Thursday, January 19, 2017

#Why I March - The Women's March on Washington 1/20/17

I march with gratitude for my family members, whose feminism is so integral to their own lives that labeling it seems gratuitous. 

While raising two children over the course of thirty-one years, my mother pursued her passion for music, steeping my sister and me in this love so thoroughly, I suspect, as to have altered our DNA. Though Molly and I are not professional musicians, we cannot escape the temptations of an unoccupied piano or a fellow music-playing friend. We are so enriched because our mother pursued what moves her and shared it intimately with us.

Like the nocturnes she plays so beautifully, my mother is a study in gentleness and strength. I have learned that an exquisite sensitivity to the world--to others' pain and joy, and to our own--demands high mettle. A lifetime of feeling deeply and honestly has not calloused my mother; she is impossibly kind, sensitive, and animated. Beneath her disposition lies a deep well of steel; knowing that I must have one as well makes me brave.

My father videotaped my second-grade presidential campaign speech--an early prototype for Hillary Clinton's run--and told bedtime stories about fearless, resourceful girls. Girls who routinely slipped the confines of their homes seeking adventure: an unsupervised foray to the city zoo; a collaboration with an airplane pilot to bring food and supplies to a landlocked community; the creation of a homemade ice rink as a cure for boredom. These girls took up permanent residence in my imagination, becoming archetypes for the stories I write, tell, and live.

My sister taught me at the tender age of eight that "there is no such thing as 'girl push-ups,'" and through example, that there is nothing girls can't do: travel the world, helm a major publication, speak truth to power in the pages of a national newspaper, expand educational opportunities for kids, and (why not?) run an extra 2.5 miles at the San Diego marathon. My superhero then and now, Molly continues to cut her own course and kill at it.

Thanks to Mom, Dad, and Molly, asserting my rights has never been a radical political act, but an unremarkable matter of course. I honor all of them in this march: though it may be radical in scope, it is hardly remarkable for women to flex their collective muscle. Especially if they have been doing real push-ups.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

What Made Me Happy This Week

1. Women (real and fictional) who do not take crap from anyone:

Ali WongBaby Cobra, on Netflix (strong language and subject matter)


Unfiltered, opinionated, cathartically crude. It's the best!

Leslie Jones - Problem Child also on Netflix (more of the same)
Salent Media

Same as above, times ten.

Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie

A character who is as flawed as she is gritty and compassionate.

2. Sherman Alexie novels about holding on to the good in ugly situations.

Grove Atlantic

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Little, Brown
Flight, about a time-traveling foster kid who embodies various people during their acts of vengeance.

Is there really a difference between that killing and this killing? Does God approve of some killing and not other killing? If I kill these soldiers, does that make me a hero? (p. 105)

They fight on opposite sides of the war, but they sound exactly like each other. How can you tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys when they say the same things? (56)

Is revenge a circle inside of a circle inside of a circle? (77)

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, about a teenager trying to balance his life on the reservation with his experience at a white school.

I used to think the world was broken down by tribes...By black and white. By Indian and White. But I know this isn't true. The world is only broken into two tribes: the people who are assholes and the people who are not (176).

That's it!

Friday, August 5, 2016

Bigotry, with a side of truth and beauty.

I finally read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nestthe most misogynistic novel to endure in the American canon. After lowering my hackles for the last time, I wondered how any real sense of humanity can survive in the grip of such a worldview. But in spite of everything, this novel manages it.

Ken Kesey may or may not share his novel's cartoonish misogyny and racism. I hope not. Anyone who perceives most of the world as Warner Brothers caricatures deserves pity and a wide berth. But in its more reflective passages, Cuckoo's Nest scrapes the world down to its most beautiful, illogical, and indifferently real moments. Falling leaves seem to become the birds they touch. A dog, ecstatically drunk with the odors of the asylum's lawn (you can feel its joy, so intense as the narrator watches behind locked windows), suddenly heads for the road and an oncoming car. 

The novel also gives terrifying life and depth to the society-as-machine metaphor. Characters bleed rust and screws instead of blood. Trains deposit white-collar worker clones at depots like insect eggs. And the narrator dreams of a human charnel house in the asylum basement that disposes of the hospital's weakest patients with hooks, knives, and conveyor belts. 

Kesey might not personally share his novel's murderous contempt of women and its 19th-century brand of racism, but he is responsible for it. He is responsible for the leering and conspiratorial "black devils" that do not pass for people, and for the fake-out rape that constitutes the protagonist's heroic last stand. It is strange to admire the beauty of someone's writing in spite of this malice, in spite of its flat characters and inflated villains. Kesey himself said in a 1989 interview with NPR's Terry Gross that without the narrator's most reflective moments, the story would be a simple melodrama. I would go further and call it a farce. 

But in its entirety, the novel proves that misunderstanding some aspect of the world (which I know we all do, to some degree) does not invalidate us as observers of the world. It handicaps us, but we can still see and share true things: our emotions, beauty, pain, bewilderment, injustice. This is why, as a woman, I can appreciate a misogynist treatise like Cuckoo's Nest. Not for its misogyny, but for its best, most beautiful parts, for the truths that survive its handicapped perspective.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Snatching Time to Write

After a month away, time to reck my own reed and resume writing, at least as frequently as I ask my students to. As I notice longer journal entries and fuller use of writing time, I can now find moments during class to squeeze in my own writing. I have managed to scrawl a few 5-minute responses to our posted prompts, and I transcribe some of these "express" thoughts here:

  • If you could travel back in time, what period would you visit, and what would you do?
What would I not give to teach alongside my renegade grandmother in 1900s British-occupied Ireland! As Grandma O'Meara recounted to me decades ago, she and her colleagues defied the British government by teaching children the Irish language and Catholicism. Teachers deftly concealed their counter-curriculum from officials during school inspections, and then carried on their revolution in guerrilla fashion.

  • Write from the perspective of a different person, an animal, or an inanimate object:
As a centuries-old oak or redwood tree, I have seen (possibly, and however distantly) cities encroach, societies grow, cultures evolve, various living populations grow and decline, and the climate change. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of hands, feet, and tails have patted, clutched or brushed me, and countless couples have tattooed their emblems of love into my skin. As one generation after another of humans withers into maturity, age brings me heft and strength. (Yes, however awkward it is to point out, it is true: even as my chest swells, as my arms reach and ramify, time, my friend, takes its inevitable hatchet to you.)

Saturday, September 5, 2015

When A Child Dies

Thursday evening I read Barbara J. King’s “What Is the Psychic Toll of Gun Violence?” in which the author admits her relative insulation, as a white, middle-class woman, from all but the most distant ramifications of violence.  While sharing King’s concerns about recent acts of violence in national headlines, I considered that I, too, had avoided direct or even somewhat-distanced experiences with violence.

Yesterday, a tenth-grade student at my school brutally lost his life. His attackers claimed it before he had even reached the bus stop.

After an energetic first week in the classroom discussing the need for difference in our world—difference in race, religion, personality, and worldview—a conversation that celebrated the singular advantages of our uniquely diverse school, this tragedy brings home one of the numbing complexities of that diverse world, which is the violence that can follow a hopeful child from one part of it to another.

That I did not know this student—likely I smiled at him in the hallway or thanked him for a held door—surely lessens the degree of hurt and violation: my pain exists in an entirely different orbit from that of his aunt, uncle, and cousin, and of his first family, desperate enough to relinquish him to relatives in the presumable safety of a U.S. suburb.

But violence enacted on a child in my community, from my school—on the life of a person all of us had invested in, whether directly or through our commitment to the student body at large—this is a palpable violation, a loss that hurts.

It assaults our sole pride—our students, whose strong, enterprising, Horatio-Alger-esque life stories inspire us to find newer and better ways to teach them, to provide the knowledge they need for their happy endings.

Murder is not the ending any adult imagines for a child she has made this promise to; how do we explain this to ourselves and to our students? How does this story fit in to the promising narratives we weave about our robustly diverse and increasingly-connected world? I have so much faith in my students to find the answer, yet at the moment I am at a loss.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Friend and Foil

I can think of few (good) books that lack character foils. I am thinking now of friend­-foils, not foe-foils: Huck and Jim, Ralph and Piggy, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Watson and Holmes. The best children’s literature features odd couples, too: where would Charlotte’s Web, Winnie the Pooh, and The Wizard of Oz be without the mismatched-pals dynamic?

As my summer of stellar young adult literature winds to a close, I have dog-eared many passages of highly-burnished writing, grabbing my otherwise-discarded teacher hat to note specific techniques I want students to emulate. The friend-foils component spans all of the books on my list: Matt de la Peña’s I Will Save You and Mexican Whiteboy, Terry Spencer Hesser’s Kissing Doorknobs, and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak.

Uniquely, I Will Save You’s foil is a shadow, that archetypal embodiment of a protagonist’s darker inclinations—more frenemy than friend.  But like any good friend-foil, Devon contributes an essential ingredient to his buddy Kidd’s development, in this case a destructive world-view that Kidd must learn to reject. In Speak, Melinda's bubbly foil ditches her to preserve her social status, but Melinda's two eccentric teachers arguably fulfill the role of her foils, too. Their baffling, often-outlandish expressivity speaks to the heart-heavy, tongue-tied hero. 

The rest of the gang—Mexican Whiteboy’s Uno and Kissing Doorknobs’ Donnaexert  more straightforwardly-constructive influences on their counterparts (however wholesomely or unwholesomely-delivered).  Each supplies his or her friend with a vital piece of themselves—the quality of perseverance, an optimistic attitude, a thick skin, introspection, extroversion. However tenaciously the protagonist questions or rejects her friend’s offering, however long it grates, bemuses, or embarrasses her, the hero ultimately acknowledges her deficiency and allows the friend-foil to help make her whole.
If stories are, as Jonathan Gottschall writes in The Storytelling Animal, thrillingly crucial life-simulations, the friend-foil element mirrors our abiding need for difference in our relationships, however challenging or counterintuitive it feels. As Susan Cain argues in Quiet, our increasingly-extroverted world needs the caution, self-reflection, and deeply sustained thought of its introverts. In Jefferson County, Kentucky, public school-children mingle across socioeconomic and racial lines because their parents, first-generation products of busing, want the same social education for their children.  They recognize that each child brings a different dimension of the world to their community, making one another whole with each new piece of human experience.

It is hard to understand the paradox that couples our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual need for diversity with our tribal instinct, the source of much human division. The characters in these young adult novels, at least, come out on the moral-growth side of this struggle—taking a chance on challenging attitudes and traits despite their discomfort and fear. However gritty the journey, this is an outcome I can endorse, whether in YA life-simulation or in real life.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Tea for Thought

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for this opportunity to participate in Slice of Life!

I have a tea date today. A close friend and colleague, she is leaving our school this year. I will miss seeing her in the hallways and mail room, the surprise notes and gifts left on my desk.

But our meeting is a hopeful reminder of a friendship that has extended beyond the context of work. And however anachronistic it might seem, this is not my first friendship that has been nurtured, in part, through the ritual of tea.

Mary Cassat: Afternoon Tea Party

In elementary school, a friend and I set dates for after-school tea and cookies. Sharing our return bus ride stirred anticipation of confidences disclosed over Earl Gray and the aptly named Constant Comment. We grieved my grandmothers' deaths over tea, its aroma like incense. The bitter essence of leaves, the sweet fragrance of dried fruit and flowers, fills conversational pauses and stimulates reflection. As the leaves brew, thoughts acquire their own potency and flavor, ripening to savor in conversation.

My first, somewhat tumultuous year of teaching, I discovered a tea shop close to home. Stuffed with impossibly aromatic leaves, it quickly became a haven for me. Possibly a heaven--a gracious, meditative answer to the neighborhood sports bar. I mourned its eventual closing, but spaces like this endure, as do occasions for tea.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The End-of-Summer Shadow

Josh James/Flickr: Shadows

Teacher-educator Kelly Gallagher describes late Sunday afternoon as “the 4:00 shadow,” the time when every teacher feels that twinge of urgency to wind up her preparations for the week (Deeper Reading, 2004).  It is a positive feeling, with dysphoric undercurrents—as adrenaline fires up creativity and anticipation of classroom interactions, it also unsettles subtle anxieties from their weekend rest: how will I get this student on board this week? Will this new vocabulary activity work as planned?

Three weeks before my students return to class, I am experiencing a sort of “end-of-summer shadow,” my anticipation and apprehension mingling and kicking me into gear. Two months mulling over new approaches and texts, imagining my students, our classroom, and our conversations, have led here: final syllabi and text selections, and wondering if I am biting off more than I can chew.  I have restructured my lessons based on a dialogical learning philosophy, and I have identified reading and writing apps for our new tablets.  Almost everything is new.

Too much change? How will students receive it? I pursued these adjustments with the conviction that students should more actively participate in inquiry, with tools that are relevant to their everyday experiences.  

But uncertainty and excitement inevitably mix. The best remedy is to step over that shadow into the thrumming fluorescent light of the classroom.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

More Music to Move To: Janelle Monae's "Tightrope"

National Public Radio reported last year on the “Anatomy of a Dance Hit,” explaining a Danish study’s findings that “danceable grooves have just the right amount of gaps or breaks in the beats,” inviting first our brains, and then our bodies, to supply these missing links in the pulse. A pop favorite that has stood (at least my) test of time nails this “moveable music” criterion: Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope,” one of a series of programmatic songs on her 2010 science-fiction-themed album The ArchAndroid

The musical style blends Motown, hip-hop, and an unclassifiable but perfectly melded complement of driving percussion—most prominently, congas, kick-drum, and a drum-machine bass kick—acoustic instruments, and brass ensemble. Monae is among the most charismatically expressive singers I know of: aggressive, plaintive, brash, sweet—and always energetic.

And most to the point, the song is riddled with gaps. Holes in its beat that effectively grab you by the wrist and drag you to the dance floor. From “Tightrope’s” opening bars, I defy you to sit still. Trust me—it is much easier (and so much nicer) to give way to your tapping feet and wiggling hips.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Second-Grade Muse

I wondered how much time I might have to think about teaching during my family reunion in Iowa last week. And while I could have embraced a total vacation from these thoughts, my seven-year-old nephews stepped in to sustain them: the two are fascinatingly avid readers, wonderful models for anyone who would cultivate independent reading habits in a class of teenagers.

Years of reading with their parents at nearly every juncture of the day (breakfast, pre-nap, lunch time, etc.) have whetted their literary interests. During our travels last week, it was not uncommon to see one curled up with anything from Percy Jackson to Super Diaper Baby. For hours on the road, they listened raptly to detailed audio dramatizations of Greek myths, recounting characters and events with specificity that often exceeded their parents' and my recollection.

The source of their total affinity? Immersion. Years marinating in words, stories, characters, suspense. How can I replicate this in my classroom, balance this imperative with other objectives while trying to compensate for the years some students have spent indifferent to books?

Fortunately, kids are inquisitive and drawn to narratives at every age, even when they need a little help finding great stories. I am reading about using literature circles to introduce choice into classroom reading, and I am still considering different methods of launching students' independent reading. I will follow up with thoughts on this soon, before the start of the new school year.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Music to Move To

Taking a page from my students’ notebooks, I return to a favorite topic. Kids variously call it tunes, beats, bars, choons.... however their slang for it evolves, its own language never needs translation.

So, today—music that quickens my pulse, fourteen years after the first listening:

Paul Hindemith, Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (1943)

I first encountered Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis as a student at Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, North Carolina in 2001.  I had the rare privilege (for me) of being principal second violin that week, so most of my evenings were spent listening to the CD while marking bowings and cues.

Hindemith’s music infected me from the first note. Its vaguely psychedelic remix of Weber’s nineteenth-century melodies, its sonic color splashes and razor-sharp rhythms, gripped mind and body—it was agonizing to restrain my foot-tapping during rehearsals and performance. He tricks out Weber’s phrases in full-throated twentieth-century harmonies, jazz syncopation, and jubilantly wide-ranging instrumentation. His methods of “metamorphosing” Weber’s music vary, but one of my favorites occurs at the end of movement two.  Here, Weber’s melody line gorgeously decomposes— or rather, it is lovingly dismembered: the timpani makes the first real cut, tossing around hunks of melody line before ceding them to the woodwinds and other percussionists, who atomize the phrases into just-recognizable fragments (11:30 in video - performed by the Orquestra Sinfonica do Estado de Sao Paulo).

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


I spent my first five undergraduate semesters studying music.  Though the program was performance-track, I had many opportunities to write, and almost always about music. I wrote about the competing "dictates of structure and expressivity" for a paper on George Rochberg's third string quartet (which, in my youthful assessment, "retains the serialist aesthetic of condensed motivic content and recontextualizes it in the more accommodating space of stylistic eclecticism..." a claim that is somewhat difficult to read now with a straight face). I researched American immigrant music; I investigated twentieth-century composers' fascination with clowning and puppetry. I also reported on the musicological experience of browsing a local used record shop. These were rich and varied writing experiences, and I had forgotten until recently the pleasures of describing music's structure and aesthetics, of considering the social and emotional impacts of the choices composers make.

My students also enjoy writing about music. It is among the top subjects they choose for their independent writing entries. They praise music's uncanny versatility as an emotional amplifier or buffer, and students' favorite songs and artists become proxies for their most passionate feelings and opinions. "I cannot live without my music," their journals chorus.

It is a cognitive feat to translate complex emotional reactions and aesthetic judgements into words. I will more deliberately encourage this topic of writing with my students next year-- and produce some new music writing of my own this week. Already in the running: Janelle Monae, Paul Hindemith, Lupe Fiasco, and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Monstrous Preoccupation

Thank you to Two Writing Teachers for the opportunity to participate in Slice of Life today!

I have been planning a "monsters" unit for my 10th grade students this fall. After a four-year hiatus from teaching this grade, I am eager to return to its standard texts--Frankenstein, Macbeth, Beowulf, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm--but I also want to incorporate contemporary and young adult literature into each unit: I hope to open the floodgates to more diverse, immediately relevant, for-pleasure reading. Possible questions include:

  • How do we define the monstrous?--what or whom do we label as monsters, and why?
  • How do monsters reflect a society's values, anxieties, or biases?
Dr. Cialtron/Flickr: "From_Hell n 006"

I had envisioned "monsters" as the focus of Frankenstein and possibly Beowulf, but quickly realized that the topic touches all of the curricular texts: Macbeth's monstrous ambition, Animal Farm's communist and Lord of the Flies' anarchist seems that to be monstrous is to be human.

While experience counsels against a year-long thematic investigation ("are we still talking about this?"), finding the "monstrous" in human experience seems at least a worthwhile motif to follow.

In the interest of drawing a wider array of student interests into this topic, I have gathered a preliminary list of contemporary and young adult books that explore some aspect of the monstrous:

-Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs
-A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness

Protagonists in the following books are more "outsiders" or "freaks" than monsters--or they seem monstrous only in their own eyes:

-Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
-Kissing Doorknobs, by Terry Spencer Hesser
-I Will Save You, by Matt de la Pena
-Mexican White Boy, by Matt de la Pena (along with other novels by this author)
-Purple Heart, by Patricia McCormick

What titles (anything--novels, stories, movies) are missing from this list?

Sipping from the Digital "Deluge"

Here’s another plug for an NCTE book.

As I re-evaluate my students’ writing experiences, I must bring into focus an assignment that I invariably invest with so much ambition and excitement—and from which many students invariably reap so much frustration: the research paper.  I know a galvanizing research experience is possible: I have read about transformative project-based learning assignments, about students spurred to action by inquiry into their own communities.  But the vision inevitably gets lost in the execution, and I find myself as exhausted as those students whose voice and passion are diminished by the form’s considerable technical demands.

Enter Connected Reading (Turner and Hicks, 2015), another NCTE “Principles in Practice” book, which, in conjunction with Writing in the Dialogical Classroom (the topic of my last post), charts promising routes to successful research-based writing. Whereas Writing in the Dialogical Classroom maps an approach to habitual, reflective, and interactive writing, Connected Reading describes tools and practices that support the research process, just one part of a comprehensive methodology for teaching digital texts.

Among the authors’ objectives is to tame the online information crush. Their attempt to channel its “fire hydrant…deluge into something more akin to a drinking fountain” succeeds in these areas (124):
  • Reflecting on digital reading purposes and practices
  • Using technology to make social connections around reading
  • Using technology to research, annotate, and organize sources

Some highlights –

Reflecting on digital reading purposes and practices
The authors recommend students evaluate their reading purposes and practices. Many follow patterns of reading, passive and/or active, that they may not think about.

The book breaks down the digital reading process into three stages (paraphrased from p. 51):
  • Encounter the text in one of these ways: receive, stumble, surf, or search
  • Engage with the text: read, cull and toss, classify, annotate, revise, share
  • Evaluate the text: determine its value – assess interest level and purpose, find strengths and weaknesses, employ digital reading and sharing tools, prioritize reading over other claims on attention

Digital texts are likewise classified:
  • Linear – traditional print text (e.g., downloaded book) in digital form
  • Non-linear text with hyperlinks - webpage with links
  • Text with integrated media - webpage with visual, audio, and/or interactive media
  • Text with response options – webpage that invites visitor participation in forums or communication with the author

Using technology to make social connections around reading
“Training wheels” for writing and sharing reading insights (before posting reviews to Goodreads, Shelfari, etc):
  • Youth Voices – book review writing templates,
  • Youth Voices “Booktalk” channel – videos of student reviews

Reading discussion in class:
  • Literary circle wikis
  • Read Actively – web-based e-reader (public domain) with teacher-authored reading questions, teacher links to related content, reading discussion threads, and student commentary
  • Subtext – e-reader app with small-group reading discussion thread
  • Diigo, Ponder, Curriculet – other e-reader programs
  • Storify – to “synthesize reading” (122)

Online sharing:
  • Book reviews – Goodreads, Shelfari, BookTube, Quotev, Reddit
  • Sharing/interpreting books with alternative media – Toondo comics, Digital Films animation, Scratch or Gamester Mechanic video game, Glogster, “augmented reality” book trailer

Using technology for research, annotation, and organization
I was excited to read about these tools for digitally marking up texts, compiling and organizing research sources, and increasing students’ digital literacy:

Digital Literacy Practices
  • Give students a digital reading practices self-evaluation (see text p. 101)
  • Explain the “filter bubble”; introduce search engines like DuckDuckGo and Blekko that do not compile user data
  • Distinguish institutional websites from blogs: demonstrate using Technorati and Google Blog search engines

Research Tools (apps and/or web-based)
  • Citelighter – imports excerpts and bibliographic information from online sources; student comments on citation and exports everything to his or her document
  • Diigo and Evernote – to save and annotate online text
  • Flipboard, Pocket, Feedly, Clearly, Google Alerts – accumulate, compile, and/or store content on designated topics

Digital annotation (apps and/or web-based)
  • Google Docs or World Online/OneDrive – collaborative annotation of online excerpt/screenshot of print excerpt
  • Skitch – photographing, briefly annotating print text
  • Awesome screen shot – photographing text
  • Screencast-o-Matic –verbal annotations of photographed text

As promised, the authors maintain a steady, manageable stream of information about digital reading, including its application to the research process. I look forward to incorporating many of these resources and suggestions into my teaching this fall.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Taking Stock, and Investigating Dialogical Writing

The end of the year always invites introspection. What troubles me now is that five years in, I still experience this process as an inventory of missed opportunities. At this time the full picture of my students' learning appears, in high, candid resolution. Why hadn't I noticed the chasm between students' understanding and my own assessment of it? The blemish of an unaddressed mistake or an unresolved oversight? The ugly scratches of students handicapped by prescriptive writing assignments, rubric-dependent rather than confidently autonomous?

Assessing this year's final picture has led me to some conclusions:

1. More frequent and descriptive formative assessments are in order next year.
2. Students must regard every writing assignment not only as worthwhile, but essential.

I have momentarily set aside the first resolution to focus on writing. Bob Fecho's book, Writing in the Dialogical Classroom (2011), is a robust manual written under the National Council of Teachers of English's (NCTE) Principles in Practice imprint.

Comparing the rich writing experiences of my own adolescence to the limited array I provided my students this year was painful--goadingly. Rather fortuitously, NCTE's advertisement for Fecho's book landed in my mailbox about a week into my angst, outlining a philosophy and framework for engaging students in authentic writing, in which their personal experiences and questions are in constant dialogue with other students' perspectives, with events in their own milieu and beyond, and with classroom texts.

The book has delivered on its publisher's promise. Among its principal insights:

1. Writing--frequent and intentional--should be rooted in students' lived experiences, in "the riches, embarrassments, victories, tragedies, conundrums, concerns, delights, and yes, even the routines of our lives" (28).

2. Writing is an inner dialogue. It helps us connect past experiences and written thoughts to present ideas, and we use these formulate future outcomes. It is a process of rereading and reviewing, while at the same time planning ahead, determining the ultimate meaning of present ideas. 

Fecho references Bahktin (1981): "All meaning comes through response [to reading and dialogue] and that response remains suspended between the past and the future" (18).

3. Writing is a dialogue with others. It is a non-linear process of reading/listening, evaluating, reacting to others' ideas, building on them, and reflecting on new ideas that emerge in the process.

4. An effective writing teacher recognizes these principles (paraphrased from p. 34):

  • Learning is a never-ending collaborative and constructive process
  • An effective learning community cultivates trust and camaraderie among its members
  • Learners are motivated by a sense of shared purpose
  • Fun and rigor are not mutually exclusive, but equally essential.
  • Caring teachers do not shy away from the tensions of dialogue in diverse classrooms. Rather than keep these differences at bay, they establish expectations and relationships that make sharing these differences a more inviting prospect.

The book's thoughtful commentary on authentic writing practice (from Fecho and several other teachers) is helping me compose a more encouraging picture of next year's students: ones who have taken charge of their own learning and writing development out of a deep feeling of necessity.