Please Don’t Judge Me

“So, uh, yeah this is pretty embarrassing for me.” I could feel my face flush in front of my 1st period Advanced Composition before I’d even begun. My voice shook as I stood in front of the 24 pairs of 17-year old eyes—the most vulnerable position one can be in. I had captured their attention at 7:45 in the morning, but I could feel my innards twist as I stammered through some of the usual excuses I hear from my student-writers: “I need to tell you the backstory first” and “I hope you get what I’m trying to say.”

Then I started, reading line by line the maid of honor speech I will deliver in fewer than two weeks at my best friend’s wedding. It wasn’t the first time I had shared my writing; I write with my students during quickwrites, share finalized pieces with them throughout the year, and discuss drafting pieces for this blog, but this speech was different—it was raw, personal, and untraditional. I had made some major stylistic decisions that pushed me, particularly as a writer, outside my comfort zone.

“I really need your feedback,” I said to them. And I was honest, practically on the verge of begging. “You see,” I continued, “writing happens throughout your life, and in this instance I need your help to make sure I don’t make a fool of myself in front of 200 guests.”


My Advanced Composition class, pictured here, helped to walk me through the revision process.

“You’re going to trust us?” a student asked.

“Yeah,” I responded, “Plus, at the wedding I’ll be in front of 200 people I might never see again, whereas here, I’m with you guys for the rest of the year. So, if I’m embarrassed here, it’s going to be really bad at the wedding,” they laughed and they listened to me recite the piece with a calm voice and a racing mind, a mind that begged them to chuckle at the jokes and coo at the memories. When I came to the end, I looked up, realizing again, as I have realized so many times before just how vulnerable it is to share writing. This time though, as much as it made me nervous, I knew that the only way to teach writers was through modeling. If I was asking them to expose their writing to each other, I had to be willing to expose my writing flaws as well, even if it felt like singing solo karaoke stone-cold sober.

Then the suggestions came: “I’m not sure what you were doing with that transition, maybe try to make it more specific.” “I would like to hear about when you first met her fiancé.” “I think you could add another story.” Their words were carefully chosen as not to offend but instead encourage and help. While some students doled out praise, others helped to polish the piece. Even trailing side conversations pertained to how to make the piece stronger. I typed their comments into the document, repeating what each of them would say, and then I sent them to begin a similar process of reading aloud their personal narratives within groups of three.

Next week I will arrive in class with another draft of my speech, and I will repeat the cycle. They must see me live the life of a writer if they are going to believe what I say. They must see me absorb their feedback if they are going to understand the value of peer review. And above all, they must watch me return, raw nerves and baited breath, if they are to believe that I see value in their words.

A Lesson in Craft: The Yellow Birds

If you have not read The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, go buy it and start reading it today. It’s that good. Maybe I loved it because Powers is a poet, and his poetry flows into the language on every page. Maybe I loved it because I have similar fears as the mothers portrayed in this book. At least one of my sons will join the Army in a year.

Whatever the reason, I love this novel, and I know many of my students will appreciate the beauty of it, too.

Many passages are worthy of study, but when I read myself into this one, I knew that the discussion around it in class would be powerful. What do you think students might discover about language by reading this?

I hadn’t know what I was doing then, but my memories of Murph were a kind of misguided archaeology. Sifting through the remains of what I remembered about him was a denial of the fact that a hole was really all that was left, an absence I had attempted to reverse but found that I could not. There was simply not enough material to account for what had been removed. The closer I got to reconstructing him in my mind, the more the picture I was tying to re-create receded. For every memory I was able to pull up, another seemed to fall away forever. There was some proportion about it all, though. It was like putting a puzzle together from behind: the shapes familiar, the picture quickly fading, the muted tan of the cardboard backing a tease at wholeness and completion. I’d think of a time when we sat in the evening in the guard tower, watching the war go by in streaks of read and green and other, briefer lights, and he’d tell me of an afternoon in the little hillside apple orchard that his mother worked, the turn and flash of a paring knife along a wrap of gauze as they grafted uppers to rootstocks and new branches to blossom, or the time he saw but could not explain his awe when his father brought a dozen caged canaries home from the mine and let them loose in the hollow where they lived, how the canaries only flitted and sang awhile before perching back atop their cages, which had been arranged in rows, his father likely thinking that the birds would not return by choice to their captivity, and that the cages should be used for something else: a pretty bed for vegetables, perhaps a place to string up candles between the trees, and in what strange silences the world worked, Murph must have wondered, as the birds settled peaceably in their formation and ceased to sing. And I’d try to recall things until nothing came, which I quickly found was my only certainty, until what was left of him was a sketch in shadow, a skeleton falling apart, and my friend Murph was no more friend to me than the strangest stranger.

Viral Titles

ifistay1Every year, one or two books go viral. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell, and Hate List by Jennifer Brown have all held the Viral Title award in the past.  I couldn’t keep those books on my shelves, and students couldn’t read them fast enough.

This year, If I Stay by Gayle Forman is everywhere I look.  All of my students want this book–AP, on level, male, female, black, white, readers, non-readers.  I have six copies and all are checked out.

I got into bed Tuesday night with my Nook, where I’d recently downloaded If I Stay.  It’s been about a month since I’ve read a book for pleasure, so I intended to just read a chapter or two and then go to sleep after my 14-hour day.

I stayed up ’til midnight and finished the book.

Silent tears dripped down my face around page 15, when Mia’s family is destroyed in a car accident.  Forman’s writing shoves me into the moment and I am right there with Mia, feeling her anguish as she sees her parents strewn across the road.  I agonize with her over the whereabouts of her younger brother, Teddy, and I hear the eerie quiet of a post-collision highway.

I was captivated from that moment onward, terrified for Mia as she watches her own injured, unresponsive body be flown to the hospital.  Watches her now-daughterless grandparents in the waiting room.  Watches the surgeons and nurses frantically try to save her.  She vacillates between wanting to stay in this world, and wanting to leave it behind.

NPR calls this story “achingly beautiful,” and I would agree.  Its language, its structure, haunts me, days later, and I know my students and I will study Forman’s craft soon…the way she brings us into a moment, frozen in time, and suspends our disbelief as we stay beside Mia’s spirit, watching all of this unfold.  Please read this book, and get it into the hands of your students, too.


If I Stay, Gayle Forman, pp. 15-16

You wouldn’t expect the radio to work afterward.  But it does.

The car is eviscerated. The impact of a four-ton pickup truck going sixty miles an hour had the force of an atom bomb.  It tore off the doors, sent the front-side passenger seat through the driver’s side window.  It flipped the chassis, bouncing it across the road and ripped the engine apart as if it were no stronger than a spiderweb.  It tossed wheels and hubcaps deep into the forest.  It ignited bits of the gas tank, so that now tiny flames lap at the wet road.

And there was so much noise.  A symphony of grinding, a chorus of popping, an aria of exploding, and finally, the sad clapping of hard metal cutting into soft trees.  Then it went quiet, except for this:  Beethoven’s Cello Sonata no. 3, still playing.

Getting Students Hooked on Poetry

“Poetry is boring.”

“What does poetry have to do with anything?”

“What does poetry even mean!?”

“I hate poetry.”

Poetry is a timeless form of writing, yet students struggle to see its relevance to their lives.  Further, they struggle to understand the themes and messages poetry attempts to communicate.  After weeks of asking them to read like writers, my students did begin to find some value in poetry, but they still didn’t like it.

Thus began my endeavor to present poetry as exciting, interesting, and most of all–fun.  What follows are three poetry activities my students were engaged and challenged by.

IMG_5382Spine Poetry

Creating book spine poetry is not a new concept–it can be found all over the internet.  I first got the idea to do this activity in last year’s UNH Literacy class with Penny Kittle.  Not only does creating spine poetry get students playing with language, it also exposes them to a wide variety of titles.

I modeled the creation of a spine poem for my students, stacking and re-stacking titles by John Green, Max Brooks, Jon Krakauer, Malcolm Gladwell, and more.  I modeled, with their input, until we had a poem that satisfied us.  I also showed examples of a variety of spine poems on the projector.  Then, students worked in groups to create their own spine poems, eventually writing their finished products in their writer’s notebooks after adding punctuation and a creative title.  I noticed many of them adding new titles to their what-to-read lists, too.

IMG_5332Cemetery Poetry

Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology is a wonderful collection of poems inspired by graveyard epitaphs.  Lives and legacies are explored in Masters’ work in a variety of styles.

I wanted to have students practice imitating this poet’s craft, as he is a master (pun intended!) of showing, not telling.  We have a beautiful old cemetery quite close to our school, and it was a gorgeous September day for a walk.  My students toted their writer’s notebooks to the graveyard and we read three of Masters’ poems together.  I asked students to wander the cemetery and find a gravestone that appealed to them, then imitate one of the poems we’d read, using that headstone as a subject.  My boy students especially loved this assignment–they were drawn in by the quiet atmosphere of the cemetery and its prevalence of Civil War graves.

IMG_5125Spoken Word Poetry

Shane Koyczan, Taylor Mali, and Saul Williams have soared to YouTube fame with their spoken word and slam poetry performances.  They are forceful presences on stage, and their-in-your-face styles often hook my students.

Sarah Kay provides a lovely contrast with her soft-spoken performances, her clear voice spinning tales of love, motherhood, and femininity.  We read “Point B”, pulled out its richest lines, and hung them around the room.  There were eight in total, and students responded freely to these beautiful words on post-it notes in a silent discussion.  They wandered the room, sticking their responses onto their favorite lines, and then responded to one another.  Their close readings gave way to analysis as they challenged each other, left questions, and cheered classmates on.  Weeks later, a student quoted a line from “Point B” in a discussion–this activity had seared “this life will hit you hard in the face” into her memory.

Stacking books into spine poetry, imitating poems about gravestones in a cemetery, and silently discussing spoken word poems transformed my students’ perceptions of poetry.  Words that were once lifeless on the page came alive.  This week, they reshape their own identities and wear new hats as poets and writers–hats that, thanks to our poetry fun, are not as unappealing as they once seemed.

Sometimes There’s This One Book

Before the first day of school this year, I learned that a student who was to attend our campus took her own life. She was 15. This would have been her 16th year. It should have been a shining time for her:  a junior in high school, a driver’s license, maybe her first job, and if her family was like mine, her first date (I had to be 16).

Her family, of course, is devastated. I didn’t even know this child, and I am devastated, as I am every single time I hear of the awful reality of suicide.

We have to do something.

I don’t know what, really. I do know that the world should be a hopeful place. I also know that so often adults refuse to act like it is. I am as guilty as the next guy of going through the motions, mirroring the depressive nature of my Bad Day. But I vow to stop.

I want to be an example of hope. I want to smile more. Love more. Laugh more. I want my students to see that I love my job. I cannot wait to get there. (That’s what being at a new school has done for me this year. I’ve let the negativity that I let nag at my soul so long go, and I feel new, reborn, liberated. Strange to use those words, I know, but they describe the “freeing” best.)

Recently, I read Matthew Quick’s book Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, and it rocked my world. Seriously. You know when you read a book, and then it haunts you — like forever? This is one of those books for me. I am, and will be, a better teacher, friend, wife, mother, daughter, colleague, leader, consultant because I read this book.

Here is a bit that I will use in class. Maybe we’ll use this passage for close reading. It’s a good one for tone or sentence structure. Maybe we’ll use it to launch a class discussion about hopes and dreams and how to hold on to them. I don’t know yet. But there’s something important here — for us and our students. Read it. You’ll see what I mean.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick, p46-47

The whole time I pretend I have mental telepathy. And with my mind only, I’ll say– or think?–to the target, “Don’t do it. Don’t go to that job you hate. Do something you love today. Ride a roller coaster. Swim in the ocean naked. Go to the airport and get on the next flight to anywhere just for the fun of it. Maybe stop a spinning globe with your finger and then plan a trip to that very spot; even if it’s in the middle of the ocean you can go by boat. Eat some type of ethnic food you’ve never even heard of. Stop a stranger and ask her to explain her greatest fears and her secret hopes and aspirations in detail and then tell her you care because she is a human being. Sit down on the sidewalk and make pictures with colorful chalk. Close your eyes and try to see the world with you nose–allow smells to be your vision. Catch up on your sleep. Call an old friend you haven’t seen in years. Roll up your pant legs and walk into the sea. See a foreign film. Feed squirrels. Do anything! Something! Because you start a revolution one decision at a time, with each breath you take. Just don’t go back to that miserable place you go every day. Show me it’s possible to be an adult and also be happy. Please. This is a free country. You don’t have to keep doing this if you don’t want to. You can do anything you want. Be anyone you want. That’s what they tell us at school, but if you keep getting on that train and going to the place you hate I’m going to start thinking the people at school are liars like the Nazis who told the Jews they were just being relocated to work factories. Don’t do that to us. Tell us the truth. If adulthood is working some death-camp job you hate for the rest of your life, divorcing your secretly criminal husband, being disappointed in your son, being stressed and miserable, and dating a poser and pretending he’s a hero when he’s really a lousy person and anyone can tell that just by shaking his slimy hand–if it doesn’t get any better, I need to know right now. Just tell me. Spare me from some awful f******fate. Please.”


Note:  There are two footnotes in this passage. I left them off quite simply because I do not know how to format them in WordPress. Sorry, Mr. Quick.

A Feedback Protocol for Revision Workshop

I didn’t mean to make them cry, but that’s what soul writing can do to a person. (Soul writing is what my students and I coined as the type of writing that rips at our guts, makes pools fall from our eyes, and leaves us lurching toward the door to “take a little break.”) We are only into the third week of school, and I tried a new protocol for feedback; something I learned at The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, directed by Dawn Potter.

Giving honest and critical feedback to one another is difficult for many of my students. So afraid of offering offense, they either do not say anything, or they do the proverbial pat-on-the-back and mutter “good job.” I tell  them that when they refuse to be honest in their feedback, it’s cheating. They cheat their friends out of ideas that can help them grow. And that is what we want in a community of writers — we want everyone to experience opportunities to grow.

The tears today watered some tender little seeds. All afternoon I gushed about it to anyone who who listen.

We sat in a circle around the large table in the center of my classroom. Many students came to class without their drafts*, so I sentenced them to the outer edges and advised them to get their brains and their pens working. I told them to write silently, but they might want to keep an ear tuned to the conversations happening in the middle. If they did, they learned more than they could have from any one-on-one conference with me.

First, I explained that giving feedback can be a bit tricky. We want to be honest, but if we do not deliver that honesty well, we can cripple our writer. (I use the word cripple because that was my own experience. I’d spent months drafting a chapter for my book. I’d finally finished what I thought proved to be a powerful piece of writing. Then I asked a friend, someone I trust, for feedback. She gave it to me: honesty cloaked in sweet little daggers. When I read her comments, all my ideas crumpled, and my focus limped right out the door. I didn’t write another word for six months.)

The “I wonder ____” protocol is really very simple:

Those who offer feedback:

  • Listen carefully as a classmate reads her piece.
  • Think about ideas that might help her improve it.
  • Offer feedback that allows for the writer to “play with the possibilities” (Dawn Potter) by putting the ideas you have that might help the writer revise the piece into statements that begin with “I wonder ___”.

Those who receive feedback:

  • Read the piece loudly and with clarity. (Repeat if necessary.)
  • Listen to the “I wonder” statements made by peers and write yourself notes.
  • Try to just listen (This is hard because we tend to want to justify why we wrote certain things).
  • Play with these various possibilities while revising.


I asked for a volunteer to read her writing. Eyes darted all around the table until Jessica read her draft.

Jessica went first:

Jessica GoWorld story

Wow, right? She punched us right in the stomach, and we sat in silence. Finally, I said, “Okay, we’ve got some amazingly powerful stuff right here. How can we improve it?” and they looked at me like I had hornets on my head. I knew I better go first, or this feedback thing wasn’t going to work.

“I wonder if you need to tell us that Lori’s a woman,” I said.

Long pause.

“I wonder who ‘assigned’ her to you,” Mikaila spoke up.

“I wonder what she did that was so helpful,” Mariam said.

“I wonder how you survived,” said Daissy.

Jessica listened, answering a few questions, and taking a few notes on the comments her friends gave her.


And we were off . .


Daissy read next:

Daissy GoWorld story


“I wonder who ‘those’ are.”

“I wonder what the problem was.”

“I wonder what happens next.”

“I wonder what happened that made you change.”

And then Daissy could not remain silent any longer. She had to explain her stuttering, and how she’s worked so hard to overcome it, and how now wants to major in broadcast journalism and speak on live TV.

We forgot to preface our comments with “I wonder” when we all told her THAT is the story she needs to write.

revision corrections 2-7-12Feedback Magic happened with this “I wonder” protocol. And it happened in every class period, and so did the tears.

Students shared the honest writing from their hearts, and students gave honest feedback with tender and caring insight. Writing improved.

Even better? Imagine being in this kind of classroom with this kind of community of writers.




*Our mentor texts were VISA Go World commercials. I got this idea from an assignment I did at a class taught by Penny Kittle at the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute. We watched several of the videos in class and discussed and analyzed the various structures of these very short, yet poignant, stories. Students were to watch and analyze a few more examples, transcribing the words to use as models for their own writing. Then they were to write their own, playing with word choice and syntax.

Sentence Imitation with We Were Liars

I listened to the audiobook, and liked the novel so much I had to go and buy it in hardback for my classroom library. The story still haunts me. (I read it soon after I read Jellicoe Road, and that story haunts me, too. These two books make an interesting pairing.)

The following is the beginning of chapter two in We Were Liars. It’s an compelling list of sentences that create the the basics of what we need to know about our protagonist. It will be an interesting passage to use for sentence imitation.

I wonder what my students will say about themselves.


We Were Liars by E. Lockhart P4

My full name is Cadence Sinclair Eastman

I live in Burlington, Vermont, with Mummy and three dogs.

I am nearly eighteen.

I own a well-used library card and not much else, though it is true I live in a grand house full of expensive, useless objects.

I used to be blond, but now my hair is black.

I used to be strong, but now I am weak.

I used to be pretty, but now I look sick.

It is true I suffer migraines since my accident.

It is true I do not suffer fools.

I like a twist of meaning. You see? Suffer migraines. Do not suffer fools. The word means almost the same as it did in the previous sentence, but not quite.

You could say it means endure, but that’s not exactly right.




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