling readers and some really may just have time constraints as busy parents while maintaining a full time job.

This past spring I may have been blackballed in the publishing industry.  I had a fight with an agent/editor- I won’t give her name or the house name.  I met her at a conference after I paid extra to pitch my story idea.  As soon as I sat down she asked me where I graduated and my word count.  She immediately began to dismiss me.  She never read a word I wrote or listened to my pitch.  She explained that YA novels have to be 100,000 word count or longer to be published and that nothing shorter would ever be considered by any agent.  I explained my reason for it being shorter, I even mentioned how Sharon Draper has a couple of shorter YA novels that are very successful.  She had no idea who Sharon Draper is.  I didn’t know how to respond to that.  Tears of a Tiger is 25,523 words and the next book in Draper’s Hazelwood trilogy, Forged by Fire, is 33,164 words.  I have not had one student who has not liked those books.  I have had students reread them over and over again.  These are students who will never pick up a longer book.

Yet, I get the misconception of editors and agents thinking longer is the way to go.  They are thinking of that sweet spot of book length and cost of production, something I understand as a former high school yearbook advisor.  They are also thinking of themselves and how reading, I am assuming, was something they loved and enjoyed as a child.  They most likely were not struggling readers or passive readers, instead they were the ones who read every single word and felt emerged in the story and didn’t care if it was 20,000 words or 400,000 words.

That was also me.  Around the same time I read A Summer to Die, I read The Stand by Stephen King, a book of 465,974 words.  I read every single word.  When I finished the book, I reread parts of it.  I was eleven, I am now forty-eight and can still close my eyes and visualize scenes from that book.  I also refused to watch the movie version because I didn’t want it to interfere with the visuals my mind created while I read the book.

The publishing industry needs to send agents and editors to schools and have them talk to adolescent readers, not just the advanced readers, but the reluctant and struggling readers.  I feel that we need to publish not just diverse books, but shorter lengths to help build the reading muscles of the reluctant reader to help create lifelong readers.  By only publishing 100,000 + word counts for MG and YA readers, the publishing industry is inadvertently dumbing down America by stopping kids from reading lengths they are not ready to handle.

The advanced readers will read anything, any length, any genre, any level – we won’t lose advanced readers by publishing shorter YA novels.  Those advanced readers are also usually the busy ones, the  ones taking honor courses, the ones working part time jobs, the ones involved in tons of extra-curricular, and they need shorter YA novels to escape into another world without the time constraints of a longer book.  Keep in mind though that reading the entire full length novel of more than 60 , 100, or even 450 thousand words doesn’t necessarily mean that the adolescent or middle school student can comprehend the story.

I want my book, “The Chocolatier’s Daughter” to be that book.  One that enters the world of teenagers, a school sports star who falls from grace, and has to navigate a new world while figuring out who to trust.

I’m not finished and I want to visit this new world my main character, Pearl, has to navigate.  I teach in a state that is 49th in teacher salary while living in a Washington D.C. cost of living.  I don’t have the funds to travel there on my own. On the last morning of the 32nd annual Children’s Literature Conference this summer, I saw a notification for a grant from the International Literacy Association.  The requirement, besides being a member, is that the intended literacy project has to be outside the USA.  Perfect, I could do an evaluation, transcription, and awareness project in the country I want to send Pearl to in “The Chocolatier’s Daughter.”  The catch, the grant had to be snail mailed and post marked that very same day.  Every time I received a grant, I wrote and then revised numerous times.  That writing process helped me receive over $20,000 for my classrooms over the years.  That writing process also helped me be accepted into The National Writing Project, and it awarded me a Japan Fulbright and Honeywell Educator Space Academy spot.  Without the time to revise, I’m not confident I will receive the ILA grant, but it won’t stop me from hoping.

Why do I want it, because if I am going to write about a place, I would like to experience it.  This concept brings me back to that conversation between my two former eight grade students and that spring conference.  I also paid to have a section of my Pearl story critiqued.  I sent the pages in advance and then met with the editor. Her first comment to me was that I need to take an adolescent development course because I obviously don’t know anything about teenagers.  She explained that her college required publishing students to take that course and it helped her so much with editing and her own writing. She then explained that ninth grade students would never have this conversation and that it is a conversation, instead, that twenty somethings would have.  She was referring to the conversation that I paraphrased from those eighth graders.  I never used the word sex in my paraphrase, instead I inferred.

I did wonder how she could be so naive to the struggles of adolescents.  I also wondered how she would have handled that school day, my third year of full time teaching, when one of my students wrapped her arms around me and cried on my shoulders. She was a senior girl who just discovered her boyfriend was doing cocaine and hiring prostitutes.  I wondered about this editor, what would that moment have done to her?  I didn’t tell her, I didn’t ask her, instead I thanked her for her advise and walked away.

Now as a teacher consultant for the National Writing Project, I received notification about the New Orleans Writing Marathon.  How could I refuse?  I drove to save money on a plane ticket and spent that time listening to the unabridged version of Moby Dick via my audible app and my car stereo.  Moby Dick, as was told to be by one of the other NOWM attendees was the Discovery Channel of the time.  I have to agree.  However, I would never teach the unabridged version, I would only teach one of the abridged versions floating around in the publishing world.

Some of the pieces I wrote at the conference are on the New Orleans tab above. I explored the city by walking around and even taking some paid tours.  I stopped at a street vendor fortune teller and had my palm read, I treated myself to a good haircut at Diversions Salon, and even bought a local jazz record and David Gilmour record at a vinyl shop.  I am feeling a bit guilty about the last one, because after he rang up the price of the albums and told me the amount, I handed my debit card to him, and I got a discount I didn’t deserve.  He started the transaction, looked at my card, looked at me, then voided the sale, re-rang it up, and informed me I get a fifty percent discount.  It was because my bank is with USAA, but I’m not the military in my family – I think he assumed I was.

The fortune teller told me I am extremely funny, but only a few people know that.  I disagree because I have had a lot of students over the past two decades and they all know my silly side. She also said I struggle financially because money just isn’t coming in (ain’t that the truth), but that I will be very wealthy.  Since I don’t plan on leaving teaching, and I don’t have a rich relative who will leave me money in a will, maybe that means I will have an agent see potential in my writing.  Or maybe it just means she makes that statement to all her clients.

Below are just a couple photos from New Orleans and more from a walk along the C&O. These are untouched photos.

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I like the reverse of the letters.

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A monument to the struggles of Hurricane Katrina

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This is my favorite image of the trip. A reflection of the flowers left at a Hurricane Katrina memorial.

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Obviously, a flower.

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Practicing blurring the background with my camera.

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Another practicing of blurring the background. Look closely at the insect on the stem.

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A street Entertainer.

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Concentrating and getting ready to play.

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From a photographer standpoint there are many things wrong with this image, but what I like is that the musician and the man on the bench are both leaning back.

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Now, he is playing.

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Not the fortune teller I went to, but one that is getting ready to tell a fortune to another person.

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This was set up by military men.  I bought one for a friend of mine.

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This is at the C&O canal in the DC area. I like how he or she is looking at me and the shadow on the blade of grass.

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Quite blurry, but I had Wiley attached to me via leash and this deer, just a baby, was running fast.

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As I took to this I though of the irony about how we love the feel of silk clothes, but get all icked out when we brush up against a spider web.

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practicing the blurring the background technique

The Elusive Blue Heron

 

 

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I selected him, ran an inverse, and then blurred the background. In the process, his edges looked a bit jagged so I tried to smooth them out. I also tried cloning part of his underwing to hide large tree branches that showed up on his wing. This one not my best.

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My attempt at Sepia tone.

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brightened up the colors.

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the oil painting filter.

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This is just a basic crop.

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Just a crop and sharpened the edges.

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Here he is taking off and if you look closely you can see his feet have just left the branches.

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I like the way his wings are up high, but have folded down.  His muscles pop out and the strength of his long neck stares you in the face.  I also noticed that his feet dangle downwards and if he were to land he would need to move them up.

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The steel grays of his feathers deem him worth y of being a Great Blue.

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Before I took these pictures I never knew that there is a bit of orange on the GBH’s wings.

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This photo reminds me of a book by Richard Bach called There’s No Such Place as Far Away.

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Obviously I was playing with lighting techniques.  His feet are straight, the way a diver wants their feet together and angled as he/she jumps off the dive board and up into the air before landing in the pool.

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In this lighting technique I am reminded of someone who is pushing his/her way through a dark cloud and knowing that the perseverence will pay off in the future.

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The graceful wings as they curve upwards in lift.

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I wanted to keep some of the tops of trees to get a sense of height.

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Another Oil Painting filter.

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Resting on a branch post flight.