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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | language

Traveling Back Through Time

Photo by Ren at Morguefile.comA few years ago another Laura Ingalls Wilder fan and I made a pilgrimage to Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Other faithful followers will remember that tiny town as the setting for On the Banks of Plum Creek as well as the TV version of the books.

Our favorite experience of the day was visiting the Ingalls Dugout Site. I’ve been to a lot of places with historical relevance, all around the world—but almost none of them have given me as much keen pleasure as this one. Other than a wooden bridge across Plum Creek and a simple sign, there is almost no evidence of human habitation. You feel as if you are seeing the spot exactly as it was when Laura first set eyes on it nearly 140 years ago—but without any fear that somebody wearing a sunbonnet is going to spring up and start churning butter as some kind of recreated history.

We had the place completely to ourselves. We happily dabbled our toes in the waters of Plum Creek. We planted ourselves atop the sod roof of the dugout (now just a depression in the side of the creek bank), and sighted across prairie grasses that stretched far away to the horizon. We reveled in a serenade of songbirds. For one whole hour, we lived between the covers of a book. And then we got back in our car and drove home to the city.

One of my favorite pieces of writing advice comes from author Faith Sullivan. I share it here for you to pass along to your students. When you are writing about a story’s setting, don’t leave the reader feeling like a distant observer. Don’t go on for paragraph after paragraph with static setting details and boring descriptions. Instead, have your character interact with the setting. Give the reader small, telling details of the setting as the character engages with it.

In other words, show a character running through the tall grasses, pushed along by the sneaky prairie breezes. Give us a character who’s shivering because icy fingers are trying to poke their way through the walls of their sod home.

Writers who describe their setting in this way will make us feel, for that hour or two that we are reading, like we are living between the covers of a book.

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Drive-by

Adobe Stock 53485590When I visited Los Angeles not long after the 1992 riots, a home-town writer told me a story that made me feel what it was like to live there in those uncertain times.

His drive home passed a large police station. He was always on alert as he drove by; everyone thought there could be more trouble at any time, and he assumed that a police station might be a key target.

And then one day, when he was still some distance away, he saw smoke billowing out from the building. This is it, he thought. They’ve set the station on fire. Visions of escalating chaos, this time in his own neighborhood, raced through his head.

He drove closer, on high alert—and discovered cops swarming all around the outside of the building, intent on…

…the burgers being cooked on a large barbecue grill.

I think about this example when I hear a writer advise: “show, don’t tell.” That’s a way of writing that puts readers inside of the story’s action.

He could have just told me, “It was a scary time in LA. We thought things might go up in flames at any minute.” How long do you think I would have remembered that?

Instead, I can still recall small details of his story. That’s because he conveyed his tale (trust me, it was done in a much more riveting fashion than my retelling here), in such a way that I smelled the smoke and felt the sweat that trickled down his neck—and then shared his bark of laughter when it became clear that the only things to be charred that evening were the burgers.

Here’s a way to give your young writers some “show, don’t tell” practice. Ask them to write a scene that features a character experiencing an intense emotion—but don’t allow them to use the actual word (or any synonyms) that represent that emotion. Instead, ask your students to make the emotion evident through their character’s actions. In other words, if the emotion is anger, they can’t use the words “angry” or “mad” or “raging.” Instead, they could show the character stomping his foot, or screaming and tearing at her hair.

A “show, don’t tell” kind of writer won’t just tell me there’s a dead fish on the beach; he or she will have me smelling it for an entire chapter.

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Fitting in with the Locals

Writing Road Trip by Lisa Bullard | Bookology MagazineThe way we talk can be a dead giveaway that we’re from elsewhere.

Google the phrase “pop vs. soda,” and you’ll find color-coded maps that divide the country like election night results. Test this research on the road and you’ll discover that there are haters out there who scorn the term “pop” when unsuspecting out-of-towners (like me) order fizzy beverages.

If you are a “pop” person in a particularly fragile state of mind, you might even be tempted to avoid ridicule by downloading one of the maps and adjusting your word choice based on the region you’re traveling through.

Most likely few of us will decide to take this extreme measure.  But the truth is, we do choose our words differently, depending on who we’re talking to. If I’m going to tell someone the story of my terrible weekend, it’s going to be edited differently if I’m describing it to my mother or my best friend or my pastor.

Which leads to a fun way to help young writers learn something about the nuances of dialogue. At some point while your students are working on a story, ask them to write three scenes that draw on their story. Each scene should be a dialogue-heavy exchange that involves the main character talking with one other person about the conflict that the main character is facing.

But in each of the three scenes, the person that the main character is speaking to will change. First, it will be a parent, teacher, or some kind of authority figure. Then, it will be their best friend or someone they trust. Finally, it will be someone they don’t like—a sworn enemy, or someone they perceive to be a rival.

Depending on the age of your young writers, you might have to give them additional help with this activity. But the goal is for them to recognize that people choose what they say—and what they leave unsaid—in part based on the identity of their listener.

Just like a “pop” person might choose to masquerade as a “soda” person when they really want to fit in with the locals.

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Words of Wisdom

graduationI may never be asked to give the commencement speech at my alma mater—or yours for that matter. However, just in case the opportunity presents itself, I am ready. After considerable reflection on my 25 years as an educator, I can sum up my message for aspiring teachers who are about to embark on a career in the classroom with the following words of wisdom.

#1. Practice the “Art of Being”

Being available, being kind, being compassionate, being transparent, being real, being thoughtful, and being ourselves, this is the path that leads to success.

It is so easy to get wrapped up in the “doing” when it comes to teaching. Once you jump on that treadmill with your to-do list in hand, it can be difficult to stop and rest. However, it is the art of being that will lay the foundation for building relationships with students, parents and colleagues. It is those relationships that will play the most important role in your success as an educator.

#2. Develop Stamina and Speed

Be prepared to develop a combination of these two contradictory but essential skills. You will quickly realize that some aspects of teaching require you to go the distance (bathroom breaks will be few and far between). At the very same time you will often need to train like you’re competing for a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records (not everyone can eat an entire lunch and go to the bathroom in 20 minutes or less).

#3. Mistakes Are Okay

Beautiful Oops!The lovely little book Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg, offers a profound truth—mistakes are much more than accidents or mishaps. They are opportunities to turn blunders into wonders. Create a classroom climate that embraces trying, failing, and learning from those errors. Set the tone for your students by celebrating those beautiful oops that all of us make so that everyone knows that no one is perfect.

#4. Find a “Marigold”

Several years ago, Jennifer Gonzalez offered this wise advice to those just starting out:

“Just like a young seedling growing in a garden, thriving in your first year depends largely on who you plant yourself next to… Among companion plants, the marigold is one of the best: It protects a wide variety of plants from pests and harmful weeds.”

Seek out someone who will serve as the type of mentor who will support you with positivity. Find a mentor who will not hesitate to show you the ropes, answer questions and offer reassurance—you will never regret spending time with a marigold.

#5.  Words Matter, Choose Them Carefully

Choice Words Opening MindsChoice Words and Opening Minds by Peter Johnston are two of the best books I’ve ever read about the important role that language plays in our efforts to reach students and positively impact their learning. Both books are full of insightful examples of how what we say (or don’t say) can make a dramatic difference in the lives of students. 

#6. Parents Are Our Partners—It Is Not “Us” Versus “Them”

Dear ParentsToo often educators make hasty judgments about what appears to be a lack of interest or involvement on the part of parents. When issues flare with a student, the blame game may surface and the tension mounts. One of the greatest investments any teacher can make is to develop strong communication and rapport with parents. It’s not enough to simply say you value parent input, it is necessary to cultivate a sense of teamwork and mutual respect.  Check out Dear Parents: From Your Child’s Loving Teacher (Handbook for Effective Teamwork) by Dana Arias for a wonderful collection of letters that promote a true alliance between educators and parents.

#7. Network, Connect, or Get “Linked In”

Social media offers an endless nexus of professional groups. Digital natives will have no trouble seeking out and mingling online with other educators who share the same interests and frustrations yet may offer a different perspective or approach. In addition to the virtual world of networking, don’t hesitate to join organizations that meet face to face, offering high quality and ongoing professional development. State and national chapters of the International Literacy Association (ILA), National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), to name a few, are incredibly valuable resources. 

#8. Expect to Be Overwhelmed

Rose-colored glasses don’t make an attractive fashion accessory for educators. The reality of this challenging career is that it is and might always be overwhelming. The teacher’s job is tough and it is not for the faint of heart. Despite this fact, the rewards most definitely outweigh the demands (take extra notice of #9 and #10 to counteract #8)!

#9. Be Patient with Yourself

“Patience is not the ability to wait, but the ability to keep a good attitude while waiting.” —Joyce Meyer

You and your craft are a work in progress. It will take time to learn the art and magic of balancing curriculum, technology, classroom management, assessments, and effective teaching strategies. You’ll likely be your own toughest critic. Strive to find the balance between maintaining a sense of urgency and stopping long enough to appreciate the fun and humor that wiggles its way into your classroom thanks to the marvelous little people you will be spending your days with.

#10. Find Joy Every Day 

Be HappyBe Happy! by Monica Sheehan offers excellent suggestions for staying focused on the simplest of things … make friends, dance, dream big, be brave, along with a treasure trove of other ideas. Read this little gem on the first day of school, the last day of school and lots of days in between. It is a masterpiece and might just be the blueprint for a truly satisfying life for all human beings.

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Gifted: Walk This World

Walk This World: a Celebration of Life in a Day Lotta Nieminen, a Finnish-born graphic designer and art director Big Picture Press, an imprint of Candlewick Press, November 2013 As you consider gifts for this holiday season, we suggest … (book #2 in our Gifted recommendations) … Visit 10 countries in one book! This stylish […]

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