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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Recipes and Writing

I love recipes and cookbooks. In the checkout line at Sprouts, I don’t mind a long line since it gives me time to thumb through Cuisine and Cook’s Illustrated. As I scan the photos and glance at the recipes, I think about who will be sitting at the table with me. Would this recipe be one that would likely lead to a request for seconds? Would my husband beg that I cook it again? Would my guests ask for a copy of the recipe? If yes, I might pluck down my credit card and add it to my ever growing collection of recipes. If no, I pass and save ten bucks.

And so this brings me to the five-paragraph essay: the simple little recipe for writing the academic essay, “that common requisite in American schools.” Instead of one cup of flour, it’s one introduction with a three-pronged thesis statement, followed not by a teaspoon of vanilla and a whisked egg white, but three body paragraphs and a conclusion.  Ah, so easy, so basic. Such a simple recipe.

Yet who wants to sit down to a meal of five paragraph essays? Who feels compelled to read the next one and then devour one more, licking their chops and smiling in delight? Who asks the writer to explain how she wrote it so that you too could serve it up to your reader?  

No one who I know.

So why do we insist that this recipe is one that will lead students to be masters of the art of writing? Is the five paragraph essay really a no-fail recipe? Is it really the “backbone of good writing”?

I want essays to be like those dishes that I love to prepare and serve to my guests: enticing delectables for the mind. I want good food – just look at my waist line and you’ll see that – and I want to read writing that moves me intellectually and spiritually, writing that urges me to see the world in a new way or that helps me think deeper. I want to linger with the ideas, curious about how the writer beguiled me to stay with the movable feast of ideas.

When I cook, I begin with an idea or maybe a question. Desert tonight? A key lime pie could hit the mark, and I envision the finished pie sitting on the table. Only then do I organize the work space and ingredients and begin to create what I hope will be a picture perfect pie.  And near the end as I beat those eggs, I know I’m doing it to create the meringue that peaks just right so it’ll brown up in the oven. It’s about creating my version of a pie that will leave my guests begging for more.

When I write, I think about the questions and ideas that I want to explore and  imagine what the final piece might be. I don’t start with how I’m going to organize my work. After all, if I don’t have the ideas down pat, how do I know what I have to organize or what design will work best? Writers begin with ideas and then comes the work hard of figuring out how to shape the idea into something that a reader would want to linger with. They don’t begin with their organizational framework first, or, at least, I know I don’t unless, of course, I’m writing a limerick, but that’s another story.

I’ve yet to find a piece of writing that is as easy as a recipe to follow. When I’m in the act of writing, I explore ideas; I push back against my thoughts and then play with them, letting them lead me where they will. It’s a messy process, not a nice simple one like determining my three pronged points and tying all those ideas together in a neat little package at the end. No, writing is filled with solving problems and wrestling with one challenge after another.

If there were a magazine at Sprouts called Delectable Five Paragraph Essays, I doubt I’d pick it up. And I know I wouldn’t serve one to my guests.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Critical Incident

A Critical Incident

Sometimes all it takes is one comment to rock our world. One innocent comment and our world shifts around us. Like you could guess, it was an ordinary day like any other day at Thornton High. As usual at lunch time, teachers sauntered into the English department office either with a tray from the cafeteria or with their packed lunch. I must have beat everyone in because I remember shaking off thoughts of my last class, Practical English, a class that I loved to teach but one that other teachers shied away from. Louis had told the story of his father getting into trouble with the law one more time, and Joe complained about having to close late at work the night before. That class, mostly boys, were sometimes tricky to settle down, but once we got into a grove, they often surprised me. Right now we were in the middle of a mock business venture where they had to determine the qualities of a person they’d hire, then develop interview questions, and design the application form. It was a task they enjoyed and that had prompted some hot and heavy conversation.

Just as I was thinking about Louis’ comment about whether or not a criminal record should matter in hiring decisions, our department chair walked into the office. Often her stories of her AP class were entertaining and stories that greatly differed from those I might tell about Practical English.

“You know,” she began, “I looked around the room today and noticed that I have a lot of  girls in AP, and they sure are blond!” She sat down and began eating her salad.

And I pictured my Practical English class: those boys sure weren’t blond. Louis’ last name was Lucero, and Joe’s last name was Italian, can’t remember all these years later, but I do know that I had a Gonzales and a Gomez in class. And one of the few African American students in our school sat in the third row. 

Blonde, huh?

And my guys weren’t.

Her girls were learning about Hawthorne and Hemingway. My guys were learning about business writing and filling out forms. Her girls were writing extended essays while my guys were writing letters of complaint. Her girls were talking about going to college and my guys were worrying about jobs.

And hers were blond and mine weren't.

Yep, one comment that day at lunch shifted my world and rocked me awake.


I am what I am – a woman of a certain age who is still intrigued by teaching and learning and figuring out what works. Still questioning, still learning, still puzzled and still not retired. 

I am what I am! 

A hanger oner to the 70s when we believed that schools could change the world. A writer who has yet to find a formula that will make the writing easier. A traveler who moves beyond the boundaries of a school house or a district to work in a country where women wear head scarves and where I hear the call to prayers throughout the day. I am who I am: a breaker of rules, a reader, a coach, and angry when students aren’t taught to find their voice and when debate is silenced. 

I am what I am – a grandmother, a mother, a wife, a hiker and a biker. And a teacher. 

Hey, that’s what I am!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Miner's Candles and Hinky Pinks

Miner's Candles and Hinky Pinks

When I first moved into my house, my hair was long and parted in the middle, I wore granny glasses and long flowery dresses, and I wanted to bring the mountains into the city. So with all my hippie optimism, I dug up the miner's candles in the foothills and transplanted them in my city garden. I found columbines and little red elephants for a backyard plot. Oh, the miner's candles grew and spread and in a few years could be found in my neighbors' yards and in fields blocks away. The columbines died after one season and the little red elephants didn't even come up that first year.

What I didn't know about gardening was that altitude mattered and so did the surroundings. I didn't think that the little red elephants growing by the stream needed that water and that the miner's candles were profuse because they were, well, simply weeds. I had an imaginary vision of the garden I wanted to create, but I didn't have enough knowledge to make that garden a reality. Instead, I relied on aesthetics -- uninformed aesthetics, I must admit -- and naive enthusiasm.

That attitude, sadly, carried over into my teaching. In those first few years, I naively believed that if I could create a garden in my classroom, the students would grow. So like I plucked the mountain flowers and replanted them in my city garden, I plucked lessons that I discovered and replanted them in my classroom. And like my home garden, I didn't check that the growing conditions were right, and I didn't consider the future of those lessons. 

With just a bit of a blush, I remember hearing about a teaching practice that sounded engaging and, frankly, fun, so the next day it might be the lesson of the day. After listening to a college professor talk about hinky pinks, I developed a lesson where we "hinky pinked." Somewhere I heard about having students play with language through metaphor, so we figured out what was like an unsharpened pencil lying on an empty desk. And then I heard about how to teach students to write a sure-fired, guaranteed high quality essay with five clearly defined paragraphs. Those teaching practices were the miner's candles of my teaching: random and unprincipled.

And when I visit some classrooms I see the teaching version of my gardening from those days long ago. I see some teaching practices that are like those miner's candles: spreading like weeds. Others are like the little red elephants: can't grow in the setting that they've been transported to. But the reason they can't grow are more insidious than my innocent plucking of flowers and hoping that they would spread. Some of the practices that I see can't grow because they simply shouldn't grow. Just like miner's candles don't belong in a city garden, some practices don't belong in a classroom.

And some practices result from teachers who are like the gardener that I was those years ago. I didn't know what I was doing, but I had the best of intentions and I knew I wanted the beauty of the mountains in my backyard. 

A few years ago I hired a landscape architect and invested in books on gardening. The yard that I have now is filled with whirling butterflies, delphiniums, and lavender. They fit within the environment of the city, and the flowers rebloom each year. 

That's what we need as we plan for the garden of our classroom. What are the practices that work? That with tending will produce the results we want? What are the weeds we need to yank out of the ground, and what's the fertilizer that will nurture the roots? And what do we need to learn in order to be the best gardeners of young minds that we can be?