As one of their first Creative Writing assignments for the students this year, they are writing personal essays about their beliefs inspired by the series found on NPR, "This I Believe," and run by a nonprofit of the same name. If you'd like to submit an essay, here are the guidelines and submissions are taken on the site as well.
Since I believe in modeling for my students what I expect from them, I have written my own essay:
I believe in superheroes. Perhaps I should qualify that statement: I do not believe that they wear capes or masks or that they fly or save the world from apocalyptic scenarios (well, the last one could be debatable, depending upon what one defines as “apocalyptic”). However, I do believe that they walk among us, largely undetected, and that they know just what to do at just the right time.
I have come to believe in them through personal experience. In order to prove my point, I’m going to let you in on a secret. You see, my dad is, in fact, a superhero. While it has taken me a long time to discover this truth, I have no doubt that he has been one his whole life. I guess some people are just born that way.
When I was little, my dad could perform magic tricks. No, I don’t mean the kind where he pulled a quarter out from behind my ear or something (unimpressive) like that. He could take a mimosa flower bud and turn it into a Hawaiian dancer with a hula skirt. He could take my broken toys (which I always believed in using, not just admiring, even when they were fragile) and transform them from a million pieces into a complete, seamless whole. He could produce spare parts out of thin air and use them to save my favorite toys.
But his superhero qualities began long before I came into the picture. As a non-traditional student who eventually became a high school dropout, my dad beat extraordinary odds by finding a way through the army and into college. He and my uncle became the first people in their family to earn college degrees. While I could not even find a percentage for the number of people who drop out of high school and then get college diplomas, I did find all kinds of staggering statistics on the problems that befall high school dropouts. (For more information about high school dropouts and the phenomenally difficult pathway they face, an important topic for a later blog post, see this NY Times article, this PBS Frontline article, or these statistics.) My dad, the superhero, beat those extraordinary odds and went on to find success in college and in his career.
Nor did my father’s superhero qualities end when I grew up and moved out on my own. When my mom became sick and ultimately lost her fight with cancer, my father’s superhero strength and bravery stretched far enough to cover my whole family. And then he used his superhero adaptation ability to become both my mom and my dad. While he certainly did not replace my mother, he found a way to play both roles for me. His superhero adaptation transported him from his home in Georgia to visit my husband and me in far off places like Costa Rica and Japan. No task has ever been too difficult, no journey too far, no disappointment to great to stop my superhero dad.
I believe in superheroes, and I could not be luckier or prouder to have a dad that is one.
As he celebrates his 70th birthday, his powers continue to grow. Happy birthday, Dad!
Pulling at the memory of a dream is like yanking on the thread of a sweater. On rare occasion, you find the right piece to gently pull and it fixes the problem in the sweater, moving it toward a more perfect piece. However, most of the time when you pull, you simply watch the sweater unravel before your eyes until there is nothing left but the feeling of absence in the air and a long ball of yarn on the floor. That's what it's like with dreams sometimes. There is nothing left but the haunted ghost of an experience that was so real that it must have happened, even if it was to someone else somewhere else, and yet the memory is murky and faint. If only you could get to that place and tell that story, your life might feel more complete. And yet it always eludes you, moving just beyond the extent of your grasp.
And so it was with my dream this morning. It was a good one--a good story, anyway. It was not such a good dream to experience. In fact, I awoke with a pounding headache, feeling hot and frantic with gritted teeth. However, from what I do remember about it, it was full of time travel and mystery and a young girl who had to be saved in order to protect the world from an inevitable apocalyptic collapse far in the future, and so it violated several of the rules I've created since I wrote my first manuscript during NaNoWriMo last year: (1) No world building components--everything must be tangible and present right here in this world (2) No crazy savior attempts. (3) No parallel universes or other complicated crap that would be difficult to negotiate. (4) No overdone cliche tropes.
Now that I'm looking at that list, I'm considering the possibility that I might never again write another major fiction piece.
And so the truth, if I'm really being honest with myself, is that I am still taking time off from my manuscript. Oh, yes, I have tinkered with it here and there, and I've opened at least 30 different word documents in an attempt to rediscover the sweatery substance of that story, but it seems that once I started pulling on the threads, the whole thing began to unravel and I haven't been able to figure out how to heal the whole piece. I've been doing a lot of reading, which I do not consider a fruitless pursuit, but each time I've sat down to actually write--to really do something with my manuscript--I've found myself in a frantic need of doing laundry or cleaning or some other task that was suddenly so urgent that it could not wait the couple of hours (or days, as the case may be) that an initial revision process would take.
The story feels like the sand dollar in the photo above (though not nearly as lovely)--it's pure and (potentially) beautiful, but with the sand and the salt and the water, it's a bit hard to see it clearly. And even worse, as you try to take capture its essence in an image, what really happens is your own damn shadow keeps getting in the way.
Despite the current stalemate between the story and me, a friend shared an awesome post by Courtney Summers about what to do during the writing process. I found her revision tips to be extremely useful, and I particularly liked her idea about reverse outlining. Of course, my primary problem is that I don't in fact know what the point of my story is. As I discussed before, the story I thought I was writing (back in the days when I was pantsing it and loving every moment of the glorious word count frenzy) was quite different from the one that is now on the page. It's as if the story is still unveiling itself, but unfortunately as time passes, I feel farther and farther away from its secrets.
My current plan? To participate in the James River Writers Conference, and to have a draft and pitch ready by then. I have no idea how I will get there, but I figure it's better to have an action plan, especially with the start of a new school year and the promise of a busy semester.
How do you handle revisions? What do you do when you've lost your way? At what point do you seek out an editor? Are there any writing books that have helped you? I'd love any suggestions and feedback that you have.
First, an apology for my recent inconsistency with posts. I’m discovering, as I'm sure many of you already have learned, that travel makes posting systematically quite challenging. But it is summer, and what is summer for a teacher if not a time when routine is turned upside down, right? Summer is also a time for adventure.
This week, our adventures have taken us to Connecticut and then to Maine to vacation and visit family. We’ve spent the week in a “camp” on a Maine lake. It’s been breathtakingly beautiful. The weather has been perfect and we’ve explored Schoodic Point, Cadillac Mountain, and other parts of Acadia Park. We indulged in lobster and shopped at L. L. Bean. Today we head to Connecticut to spend time with family before returning to Virginia.
Among other things, I got to see Stephen King’s house in Bangor. Here are a couple of pictures of our brief visit.
The truth is that in addition to vacation and preparation for the revisions that (finally, after a million distractions and delays), I have spent a tremendous amount of time this week considering the way that we handle race issues in our writing and in our classrooms. The Trayvon Martin case has brought to mind the way that race relations function in our society and more specifically in our schools. How can we teach children to talk about race and culture (which must be a necessary step in the process to end potential fear and scorn of the other) when we as a nation seem incapable of discussing it? How can we help students learn about and overcome their own biases and prejudices when we consistently ignore our own? I’ll consider that issue in a future post about addressing racial and cultural diversity in the classroom. These are questions that have weighed heavily upon me in my teaching career, highlighted by recent events which I am still processing, but promise to share in the near future.
Coming next week: a post on teaching Divergent by Veronica Roth in the classroom! I’ll include specific ideas, a project, and materials.
They don’t tell you just how much time you’ll spend with your palms pressed against your head screwing up a perfectly good hair day as you mentally spin out a series of chess moves. They don’t tell you that you’ll be sitting in a restaurant smiling politely at your dinner companions nodding along as you pretend to listen while secretly asking yourself, “Does that thing I’m doing with the dog in Chapter Three really work?” ~Libba Bray
First, a confession: my summer is not turning out the way that I had planned. In fact, it is even busier than the school year, and I find myself missing the routine and predictability of school. (Though I’m teaching a summer prep program, I find that it does not have the same amount of routine comfort.) Additionally, as I know other educators do, I find myself feeling frustrated by my inability to get through the millions of projects that I had planned to take on this summer. I imagine you know the feeling all too well. But enough complaints—the point is that I’m working on being more flexible, both with my schedule and with my writing. I had planned to finish another revision of my manuscript by mid-June, and here it is a few days away from July, and I’ve hardly made any progress on the one I started.
As I spent the day last Sunday sweating and panting along a ten mile "strenuous" hike, I contemplated how hiking is like writing. When you’re first feeling your way along a new trail, everything is a bit uncomfortable. The pathway is there, but it can be hard to find and even more difficult to follow. It’s hard to know how to best utilize the bit of energy you have, and at times the task of simply moving one foot in front of the other can feel insurmountable. And yet you keep on trudging, and if you do the same trails multiple times, you learn the patterns of them. Though it doesn’t necessarily get easier, it does get much more manageable. And all of that time putting one foot in front of the other (while gasping for breath, as the case was this last weekend) helps to generate some new ideas.
This is what I’ve learned about the revision process: sometimes revision is not about writing—sometimes it’s about living. Sometimes it is about waiting. Most of all, it is about patience and endurance. I’m a pantser instead of a planner, so I love sitting down with no road map and writing until the story comes together. When I first began revising, I continued the pantsing method, which I wrote about here. However, I’ve finally realized, six months into the revision process, that without some careful planning and mapping, I could be revising ten years from now with little progress. A Google search about pantsing revisions (can you tell that I’m lost?) led me to this awesome blog post, which helped me confirm that I do in fact need to plan, and that a lot of the “revising” that I was doing earlier is still part of the writing part of the process.
As we hiked through the woods on Sunday, I found myself picking my friend’s brain (which is the brain of a bioengineer with a background in physics), and although I did no writing that day, some of the ideas that we discussed will likely have a fundamental impact on the framework for my manuscript. As I maneuvered around rock faces and between crevices, I was struck by the simplicity of ideas, the way they knock you over when you see a slogan you’ve seen a million times or, in my case, when you break the seal on a newly purchased item. I was amazed by the power of brainstorming and working through hypothetical situations.
The struggle with this latest revision has been a long one, and while I was wallowing in the doldrums of I-don’t-know-what-my-framework-is, a friend shared another great blog post by Libba Bray about the process. I found this one, aptly titled "On Writing Despair," incredibly consoling as I clutched my little laptop and stared at the screen for an extended period of time. It’s long, and funny, which goes a long way when you’re in the midst of the doldrums. The best part of that post is the fact that there is no clear solution. There is simply endless struggle to find and tell the story that is there.
As we came down the mountain at the end of the ridge hike last weekend, I found my mind drifting toward simple things like water and butterflies and deer. My story and all of our brainstorming faded into the back of my mind and I focused on my breathing (which had finally transformed from the harsh panting to a calmer breath). I let the ideas bounce around in my head, unattended, and I have let them continue to marinate this week as other tasks have taken my time.
And so, as summer stretches on in ways that are fun but fundamentally different than I had planned, I am working on being flexible and on forgiving myself for not meeting every goal I have set in place. I'm learning just how accurate the term process is when it comes to writing, and I'm realizing that many factors impact that process.
All I wanted to do was dress my wound in
This poem was compiled from lines and passages of senior student blogs by Jen Moyers. To read more about student blogging and why it's powerful, check out this post featuring Jen's reflection on the teaching page of this site.
A Found Poem
from the 2012-2013 English 12 Dual Enrollment Class
Here's the story of my life.
(If you don't like feeling uncomfortable under any circumstance,
please do not listen to this record.)
Summer was at its end.
Senior year officially started tomorrow
and innocence would begin to deteriorate,
which in turn would allow all things
to take hold of a young mind such as mine.
Because as a child,
you don't know what life is about;
you enjoy every day as a new day.
If I could lie in the sun until school started again,
I wouldn’t move an inch.
I want to let the homework just pile up around me,
and blow away with the sweet scented wind.
Sometimes, I like to just sit.
Seriously. It's too much fun.
June 9th, where you at!?
I am ready to grow up and live on my own,
but I also want to be a kid forever!
"I didn't know this site had EMOTICONS!" ...great.
The sky was the perfect light pink
with the oranges mixed in.
The air was crisp,
but not cold.
My life content
but not yet finished.
All is great in the world
for the fact that school is still in session.
But no biggie.
I can do this.
This is easy--or it was.
No one expected high school to be quite like this.
I can do this. We can do this.
In a sense, senior year
is like trying to drive cross country
on one tank of gas. In theory,
it is no longer than any other year,
but it seems to be a never ending cycle of work.
Everyone keeps telling me to
and enjoy my last year of highschool,
but I really just can't.
We were growing up.
So here's to another happy ending
to another beautiful princess.
Ain't that a load of bull.
Please excuse me.
I must return to everything I have to do.
Many of us struggled through the spring
as SOME teachers
simply did not understand
the concept of
no offense Mrs. Moyers
They make me bored.
They make me sleepy.
They make me fidget.
They make my head hurt.
But then again, I wouldn't go to their lessons anyways.
If you warned us of this moment that we are living through,
you know we do not have time
to sit down and take
hours upon hours
to do homework.
THAT is what makes me Mad!
This is just one more reason
to be ready for the end of the school year!
So here’s to you uncooperative people . . .
I felt as if a burden had been lifted off of my shoulders.
I immediately began to procrastinate some more.
Please find something to be legitimately offended by.
Try not being so ignorant for once and that might go a long way.
It takes a lot of work to stay OUT of things.
A lot more than it takes to get into them.
Some people must be born with out curiosity
If pain were to be a being,
it would creep in the farthest crevices of our minds,
and only appear when we least expect it.
I can't though. That's just not me.
I have those days more often than people realize.
You know why?
Because I hide it.
People don’t need to see the real me,
need to know everything about me.
It’s just the way it is . . .
Today, there are so many kids
who are convinced that
No one truly knows me.
You could be standing right next to me, and I’ll tell you I’m alone.
You won’t understand until you’re there.
So don’t try to help me.
Don’t pretend you understand.
Don’t try to be sympathetic:
that’s not what I’m looking for.
You’re just one in seven billion.
And I’ll be fine without you.
You couldn't tell if you looked at me.
The pain isn't on the outside.
And I hide it.
Man, can I hide it.
Nobody would ever know if I didn't tell them.
Why does it matter?
I don't want or need people's pity or to hear
"Oh, let me do that for you."
To me, those are fighting words.
I'm scared of looking back when I'm seventy
and being filled with nothing but regret.
I'm scared of looking
with a list of wishes for things I could have done...
Or should have done...
What do I do...
...between now and then?
I grow weary of always having to explain why I'm a generally happy person.
I grow weary travelling the path of success when people try to knock me down.
But I keep trucking on.
I ask my parents why
and all they say is
“I don’t know, that’s just the way it is”...
and all I’m thinking is “blah blah blah whatever.”
Pathetic. Inspiring. Enough.
*As my dog pushes through the door into my room.*
Enough is enough.
Something needs to give.
All I wanted to do was dress my wound in
sparkles and cartoons.
Yes they hurt.
Yes we all hate them,
but mistakes are the best
things for us.
With every issue comes a solution.
Just stop crying, and clean up your milk.
If you need any help, simply look up at the stars.
When you see stars do you see light, or do you see life?
We look down at a worksheet on atoms and feel enormous,
then look up at the night sky and feel insignificant.
The rules are simple: live and die.
I love to dance,
and watch the way
rain always finds its way
down to the Earth.
It’s kind of funny isn’t it?
How everyone else notices when we change,
but we don’t.
Sometimes it’s a sudden snap that crashes what we know,
While other times it’s a
There are so many
things I wish I didn’t do, say, or think
but I know I wouldn’t be as far as I am
today if not.
We should take comfort in knowing that we,
can change the world without any prior approval!
I couldn't do it.
I didn't get it.
It didn't click.
Then, one day,
it just happened.
Out of the blue.
What an incredible thought...
Such a simple concept is overlooked by so many people.
One of the most commonly used cliches is "everybody makes mistakes."
It's true: we're only human.
That I understand.
Everyone has their own path in life
and mine will always be so much different.
So I keep wondering what others see in me.
What do you see me as?
I never realized how much talent I actually have.
Every time anybody would ask me what my talent was
I would be like
I don’t know, I don’t have one.
I am SUPER excited about how it turned out,
but who knows.
I love what I can do.
My parents have taught me so much
and all I want is for them
to be proud of me
and to show them that I care about all of their hard work
and sacrifices for me and my siblings.
I understand right from wrong,
at least most of the time, anyway.
I have respect for people.
[I know that] you must choose to give up a chance
at winning the prize at the finish
in order to gain selflessness.
[That you should] be yourself and so many great things will happen to you.
I am seriously so excited that I can hardly contain myself.
Each and every day was special to me,
and each new one cleans the slate for something good to happen.
I don't know what to fill it with, what image to create.
The characters weren't who I expected them to be.
No one really learned a life lesson.
We just kept pushing forward with naive gusto and faith,
hoping the ones around us would do likewise.
Broadway proved that in a strong community,
no one walks
Sure, my generation has its flaws,
but we are ambitious.
We are overly sentimental;
we are truth seekers;
we are brothers;
we are sisters;
we are lovers.
[We] are thinkers.
[We] are dreamers.
[We] are human.
I suppose this is the end of an era.
Interesting how something so
has the power to make things
I didn’t believe that
really happened like that,
but they do.
Hope is a funny thing.
People say to live life by the second because you can’t ever be stuck in the past,
only looking towards the future.
What I have found important to realize is that each day
adds to the piles of numbers
that make up our life;
even with the uncountable numbers that perpetually increase,
we only have one life.
I understand time is non-refundable.
So let’s reminisce a bit, we deserve it.
Pictures and videos can solidify the fact that I was there,
but only in my mind can I relive every step,
and every second with my friends.
Never forget who your true friends are,
for they will be the ones to count on
when things get wild down the road.
There are many people that have become a necessity in my life:
those who I look forward to seeing every day in class,
those who I know I can count on,
those who have shaped me.
I savor the class,
I will the hands of the clock to slow down, to pause,
I will truly miss it,
and no matter how much I complain about it,
it is my family.
Our English class was together
for nearly eight months
and it was simply another class,
with other people with whom we didn't share a particularly strong connection.
For us, that bond came when
presented something about their lives,
something that very few other people knew.
Did any one else feel that connection strengthen?
All of a sudden,
we knew each other on a different level from the rest of the world.
For us, it was a deeper understanding that brought us together.
They say that the end is what truly sticks.
For me, the end of this class is what will stick with me
Each piece was a part of myself.
It transformed our building into a refuge.
A safe haven.
Now, our minds are on a whole different world.
What we don’t know for certain allows us to
dream. Dreaming is hope.
Sure we may wake up, but we always fall back to sleep
and dream again.
And I better get rich.
The hope is worth more.
As graduation approaches, I am ready for it!
Now, I yearn for the independence.
I crave it,
dream of it.
I know I can do this.
I am the seed you planted
I will grow into a beautiful fruit
Because of you and for you
I'll teach about a world of opportunities:
how beautiful life can be.
I'll teach about being worth it and making things count.
[Y]ou must keep reading, traveling deeper into the maze,
getting more lost with every turn,
only to find out there is no point,
There is an ending.
An abrupt ending, no closure, no final solution:
BE PROUD, BE VERY PROUD.
(This happens every single time.)
"that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll ever have..."
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.