Book Review: Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity (Code Name Verity, #1)

This is the last Student-Faculty Book Club book of the year, and I have to admit that I didn’t really like the book at first. I didn’t hate it; I just found it only okay. Code Name Verity is a favorite of one of my students, and I just kept thinking, “why?”  The voice is not engaging; rather, it’s kind of whiny. But, in the second half, the Kitty Hawk half, the story picks up. Maddie’s voice, Kitty Hawk’s voice, is not only engaging but riveting despite her nearly constant blubbering. And, the twist makes the first half make sense; actually it’s a brilliant twist.

I read regularly on the train which means that I often have to close the book at inopportune moments. Usually, this leaves me itching to get back to the book as quickly as possible. With Code Name Verity, it was easy to close the book. I’d leave it for some time before getting back to it. Until the Kitty Hawk section. then, I didn’t want to put it down. As I neared the end, I read walking from the train and finished the the book on my couch at home. Maddie is quite the heroine and “Verity” is clever, even though she does not seem so at first. Stick it out through the “Verity” section; ultimately, the book is worth it.

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Grading Papers

Grading Papers

That handwriting is impossible to read–
The pencil has smudged the words
Out of existence–
Sometimes their pens blot and words
Become blobs, obscuring
Meaning
And then, there are the crossouts, the write-overs,
The                       spots never
Filled in.

The lights are dim in here, aren’t they?
My eyes burn and water, blurring
The page, drowning the cries of Frankenstein who
Has suddenly stabbed Laertes in Elsinore, or of
Hamlet, chasing the creature
Across the frozen tundra to
Raskolnikov’s cell.

It is cold in here, isn’t it? I’ll go get
A sweater, and a cup of tea. Then,
I’ll be ready. Except,
Where did I leave my glasses? And
My pen?
There’s one. –Ah, but it’s red, and
Too upsetting to their
Delicate hearts that i carry with me
As they ponder who is the mad lady hidden
In Pemberly’s attic.
I’d better switch to green, or better yet
Purple for Celie and her sister, Little Nell.

Dear hearts, they’re trying, but when
Offred travels to the Savage Reservation
And meets the Eloi in 1984, my head
Spins and my throat is as dry as
The Sahara where the Little Prince
Cries about his Beloved Country, and it seems like
These papers may never get finished.

Whether you are in the last days, last weeks, or last months of the school year, if you are an English teacher, I am sure you have stacks of papers to grade. Today’s Creative Writing Club prompt was to write an “impossible poem” (See Writer’s Digest prompt for May 1st.) Of course my first thought was finishing all the grading I have to do! As I wrote, the characters started to story hop. I hope you enjoy! Now, back to grading!

Practice What You Preach

I just participated in the most amazing teacher workshop, and all I want to do is write! Through The Academy for Teachers, I was lucky enough to be a part of a group of astute people discussing The Art of the Essay with Jeff Nunokawa from Princeton as our cheer leader and guide. Today was day 2 of 2. I wish there were more.

Last Sunday, I finally sat down to “do my homework” at the last minute, having carefully avoided it for ten days. I knew I wanted to revisit and revise a piece I’d started two years ago about my friend Harry, but I kept putting it off because I was tired, because I had papers to grade, because I had lessons to plan, because, because, because. Finally, I sat down, opened the file, and dug in. Two hours later my husband called to find out how I was doing. I was great! Writing had revived me from the lethargy of winter, the albatross of grading, and the oppression of procrastination.

The other part of our homework I completed this afternoon before the session began: reading essays written by the other teachers attending. Wow. They were powerful–and diverse in both content and style. I couldn’t wait to get there and begin!

And I was not disappointed. We discussed them with care and insight. There is something so exhilarating about intelligent conversation that seeks to understand and build up. This was no show of “how smart I am,” but rather “how good a writer are you”: Let’s discuss this personal, yet universal issue you brought up; let me tell you what I understand from your writing; you can tell me more about the topic or situation. And then, I’ll take note of what I can learn from this exchange, again in both content and style. Isn’t this what we should always be doing?

I am at my best when I do what I ask my students to do– read, write, discuss. So now even though I’m exhausted as I sit on the train home 15 hours after leaving there this morning, I’m writing, to you, and I hope you’ll write too. And we can learn together.

Halloween: Sew Fun!

Zoning out one day a few weeks ago, I scrolled through the promotions tab of my e-mail to see an announcement from JoAnn Fabric that their Halloween fabrics were 50% off. And, that got me thinking…wouldn’t it be fun to make a Halloween skirt to wear to work? One Sunday, my mom and I went to the store, and I found some fun black and gray zombie fabric. Two yards plus a zipper and I was ready to make myself an A-line skirt.

Over the summer, I had googled how to make an A-line skirt pattern and found plenty of tutorials on how to measure and draft a pattern. Then, because it was already too late to go to the store for pattern paper, I kept surfing and found a video of how to make an A-line without drafting a pattern. By using a skirt you have that you know fits, you can create your own skirt without all the math involved in drafting your own pattern. I have unfortunately lost the link I used. If the directions that follow sound like you, put a link in the comments. I’ll give a shout out if the video I saw was yours!

Simply lay the skirt down on the doubled fabric and mark one inch all around. There’s your pattern. The blogger went on to show how to split the back and put in a zipper in the center back and a simple rolled waistband, but as I looked at the skirt I was using as a pattern, I noticed that the zipper was on the side. Why should I go to the trouble of splitting the back? Why not just put the zipper on the side? I did and was very happy with the results. This gave me the confidence to make a Halloween skirt even though I did not have much time. Luckily, I also realized that I shouldn’t just double the fabric because I didn’t want the zombies on the back to be upside down. Instead I cut one piece, then laid it down on the rest of the uncut fabric and used it as a template for the back.

Again, I’m very happy with the results. Because at my school the students do not come in on Halloween (it’s a faculty conference day), I wore my zombie skirt yesterday. At first, many students did not notice the zombies, but then, wow! Lots of laughter and Walking Dead references! And when students asked where I got a skirt like that, I answered, “I made it. It’s easy, and if you learn how to sew, you can have a zombie skirt too for less than $20.” Needless to say they were impressed, but I hope some were also inspired to try.

Then, after work, I went to an art opening and out to dinner. But this is New York, so no need to explain why I was wearing zombies. I look forward to pulling the skirt out again next year!

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Writing/Not Writing

I haven’t written much here lately, but I’ve been writing. Sort of. Or well, rather I’ve been starting many things. You see, I’ve started having my students draft and free write on a more regular basis this year, and I’ve been writing alongside them. We respond to poetry and prose and sometimes simple statements or questions. Sometimes, I share my work with them; sometimes I do not. I want them to value their own thoughts, so I do not default to sharing with them first. I let them share their ideas. But I do let them see me write, and every so often, I put something I scribbled out with them up on the Smart Board and let them see me do some preliminary revisions.–More of a “this is how revision is done” thing than a “this is what I think about the topic” thing–They can see me write and hear my words without me telling them that this is what one should think about this topic. It’s still early, so it’s hard to tell how well it’s working with their writing, but I do know that they are not as reticent about writing as they were in the beginning of the year because they are seeing it as a class work activity rather than a big assessment. That in and of itself is the beginning of a win.

As for me and my writing, this activity has left me with the beginnings of many pieces and ideas jotted down for others. Despite the fact that the real season is autumn, it feels like spring in my writing life–planting seeds that I hope will germinate and come to fruition. I hope you don’t feel neglected, and I hope you’ll stay with me through the planting season and will be around to see what has grown.

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Poetry Notes

Summer vacation has begun, and so, therefore, also has my quest to complete all the creative tasks that I start or germinate during the school year. Today, I am sitting in my local coffee shop going through an old notebook of writing ideas, and I came across some notes from September 20-22, 2002. Though the notes are not titled (as I am always encouraging my students to do!), I have been able to deduce that they are from my first visit to the Dodge Poetry Festival which at that time was held in Waterloo, NJ. I attended High School Teachers’ Day on Friday and stayed for the general sessions on Saturday and Sunday. It was a wonderful experience. Now that the festival is held in Newark, NJ, it is possible for me to bring my students to the High School Students’ Day. If you are a teacher and can get to Newark for a day trip, I highly recommend the Dodge. It is an amazing experience for both you and your students. Teach them through experience that poetry is not a dead white man’s art form. Poetry is a living art form, and there are many amazing living poets practicing their art right now.

Here are a few notes from that weekend that I wrote down then and still feel connected to now:

If you don’t begin in imitation, you won’t go very far in poetry.

“The more poetry you read, the more original your poetry will be and the less poetry you read, the more clichéd your poetry will be.” Edward Hirsch

When we read poetry, we are looking for something.

How to Teach Poetry: cross the line between literature and creative writing. Make them write; make them follow the beat; it doesn’t have to make sense; make them see the care and the craft.

Coleridge hated the sound of his own name; like to be called STC. (Fun Fact!)

If your writing doesn’t keep you up at night, it won’t keep your reader up at night.

Memorization is important.

Reading a poem well shows better understanding than a test/writing.

Have a poem on you at all times!

Ground covered: poems have to move/change you; begins in one place, ends in another; how did we get there?

Read with your students not to them.

Poetry is a participatory experience.

A lot of teaching includes steering the student to the right poet.

Teach poetry in reverse chronology.

Lyric poems are not about history; they are about time, immortality.

Student Frustration: they speak English, the read English, but they don’t understand this; it causes frustration, discouragement. They feel inadequate and then become hostile. (***Current Note: We must help ease that frustration; we must lead them to poetry in a way that allows them access.)

Chain poem: Give them the first line and give them a crazy first name. Help them realize that they don’t have cooperate with the ideas of the first line.

These are most of the notes from the first day. Think about your poetry; think about your teaching. I bolded a few lines that I find most important. Which notes resonate with you? Comment below with your favorite line from above or add your own note.

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Grading Papers on a Sunny Afternoon

Sunlight on the slick clean table

Melts the edges away

Encroaching on the work

In front of me, anchored only

By a red pen that has lost

The very thing that gives it power.

Soon, if daylight keeps encroaching,

The papers will slip into the molten sea

Of the dissolved table and the coffee

Will tumble into the liquified abyss

Pouring out its heart on the fluttering wings

Of student attempts at composition and

Analysis while the bloodless pen spins

Uselessly through the void–

Unless

The setting sun retracts rather than

Advances its rays on

The evanescing table, setting it back

On terra firma, restoring the student efforts

To their fate once I procure another pen–

Though which option offers deliverance,

For them and for me,

It is impossible to say.

ABOUT THE POEM:

Feeling particularly tired yesterday on my commute home, I knew that if I read as is my wont, I would fall fast asleep and end up at the end of the line. So instead I took out my phone and starting flipping through my photos for inspiration. I came across the one above which I took last week during a particularly trying grading session at a local cafe when my pen ran out of ink. This poem is the result of photography, memory, exhaustion, and imagination, and, once I got started, a thesaurus as I became invested in using various synonyms for “melted” and “essays.”

Professor Bhaer vs. Mr. Darcy

A friend of mine tagged me on Facebook in a post that linked to a blog which urges readers to “Stop Romanticizing Mr. Darcy When There are Way Better Options in Literature.” She asked what I thought, but as I started to reply, I realized this is not a FB reply; this is a blog post.

First of all, there are many wonderful options of leading men in literature. Mr. Darcy is not our only option. Clare Church, the blogger, argues for Professor Bhaer from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and also argues that Mr. Darcy, while changed by Lizzy, is a wealthy control freak. (Okay, those aren’t her words, but that’s the gist.)

Oh I think think that’s a bit ridiculous and biased. I do think Jo and Bhaer are a great couple, but comparing them to Lizzy and Darcy is apples to oranges.

Professor Bhaer is kind and comforting, like a teddy bear. (Sound out his name; that’s not a coincidence.) He is hard-working and loves children. What’s not to love about that? He supports Jo and her work fully. That’s lovable too. There is no argument that a man like Professor Bhaer would make a wonderful spouse. But as Church herself admits, he’s not “swoon-worthy.” Then again, many (most?) real-life, good men aren’t as well. We could do a lot worse than end up with a Professor Bhaer. I agree with Church that he is a worthy candidate for a significant-other model.

However, the characterization in Church’s post of both Lizzy and Darcy is too one-sided and misses the point of the novel, IMHO. Darcy changes because someone (Lizzy) finally has the gumption to tell him to his face that his manners are rude. He is forced to reconsider himself. As he begins his change, he has no hopes of gaining Lizzy’s hand; rather, he sees a disconnect between his own conception of his manners and how others view him. He aims to repair that. First, he sets the record straight with his letter, but he does not only defend himself, he also acknowledges that his assumptions about Jane must have been wrong because Lizzy knows her better than he. He later puts those assumptions to the test by visiting the Bennetts with Bingley to observe Jane’s interaction with him. He hears, acts, and learns. His attitude changes not only in respect to Lizzy, in fact at this point he does not think Lizzy will have him, but also in respect to Bingley, the Gardiners, and even Wickham. Darcy admits his faults and acts in a different manner than before in order to not repeat them.

In her post, Church quotes Chiara Atik saying “that it’s only the women in Darcy’s life ‘who are able to bring out this more personable and caring side.’” However, this is not really true. It is only the women who are their real selves around him who “‘bring out this more personable and caring side'” of him. Miss Bingley certainly does not, nor Mrs. Hurst, and they are of his circle. Elizabeth does because she does not kowtow; she speaks her mind. Georgiana does because of her innate simplicity and sweetness. Miss Bingley speaks to him as she imagines he wishes to be spoken to rather than with any real interest or understanding, and he does not respond to her artifice.

Furthermore, Church argues that Lizzy merely needs Darcy while Jo wants Bhaer. I challenge this assertion also. Yes, Darcy is the one with the money in the relationship, and Lizzy does not have her own career as Jo does, but Lizzy does want Darcy. In fact, she turns down an offer of marriage which would offer her stability, respectability, and the family home because she does not love Mr. Collins (who could?). Her need and her family’s need does not outweigh her desire to love and respect the man she marries. Lizzy lives in a time women’s dependence on men, but she manages to find a man not only wealthy, but who is worthy of her love and respect. Her father warns her not to marry a man she cannot respect, but the warning is unneeded. Had she merely been in need of a husband, Collins would do; rather, she desires a relationship which is why he does not suit.

Is Darcy intolerable at the beginning of the novel? Yes. Does he let his pride get the better of him? Yes. But we all have moments like that, don’t we? But if we learn from them and make amends when we can, are we not worthy of a second chance? Darcy hears Elizabeth and turns to introspection, concluding, “I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle…By you I was properly humbled…you showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.” (Austen) And if truth be told, it is not the bad-boy-to-good-boy change that I find swoon-worthy, but the Darcy he becomes. I romanticize the Darcy at the end of the novel and find no need to look for someone to change into him.

Mr. Darcy

A quick post-script here about the brief references to Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff in Church’s post. If Bhaer and Darcy are apples and oranges, Rochester and Heathcliff are figs and kumquats. Perhaps I will explore their just desserts in the panoply of romantic heroes in literature in future posts. Just know that they do not hold a candle to Darcy or Bhaer.

 

Mega Shadow Day Creativity Challenge

This afternoon was “Mega Shadow Day” at my school. This is a rather ominous sounding name for a day intended to convince accepted 8th graders to come to the school next year. My principal refers to it as a busman’s holiday as the 8th graders leave their schools to come take classes at ours for the afternoon. But it must work. Year after year, there are 9th graders who tell me that they remember my activity from their Mega Shadow Day the year before.

I am an English teacher with all that that comprises: reading comp, grammar, writing, literary analysis, research methods, but for Mega Shadow Day, I put all that aside and run a little creative writing workshop. I give the girls lollipops, introduce myself, have them introduce themselves, and then provide them with a story starter, telling them that from one sentence, we can create vastly different stories. Then we write for ten minutes. Finally, we share what we’ve come up with so far. It passes the time and is fun, even if some of the girls are a little shy about reading their stories at first.

I ran two sessions today with different 8th graders each time, but the same 9th grade helpers, so I gave two different story starters. See what you can do with one or both of these. Where does it lead you? The only “rule” is that you must start your story with this sentence. Everything that follows is up to you.

  1. I knew I shouldn’t have taken that short cut through the cemetery.
  2. I can’t believe I let Lindsay talk me into taking this short cut.

If you feel inspired, post your story in the comments below or give me a pingback if you post it on your own blog. Happy writing!

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