Reading Response Exercise #9—Practice a Reading Strategy

This week’s reading activity is more an exercise than a question, and you will need to read the full prompt before you do your reading for the exercise.

For this exercise, you need the book you are reading, a pen or pencil, and (if you don’t want to/or can’t write in your book) some small sticky notes. You may even want an index card or piece of paper on which to write down the code.

Code? you say.

Yes, this exercise involves the coded recording of margin notes as you read.

You can create your own code if you want, but here’s the code I like to use (If you create your own code, remember each symbol should be simple to make and easy to remember):

  • * (a star): this indicates that what I am reading is important for me to remember.
  • ! (an exclamation point): this means “Wow!” and is used for things that either are really interesting or exciting.
  • ? (question mark): I use this to show where I don’t quite understand what the author is saying. I can go back to it later and figure it out if further reading didn’t clarify it for me.
  • :) (a smiley face): This means I like what I read or I think it’s funny.
  • :( (a sad face): I use this for things that are troubling or sad.
  • // (two parallel lines): I use this symbol alongside passages that remind me of something I can relate to in my own life.
  • (a triangle): I borrowed this symbol from math and science to use in passages where it seems some change is taking place.
  • (an eyeball): My students enjoyed using this to point out things they have observed in the text.

As you read, either write in pencil in your book or write on sticky notes to attach these notes in the margin alongside the passages that inspire them.

For example:

  • Diddle, diddle dumpling,        :) I love the way these words bounce
  • My son John,
  • Went to bed
  • With his stockings on.              ? Why?
  • One shoe off,
  • One shoe on…
  • Diddle, diddle dumpling,
  • My son John.                             // reminds me of when my one-year-old daughter fell asleep with her face in her plate!

Using margin notes is a great strategy for nonfiction and assigned readings. It helps you to stay focussed, to relate to the text, and to highlight and remember what seems important in the text.

I use margin notes most often when reading my critique group friends’ manuscripts, and when reading informative articles relating to writing and other areas in which I’m interested. I have found the practice to improve my interaction with and comprehension of the text.

I hope it can prove both fun and useful for you!


Play with Your Words #14—Sentence Fluency/Pacing

Pacing and flow are important in writing, particularly in fiction writing.

For this week’s Play with Your Words exercise, you will need to look at a work of fiction you have recently read.

Find a passage in the story where there was lots of excitement and action. Select one half to one full-page from this section and do a sentence length analysis. Count up the number of words in each sentence and list them.

For example:

  • Sentence 1: ___ words
  • Sentence 2: ___ words
  • Sentence 3: ___ words
  • Sentence 4: ___ words
  • Sentence 5: ___ words
  • Sentence 6: ___ words
  • Sentence 7; ___ words
  • Sentence 8: ___ words

Add up the total number of words. Then divide the total number of words by the number of sentences you analyzed. In my example, that would be: total number of words divided by 8.

On average, how many words per sentence did the author use in this active, exciting part of the story?

Now select a peaceful, calm part of the story and count up the sentence lengths for about one half or one page. Total the number of words and divide by the number of sentences for the average number of words per sentence.

What kind of scene used the shorter length sentences?

What kind of scene used longer sentences?

Write two scenes, at least ten sentences in length, using what you now know to create one active and exciting scene and one peaceful scene.

Share your results with your writing friends or family. Remember to let each other know what you liked in their work.

I’d love to see some of your scenes as comments here! Happy Writing!

The Best Books of October

Incredible! October is nearly over. Much of it has been a pretty, golden month, and way too much of it I have spent reading and playing. (Sometimes being sick is not such a bad thing!)

Now, it is time for me and you, my readers, to share your favorite, or your child’s favorite, read from this month.

The book I enjoyed most this October was Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Crossing to Paradise. Gatty, who has worked in the fields of Sir John’s manor all her life, is given the opportunity to serve as lady’s maid to Lady Gwyneth of Ewloe, and soon finds herself leaving all she has ever known to accompany her lady on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Gatty, Lady Gwyneth, and seven companions traverse Europe learning to navigate not only the difficult and unfamiliar cultures and terrain, but also the experiences and relationships that develop along the way. I really enjoyed this book and I think middle school, high school, and adult readers will as well.

What reading journey meant the most to you this month?

Reviser’s Block

I have never had to deal with writer’s block. My problem usually is too many ideas and not enough time. So imagine my surprise when it finally occurred to me I’ve been wallowing in reviser’s block for almost a month and a half!

I finally had to face this unpleasant fact square in the eye when I nearly committed to doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Written in a Month—held annually in November.)

At the retreat I attended earlier this month, a friend commented that the novel she’s finishing revisions on was written last November during NaNoWriMo. She loved the experience. She found the procedure freeing—just write and write fast—and is considering doing it again this year.

Wow, I thought, I’d like to write something new.

I told her I wanted to do it and then came home…to my novel I need to do one more revision on before I send it back to an editor who was interested in a second look.

For another week or so I toyed with the idea of both writing a new novel and revising the other—ha, ha, ha! However, I did eventually come to my senses.

And then I felt SO GUILTY. How could I not do NaNoWriMo? How could I let my friend down?

And then, last week, the solution presented itself as I was praying. I will do my own NaNoReviseMo! I can still set and meet daily and weekly quotas, my friend and I can still encourage each other, and best of all, by December 1, I’ll have revised my novel.

Granted I won’t be able to work fast and free. However with discipline, making the revisions I need to make in a month is doable.

And then I’ll truly be free to invest myself in the next exciting project!

Reading Response #8: Extend and Connect with your Reading

Read for at least twenty to thirty minutes.

When you are done, think about what you have read.

Does the experience of a character remind you of any experience you have had? If so, what was it? How was your experience similar to the character’s? How was it different? Based on your own experience, do you think the character responded well or poorly to his or her situation?

If none of the character’s experiences remind you of anything you’ve experienced, why do you think that might be? What is it about the character’s experiences that make them so extreme?

Write down or discuss your responses.

Play with Your Words Writing Prompt # 13 Pick a Name Matey!

Hi! Sorry for the long silence. I am functional at last, after sandwiching a cold between a writing retreat and one day conference, I am at last getting back into a weekly routine.

So, today is “Play with Your Words” day, Play with Your Words Writing Prompt # 13.

During the first year or so after I began teaching, my son and I planned for his October birthday and he chose a pirate theme.

At the party store we bought pirate plates, cups, cake decorations, and pirate napkins. Being a teacher of language arts, I could not resist incorporating these napkins in a writing exercise I did with my students, and so today I share it with you.

Observe: The pirate napkin (Copyrighted by Converting, Inc, 2001, and based on the book “Everything I know About Pirates, by Tom Lichtenheld , published by Simon and Schuster 2000.)

Following the directions on the napkin, select one word from each column to create a pirate name.

Now, describe this pirate. What does he or she look like? What’s his or her personality like? What does he or she love or hate? What are some of his or her quirks or mannerisms? What is his or her favorite food? Color? Activity? thing to do?

If you’re really feeling inspired, write a scene for your pirate.

Then, of course share. Enjoy each others’ pirate names and descriptions. Praise the strengths you see in each other’s writing, and help each other see how to learn and grow their writing skills.

Play with Your Words! Poetry Prompt #4: Six-Pack Poem

Six Pack Poem

This is a poetry exercise I adapted from Gloria Heard’s excellent book, Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry

I used this exercise in a poetry workshop. The workshop had been one of a menu of options students could choose to attend. One of the students who came was our star varsity basketball player, who had been struggling in my American Literature class, and so I was surprised he’d chosen my workshop. But the depth and beauty of the poem he crafted with this exercise gave him a real boost of confidence in himself as a writer, which was a delight to my soul!

So, A Six Pack Poem—Here we go!

Get a piece of paper and fold it in half lengthwise, then fold it into thirds so that when you open it up it has six spaces resembling the slots in a six-pack of soda.

Number each section, 1-6.

For section 1, think of something you’ve seen outdoors that is amazing, beautiful, interesting, or that has just stuck in your mind. Close your eyes and “see” it as clearly as if you were standing in front of it once more. Notice all its details. In section 1 describe it as accurately as you can. Sections 1-5 are for pre-writing, so you can use words, phrases, or sentences, whatever helps you capture what you’ve seen.

For section 2, think about the quality of the light when you saw what you described in section 1. Consider the brightness or dimness and also its color. For example sunset light may be bright, with a rosy or gold tone. In section 2, describe the light.

For section 3, consider your image again and recall the sounds you heard when you saw it. Did it make any noise? What kinds of sound were being made around you? Describe them in section 3.

In section 4, list any questions you might have about the object or scene. Is there something about it or its presence where it was that might be puzzling? What might you wonder about it? What might you want to ask it? Write them all down in section 4.

In section 5, consider the feelings this object or scene inspires within you. Don’t settle with just your surface response. Think deeper. Are the feelings similar, contradictory, surprising? Describe the feelings you encounter in section 5.

In section 6, use words and phrases from the other five boxes as the raw material to write the rough draft of a poem about your scene or object. Feel free to add words, as well as free to be selective in the words and phrases you choose to include.

Revise your poem considering clarity and to work in meaningful sound effects of poetry.

Share your poems with each other. Post them as comments to the blog. Enjoy the sensory experience of the poems and praise what you like in each others’ work.

You can do this as an exercise with everyone viewing and then writing about the same thing, or with each individual visualizing his or her own subject for the exercise. Enjoy playing with your words.

Let’s Take a Look at Critical Literacy

          Janie B. Cheaney, in the September 11, 2010 issue of World magazine, wrote an article about education and its promotion of a critical stance in regard to texts and ideas and the damage this is doing our students and our culture. It instantly reminded me of a book on Critical Literacy I picked up a few years ago as a teacher. I selected it because I wanted to learn some new strategies I could use to help my students think more deeply about what they read. However, I remember being surprised to discover the book focused exclusively on identifying, questioning, and acting to examine and change power structures in society within the context of the English/Language Arts classroom.

          Do not get me wrong. I do not believe oppression, discrimination, or anything that belittles an individual is just and should not be considered and corrected. I am a Christian. I believe I ought to love my neighbor as myself, and that the term “neighbor” applies to pretty much anyone who is not me. I was just dismayed to find the term “critical literacy” employed in such a limited way. I wanted my students to use “critical literacy” not just to identify social ills, but to observe choices and consequences of individuals in their reading, discern character values and the faithfulness of characters in living them out, to look at stories and come away with wisdom and new understandings they can apply to their own lives. Looking at the study of literature as nothing more than a means of bringing about social change, seems to shortchange so much of the wealth to be found in reading.

As a writer, I find this even more disturbing. A scene from the novel A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, by E.L. Konigsburg, remains forever fixed in my mind. It depicts William Shakespeare in heaven being pestered by English teachers who pepper him with questions about his work or point out all the mistakes he made in his plays. I can imagine being taken to task for some social message I never intended to weave in a novel, and how I would grieve if no one noticed the themes relating to living as a loving, responsible individual in a fallen world, the joy and beauty of God’s creation, and the wonder and blessing derived from our expression through and appreciation of the arts.

Literature has so much more to offer than just a critique of the flaws in our social systems. Yes, ideas relating to justice and compassion belong in our literature and literature studies. But they are not the sole topic of literature, and a treasure trove of blessings would be missed were we to focus our critical minds only on this.

The Writing Process

Last night I logged in on Facebook and one of the first posts I read was from a former student, celebrating the fact she had just completed her first essay of the school year.

As I read her post, I wondered what her topic was and if anything I had taught her had helped her complete the assignment. Which prompts me to consider, what do I hope my students remember from my writing lessons?

One thing I hope made an impression on them is my deep love and passion for writing. I know not all students shared it, which is no criticism of them. Each individual is gifted in unique ways, and I understand my passion for writing is one of the things that makes me unique. Different students have different gifts. (Another of my former students is writing and recording his own music cd!)

But what did I teach that I hope would be a help to every one of them?

It’s hard to narrow the possibilities down to just one thing. However, today, I hope what I taught them about the writing process will remain with them and assist them for many years to come.

I studied to become a teacher after nearly twenty years as a parent and writer. I’d always intended to be a teacher, but I had also wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, so teaching had to wait.

When I returned to study education, language arts education in particular, I was delighted to find teachers were training students in the writing process.

No one had ever taught me a coherent writing process, not in my K-12 years or four years at UC Berkeley as an English major. Different teachers had talked about different parts of it, but no one had presented a full-fledged model that my fellow students and I could use. As a result, I had to develop a process of my own.

Therefore I was delighted to discover schools were now teaching young people the writing process, and that my writing process nearly mirrored what was being taught!

Writing, in some form or another, can hardly be avoided in our culture. From analysis and reports at work to messages to loved ones, or posting on social networks, we all need to write some time. So what are the principles I taught my students?

First, think about what you want to say. During this pre-write stage, jot down ideas and gather information. Organize the ideas and information you plan to use it.

Second, write a rough draft. Do not worry about spelling, grammar, or punctuation, just get your ideas down on paper in sentence, and possibly, though not necessarily, paragraph form.

For any project of importance, set your rough draft aside for a day or so then move on to the revision stage. Read what you have written. Consider where you have done a good job conveying your thoughts and ideas. Consider, also, areas where your writing may seem less clear. You can rethink the order in which you presented your material. You can move things around, add, and delete.

When you are pretty comfortable with the presentation of your writing, do an edit. Go over it carefully to correct for spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Finally, comes the “publishing” stage. Make a clean, final copy of your writing following whatever standards or guidelines may apply to the type of writing you are doing.

Ta-dah! You are done. Share your writing with others.

Depending on the project, you may spend more or less time in any of the various steps of the process. One thing you can count on, however, having a process will make whatever you attempt to write more manageable and guarantee you present your best effort with the final product.