The Opposite of Loneliness

It’s like I can hear her talking right to me, my student said, and all the students around her murmured in agreement, and I knew I had found another great teachable piece of writing.

We were reading Marina Keegan’s essay, The Opposite of Loneliness, as a model text to help them get ready for writing personal essays. A former student of mine had bounded into my classroom two weeks before, saying, “Ms. Regales, you’ve got to read this book!” so I had taken her copy of The Opposite of Loneliness home with me and read it fairly quickly, enjoying the book itself very much but also thrilled to be able to tell her how much I had liked it.

Marina Keegan was a young and incredibly talented writer who died in a car crash five days after her graduation from Yale. Her work was collected by her parents and some of her professors for posthumous publication, and the shadow of her untimely death is hard to put aside while reading her pieces. However, I think the book stands alone as a fresh young voice, and the personal essays are strong, well-written, accessible, and provide excellent lessons in voice, focus, imagery, alliteration, and many other tools in any writer’s toolbox. Several of her pieces from the book, like the title essay and Why we care about whales (would make a great mentor text for “why we care about _____” essays), are available online, and I also chose “Against the Grain,” an essay she wrote about having celiac disease, as a longer example. Again, my students loved it, dissecting paragraphs and discussing her humor and voice, while recognizing how skilfully she portrays her mother and her childhood self. Her essays show her skill, but they also show my students how beautiful work can come from seemingly mundane experiences.

Teaching mentor texts as a scaffolding for teaching writing is a technique I’m still mastering, especially since most of the writing I assign is standard literary analysis. The Poet to Poet project I did last year was a successful experiment with mentor texts, and as a complement to Persepolis, we decided to begin our 9th grade year with personal essays. The first time around, I used This I Believe essays as a framework, but I found that for whatever reason, the payoff wasn’t what I was expecting, so I knew I had to tweak it some this year. In addition to choosing new mentor texts, I’m giving them a menu of options, including This I Believe, but also some current college essay prompts, as well as the Letters About Literature contest, with examples from the previous winners. Allowing for more options, while still guided, will hopefully be inspiring to my students.

We’ll see how it goes!

Rockabye

Think of your oldest friendship, the one that started back when you were kids or teens or even young adults, just off on your first great adventure. Do you still talk, or have you lost touch in the swirl of adult life? Is there a certain song that plays when you think of her?

Today I’m thinking about my friend Carolyn, and here’s the song that’s running on a loop in my mind:

We met our freshman year in college, about eighteen years ago, and there are so many songs I could use to soundtrack our friendship. The songs we blasted in our dorm room, the songs we heard at concerts and in dance clubs and at parties, the songs we played on repeat because we thought they were singing our lives, the songs we thought summed up our hearts and relationships. But this one, which came out about halfway through our time in college, somehow became the one, the song we thought of as our song, the song we used to scribble across the bottom of our letters to each other (yes! actual letters!):

Everything’s gonna be all right
Rockabye, rockabye
Everything’s gonna be all right
Rockabye, rockabye

We wrote these words on dry-erase boards, on postcards and lined paper letters we sent to each other from England and Spain, on birthday cards and across phone lines. What we really meant was, “As long as we’re together, as long as we’re friends, what could possibly go wrong?” For me, it was her strength that inspired this feeling of safety. She had already survived some incredible losses by the time we met, and yet I always felt there was no challenge that could make her lose her cool, from how to separate yourself from a toxic relationship to how to find a hotel room when you’ve just gotten off the train in Florence and speak no Italian. She was, and is, funny and beautiful and loyal and smart, and her laughter is infectious, but more than anything else, it’s her determination and fierce ability to love that continues to inspire me today.

As an adult, it upsets me to know that I haven’t always lived up to that ideal, haven’t always been the friend to her that she deserves. During the hazy years of newborns and newly wed, I basically disappeared, and while she was my bridesmaid, I wasn’t there to celebrate her wedding. I wasn’t there for her, too consumed by my own uncertainties and fears. It’s one of the greatest gifts of my life that she forgave me, and I will always be grateful for her capacity to do so, to revive that trademark loyalty she brings to every relationship she has. Once she is in your corner, you know to your core that you can count on her, and it’s a blessing to have that back in my life.

Over recent years, we’ve watched each other’s kids grow up, gone apple-picking and bowling and swimming, eaten birthday cake and pizza, traded recipes and passed down princess dresses, jumped in bouncy castles and snapped photos of our four girls together. She’s chosen to know me for so long, someone who knows who I used to be, before I knew what I wanted to do with my life or even the kind of person I really wanted to be. I know I wouldn’t be who I am today without knowing her, without learning so much about friendship and love from her. I can only hope I’ve given a fraction of what she’s given me.

Now she and her adorable family are moving far away, seeking sunshine beaches and on-tap babysitting in the form of loving grandparents, and while I’m so happy for her, I can’t help but think of myself and what I’ll do without being able to see her. I know this is the age of digital friendship, of social networks and text messages that can cross the miles much quicker that our letters did, but I can’t convince my heart that there won’t be a hole in my life with her name on it.

Maybe we’ll drive down someday and show up at her door, or maybe I’ll have to start writing her letters again, and if I do, I’ll write these lines across the bottom, and be so glad to know she’ll be singing them back to me.

Everything’s gonna be all right
Rockabye, bye bye

Anxiety Crab

anxiety crab

Have you gone to a Paint Nite event? They seem to be sweeping the country, or at least the Mid-Atlantic, or at least the women I know, who keep posting pictures on Facebook, all holding up a variation of the same painting, all with smiles on their faces and ecstatic posts about the fun they’d had.

My school recently held a painting evening with a local group, and after hearing a colleague/friend rave about paint nights, I decided to sign up. This is parent conference season, as well as being a few weeks from the end of first quarter, as well as busy times for the student groups I advise, but taking a few hours to myself sounded like a good self-care strategy, and painting seemed like a fun experiment for the evening.

I decided to walk to school, arriving a little more sweaty than I had hoped, to find that my friend hadn’t been able to register after all. While I knew some of the other participants from work, everyone else had arrived in chummy little groups, and I definitely felt like the odd one out. Mingling and making small talk is not one of my strengths–it’s one of my fear triggers, certainly, and I could feel my heart begin to race.

Paint nights operate on a “see it, do it” system, with an instructor and example at the front, walking you through each step as you reproduce each stroke, with plenty of room to choose your own colors and add your own flourishes. Our group was working on a crab, that iconic Maryland symbol, using acrylic paints on a rectangle of canvas. I work well on the “see it, do it” method in my life, but I haven’t had to be a student in a setting where I don’t excel in many years. As I lined up to make my paper-plate-palette, I put dollops of each color around the rim, only to have the instructor tease me a little about the piles of paint I’d taken. I began to twitch, wondering if I was doing it all wrong.

Wait, I hear you saying. It’s a Paint Nite. Why would you be nervous? Drink some wine, slap some paint on the canvas, have a solo night out and relax. Seriously. Dial it down a notch.

That’s exactly what I would have done, but sometimes, when you’re navigating some personal quicksand, it’s harder to stay steady on your feet, to maintain the balance you work so hard to achieve. Also I don’t drink, so the wine was not going to fix things.

I’m doing this all wrong, I texted my sister, who’s been my rock lately. NO WAY YOU’RE AWESOME, she texted back. I DEMAND CRAB PICS.

I had stepped aside from the group to send my text messages, and before I sat back down, I gave myself a minute to do a little self-examining. What exactly am I so afraid of in this moment? What distorted thoughts are getting under my skin right now? I decided that the idea of “doing it wrong” had somehow gotten into a loop in my mind, and I’d lost track of why I’d thought this might be fun in the first place. Instead of a relaxing activity, I’d turned this into a risky experiment, when really there was nothing at stake here except my own insecurity. I’ve been thinking a lot about perfectionism, and where in my life I feel paralyzed at the idea that I might not measure up, and how setting high standards for myself might be shutting me out of stretching myself in new ways. Did I come into this experience because I have always longed for a homemade painting of a crab? Of course not. I came into it wanting some novelty and some joy, and the only obstacle in my way was myself.

I sat down, picked up the brush, and turned on an internal soundtrack: my favorite current burst of sonic bubblegum, which coincidentally encourages us to let go of whatever might be bringing us down. I dabbed on paint, was a little dismayed when it seemed way too dark, listened to the instructor talk about adding shadow and dimension, and revised my painting several times. I chose cool tones, watching my grapey-purple and cerulean crab float against a tranquil blue background.

Gaze upon my Anxiety Crab, I told my sister when I texted her the picture. I brought it home and tilted it on our piano, a tangible reminder of what I tell my students all the time about the perfect being the enemy of the good, and of how valuable and important it can be to take a risk and see what you are capable of when you let yourself try.

Quicksand Years

Quicksand years that whirl me I know not whither,

Your schemes, politics, fail–lines give way–substances mock and elude me;

Only the theme I sing, the great and strong-possess’d Soul, eludes not;

One’s-self must never give way–that is the final substance–that out of all is sure;

Out of politics, triumphs, battles, life–what at last finally remains?

When shows break up, what but One’s-Self is sure?

Walt Whitman

Book Bingo

education-books

It’s often been said that to be a good writer, one must be well-read. After all, short of experience, the best teacher is exposure, and one needs to be surrounded by great writers to become a great writer.

Most writers also have a group of friends who swap ideas with them. In fact, many writers have probably joined book clubs, or tried out Natalie Goldberg’s Monday ritual from Writing Down the Bones, meeting up with a writer friend and committing a few hours a week to the writing process. Should you ever find yourself at a loss for activities to do with your writing buddies, you can try a game of Book Bingo to test your skill and knowledge of literature.

Bingo has often been used to impart knowledge and challenge students, from the game of Gymnastics Bingo that’s meant to challenge gymnasts with different moves, to the UK’s ever-popular Eatwell Bingo game, which teaches the youth to eat better. This versatile game has quickly become one of the most popular pastimes in the UK as well, where nearly £600 million’s worth of online bingo tickets are sold each year, prompting British supermarket chain Iceland Foods to launch Iceland Bingo in 2012. The 60-year old game can now also be used to test your mettle against the most well-read writers.

To play the game, brainstorm to come up with a list of different themes and topics you might encounter in a literary work. It could be anything under the sun, from “ships” to “anthropomorphic frogs.” You can even list down themes like “coming of age” or “socio-political commentary”. Make a list of 25 of these items, and use an online bingo card creator to make several sets of bingo cards – one for each of the people in your book club or writing workshop. When it’s time to play the game, hand out the cards, and challenge everyone to write down the name of an author who has written about the items on the cards. For example, in the box labeled “ships,” you could write Dinaw Mengestu, who mentioned ships in “An Honest Exit.” For “anthropomorphic frogs,” you could write Haruki Murakami for “Super-frog Saves Tokyo.” The first to complete a predetermined pattern on their card (or better yet, fill out all the boxes) wins the game! For an added challenge, maybe choose some of the themes and topics and use them as writing prompts to share at your next meeting.

This is a guest post from Jane Cornwell.

Of Persepolis and Giant Post-Its

How do you lead a discussion-based course when your face feels stuffed with wet cotton balls and your throat’s on fire?

Giant Post-Its to the rescue!

My students had read “The Bicycle” and “The Water Cell,” two of the earlier vignettes in Persepolis, and I had my traditional September cold/gunk. To complicate things, it was a visiting day at our school for prospective students, so the lesson still had to be engaging and dynamic, even though I couldn’t count on my own voice or energy to make it fly. The lesson I had taught last year for this section involved a mix of discussion and note-taking, but just didn’t seem right for this particular day this year.

I began class by dividing them into two groups and having them compile answers on the board for a question from their homework: why had Satrapi given these two vignettes these particular titles? After they made their lists, we did about ten or fifteen minutes of whole-class discussion, cold-calling different students and expanding from summary (because there’s a drawing of a bicycle in the vignette) to analysis (how does the simile about the bicycle show us the progress or failings of the revolution at this point?).

Next, I hung up eight large Post-Its, four for each story, with one of these themes written on the top: Marji’s personality, Iranian politics, family relationships, the role of religion. I divided the class in half (new groupings), and assigned each group to provide inferences and textual evidence on the Post-Its, showing how these themes had been present in these particular vignettes. The girls milled around, pulling quotes, comparing ideas, explaining vocabulary words, and enjoying being able to cover the large sticky notes with their handwriting in different-colored markers. I circulated, suggesting fruitful places to look for evidence and using questioning to help keep them focused on analysis and detailed examples. This section of class lasted between twenty-five and thirty minutes.

Once each group had done a substantial amount of work, I had the groups switch and look at what each other had done, adding to the large notes whenever they saw a connection. Once they had all seen all the work, I divided them once again into small groups of 2-4, and assigned them a theme to write a paragraph on; each group took down their large Post-Its and moved them somewhere in the room to draft their paragraph. This was the first analytic paragraph they had done for me, so I felt good about scaffolding the analysis process so they could focus on making strong connections in their sentences. I circulated again, reminding them to use the given quotes and expand from their books if necessary, and discussing the requirements of solid topic sentences. This took about twenty minutes, and they sent their drafted paragraphs to the entire class when finished. Thus, the paragraphs serve as class notes for the day, and they also get accustomed to the practice of sharing their writing with classmates in a low-stakes fashion. We finished class with ten to fifteen minutes of whole-class discussion about the patterns they had noticed and what this might mean for the book moving forward, making a few word-webs on the whiteboard to think about the atmosphere Marji is living in and how this might shape her changing sense of her world and her place in it.

Overall, I was thrilled with this lesson; it accomplished all my objectives and fits well with my preferred teaching style. The novelty of the giant Post-its and the well-paced but shifting modes of the lesson kept students engaged in analysis for about seventy minutes without showing too much mental fatigue. One of the signs of a good classroom book is how well it lends itself to multiple ways of interpretation and analysis, and Persepolis proves once again that it’s a wonderful book to teach.

Also, I got to have a good teaching day even when I was feeling pretty under the weather!

End-of-Summer Reading

I read these books as the summer was winding down and the school was gearing up–not quite summer books, but ones that lingered with me during a busy time of year.

The Invisible Woman : How do you write a biography of someone who left behind no letters, documents, or traces of her existence? More importantly, how do you reveal much about the life of a person determined to keep her true identity a secret, even during her lifetime? Claire Tomalin does a fascinating job at answering both of these questions when she undertakes a biography of Nelly Ternan, who was the secret mistress of Charles Dickens’ during the last thirteen years of his life. Ternan herself is intriguing, an actress from a theatrical family at a time in England when such a career was deemed scandalous, a woman who entered a clandestine relationship with a beloved national figure who stood for family values as strongly (and hypocritically) as any Republican politican. Tomalin uses mountains of scholarly research from the past century to detail for the reader the world Dickens and Ternan lived in, their relationship, and its impact on both. Such an impressive and engaging feat; I really felt like Dickens and his Nelly both become three-dimensional and sympathetic figures, though Tomalin is not sentimental about either one, for sure!

The Miseducation of Cameron Post: Author emily danforth grew up in Miles City, Montana, which is also the setting for her first novel, a portrait of what it means to grow up gay or lesbian in an environment that does not recognize your life as valid or acceptable. After her parents’ tragic death, Cameron lives with her aunt and her grandmother and slowly realizes just why she’s so fascinated with movies like Friend Green Tomatoes and girls on her athletic teams. Once her aunt finds out (through a disappointing but not unfeasible turn of events), Cameron is sent to a conversion therapy school and has to figure out how to find her true identity amidst many hurdles. The fate of LGBTQ teenagers in religious families can often be horrifying, but danforth does a deft and skillful job of letting Cameron be a fully dimensional character, one that young-adult readers can identify with regardless of sexual orientation or whether they’ve ever seen the Bucking Horse Sale. I loved this book and am glad to have it on hand to pass on to students.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: Quite simply, one of the most beautifully written, intricately structured, moving and intelligent novels I’ve read in many years. Marra sets his story in war-ravaged Chechnya, and the setting is vivid and inextricable from the plot and characters, but in many ways, the depiction of the effects of chaos and instability on the hearts and minds of a people could tell the story of the Kurdish population in Iraq or any displaced group. The decade he shows us covers so much devastation in the tiny village of Eldar, but also in Chechnya itself, a place so ravaged that one character is stunned to see a map in the hands of a soldier; he’s never seen a map of his own country before. There’s humor and imagination woven throughout the narrative, and I can’t wait to see what Marra will do next after such a stunning debut.

The Crazy Monkey Parade You Know

My friend WN has a wonderful mantra/motto for the upcoming school year: Not My Crazy Monkey Parade, and I love what she is encapsulating about drawing boundaries for yourself to try and control how much chaos, drama and tension we invite into our lives. I’ve been thinking along those lines a lot as I shift out of summer-teaching mode and back into my school-year mindset.

Despite tackling some new projects and responsibilities this year, I’m feeling calmer than I have ever have before, this close to the first day, and I think it’s because I spent six straight weeks this summer way outside my comfort zone, teaching unfamiliar material to new age groups in a new setting with new co-workers. There were so many challenges and interpersonal dynamics I had to adjust to, and quickly, since I shifted halfway through to a new class, age group, and setting, and it was certainly overwhelming. Now that I’m back on my campus, preparing my room and curriculum, it feels like slipping back into your favorite old sweater, or being back in your own bed after a long sojourn away. I have a new appreciation for how lucky I am to find a workplace where I do feel so at home, and a professional path that I feel excited and inspired to travel.

This year will bring its own surprises and hurdles, but I know how to march in this parade and (somewhat) wrangle these monkeys, and that’s a reassuring feeling to have.

My Summer Reading, Part Two

Summer reading, part two! 

We Were Liars: I ordered this for my daughter Sophie, who went through an Agatha Christie and Nancy Drew phase, and this is certainly a thriller with a complicated structure and surprising twist ending. There’s also a certain stylistic glossiness here, from the characters’ names (Cadence, Mirren) to the aura of wealth and privilege that pervades the setting and the dysfunctional family dynamics in the idyllic summer retreat off Cape Cod where the Sinclair family heads each year. Of course, nothing gold can stay, and while this is definitely aimed at a teen crowd, it was a great summer read for me too.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats: This was another recommendation from a friend, and another direct hit! There’s an element of mystery here, as a distinguished New York lawyer, father and husband suddenly vanishes, and his daughter sets out to explore Burma, his native country, in an effort to find where he went and ultimately, who he was. The exotic setting and unfolding love story are evocative and drawn with precision and restraint; you never feel overly flooded with detail or sentiment, but instead, entranced by the calm and charm of the different voices and perspectives. Great book club choice too.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: Six years ago when it was released and won the Pulitzer Prize, this book was everywhere, and I’m sure I bought it once it appeared in paperback and somehow never quite finished it. I’m glad I waited, because I think I had a much richer reading experience with it after teaching my Latin American lit class a few times, and especially after teaching about the dictatorial Trujillo era, which is referenced repeatedly in Oscar Wao. Diaz cuts and mixes 20th century history and culture with ebullience, many footnotes, and a generous sense of the tragedy and illumination in the lives of his characters, spanning from the streets of Newark to the Dominican Republic and the shadows cast in each.  

The Signature of All Things: A Novel: What an amazing, feminist, vivid character Gilbert has created in Alma Whittaker, the intrepid, envious, brilliant botanist at the heart of this book. Alma is raised by a blustery and intimidating father and a stoic and intellectual mother on their enormous estate outside of Philadelphia. The Whittaker fortune is rooted in medicinal plants, sparking Alma’s botanical obsessions and providing opportunities to talk about great explorers/scientists from Captain Cook to Charles Darwin. While there are some indelible male characters in this book, the story belongs to Alma herself: her passions, her ambitions, her faults and her triumphs. Can’t wait to read more fiction from Gilbert.

My Summer Reading, Part One

As I slowly ease back into blogging after my summer hiatus, my one regret is that I haven’t been keeping track of what I’ve read this summer. That’s been a great habit for me in 2014, between this site and Goodreads, and I’m trying to get back into the swing of it now that I’m gearing back up for the new school year. As I look back, it’s reassuring to see that despite my hectic working pace this summer, I managed to squeeze in some wonderful reading.

And now, for some brief bulleted reviews of books I read this summer:

Fangirl: Rainbow Rowell does such a great job of writing for young adults and understanding what that means; this story of two sisters struggling to navigate the transition to college, establishing independent identities, and better understand their complicated relationships with each other and their parents, all such classic dilemmas of the young person learning what it means to be an adult. But Rowell resist the easy devices and makes her characters vivid, funny, modern and layered.My daughters and I enjoyed this one equally, and if you’ve ever read Harry Potter or fanfiction (especially if you’ve read both), I’d highly recommend this one.

Attachments: This is Rowell’s first novel, and it’s ultimately my favorite of hers to date–a novel that does a better job with romantic comedy than any movie I’ve seen recently, one so seemingly suited for the screen I’m surprised it hasn’t been made into a movie already. Beth and Jennifer are best friends and office buddies who trade their chattiest updates and innermost thoughts via email during the workday, never suspecting that Lincoln sits a few floors below, lonely and slowly falling in love with what he reads. If you like romantic comedies that manage to be touching and sweet as well as funny, this is a great pick. Note: it’s billed as “adult” rather than “young adult,” but bot hof my 12-year-old girls read it and loved it–nothing inappropriate, in my opinion.

The End of Eve: A Memoir: I’ve read almost all of Ariel Gore’s books, and this newest memoir is a sterling example of why I love her writing much: her lyrical style and evocative imagery are captivating, but it’s her commitment to emotional honesty and self-reflection that keep me coming back. She manages to maintain her journalistic eye in the midst of traumatic personal situations, such as the period she spent caring for her abusive and terminally ill mother, which happened to coincide with Gore’s realization that her girlfriend and co-parent was falling back in love with an old flame. Read it, read it, read it.

All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel: I read this after a colleague raved about it on Facebook, and I’m so glad I did! This novel is as intricate, beautiful, and carefully wrought as the scale model of a Paris neighborhood built by a father for his blind daughter, Marie-Laure, to help her navigate the outside world. World War Two is looming on the horizon, and the family eventually evacuates to a walled city on the southern coast of France, where Marie-Laure must learn a new geography amongst various forms of chaos and upheaval. While she is growing up, an orphaned boy named Werner is growing up in an orphanage in Germany, developing his fascination with radios and technology, which eventually lands him in the Nazi military, tracking the French resistance and bringing him directly into Marie-Laure’s path. Again, an immersive reading experience that lingered with me for days.