UIWPSI17 Writing Marathon

Today, I walked with a group to Krannert Art Museum, McFarland Carillon, and the ACES library for our writing marathon. Here’s a piece from the museum and the library!

Yucky Nose

The fat bronze–is it a cat?–with a human nose and a bowler hat is being comforted by a tiny worker in a jumper and kerchief. The sculpture is both cute and horrifying. The look on the creature’s face, completely wide-eyed and mouth partially agape, suggest that he’s seeing or feeling something too difficult to bear alone.File_001 (2)

The first time I met this creature was when I started bringing Colin to the museum to find things to occupy his three-year-old mind and spirit. He was going through a brief but intense love of sculptures, or “statchas” as he called them, and this one (along with the Lorado Taft gorilla and bear that are [now housed at Allerton–thanks to Eddie for that clarification!]) was one of his favorites.

He called the statue “Yucky Nose” because for all the times we visited (and for years after), the creature had what appeared to be a large splash of bird poop, but was obviously something more permanent, smudged across his nose. Today I see that it’s been removed, and his nose is just a bit smoother and shinier than the rest of his face and body.

For a while, I’d half convinced myself that the incident involving the large stain of birdshit is what brought the expression to Yucky Nose’s face. But it’s clear now that whatever is responsible for his look of frozen terror is something deeper and long lasting. It’s good to know that his concerned friend, extending a gentle touch on a knee and a thigh and looking up at his face as best she can, is here to stay as well.

Three Found Poems (Created from book titles on display at the ACES library)


Food truths:
No one eats alone.
Finding time.


Creative urbanity.
Building the skyline,
Sidewalk gardens.
Smart cities.


Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?
How dogs work, how to tame a fox, what fish know?
Carnivore minds.
Dragonflies, jellyfish: origins.
Deep life.

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New York Stories Vol. 13: Writing with the dead

Thursday at the UIWP Summer Institute, Tyler finally took us up on the idea to go write in the cemetery near the Education Building. I tagged along with the interview I’m analyzing, and it reminded me of how good of a space a cemetery can be for inspiring reflection, storytelling, and more. One of America’s most famous cemeteries (formerly billed as the one of the top tourist destinations in the country) is Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. It’s been on my to-visit list for years, but it wasn’t until last year that I made it. I didn’t take the time to stop and write then, but when you see these photos, maybe you’ll get inspired.

UIWPSI17 Day 1: Reading Reflection

I’m writing this at home, and I definitely thought I had my annotated copy of the article and my notes from today…but I don’t, so this will be a little looser than I had anticipated.

First, I was glad that the reading engendered so much discussion, and I was particularly interested in the shared observation that what the authors frame as history isn’t in the past, per se, as much as it’s been merely layered on top of. A couple years ago, I asked students to do an informal rhetorical analysis of the classroom we were in, and one of the kind of hilarious findings was how schools change, kind of, but they just layer the new on top of the old. A Smartboard was placed directly on top of a vintage, very super legit blackboard. Like slate, not the dumb green stuff. A TV with VCR remained mounted in the corner. Two projectors remain mounted in the room, despite only one being connected to any system that can project. Much like the physical tools of teaching and learning are merely accrued rather than discarded, it seems the historical influences of our practices don’t really disappear, but perhaps rather fade to the background or remain more as habit than as purposeful activity.

The idea of purpose is what drew me to this piece and what drew me to share it with the SI this year. I feel so often thay my personal purposes as a writer and writing teacher don’t always match what I actually do in class, and that tension bothers me. Certainly part of that mismatch is because of laziness. It is hard to do everything that we know we should do. Laziness aside, though, this historical analysis reminded me that our intentions aren’t purely “ours” and our work in classrooms is situated in contexts of power and purpose that are broad not only across structures in the present, but in the past as well. What we believe is good preparation for the future is defined, in large part, by our own pasts and the pasts of the profession. I don’t have answers for all my contradictions at the moment, but I found the historical tracing of writing conceived as handwriting, product, and process useful for giving me some language and concepts to start thinking about them.

That said, as I mentioned in our conversation, I was surprised that given the “three Ps” that the authors used to trace writing’s history in our schools, there was no mention of writing as particiation, as a means of engaging with and changing the world in their discussion–even if it were mentioned as an absence. The authors seem content to define the purpose of writing as communication, which of course participation involves, but communuication is such a stripped down term compared to participation. The ideas of creating identity, forging friendship bonds, developing personal relationships–all the sorts of work we did when we created zines with Tiffanie this morning–had no place in the discussion. I wonder if this was an absence in the data or an oversight in their interpretation of what they were seeing.

A year (and three days) in YA literature

On New Year’s Day 2015, prompted by my own interests in YA, by my desire to have better recommendations ready for my students, and by my good friend Jennifer Buehler‘s upcoming ALAN presidency and meeting planning, I resolved to read one book for young adult readers every month for the year.  I had inertia on my side; immediately upon returning from NCTE14 in Washington, I read Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, AS King’s Everybody Sees the Ants and Ask the Passengers, and Matt de la Pena’s We Were Here.  But I vowed not to count any of those in my 2015 totals.

So, here we go, in chronological order:  A rundown of what I read (14 books and 2 audiobooks) along with a (really quick) response to each.  I’m writing this instead of planning for the week, so I need to be brief, though the additional opportunity to procrastinate is appreciated.

HowItWentDown5January | How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

This multi-narrator story of an African-American male gunned down in the street by a white man continues to be all too topical.  How it Went Down is a perfect counter-argument for people who claim that YA literature isn’t complex, challenging, or worthwhile, as Kekla Magoon creates dozens of characters with distinct voices and points of view, weaving them together as everyone in the neighborhood (and beyond) tries to figure out what really happened to Tariq Johnson.


February | When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds

When-i-was-the-greatest-9781442459489_hrI liked, but didn’t love, this Brooklyn-set story about Ali and Noodles (and his brother Needles).  I was immediately able to recommend it to some students, though, one of whom read it, liked it, and told me it was the first book he can remember reading all the way through.  So, it was definitely worth it.  I also need to check out Jason’s  The Boy in the Black Suit and All-American Boys (co-authored to great acclaim with Brendan Kiely).



March | Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

With a protagonist who’s 11, Draper’s novel seems to have a somewhat younger audience in mind, and tells the story of Melody, who can’t speak or walk, but is fully aware of her self and the world around her.  I liked the set-up to the novel, when Draper was creating the character and developing her voice and point of view, better than when the plot about a scholastic bowl tournament took over.  Definitely a worthwhile read.


April | We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Front CoverI liked her earlier novel The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (about a girl at a boarding school who uncovers and shows up an exclusive all-male secret society) so much, that I was surprised at how long it took me to get in to We Were Liars.  I started to care a little bit about the (mostly) ultra-rich characters about two thirds of the way through, but by then it was too late for me to admire the big twist too much.


May | It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

I came across this title while looking for YA set in New York City.  This one’s about a kid named Craig who gets into an elite Manhattan high school and buckles under the pressure, checking himself into a mental hospital when he fears he’ll kill himself.  I’m sure other people have said this, but it’s basically a hybrid of Catcher in the Rye and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (minus Nurse Ratched, but complete with a cast of zany characters in the ward).  An engaging enough read, this one made me question the line between YA and “not YA.”  Certainly not every book with a protagonist under 18 is meant for readers under 18.  Not that it really matters.

June | Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia

I’m not going to say a word against this third installment in the trilogy chronicling the growings-up of Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern.  This book takes them down south to Big Ma’s and becomes an uncovering (and covering) family history.  There was nothing wrong with this one; it just didn’t capture me the way the earlier two: One Crazy Summer (in which the girls fly to Oakland to spend the summer with their mother) or P.S. Be Eleven (my favorite of the three, featuring written correspondence with mom back in Oakland, but set in Brooklyn and featuring a lot of laughter and heartbreak in the family).  My opinion doesn’t matter, though, because when I gave it my student who had read and loved the first two, she told me it was just as good.  So there you go.

July | Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry 
by Mildred D. Taylor

RollofThunder8.jpg (283×400)This one’s an oldie, a classic, and I’m grateful I crossed its path thanks to Tayari Jones‘ Facebook post reminding everyone that in the frenzied anticipation over Harper Lee’s new/old book, we overlook a Depression-era story of injustice and family from an African-American perspective.  I absolutely love this book and can’t imagine assigning To Kill a Mockingbird without it (or instead of it).  But, wow, did they used to write long chapters in YA back in the day!


August | Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

71LkLmxqgjL.jpg (1400×2115)My UIWP buddy Allison Cox recommended this one, and am I glad she did.  I don’t usually go for a love story, but this one is so quirky and drenched in school bus culture and 80’s references, I read it in just a couple days; the voices were so consistent and engaging that I didn’t want to put it down or for it to end.



September | The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Scheinkin

I bought this one for Colin over a year ago, and it still hadn’t made it to the top of his reading pile.  I needed something to read while he played with friends in the park one day, so I grabbed this.  Scheinkin came across the story of the Port Chicago 50, an all African-American naval unit charged with mutiny after a massive explosion and its aftermath, while researching his arguably more famous Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon.  It’s a really engaging, well-researched read and a powerful way to introduce kids to the reality of structural racism in the workings of American government.


October | The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson

I read and enjoyed Anderson’s Feed years ago, but that did nothing to prepare me for the truly astounding feat of historical fiction that is the first volume of Octavian Nothing.  The story and character of Octavian, Anderson’s masterful control of voice and language, and the commentary the novel makes on the nature of education made this one a real stand-out for me.  One section of the novel shifts from narration by Octavian to letters about him, a structural necessity to be sure, but I missed his voice there.  This book is a fantastic account of race and humanity set in Revolutionary War-era Boston.  Volume II is waiting for me in 2016.

November | The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier & The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Part of my goal of this reading adventure was to read back into the field and well as into the good stuff of contemporary authors, so I started The Chocolate War, planning to finish it on the plane ride back and forth to NCTE.  One canceled flight and a road trip to Minneapolis later, I narrowly made my November goal by listening to the audiobook of The Crossover on the way home.  Colin read this one in the Spring, but way undersold it to me in his assessment of it.  It’s a great story of  a young basketball player and the dynamics with his brother and parents.  Told in verse, I feel like I need to read it again, this time with text in front of me.

I did eventually finish The Chocolate War.  I can’t believe a book like this came out before I was born.  Sure, some aspects of the story are dated (the school-centric setting, the concept of “gangs” at a Catholic school, all of the telephones!), but the emotional rawness of Jerry’s story and the complexity of the multiply narrated structure definitely made me see why people hold this book in such high regard in the field.

December | Show and Prove by Sophia Quintero, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M. T. Anderson, Paper Towns by John Green, and A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston

Oh, sweet, sweet December with all your time to read and listen.

Show and Prove alternates narration between Smiles and Nike, two teens growing up in the Bronx in the early 80s.  I worry a little that contemporary readers will be turned off by the deeply specific way in which Quintero treats the setting, because the resonance to contemporary politics and pop culture is actually quite rewarding.  Each of the young men face different problems in his family and with figuring out a path in life, and they overlap in interesting and satisfying ways.



I can’t believe how engrossed I got in M.T. Anderson’s enormous book about the Siege of Leningrad and Dmitri Shostakovich’s life during the rise of Stalin, the attack by Nazi Germany, and eventual Soviet victory.  A testament to Anderson’s intellect and versatility, this book taught me so much about the specifics of a life and historical event but moreso about deeply disturbing aspects of human behavior and the intersections of a culture and its art.  Don’t let the unfamiliarity of the subject matter dissaude you from picking this one up.  You’ll also want to listen to lots of Shostakovich while you read.  Anderson does a good job describing the pieces that he focuses on, but of course there’s no substitute for hearing them.

I listed to Paper Towns on audio.  I’m going to have to plead the Thumper rule on this one.

And at last, a book that I 100 percent expected not to like and indeed almost gave up on: E. K. Johnston’s A Thousand Nights.  I ordered this one because of some of the buzz its getting in the field, but felt no affinity to its source material or, at first, its style.  But I was so underestimating this one.  Once I figured out what was going on–a smart and really stylish retelling of the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights with a mystical backstory woven in to explain why the Prince was killing all the wives in the first place–I was hooked.  I’m not completely satisfied with the ending, but the book was so well written and well plotted, with lots of visions and dreams prompting development in character and story down the line and great interchapters from the demon at the beginning of every section, that I almost feel compelled to start over and appreciate its craft from the beginning.

But 2016 calls…


I Know Things Now: Thoughts on Into the Woods

Two lyrics struck me as particularly apt in summing up my reactions to the the film adaptation of Into the Woods.

Wishes come true / Not free

Any adaptation is going to involve changes, including cuts.  Into the Woods is not at the top of my list of Sondheim’s stuff, so I’m less offended by omissions than would be people who like it more… But can anyone really argue with cutting the farewell song to the cow?  Jack still has a really great song later.  “Ever After” leads up to a non-existent intermission, so I understand why it needed to go.

The only song I actually missed was “No More,” which normally I don’t appreciate because it’s part of that long, kind of boring stretch of ballads that goes on and on in the second act.  But replacing it with the Baker just sitting down and crying breaks one of the rules of the genre:  You don’t cry, you sing what you’re crying about.  (I realize this technically contradicts what I just said about “I Guess This Is Goodbye,” but we already understand Jack’s attachment.  The hug really does tell us enough.)  And the cut “No More” is actually symptomatic of the larger problem of rethinking the  Narrator/Baker’s father, which is discussed thoroughly here.

A few changes I particularly liked:

  • Casting Jack as an actual kid was great (and necessary for a movie).  Contrast that to the much weirder effect of casting Tobias as an actual kid in Sweeney Todd.  He is a good little singer and held his own in his scenes with Tracey Ullman or James Corden.
  • Re-setting Cinderella’s song on the steps of the palace works, too.  This movie made me realize how much of the story is told through characters’ songs after the fact.  The songs that incorporated visual flashbacks were less effective, and “I Know Things Now” teetered between creepy and dumb.
  • “Your Fault” seemed slowed down a little.  Maybe this takes away from its effectiveness as a representation of an argument, but I understood lyrics here that I never caught before.

Is it always “or”? / Is it never “and”?

Film adaptations aren’t meant to replace live productions, and there’s already a filmed version of the staged Into the Woods, so I’m fine with the movie being what it is:  an almost uniformly strong cast bringing to a wide audience a work that has a pretty fun (but not that deep) first act and a not-that-fun (but attempting to be deep) second act.  I’m glad I saw it, but I’d probably watch the video of the original cast before watching the movie again.

From the Writing Marathon

Stop #1: The Conservatory

banaanSo that’s how a banana grows?  The first bunch really took me by surprise, but the second, larger one looked more like what I’m used to, sitting green on the produce counter.  Only it still looks upside down.  Seeing the bananas on the tree is only slightly less revelatory to me than when I learned last month that asparagus grows in single stalks right out of the dirt, like a bunch of dead guy’s fingers.

I don’t necessarily like agrarian metaphors for education—though they are markedly less offensive than ones out of medicine or business—but I can’t help comparing what I’m thinking right now, seeing what that bunch of bananas looks like in process—to what it’s been like over the past 10 years learning how little humans acquire language and learn to represent their speech and thoughts through writing.

As a grown-up who taught almost-grown-ups for so long, that developmental mystery and miracle was hidden to me.  It’s so much easier to appreciate the work adolescent writers do when you have even some understanding of what they went through to get there.

And I much prefer to think of kids as that bunch of bananas, growing together even if upside down, than as those lonely asparaguses.

Stop #2: The Idea Garden, but still inspired by the Conservatory

hen-chicksI have not thought of hens and chicks (properly called sempre vivum) for over thirty years.  The only other place I can remember seeing or hearing about them was in my grandma’s yard, growing in a few pots in front of her house on Cleveland Ave. in Rochelle, Illinois.

The back yard adjoined the far end of a golf course, though at that age all I knew of golf was the occasional ball that made its way near the chain link fence.  Much more memorable was the ancient Carmen’s shingled doghouse, which I would climb atop like Snoopy and Woodstock did.  Side note:  I would find Carmen’s sun-baked poop and think it came out hard and white.  Just like her.

Across the front yard was Connoly Park, which featured a gate mounted to a pole, made to swing around on.  I also remember banks of snow piled high, reaching up past her large front window.  I’m pretty sure I’m really just remembering a photograph.

And visiting in my new brown winter coat, with a hood and football patch, being pleased that she said I looked like a teddy bear.  I had no idea what a heart attack was, but I knew that’s why we were there, on such short notice and so late at night.

Stop #3: Caffe Paradiso

Cafe culture is bizarre to me, kind of appealing, the idea of habitually sitting and talking and reading and writing.  Sounding a little like the Summer Institute now that I put it into words.

But I feel culturally conditioned to think there’s something wrong with this.  Shouldn’t everyone be somewhere, somewhere else, like working?

I’m horrible at relaxing.  The idea of a few unstructured days without any tasks due or deadlines looming kind of terrorizes me.  This, I realize, is a me problem.  I do better when I’m with my son; I can throw a football or swim for an hour.  But there I still feel like I’m getting something done, being with him and “doing parenting.”

Am I being too honest about this neurosis?

My favorite vacations are to cities, where the pace picks up and there’s more to do.  A week at a beach and I have no idea what to do.  The beachiest I get is a day at Coney Island, with its Russian immigrant  retiree sunbathers and beaches that are at least as much broken glass as they are sand … and a thirty minute ride on the Q train back to the city.


Poetry as argument

Breanne‘s demonstration this morning asked us to reconsider the place of creative writing in the English classroom, and we were tasked with recrafting an argument we’ve made before into a piece of fiction.  I tried fiction for a minute, but then I realized I’d probably have more success if I just wrote a rant with line breaks and called it a poem.


I do not need you to tell me what I need to learn.
Your goals are not my goals.
You render my work in numbers
That erase the unpredictability that defines development,
The diversity that is my students,
The nuance that imbues my craft.

I learn from my students,
By listening to them and reading their work
To find the signpost that tells me
“Here’s what I can do.  Respect that. And help me decide
What can we do together next.”