Gems: For writing, for creativity, for life

The blank page, the blinking cursor, the brand-new plan book, the new school year – these are things that haunt us: the writers, the teachers, and worse, the teachers of writing. I spent twenty years teaching young people the craft of writing well, and for quite some time I approached each new school year wondering how to capture their attention and help them to find a reason to write and a desire to write well.

I believed that becoming a good writer needed to start with two pre-writing requirements: reading good writing and thinking interesting thoughts. One who writes must know what good writing looks like and must have something to say about something. As you teach, you collect those gems that you consider your “go to” passages, lessons, activities that always seem to resonate with the students. Years ago, I found an interesting piece by Paul Auster entitled “Why Write?” This selection is brief and interesting, and it can lead to many first discussions or assignments as you begin to discover your students. No matter what objective I wanted my students to accomplish, this little essay did its job. “Why Write?”  became a gem of mine.

The following is section 5 from Auster’s essay printed in The New Yorker’s final edition of 1995.

I was eight years old. At that moment in my life, nothing was more important to me than baseball. My team was the New York Giants, and I followed the doings of these men in the black and orange caps with all the devotion of a true believer. Even now, remembering that team – which no longer exists – I can reel off the names of nearly every player on the roster. Alvin Dark, Whitey Lockman, Don Mueller, Johnny Antonelli, Monte Irvin, Hoyt Welhelm. But none was greater, none more perfect nor more deserving of worship than Willie Mays, the incandescent Say Hey kid.

That spring, I was taken to my first big league game. Friends of my parents had box seats at the Polo Grounds, and one April night a group of us went to watch the Giants play the Milwaukee Braves. I don’t know who won, I can’t recall a single detail of the game, but I do remember that after the game was over my parents and their friends sat talking in their seats until all the other spectators had left. It got so late that we had to walk across the diamond and leave by the center-field exit, which was the only one still open. As it happened, that exit was right below the players’ locker rooms.

Just as we approached the wall, I caught sight of Willie Mays. There was no question about who it was. It was Willie Mays, already out of uniform and standing there in his street clothes not ten feet away from me. I managed to keep my legs moving in his direction and then, mustering every ounce of my courage, I forced some words out of my mouth, “Mr. Mays,” I said, “could I please have your autograph?”

He had to have been all of twenty-four years old, but I couldn’t bring myself to pronounce his first name.

His response to my question was brusque but amicable. “Sure, kid, sure,” he said. “You got a pencil?” He was so full of life, I remember, so full of youthful energy, that he kept bouncing up and down as he spoke.

I didn’t have a pencil, so I asked my father if I could borrow his. He didn’t have one either. Nor did my mother. Nor, as it turned out did any of the other grownups.

The great Willie Mays stood there watching in silence. When it became clear that no one in the group had anything to write with, he turned to me and shrugged, “Sorry, kid,” he said. “Ain’t got no pencil, can’t give no autograph.” And then he walked out of the ballpark into the night.

I didn’t want to cry, but tears started falling down my cheeks, and there was nothing I could do to stop them. Even worse, I cried all the way home in the car. Yes, I was crushed with disappointment, but I was also revolted at myself for not being able to control those tears. I wasn’t a baby. I was eight years old, and big kids weren’t supposed to cry over things like that. Not only did I not have Willie Mays’s autograph, I didn’t have anything else, either. Life had put me to the test, and in all respects, I had found myself wanting.

After that night, I started carrying a pencil with me wherever I went. It became a habit of mine never to leave the house without making sure I had a pencil in my pocket. It’s not that I had any particular plans for that pencil, but I didn’t want to be unprepared. I had been caught empty-handed once, and I wasn’t about to let it happen again.

If nothing else, the years have taught me this: if there’s a pencil in your pocket, there’s a good chance that one day you’ll feel tempted to start using it. As I like to tell my children, that’s how I became a writer. 


Before beginning a discussion of text, have your students number the paragraphs if that task hasn’t already been completed. Then during the discussion, the speaker has a way to refer to the mentioned passage.

In your preparation for the lesson, choose the skills or ideas that you want your students to learn and have a plan to get them there. Although a discussion of a text can rabbit-trail in many directions, as the instructor/facilitator, you need to be ready to lead them with a purpose. The following are examples of ideas I wanted my students to take away from this passage, you may think of so many more!

To understand a writer, the reader should make a connection with him/her, however, students tend to focus on those things that are foreign to them. To help my students to grasp this concept, I told them to circle any word/phrase/idea that was unfamiliar.  They typically began with names, the players listed in the first paragraph, anything having to do with baseball, then unfamiliar vocabulary such as brusque in paragraph 5. They may use this as their argument for why they cannot find common ground with this writer or make any connection to the text. Move the discussion to the things that they like, music, sports, film – anything with celebrities to idolize. They will soon realize that there is a familiar concept here: the excitement of meeting a celebrity that you idolize. Huzzah!  Connection made. This connection may grow into empathy for 8-year-old Auster lamenting the autograph he could have had… if only. Conversely, when it is time for your students to write, encourage them to think of placing the details of a new event or idea within a familiar frame. Good writers never need to say, “you had to be there”; a good writer takes you there. Writing prompt: Using the familiar frame of a journey, describe a journey you have recently experienced – remember it must have a beginning, a middle, and an end!

One text can have various levels of meaning. I approach this concept in different ways depending upon the current ability of the students. For my AP students, we may discuss this concept as the supposed thesis and the actual thesis. For my freshmen, we may discuss “what the piece is about” and “what the piece is REALLY about.” Other times we may simply discuss the thing and the other thing. In Auster’s text, what is the thing, the supposed thesis, what the piece is about? If the students have been conditioned to find the thesis in the position of the final sentence in the opening paragraph, then they will quickly find the thing: the hero-worship of ball-player-celebrity Willie Mays. But is that what the text is really about? As you encourage the discussion as a class or in partners or in groups, you will find some of them heading to the idea that Auster is sharing his story of how he became a writer (par. 10) or why he is always prepared. Writing prompt: Tell a story about something that happened to you with a lesson that could apply to anyone.

Repetition with a purpose is a powerful rhetorical tool. Auster’s text opens with the statement, “I was eight years old.” Very declarative, matter-of-fact, attention given to the audience in the fact that we all can relate to being eight years old. He immediately takes us back to a time in which the immediate is paramount, and one simple event can send us into convulsions of anguish. We get it. We understand the childish idolatry of a celebrity. Age teaches us that celebrities are merely human beings, just like us. In paragraph 8 Auster repeats the clause, “I was eight years old,” but it’s different this time. The first time, we understand that he is differentiating himself from adults, he was only eight. Later when struggling to fight the tears of frustration and loss, he is desperate to differentiate himself from babies: he was a “big kid” and should not cry over such silly, childish things! They may have been the identical words, but the meaning is very different. Writing challenge with an open prompt: write a simple clause. Use that clause as the first sentence in your essay, then again later in an essay with a very different meaning.

Failure can be a more powerful, life-altering experience than success. Depending upon your group of students, this may be the only lesson needed from this text. Too often our students see failure as something that is horrible instead of viewing it as a springboard to something new. Even the most literal students seem to be able to make the inference that Auster’s failure to get the Mays autograph led to his carrying a pencil always, which in turn, helped him on his way to becoming a writer. Journal entry or quick write: share a failure you experienced and explain what you learned from it.

Titles have significance…usually. From time to time an editor will throw a title on a text simply from the necessity of having one, but when a writer chooses a title for a text that he has written, he has a reason for it. Why is the title “Why Write?” rather than “Why I Write?” What is the difference in meaning? If you have been discussing several aspects of this text, the students should be running away with ideas here, if not, you may lead them with yours. With advanced students, I have paired this text with two essays entitled, “Why I Write?” by George Orwell and Joan Didion. Adding paired texts gives more opportunity for making connections, drawing conclusions, and having thoughts that prompt writing. Writing prompt 1: Explain the significance of the title of the essay. Writing prompt 2: Compare/contrast Auster’s essay to either Didion’s or Orwell’s essay. Be sure to address the similarities/differences in the titles and the significance of such.

Be prepared! Recently I was reading Twyla Tharp’s 2003 book, The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life, and in chapter 2, “Rituals of Preparation” she mentions this very essay by Paul Auster. She uses it to encourage her readers to be ready to be creative: “What is your pencil” she writes, “What is the one tool that feeds your creativity and is so essential that without it you feel naked and unprepared?… Pick your ‘pencil’ and don’t leave home without it” (Tharp, 2003, 30). What a wonderful way to begin the school year – encouraging your students to be prepared to learn, to read, to write, to think every day. Quick write or journal entry: Choose your “pencil.”  What is the tool you need every day to be ready to be an excellent, productive learner?

READ, THINK, WRITE… then we talk. If I had a nickel for every time I have given this instruction to my students in the past twenty-some years, I could retire already. Get them reading, thinking, writing, and discussing… our little gems can get that started!



Auster, Paul. (1995) Why Write? The New Yorker.

Tharp, Twila. (2003) The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

I dropped the ball…

Sometimes I make a mistake. True Story.

Hello.  My name is Renee. I am not perfect.     There.  I said it.   Your turn!

We all know that we are not perfect; however, there are many of us who expect that we should be. I’ve heard it said that folks like us are “perfectionists” or “workaholics,” and we are called those things with condescension or disdain. It is apparently not a good thing to want to do an excellent job or to live up to our responsibilities… but why?

I dropped the ball this morning. I will spare you all of the details, but I have been the point person on a project at work, and I scheduled some work today in the same room a meeting was scheduled to occur. I failed to check the master schedule. I even needed to order large equipment for this work to commence. When the scheduling snaffoo was discovered, I wasn’t even in the building – I needed to contact many people by phone to figure out the problem and straighten out the mess. It all worked out, but I feel like my neglecting to check the schedule caused inconvenience and issues for others. I hate that!

I take care of things! I am the person people contact when something absolutely needs to be done properly because they know that they can count on me! I am not a slacker – I’m really not! How could I let this horrible thing happen?!

It really wasn’t that horrible, and it all worked out; so, why does it still bug me? Why do I feel like I need to apologize to everyone repeatedly? I disappointed myself, and I assume that everyone else will be disappointed in me as well.

Do I ever do anything right? You may think that I am someone who never errs and has no idea what it’s like to be scolded for an error – but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There have been many time in my life in which my immediate supervisor was rarely satisfied with my performance. I have always been one of the hardest-working people I know, so every time I have been called in, so to speak, for making a huge mistake, I am always surprised, and mortified.

Why does this happen to me? I often over-extend myself…and I never do anything half-way. If I’m in, I’m in 125% with my whole heart. Invariably with so many people and projects expecting me to take care of a million little things, something is bound to be forgotten…but the 999,999 things I got right never make up for the 1 I screwed up or merely forgot…at least in my mind.

Someone needs to take care of it… may as well be me. I try not to expect more of others than I expect from myself, so if something needs to be done, I usually just take care of it…even if that means that I stay longer, work harder, or pay for things out of my own pocket. People around me just get used to knowing that I will most likely arrive before they do, leave after, take care of set up and clean up, and get all supplies needed for the event or task.

Why should I expect someone else to do something I’m not willing to do?    I shouldn’t… so I go ahead and do it myself.

I don’t want to be that guy. I cannot tell you how many times someone tells me that he/she will take care of something, and I trust that the task will be completed… then I feel like an idiot when that person doesn’t live up to his/her word. I end up taking care of it anyway. Why did he/she even offer if there was never any attempt to complete the task? “If you want something done, do it yourself.” Have you ever heard that before? I have. Repeatedly. In my head! I don’t want to be the person who does that to someone else!

How should I respond? I’ve established that I have the ability to make mistakes, but is this a bad thing? We learn so much from our mistakes! Over the years I have been trying to learn how to respond, and I’ll share what I have learned!

  • Admit it. Immediately. If everyone is wondering who jammed the copier or spilled the drink or forgot the Power Point presentation, admit it! Don’t stand there, embarrassed, as everyone wonders who did it. Athletes who play team sports have figured this one out: When they make a mistake on the court or field, they yell, “My bad!” then everyone is good with it, and no one gets upset. In traffic…someone cuts you off, and you begin your road rage tirade, what stops it? The “Oops, I’m sorry” wave from the other driver. You wave back and all is well. Don’t let any time go by – admit it immediately.
  • Don’t be defensive. When you admit that you did something wrong, do not immediately try to blame someone else or circumstances. Just say, “I blew it. I was wrong. How would you like me to repair this situation?” I guarantee the other person will not know what to do with you. I honestly learned this from my students… the ones who get in trouble most often. They have learned that it’s easier just to say, “Yep, I did that. Now what?” The ones with this attitude make dispersing consequences much easier – we discuss what needs to be done to repair the situation, and then we move on.
  • Don’t internalize or personalize the error.  You have not become the worst human on the planet because you did something wrong! Stop beating yourself up! Also, don’t get angry at the person you wronged either. Do your best to keep emotions out of the situation – they only complicate things.  I know, easier said than done.
  • Make restitution or a goodwill gesture if needed.  If you have really inconvenienced someone, a little gift card goes a long way to making up for your error. If the mistake is more personal, if you hurt someone emotionally, a small token of some kind could begin repairing the relationship. Why do you think husbands show up with flowers after a bonehead move..again!? They have learned that a bouquet of flowers could soften the heart of the one he hurt so that his apology is accepted more readily.

Well, this has been therapeutic. I sent several texts owning up to my not checking the schedule, apologizing for inconveniencing everyone, and promising to do a better job in this area. My partner went in to check on the job and took a little gift of apology which he said they really liked. And I am letting myself off the hook – sort of – I’m working on it.

Do I always follow my own advice? No. But I try. Making mistakes is a part of life. If we are too afraid of making mistakes, we will never try anything new. So, just do it… and if you drop the ball… just own it!

BE a teacher! 7 Ways to BE the BEst!

Hundreds of new teachers head into classrooms every year, and thousands return to classrooms wanting to do a better job than they did last year. As I think of those things that I want to remind myself to do as I start another year, I want to share them with you. Before you ever encounter your students,  you need to determine how you are going to handle yourself and your classroom.

Be Prepared

I know, that sounds so trite, but it is true. The better prepared you are for each day, the better each day will be. The typical school day lasts six hours; expect to spend two hours after school wrapping up from today and preparing for tomorrow. Yes, sometimes you will be able to following the students out the door, and sometimes you will spend more than two hours after school, but make two hours your standard planning time after school. Prepare more activities than you think you will need because sometimes things just don’t go as planned… and you need to make a change, or an activity you expected to take 20 minutes is wrapped up in 10. You will enjoy your day and your time with your students much more with less stress and anxiety if you are well prepared.

Be Diligent

I’m sure you’ve heard that you should “not put off until tomorrow things that you can do today,” and this is essential for teachers. When something needs to be put away, do it. When something needs to be cleaned up, do it. When something needs to be graded, do it! Remember every day produces more work, so anything you put off will only add to tomorrow’s work. It compounds like a snowball rolling downhill and will result in a cluttered classroom and a Sunday grading marathon. Both will cause you extra stress that you do not need!  Be diligent in the classroom to stay in a work mode and take care of things as they come up. Procrastination will only add stress and anxiety.

Be Authentic

Students can spot a fake just like dogs can smell fear – a mile away! Of course you need to be full of positive energy, but don’t be fake.  You will not be able to maintain an attitude or a perspective that is not true. No, of course, you do not want to complain to them about things in your life or in school, those things are not their business, but if you are overly happy and overly positive, they won’t believe you.  Be cheerful, be positive, be happy… but be honest. If you are a little grumpy, blame it on your lack of coffee and move forward.

Be Clear

Several years ago I was taking my son to a sports event of some kind at a location that was new to me. We did not have gps at the time, so we were dependent upon maps and directions from benevolent gas station attendants. I stopped, of course, at a gas station and made a purchase so that while paying I could ask for directions. The question I asked, though, did not produce the answer that I needed: “Do you know where ABC School is?” The very astute clerk responded, “Yes, I do.” That was the appropriate answer for the question I asked. I did not ask her to provide direction for me, I asked if she knew where it is. So, I smiled and restated my question: “Could you please direct me to ABC School?” and she did so.

When you ask a question of a class, as the question that will produce the answer you seek. Instead of “Any questions?” ask “Who would like to ask a question about the lesson?” By doing this you are modeling the skill of questioning. To solidify this in the minds of my students, I do a few things with them.  First, when a student needs an item, the usual question is, “Do you have a pencil?” and I respond, “Yes, I do.” and I teach them the lesson the gas station attendant taught me.

I was an English teacher for many years, so I have heard students lament: “I don’t get it!” after reading (or not reading) an assignment. I learned to put the ownership of the learning and understanding back on them, and I taught them to ask a specific question about the text.  How did I do that?  I would respond, “Ask me a question.” At first I would hear complaining, but I was persistent. “Ask me a question.” The students would finally return to the text, discuss it in the group, and then return to me with a question worthy of a thoughtful answer.

Be Trustworthy

James reminds us to “Let your yes be yes and your no be no” (James 5:12). You are spending time every day with children who will believe anything you tell them… until they don’t… and then you are done. They need to trust that you will do what you say you will do. If you promise an activity or a reward, deliver! If you tell a student you will assign a detention, do it! Don’t give them false hope, empty promises, or ridiculous threats.

When I was rearing my children, I taught them my definition of the word NO: NO means NO, absolutely NO, don’t ask again. If my daughter or son would pester me about a question to which I had already said NO, I would require him or her to recite the definition of NO. The hard part to this is that you cannot change your mind!  If you say NO, it has to stay NO. If you cave to the persistence of the class, they will never believe you when you say NO.   IF I responded,  “maybe” or “let me think about it” and the children started bugging me about it, I would ask, “Do you want it to be NO?” Then they would stop pestering me.  Conversely, when you say YES, you MUST deliver. Now, will there be times when you cannot do what you promised? Of course, then you apologize and explain.

They need to know that they can TRUST you… and you must be worthy of their TRUST.

Be Inspiring

Quite often when English teachers give encouragement to their student writers, they remind them to “Show, Don’t Tell!” Teachers need to take this same advice. Too often teachers take the “Do as I say, not as I do” attitude in the classroom, and that just won’t work – it’s not authentic or trustworthy. You must model the behavior you expect from you students. Demonstrate the behaviors in the classroom that you want them to develop. Your actions speak much louder than your words.

Take this same advice into your lessons. When I taught writing, I would use my document camera to compose right in front of them. I would start a paragraph, change it, fix it, cross it out, ask for their suggestions, and demonstrate to them that writing is a process. SHOW them that you don’t write perfectly the first time either. If you assign a presentation to the class, complete one yourself first. Demonstrate to the students what you are looking for. Your demonstration will encourage their thoughts and imaginations more than a list of directions ever will!

Be Enthusiastic

If you aren’t having a good time; if you don’t enjoy what you are doing, why should your students? Sure, occasionally you will have a bad day, but if the students are used to seeing you as an upbeat, enthusiastic teacher, they will step up to the plate and help you to get out of your funk!  Enjoy your students!  Enjoy your job!  Enjoy your life! and your students will enjoy their time with you!

If this is your first year, take heart, we all had a first year. If this is your twentieth year, make it your best year ever!  Happy New Year, TEACHERS!  Go and BE awesome!


Tarzan and Leopold: Legend and History? A film review…

One of the things I enjoy doing on a summer’s day is seeing a movie matinee. This is a luxury I do not get during the school year, so I try to take advantage of the time… and relax! Today’s feature was The Legend of Tarzan. I haven’t been a huge fan of the Tarzan franchise, but I wanted to avoid the children in Finding Dory and the disappointment of Independence Day.

I always tell my students to make a connection with a text – whether in print or in film – because it will have more meaning for you… and I immediately made a connection with this film.

When my son was in high school, he was preparing to go to the National Youth Leadership Forum on Defense and Diplomacy in Washington DC (yes, it was rather pricey), and before he went, he was supposed to read books and do research on the Democratic Republic of the Congo – I have a point, be patient. He was/is not a reader, so I did the reading and discussed what I learned with him. One of the books was Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost: A story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1998). I learned much about the history of the Congo region of Africa and King Leopold II of Belgium.

The film opens with a text describing King Leopold II’s colonization of the Congo region of Africa… which immediately piqued my attention because I made that connection I always encourage my students to make. I possessed knowledge that could enhance my appreciation for and the viewing of the film. The storyline included depictions of actual historical figures: Leon Rom, Leopold’s lackey overseeing the horror that he was perpetuating, and George Washington Williams, an American who was investigating Leopold’s activities in the region. I recognized these characters as factual historical figures and was interested in how the legend of Tarzan would play into the historical account.

We meet Tarzan later in life, married to Jane, and attempting to shed his past as Lord of the Apes. The screenwriter creates a reason for John (Tarzan) to return to Africa with Williams which is not completely plausible, but hey, it’s a movie. Tarzan and Jane take Williams to Africa and rekindle friendships with the natives there as well as Tarzan’s ape family while dealing with Rom, the natives, and the apes. The film has so many underdeveloped storylines coming together that you just need to forget that feeling of “But… what?”  “Why?” …and just go with it.

My initial excitement of thinking the film would somehow be a piece of enjoyable historical fiction faded as I watched a semi-action, semi-comedy, semi-feel good buddy, semi-romantic film. I believe they just tried to do too much which created a very disjointed storyline with very different goals. It seemed like they just weren’t sure what kind of film they wanted to make. The overly preachy scenes and speeches about slavery and disenfranchised people groups just didn’t fit in the fictional story of the man who lived with apes.

At least the apes didn’t talk…