Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Writing Wednesdays - Feedback and Connections

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the type of feedback we give writers lately. I think, if I’m being honest, at the start of my teaching career, I did a crap job of it. Twenty plus years ago, I probably had my students write a rough draft, edit for grammar and mechanics, turn in a final draft, and I likely write a word or two on the top with their grade.

I wasn’t a writer.

Today, if you were in my class, there still isn’t a ton written on the final version of a written piece. However, if it’s a big project, we’ve met and talked about your writing several times over the course of the assignment. I’ve given you feedback on either what I love, what I think you need to fix, and what I feel like you could do to take your writing up a level. Sometimes, I might tell you something in regard to all three.

I first hear Donalyn Miller talk about writing feedback to our students in terms of bless, press, and address years ago when she was writing Reading in the Wild. I believe Donalyn mentioned she heard it from Penny Kittle. I know I’ve read about it from materials the National Writing Project puts out. Where ever it came from, I’m beyond grateful for the concept.

See, as a person who writes now, I know these types of feedback are vital, and they are each important to me at different times.

Right now, as we all know, I’m trying to write a romance book. It’s hard. I lose faith in myself on a regular basis. This is not something I’ve mastered in any shape or form just yet. So when I first shared it with my two friends who agreed to read it, I was a mess. Luckily, they were big on blessing my writing giving me a few things to address. They also pressed me to keep going.

I was relieved and got back to it.

One of those friends said she’d be willing to read book two as I wrote, chapter by chapter. Twelve chapters in, she’s still reading and sending me feedback each week. The other day she apologized, saying she knew she was just praising my writing and it probably wasn’t helpful feedback at all.

I laughed as I listened to her Voxer message and immediately sent one back. I told her about the concept of bless, press, and address as writing feedback. I talked about how isolated and unsure I can feel and that her feedback helps me to keep writing. Without it I am certain I would have given up.

Which, in turn, takes me back to my students. I wonder sometimes about those kids who are only told what they are doing wrong. Who only get feedback on what to address, but aren’t blessed on what has been done right. Or aren’t pressed to take their writing to a level just a bit above where they are now? I wouldn’t want to write anymore, I don’t know why they would.

Or yesterday, when I saw that one of my favorite romance writers, Penny Reid, shared this post on Facebook, I gasped out loud at my computer:

Now, the post is longer than that, but for the sake of this conversation, that’s what you need. I’m specifically looking at the paragraph that begins, “Second…”. Because, I mean, what the heck? People have asked me before why I don’t write anything negative about a book online. Honestly, the comment has puzzled me. I mean, a book might not be a good fit for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good fit for anyone else. And the thought of actually writing an author to tell them you don’t like what they wrote?

I have no words.

That’s not true, I totally have words. I’m filled to the brim with words that I won’t type out here on my public blog, but if you were reading my romance book right now, there would be a lot of cursing, because that’s what is happening in my head.

I’m trying to decide when we have become a society that emails people to tell them they are doing what, in our opinion, amounts to a crappy job. When we have become a society that will take to social media to say a business or teacher or restaurant has done something we don’t like. And, if we’re doing that, how often are we doing the opposite? Are we going online to praise when everything goes well?
Not often.

I don’t get it.

And that takes me back to my students. Today I sat with the majority of them, going over a book they’ve created to hand to the kindergarten buddies in a few weeks’ time. With each kid, no matter where they are in their writing journey, you can bet I found a lot to bless. We laughed. We talked about what poems they liked. We looked at how to make the assignment just a bit better.

I could have looked over their slides in Google Classroom and told them to print them. I could have left them typed comments. Instead, I met with each kid at my little round desk in the front of the room. I spent only about five minutes with each, and I will finish up tomorrow, while the rest of the group worked on three poetry assignments we have coming up.

I think that in person meeting is important. See, I think people are emailing amazing authors like Penny and saying crappy comments, or hopping on Facebook whenever they’re irritated, because we’ve forgotten the human on the other side of the screen. I don’t want to do that when I look at their writing. Because if I just look at my student’s poem and see that once again, she isn’t done with her work, I will get irritated. But, if I sit with her for study hall, if I talk to her and bless what she has written, she might confess she’s confused and didn’t know what to say. We might work together for twenty minutes to the point where she says, “Mrs.S, I’ve got this. I’ll finish tonight.” She might leave study hall and come back to whisper, “Thank you,” before running down the hall to lunch.

And then I’ll sit at lunch and listen to my friend Karen give me feedback on chapters eleven and twelve, and I’ll beam. Because she reminds me, my students will remind me, that connection is vital. Blessing each other is critical. And I’ll leave the day wanting to sit down and write just a bit more because they have given me the confidence to do just that.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Writing Wednesday: Reflection Through Writing

A side benefit of being a reader is that you can become a more empathetic person, correct? There is the whole books as windows, mirrors, and doors conversation, thanks to Rudine Sims Bishop. (Read more HERE.) However, I think writing can help us develop empathy in a variety of ways. Today in my classroom I got to see one of them.

Each day during the first half of Language Arts class we do several activities. We read independently, I confer with kids. There is a book talk by a student. We share a picture book for Classroom Book-A-Day. And finally, we have a quick write. I’ve written about the power of quick writes many times. I think that through quick writes I can show my students who live in this tiny rural town the bigger world. We use images, pieces of texts, and videos to inspire our quick writes. Hands down, the students' favorite quick writes are from videos.

This year’s class is unique in that they’ve begun sending me things they want to write from for our quick writes. Last week  a student sent this video to me and asked if we could use it.

We did on Monday.

I can’t explain why that it was a big deal for that student to send me that video, but suffice to say, I was beyond moved that he did.

Last night I came across this video put out by Budweiser.

I knew I would be using it for a quick write.

Today I shared it with three classrooms of seventh graders. Each time I shared it, I teared up, as did many students. We talked about how it inspired us to think of our legacy. Many studnets wrote about how it reminded them of Monday’s video. That Dwyane Wade had to value himself before he was able to succeed and pay his good fortune forward.

My favorite conversations called back to this video from Hank Green at the start of the year.

From that video I always pull the quote from Green of, “You make you.” Today I reminded each class of that. I pointed out Wayne’s legacy. I asked them what they thought their legacy would be. I asked them to write about if they were happy with what people would have to say about them if they were on a video like this. I asked them if they wanted to change anything. And I reminded them that if they did, they were the ones that had the power to change it.

Writing in our class each day allows each student the chance to reflect about themselves or those around us. It is powerful. It makes us better people. While I love writing in the fiction worlds that I’m currently creating in this series, the power of daily writing, journaling in a way, is something I am drawn back to again and again.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Judging Readers and Writers

I’ve been doing this teaching gig for awhile now. Over twenty-two years and eight grade levels, I’ve met all kinds of readers. This past week while standing in line at the grocery store, thirty miles from home, I was surprised to find a former student’s mom behind me. Actually, former students’ mom, seeing as I’ve taught three of her kids. Overhearing our conversation, the checker and bagger of our lane learned that I was a middle school teacher. While we all had a fascinating conversation about the importance of recess, the conversation turned as it often does, to my reputation as a teacher and how I get kids to love books.

I never know what to say.

See, I truly don’t think it is any magic skill. I respect kids. I build relationships with kids. I surround them with books. And, important for the topic of this post, I don’t judge what they read.

Do you want to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for the seventh time? Awesome. Are you devouring graphic novels like I devour chocolate chip cookies? More power to you. I want kids to read. I want kids to love what they read. And, quite frankly, who am I to judge?

Judgement is a funny thing. Many teachers I know are with me in this. We battle back the folks that say graphic novels aren’t “real reading”. We stock our classroom libraries with these books, typically by purchasing them with our own money. And yet, when I have proclaimed loud and proud that I’m addicted to reading romance books, I’ve gotten one of three reactions, often from the same people who are helping me fight the good fight in our classrooms. These responses include:

A high five from a fellow romance reader who also waves her romance flag high. We exchange the names of favorite authors and begin to text recommendations to each other on a regular basis. These are my people.

A whispered confession that they read romance too, as they look over their shoulder to ensure no one is overhearing them.  I want to hug these people, to empower them.

A derisive laugh and a label of these books as “fluff” and a comment that they only read “real books.” My reaction here is unprintable.

I’ve now crossed over into attempting to write romance books. This is scary territory for me. One, this is not a genre I’m feeling like I’m comfortable writing in yet. I doubt myself. A lot. I’ve written about my inner editor, Helga. She is always present. But after a book and a half drafted, 145,000 words waiting to be edited and crafted into something better, I’ve learned that romance writers are dismissed as swiftly as romance readers.

So far the responses to the notion that I’m writing a romance book have included:

A high five and a plea to read it ASAP. Once again, my people.

Awe that I would even attempt it along with a confession, along with flushed cheeks, that they read “those books.” Again, I cheer these folks on, telling them to own the books they love.

Incredulity that I’d write a book with romance and, gasp of outrage, possible sex scenes if I teach kids. Surely I won’t write this under my own name. Note, you all know I am using a pseudonym, but my picture is with it. As much as I love my given name, it doesn’t scream romance writer to me. These people irritate me.

And then there are the comments that continue about the content about the books - that it is porn (nope), romance writers aren’t real writers because they often publish the books themselves, how can you be a feminist (or Christian) and read/write these books,  etc., etc.

To be honest, I’m struggling with this. A lot. It isn’t that the reactions make me want to stop reading and/or writing romance books. The reaction baffles me. How is it that a genre largely written by and for women is being disparaged in this way by women as well? (Not to disparage the fabulous guys reading and writing romance. I see you all too.) It truly puzzles me and makes me think of one of my favorite t-shirts

Because to me, romance books are empowering. They celebrate women. They celebrate relationships. Yes, they are about love between a couple, but often also are about love in a family and among friends. My favorite romance books make me see everyone around me in a better light. They fill me with happiness. How is this a genre to dismiss - in regard to readers, but also writers?

Today as I sat down at Starbucks to sit and write for a few hours, I saw a Tweet from one of my favorite romance writers. I’ve included the screenshot below.

I’m sorry, what on earth makes anyone think that’s ok? Victoria has published ten amazing romance books and I’ve loved Every. Single. One. My only complaint is that I’d love more books from her. I wish she was the only author I’d seen this type of comment directed at, but sadly that is not the case.

Here’s my thing, friends. Then I promise I’ll step off the soapbox. This world is pretty ugly at times. We need more people putting art into it. We need more people trying to change it in a positive way. And if their way isn’t your way? If it isn’t something you’re “into?” One, make sure you know what you are dismissing. In the case of this genre of books, try some. Or, two, maybe just don’t be ugly? We don’t all have to like the same things. Just because you love one thing doesn’t mean I have to, and vice versa. But I won’t belittle your interests or, more importantly, I won’t belittle you. Maybe we can all do the same?

I should note, this is not directed at any of my blog readers. You all have been the best cheerleading team as I’ve gone on this journey. Hugs, high fives, and love going out to all of you. I appreciate you more than you know.

After seeing Victoria’s tweet this morning, I had to address it. I’m firm in my belief that if we judged less and talked more, we’d be happier as a result. It reminds me of sitting in my class last week. I was stretched out on an armchair next to one of my students for a reading conference. I asked what he was reading and he held up Diary of a Wimpy Kid, book one. This would make the fourth time he had started, and finished, the entire series this year. As I’ve mentioned above, I’m all for everyone reading (and rereading!) whatever they want. But I was curious. I nodded, recording his title on my iPad, then said, “So, do you mind telling me why you’re starting the series again? I mean, I am a huge fan of rereading, so you’re welcome to read it. I just wondered…”

He looked at me, then shrugged, “I guess I’m scared to start a new series. This is the only one I’ve ever liked.”

I nodded, thinking about the kid and what I knew about him. “Well, I’m fine with you reading this, but I also can recommend a book if you’d like.”

He messed with his hair, paused, then said, “Yeah, I was going to ask you, but I also thought about trying one I know you like.”

Now I was super excited. “Which book?”
The Lightning Thief?”

I have to admit, I sprung up, raced across the back of the room to get one, and then proceeded to sit back down and read the first page to him because, I mean, Percy. Sigh

Yeah, my convo with that kid, my glimpse of Twitter this morning, some discussions I had over the past week about writing, and I’m more firm than ever in my resolve that relationships, books, and writing can change the world. We just need to get away from judging others. Instead we could find a way to celebrate and connect with them instead.

Happy Sunday, friends.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Writing Wednesday: Learning from my Students

Today I had the honor of attending a lunch for a local business club in town. Every spring they have a essay writing contest. The students at our middle school are invited to write to a prompt. They judge the essays that are entered and pick one winner per grade level. The winners and their teachers attend the lunch where the students read their essays to the group.

As I sat in this room today at the head table, I looked across at the three students waiting to speak. The sixth grader I met for the first time when we sat down. The seventh grader is, obviously, my student. The eighth grader was in my class as a fifth grader and a seventh grader. All three girls were nervous, though it was not obvious. I thought back to just over a year ago when I sat in the same luncheon, waiting to tell the group about a reading challenge we were having in the community. I was a basket case. These girls reminded me that I need to relax just a bit.

The sixth grader had to speak first. She dedicated her essay to her three-year-old cousin and began, weaving humor and figurative language throughout her essay. This group of business folks were laughing out loud as she spilled stories, taking us along with her on a summer day. I was mesmerized.

My student had crafted a story of bravery. It was an ordinary summer day that asked her to step outside of her comfort zone. Knowing her, knowing her family, this story was important. She is the middle child in a family of nine kids. I loved that she had this moment in the spotlight. She is quiet, but fierce. Watching her deliver her story, I knew she would be going places one day.

And the eighth grader got up and I was transported. We watched a lot of spoken word poems last year, specifically we saw several from Sarah Kay. This student emulated that, I say without knowing if that was her intention. Her essay was in the form of a poem, filled with love, pain, fear, loneliness, anger, life. I teared up several times and I saw her do that too. She took my breath away.

When they were done, I sat back in awe. These kids, at eleven, twelve, and thirteen, they got it. They found the magic of writing and others connecting with your writing. They were brave enough to share that writing with others, even though it can be scary. Some of them wrote about the best of times, some wrote about ordinary days, and some wrote about hard truths. They were beautiful and brave. They reminded me of the power of putting pen to page and the beauty that can come out of sharing your story.

In short, they reminded me of why I write. I was humbled. I was, I am, inspired.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

March Writing Challenge Complete

New t-shirt.
Seemed appropriate to wear today.
I’ve been blogging during the month of March since 2012. In 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018, and now 2019, I have taken on the March writing challenge, thirty-one posts in thirty-one days. Every year that I’ve attempted it, I’ve completed it. It’s not easy.

This year the challenge was more difficult for me than in the past. I’ve been struggling in the past week to try and figure out why that is. I think that it might have something to do with trying to write the romance books at the same time. I’m struggling to find time to write for the blog and find time to write this book. I’m also trying to find time to parent, read, spend time with my family, walk the dogs, you know...have a life?

It isn’t easy.

There are people who make blogging look easy. They update their blogs on a regular basis and also seem to have a well balanced life. I don’t understand how they do that.

When I look at my blog posts for the five previous years I’ve completed the challenge, I noticed that no month ever has as many posts as March. Heck, in 2017 and 2018, a little less than half of the posts for the year came in March. I think that this much writing, for me, isn’t sustainable.

So why complete the challenge now? Why would I take it on this year when I already need to write more on another project? I think, for me this year, it was trying to remind myself to make writing a priority. I love writing this romance book. Well, that’s true most of the time. And yet, I began it last year in April with the goal of writing every day. (Which meant I wrote only a handful of times on my blog last April.) I did manage to write 27/30 days in my romance book last April. Writing became part of my life. I truly do not think I’d be this far into this romance series without writing daily for my blog last March.

The daily writing reminded me of my love for it, which made me believe I could write something that was in my heart begging to come out.

In life I tend to struggle with balance. When I read a lot, everything else falls to the side. Ditto to when I write a lot, when I work out a lot, etc., etc. I feel like my balance comes when you look at my life as a whole, not on a daily basis. I try to examine my life for a week and hope that I found time for everything that is important. But sometimes I get out of balance. The March writing challenge helps me reclaim the writing space in my life, forces me to put it in my everyday schedule, and I hope that spills over to a more balanced writing life come April 1st.

Tomorrow my blog will go back to sporadic updates. My goal this year has been to post about writing every Wednesday, whether it with interviews from authors or stuff about my own writing life. So far I’ve hit 12/13 Wednesdays. In an ideal world, I’d love to publish at least one more time a week, so roughly eight times a month. We will see.

For the rest of my writing time I’d like to get going on this book. In book two I’m currently on chapter 9, around 32,000 words. I’ve been writing about a chapter a week. I’d love to finish draft one of this book by the end of the school year, then go back and revise book one. I’m sure I’ll update as I go.

This writing needs to take place on the edges of a full life. Two track seasons - middle school and high school - have kicked off for Luke and Liam. Liam is also in concert band and Symphonic band. He’s also begun high school drumline practices and has drum lessons once a week. Luke has work at the local Italian restaurant, which doesn’t require anything from me other than dinner before he goes there. He has Prom coming up. I have a class coming up online for Choice Literacy (find out more HERE), a two day conference, and a presentation for a friend’s class at a local college. That doesn’t include orthodontist/doctor/ dentist appointments or the ACT. And that’s just until the end of the school year.

However, I look back at my interview with Penny Kittle this March. (If you didn’t see it, check HERE. She has exciting news at the end of the interview about what she’s writing next.) I’ve seen Penny speak many times and she always inspires me. Because I’ve seen her so often, I’ve heard her share this quote from Don Murray before, but it was exactly what I needed that day in March when I shared her post. Penny wrote, From my friend, Don Murray: “15 minutes a day, Kittle. Just 15 minutes a day and you’ll have a book in a year.”

And so, I look ahead to April and think to myself, 15 minutes a day, Sokolowski. I can do it.

Thanks for joining me on this March journey once again. I truly appreciate all of you for sharing your reactions to my writing. You motivate me to keep going and I thank you for it.