Monday, June 04, 2007

Lessons That Change Writers III

I am working my way through Nancie Atwell's Lessons That Change Writers as part of HipWriterMama's 30 day challenge. She is inspiring us to work on developing new good habits that will bring us closer to meeting our goals and realizing our dreams. I want to be more serious about working on the craft of writing. I am studying Atwell's text because the teachers in my school use it in our K - 8 writing program and I want to be more familiar with the techniques, as well as benefit from the practice of doing the writing exercises. So far I am finding it stimulating, challenging and invigorating.

This week I read lessons 4 through 6 and did the assigned homework. Lesson 4 is titled "Where Poetry Hides". Atwell takes an idea from Georgia Heard's book Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School, where she says, "Discovering where poems come from is an essential part of the poet's process." Atwell says, "I am learning that when I ground my big feelings and ideas in small moments from my real life, I can write poems that resonate for me - and for the people I want to read them. It's noticing the small moments that's the tricky part..." Kinda reminds me of haiku! So you know I am down with this assignment. I had to take my writing notebook and spend a half an hour writing a list of places in my house and family where there might be poems hiding. "Go for quantity and specificity - as many things, places, occasions, and people as you can observe or recall that matter to you and that might hold the seeds of the poems of your life." A few of the things in my list:
  1. back of the garden
  2. dry birdbath
  3. binoculars hanging on the kitchen hook; dusty
  4. clutter on the dresser
  5. screams overheard after dinner, through the dining room window; brothers playing
  6. onions hanging in basket
  7. attic bins
  8. shoe boxes
  9. top of bookcases
It occurs to me that these lessons are intended for seventh and eighth graders and I am wondering how I would have done with sharing this in my jr. high. I think I would have been mortified to have to share this in the writer's workshop circle. Wouldn't that be a huge social risk for young teens? The other exercises are even more personal; I don't think I will share the most significant ones here on my blog. How would you get a class of 12 and 13 year olds to trust and respect each other enough for this to work? It must be amazing.

Lesson 5 is called "Problems to Explore in Fiction". Atwell decided to approach teaching writing fiction by a dual focus: character development as well as development of the problem as theme. She says professional writers are "impelled by the problems they create for their characters and how a character will confront - or avoid - a particular challenge. Theme, not to mention plot, emerges from the what if? of a problem." We are to spend time studying fiction we have been reading and make a list of the problem characters encounter. I chose to look over the picture books on our shelves at home. I found a lot of titles where the main struggle was around the theme of separation and attachment with parents or friends. Beginnings and endings, coming and going, growing up, behaving badly or well, learning something new and fluctuations between chaos and order were all prevalent. After making this list our homework was to create a list of problems we might be interested in exploring in a short story or poem. My list is titled "What if? problems for a bedtime story". I decided to try to develop a bedtime story for submission to the HarperCollins contest running till the end of June, just to give myself a target for all these homework assignments. Now I have some seed ideas and a specific goal with a deadline. I don't want to tell you what the most interesting problems are for me right now - it's too tenuous and I am timid.

Lesson 6 is titled "Twenty Actions". Atwell talks about how poet Billy Collins was greatly appreciated by her students. She tells them of an assignment he gives his adult students in writing class. He has them make a list of twenty actions from their everyday lives that could become poems. He tells of his own list and shows how a couple of things he experienced, moving his dog's head off his pillow and accidentally driving over an American flag, resulted in published poems. Our homework was to keep our writer's notebook open and write a list of at least twenty things that happen in the course of a day. "Observe yourself", Atwell says, "If you notice yourself engaged in an action that might have poetic potential, jot it down." Here are a few of my twenty actions:
  1. putting together a porch swing with the help of my 4 year old and 2 year old sons
  2. driving to my dad's to borrow his tools - he declined to help me but let my borrow his old tool box full of wrenches
  3. letting my sons play at climbing the 8" ladder on the porch
  4. Buddy taking my picture; blurry
  5. the different ways these sons handle a bottle of bubble blowing solution and wands
  6. Buster mowing the lawn, walking like his dad
  7. stepping out the kitchen door to look at my tomato plants while a child cries inside
  8. how peaceful Punkin is in the bath
  9. sorting through piles of shoes by the door to go out on the porch in the rain
Here is another exercise I just can't see my self doing honestly when in middle school. Would you? I am amazed at what Atwell expects and receives from her students. The teachers at my school do it too and it blows me away - these kids are a wonder.

I didn't get to read and write on this project every day, but I am excited about the progress I am making. Like getting your hands in the dirt and turning things over, my notebook is just full of surprising and promising seeds. I forgot I had this in me.


Vivian Mahoney said...

I am so impressed with your process of working on this! Keep going. Best of luck on the contest! If you haiku is any indication of your talent, my bets are on you.

AMY T said...

Great work, following through with your writing goals. Thanks for letting us know about the good night book contest. I looked for the Atwell book when you first mentioned it, but couldn't find it. I'm doing a similar project with this series of Lucy Calkins Writing Workshop books that I received late last fall. It was hard to teach with them without any time to tinker with the strategies myself. I'm trying to keep my summer goals modest: I'd just like to fill up one 70 page spiral notebook...and choose a few entries to develop further. Mostly, I want to develop the habit of writing some, each day, and "noticing" things more often and more fully.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Amy that is great! I am reading Calkins books too. I really like her. We should keep up with each other!