You got the MOVES! Writing Non-Fiction with Voice, Choice and Clarity in Creativity

“Your assignment for today class is to write your state report in the voice of a snowman.”

“ A snowman?” you ask.

“ Yes, a snowman.”

ImageThis was simulated out of a conversation I had recently with a 3rd grade teacher where somewhere along the line someone thought it would be a creative idea to assign all 3rd grade students to write their state research reports in the voice of a snowman.  A snowman?  Yes.  A snowman.

“A snowman?” I asked.  Yes, a snowman.  What does the voice of a snowman sound like?  I wonder, as distant memories of Frosty’s voice pop into my head, “Haaaaaappy Birrrrrthdaaaaaay!!!”   What do snowmen have to do with state reports?   What if you have the state of Hawaii or Arizona where snowmen do not reside?  Would it be a melting voice?  A snowman?  Yes, a snowman.

And then to top it all off the report was to then be written in the shape of, yes, you guessed it, a snowman.  ImageNow call me crazy, but wouldn’t it make more sense to have a state report in the shape of the state the report is on?  Or perhaps just simply shapeless unless the writer chooses to make the report in any shape at all?

Wherever this idea came from, one must recognize that its’ intent, I believe,  was to allow for creativity in writing these reports.  My hunch is that what got in the way of this good intention was inexperience in writing,  the writing process  and how creativity can be discovered and is easily accessible to all writers through the study of authors and illustrators in ways that make sense for the writer and the purpose of the writing project. So many of us grew up without any writing instruction at all and many feel uncertain about how to teach writing.  Most teachers see themselves as readers but very few will identify themselves as writers.

So this 3rd grade teacher, Ashley and I decided to begin the journey encouraging students to create their own books on the states they were studying.  We began this unit of study with an introduction to a non fiction book called,  A President from Hawaii where we asked the students to read like writers and envision how they might use some of these techniques, or MOVES in their own writing. Image I read, did some thinking out loud, but not much before the students began to identify the many moves made by both the writer and the illustrator while Ashley charted their thinking on the white board next to us all.

As usual I found myself marveling at the kids “reading” of this text.  Amy recognized that the illustrator used a variety of techniques which included a background image that was either watercolored or collaged and then actual photographs and images were layered on top of that.

Joe saw that the photographs were delicately framed in bamboo, but not on all pages.  When we wondered why the illustrator might have made that move Michael wondered, “is the bamboo only shown on those pages where there were natural scenes in the background where bamboo really grows?”  And in looking back we identified that it was shown on the images of mountains and beaches,  but not on the pages that showed cities.

Shane talked about the bold words.  Michael noticed  how the information was embedded within the text.  I wondered going into the class if this book had enough moves in it, but of course they went deeper than anticipated.

Next, I shared a variety of non-fiction texts and asked them to take some sticky notes and do some noticing with a partner and then come back to the larger group and share one on the moves made by either the author or the illustrator that they might try.

I like this word, move, because it is more accessible to students, teachers and even non-writers.  In most professional texts these “moves” are referred to as craft, and the goal is to identify the different”craft” used by an author.  I myself I have used the word craft in my teaching but often found it did not resonate with those who were not engaged heavily in the process of writing already.  And by all means if “craft” resonates with you and your students then stay with it.  Katie Wood Ray’s description of Craft in her book, Wondrous Words is beautiful.  I am always seeking alternative ways in for writers.

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Photo Credit: craftidea.info

The word, Craft, carries with it a sense of “crafty” in that it is something that is part of an artistic process and that some are better at it than others, or that some have a “gift” for it.  Those with that gift are “writers” and those who were not lucky enough to be born with an affinity for “craft” are not writers.  Craft can be a loaded word in that it also has an underlying assumption that there is a “right” way to make the craft. (See paper plate snowman) One teacher explained that because she didn’t know what craft was that it automatically distanced her from writing and made her feel even more inferior.  She did not see herself as a writer and the idea of craft did not help her to move away from that identity.

The process of identification  is a critical one when working with writers.  Once someone actually manifests the idea of “I am a writer” then all things begin to change, as they “see” themselves as writers they find the confidence to play a little more, to worry a little less about doing it “right”, and discover the freedom to explore and try on some of the moves of others writers.

“Moves” seem to be more available to some.  Identifying these moves actually moves writers closer to that place of identification.  Anyone can try out a move.  In asking students (be they 3rd graders, 33 year-olds or 63 year olds) to try a”craft” is something that some cannot identify with.  Trying a move in your writing  is like trying a dance move.   It takes out that ethereal sense of “writer” and brings it down to earth, making writing available to writers of all shapes and sizes.

When the students regrouped to share their findings, their books were loaded with sticky notes and “moves” they would like to possibly try.  Each set of partners shared one move that impressed them the most.  The possibilities seemed endless.

So when I returned to that classroom I was eager to find out what had transpired over the week and what I found when I walked in was a very busy writing workshop with paper and scissors and computers and crayons and markers and pencils and busy writers abound.  There was a buzz in the room and so I began conferring to find out more.

What I discovered was that the “move” most decided to try was to write their reports in the “voice” of something significant from their chosen state be it the state bird, produce or in the Hawaii report in the voice of the waves.  I had to laugh  because this project started with the idea of voice and seemed to be ending here as well.  The idea of personifying something from their state took on a life of it’s own so much so that the narrator from Alabama, “Fuzzy the Peach” actually “visited” the narrator, the Cactus Wren, state bird of Arizona, on the pages of the Arizona book.  So now these kids were learning not only about their states, but about the states their classmates were studying as well.  They were collaborating and sharing ideas and admiring each other’s work and ideas during the process, finding an immediate audience with authentic feedback.   One gets an idea from another and it snowballs.  It was infectious.

I also noted how all of  the writers were in such different places and stages and that for some, the gift of time to really work on an illustration with incredible depth and detail was appreciated. “I love making this book!” Josh told me.  When I asked him why he said that it was fun, relaxing and enjoyable to show his information in a book.  I could see from his writing alone that it was not something he excelled at as his letters looked young and his words were far and few in his research, but by focussing on what he loved about his state of California, the sports teams he was creating the most detailed images in the room.

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Image Credit: inkygirl.com

I also realize having the eyes of the occasional observer are different eyes than those of the teacher who has a list a mile long of things to get done with her students and that handing that time over, even when we know it is valuable, can feel too long or too free or too unproductive.  Fortunately, this young, intuitive teacher, Ashley, understands and sees the value in what each child is doing and how individual the process of each student is.  It takes patience. Then it takes more patience. It is not easy for every student and there are always those who struggle, those who seem to be wasting time and those who are not engaged.  It takes time and it takes a great leap of faith and trust in ones’ self and the kids themselves.

Finally, I noticed was how sacred the oaktag  was to these kids.  Some cut theirs into smaller pieces to make more pages, others just talked about how lucky they were to be using such expensive paper and how it was different than any other “paper” because it was so sturdy and perfect for book-making.  One girl stroked the smoothness of the tagboard telling me how she just LOVED the feeling of this paper.

ImageAll of these things, all of these tools, all of these conversations, all of these moments are part of being a writer, of the writing process of a working Writer’s Workshop.  It is messy, it is chaotic, it is time consuming, but it is organized chaos where the voices, choices, creativity and sounds of the writers are front and center and the snowmen, well, they are out where they belong, on the playground.

Learning as a Deeply Personal Experience: On Teaching Readers and Writers

The buzz of Mentor Texts has been around for quite a while now and while I like this idea, what I don’t like is that our young writers are often instructed to use a particular mentor text for a given time as assignments.  Using a particular structure to do this, instead of exposing them to a variety of ideas and texts and then helping and guiding our students to figure out what would work best for them, the writers.

What would happen if we asked our young writers to first think about what it was they wanted to say, to write about, to read about, to discover and then come up with the best way to express this?

When my daughter was first diagnosed with leukemia I kept a journal and wrote down every single little detail of our experience.  It was exhausting to get onto those pages all that I felt I needed to.  Her every reaction to every drug, the times she received the doses, the different emotions experienced, missing my 8 month old at home.   I quickly fell behind and was angry that I was missing so much of what I thought I needed to get down, in the name of control.

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Book of Poetry by Dan Rothermel

 And then one day someone brought me this small book called, Sweet Dreams, Robyn written by Dan Rothermel.  It is a collection of poems he wrote about his daughter with cancer.  This book transformed my writing life.  Suddenly, I had the permission and allowed myself to write in poetry finding it easier to get down all that I wanted to without getting muddled in all of the pros it took.  In the words of my Dad, “less is more” in writing.

With the death of my father I had this same experience as I was meandering through the blog world I found a blog that just spoke to me.  She writes a fictional piece about the death of her mother and says,

“It came together when I was working on a blog post about Wallace Stevens one of my favorite poets. His “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” was on my mind while I was reading Paul Harding’s Tinkers.”

Her mentor  Wallace Stevens gave her what she needed to capture what she wanted to write in fiction and I instantly knew that this too would be the perfect way for me to capture and process my father dying.  Snippets of strong images that I needed to get down on paper and so her blog became my mentor text.  It was more than perfect.

You can find her blog at  http://deborahbrasket.wordpress.com/

So here is my version, based on the ideas I stole from her that she stole from Wallace Stevens. 

13 Ways of Looking at Death Just Before, During and After

I

I called him on the phone, his voice weak and wavering as his hand fought to keep the phone still.   “Hey Dad, how are you feeling?”

“Bad.  This is Bad.  What I have is really bad.”  I cringe, as I know he knows it is bad.  Sepsis.  Blood infection on top of pneumonia not to mention his COPD, heart disease and diabetes…

He has never said it was bad before.  He always said,  “It is getting better.

It is bad.

 

II

His oxygen cord lies on the dirty floor as it takes her a moment to realize there are no lines crossing his face, lines of plastic jewelry tubes that have become as permanent as his glasses.  He is not getting any air.

And she wonders…just how long has he been without oxygen?

She calls the nurse and insists he gets a new one.  Nurse never responds to the absence of his air or how long he has been without it.

Idiots.

 

III 

She is alone with him, Red Sox images flashing in the dark room, sound blaring while she simultaneously plays Candy Crush.    He wakes, peers over and says, ”You are still here?  I really appreciate that.”

I smile. 

And we go on like that for hours.

The Sox won.

Won the AL East Title.  He is not aware.

She hoped it was a good sign.

She is always looking for signs.

 

IV

Today is a good day.  He is out of bed, sitting up in the hospital chair as she enters.  He starts talking, “You know I sat up all night trying to remember the kids names.”

She thinks it must be all of the grandkids that he is forgetting…he continues…

“I know I have 3 kids.  2 daughters and a son.”

“Yes that is right” she replies, as he looks up at her and says, “The first daughter is Lisa.” 

“Yes Dad, Lisa is your first daughter.”

“Then there is another one, you, what is your name?”

Her 10-year-old self emerges and screams inside, YOU named me Dad!! Don’t you remember?  I have the coolest name in the world because YOU made it up. 

That’s enough of this name game.

We gotta get him the hell out of this hospital.

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Me, My Dad and Lisa

 

V

My once virile father sits perched on the kitchen island pursing for air.  How did he get in the house so quickly?  My brother in law carried him in, like a baby in his arms, but he was amazed at just how heavy he really was, all  filled up with 9 days of hospital IV fluids so he had to stop to rest.

We still laugh at the absurdity of my Dad sitting with his feet swinging on the kitchen counter.  Who says you don’t go backwards?

He then carries him the next leg into the bed where he will remain until he dies.

 

VI

Each breath is a struggle and you can tell it actually hurts.  Never mind when he coughs.  He just wants to feel better, but he doesn’t really as he tries to negotiate in his head that he is now home and how he thought being home would make him feel better…but he doesn’t.  Now what?  You can see it coursing across his forehead like the GMA banner in Times Square.  Now what?  Now what?  Now what?

 

VII

Doctor came to the house.  Yes, in 2013 a Doctor actually came to meet the needs of his patient.   There is a God.  (See previous post on Systems)

Dad chose hospice.  Visions of nurses, social workers and support at our side danced her head as she wondered…does he really know what he is choosing?

She is sent up to the Local Colonial Pharmacy to get the “hospice kit”.  A box filled with drugs and lots of other things medical that you don’t want to know about never mind even think about using.

She is the chosen one to give her father his first dose of comfort packaged in a needless syringe to be administered orally.  Flashbacks of shoving chemo filled syringes disguised in chocolate pudding to her 3 and a half-year-old smack her in the face. 

Click…she re-enters that mode and just does what she has to do.  She has been here before and she just does it.  Nurse Ratched is back in the house. 

VIII

My brother arrives a few minutes after giving my Dad the morphine. 

The pill that he was begging for. 

The morphine that I was afraid of. 

The morphine that came without the nurses and the social workers and the volunteers to help us through this process.  

Where in the hell were those hospice people she had heard so many wonderful stories about? 

All they got was hospice in a box that had to be refrigerated.

 It was just My Mom and I with my Dad yelling at us, “Will you just give it to me for God’s sake, I don’t  care if it is the wrong dose.”

 He begged for relief as we became more and more agitated and unsteady in the moment, dropping syringes, reading and rereading the prescription and even calling the pharmacist. 

And finally I  just gave it to him as he gasped for air and I suddenly realized we too had been as negligent as the hospital.

His oxygen tank had run out.  No wonder he was desperate for something.  How many ways are there to torture a man?

And they left the room when her brother arrived. 

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Jamie and Dad

IX

Morphine overdose.  Her brother horrified that we left him alone with a his father who was fine and talking with him one minute and then was suddenly hallucinating and trying to get out of bed.  His strength mammoth as my mother got in bed behind him to restrain him.  He could not walk on those big boats of feet filled with fluid. 

I call the VNA.  I reach out for those hospice people who were supposed to be there and tell him we need help ASAP!!!!! 

He responds that giving morphine is an “art” and not that you gave him too much but that if he had been there he would have started with a lower dose.  After telling her this for the 4th time she wants to reach out and punch him through the phone…then why the HELL would you hand it over to an amateur?

He arrives at the house and starts talking about the “art” of dosing morphine again!!!  She sees red and runs from him to avoid physically clobbering him.

Next Time…I give him ¼ of the recommended dose. 

Thank you, Honorary Dr. Brother James. It says you can give it every 30 minutes.  One quarter of a dose lasted him 12 hours. 

Insanity.

 

X

He lays in bed and sleeps, or so it seems, soundly for days on end.

The question dancing through the house…”when will it happen?”

The family has their own form of hospice in a “Come to Jesus” kind of scene from a bad Lifetime Movie.  We all give him permission to go, hands on, tears flying.  Sister Lisa actually seems to be cheering him up to the pearly gates.  Everybody says their peace and then we all continue to sit with big red puffy eyes, exhausted and we wait.

He doesn’t go.

When will he go?

He doesn’t go.

From the background Cousin Anne tells us, “He isn’t going to go right now, it doesn’t happen like that.” And snaps us out of our delusions that we can will him to go in that moment.

XI

The sleepless nights wear on as brother and sister get up at different times to peek in to see my mother sleeping next to my yes, still breathing, father.

Exhaustion settles into the house and takes a seat on the couch alongside us.

Maybe he is not going anywhere.  Maybe he will live forever.

Meals are delivered.  They are all amazed at how they just show up and are so thankful because eating and food have not been on their radar.

Dad has not really eaten or had anything to drink for over 12 days.

Unless you count 4 little bird bites here and there.  I fed him his last scrambled egg from Lisa’s chickens a couple days ago.  No solid food since eating 5 bites of that egg.  No water.  Nothing.

How does the human body beat on?  Especially one we all thought was so fragile?

His Hands don’t even look like his anymore they are so filled up with fluid,  boxers hands.

Every moment stretches on as you wonder…when will his last breath be?  Who will be with him?  She wonders all of these things as she crawls into bed with him and rubs his back and quietly cries for her Daddy while the Red Sox blare on the radio from the bedside table next to us.  

“How can something so natural be so unnatural?”  son James wonders.

XII

She wakes at 8.  Walks downstairs past her sleeping brother and sees her mother making the bed around her father’s still body.   His breathing has changed.  It is short.  Very short.  She says, get the morphine.

I know I must give him him the rest of the syringe…the same dose I administered 5 days earlier…it was what he needed.  He was hardly breathing.

Mom is on his right.  She is on his left. 

He opens his eyes for the first time since the morphine began.  The biggest widest eyes you have ever seen and he looked over at my Mom and she said, “Look at those big beautiful brown eyes.  I love those eyes.  They have not been that open in years.  I wonder why none of you got those eyes?  I am the dominant one.”

“I always wished I had gotten those brown eyes I respond as his eyes then slowly trail to find me on the left.  He stares right at me for a moment and then it is as if he is looking to something beyond me.  He holds that gaze for what seems like forever before he moves his sights straight ahead and opens them even wider.  He was seeing the light.  He liked it.  He felt peaceful as he took one long deep breath and closed his eyes.

“Is that it?”  Mom and I looked at each other.  It seemed to be.  No pulse. 

And then out of nowhere one last little breath just to mess with us as we laughed. 

Dad died.

8:15 am on Sunday, September 29th, 2013.

It was beautiful.

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Dad and Mom taking flight on Chappy

 

XIII

She misses him.  They all miss him.  She is not sure what to do so she talks about him.  She remembers him.  She reads.  She writes about him.  She laughs at his Donald Duck impression stored away on her computer.  She shuffles through years of pictures and marvels at how great he looked for so long regardless of his health issues.  She thanks her Mom for keeping him so healthy for so long.  She misses him.  Every day.

He was a great man.

He had 9 lives. 

He lived every one of them fully.

He was her Dad.

 

 

I love this piece because for me it captures all that I want to remember and all that was there during this incredibly intense, scary, weird time.  I feel better after reading about others experiences and then writing my own.  

What would have happened had I been in a student in class and I was asked to write a recipe or a persuasive essay from one character in my assigned book to another when all I could think about was my Dad?  Do we consider the lives of our writers, where they are and what they have to say and what they are interested in reading about?

I would argue that right now we teach the writing and not the writers.  We teach the reading and not the readers.  We think about checking things off. Persuasive Essay, check, Informational Reading, check, Memoir, check, Close Reading, Check.

What would happen if we trusted and guided readers and writers to know, to figure out what it was they wanted to know more about, what they wanted to say and then focused on helping them discover the best way or ways to read about it and say it?  If we gave them the time to read others and think to themselves, “Hey, I could write something like that!”

Reading and Writing are my “go to’s” when I am trying to figure something out, process emotions, inform, wonder, preach, question, express, persuade, create, think, communicate, get lost and so many other things.  What if the goal of every reading and writing curriculum was to help our readers and writers see reading and writing as a “go to” and not just a series of assignments to be completed, but tools for life?

And while this all may seem incredibly personal for a blog on education, I believe I am finally finding my stride in that a real and true education is deeply personal. 

And I wonder…are we  afraid of this authenticity?  These truths? 

And even as I consider posting this, putting it out into the world, I question myself.  Do we want to hear or read these truths?  Why do I put it out there?  And while I know none of these answers I only know that I will…

 

Follow the link below to read my Dad’s obituary beautifully written by my sister, Lisa.

http://www.chadwickfuneralservice.com/fh/obituaries/obituary.cfm?o_id=2263261&fh_id=12966