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Saving Summer: Hugo House and Shared Writing


Summer fills up fast, faster than a kiddie pool in an Orlando backyard, faster than a cup of coffee at an all-night diner, faster than…well, dang. I’m out of analogies. But, there is a remedy for lack of inspiration! One of the highlights so far included time and money well spent at Hugo House at the Write-O-Rama on July 8. Since the dismantling of the Puget Sound Writing Project, I’ve been untethered in

Since the dismantling of the Puget Sound Writing Project, I’ve been untethered in terms of having others to talk about and share writing. It’s been…well, I’ve been in a state of low mourning. I’m glad I went, and I plan on going to other events and joining now that I am aware of this deep resource.

The way the day was set up was simply lovely: it didn’t start too early (looking at you, Holly!) and attendees could decide well in advance which speakers they wanted to hear. I ended up going to 1. Get into Character with Bruce Holbert (charming writer!) 2. Mini-Memoirs for Podcasting–it was good, but wish I went to Movie Memoir, too…3. Revising your novel – the tip I took away was…now I don’t remember. (Just write the damn thing?!) 4. Writing for Performance: I wish Garfield Hillson could come and speak to students at my school and finally 5. Your Note to a non-person was a lovely way to end the day. This is just like RAFTS, but the creative constraint was letter writing, which added a useful boundary by which to operate.

Oh, now I remember. One tip for the Revising Novel unit was to write a movie descriptor summary. What a great idea for students! This could lead to what themes exist, etc.

Looking for something else, I came across this site, which I am going to use for writing instruction:

What’s The Logline?

Now, the spoken word section. That was humbling and wonderful –(this may sound odd, but being humbled is excruciatingly thrilling for me: it’s where I learn the most). He gave us good notes, and specifically,  he said mine was really funny but need to alter my pacing. Good to know, good to know.

This leads me to ask, “What is comedy?” -but only because, like I said, he thought my piece was funny.


Comedy is “a person dealing with a situation that they’re ill-equipped to handle.” —  and if I go through my rough draft of the spoken word piece, clearly the world right now is too much for me to handle.

These are my raw notes from Evernote:

Spoken word poetry
Writing as ritual
Asked important questions first (name, preferred gender pronoun)
Writing prompts:
Blockbusters if you had one superpower what would it be
If your name is the thing you’re called the most what would your name be
Acrostic poem
Blood is thicker but water swallows best
If I had one superpower
I could understand, and speak any language in the world
Dead languages, too, like Latin
And living ones like Urdu and Navajo and Swahili
The French would be astounded when this very American middle age woman opens her mouth and says the most brilliant things with the perfect accent and they wouldn’t be suspicious at all
Spanish students saying jota and pendejo would giggle when I could give them “the look” because I know what they are saying: but more importantly, I could help Moises learn to read in English easier, and faster, so he could pass the test and make his family proud. I could speak to the moms, crying because their daughter stole 800 dollars from them, tell them it’s going to be okay, instead of with my stupid cow face nodding sympathetically
I could speak perfect German, and Russian, just like Angela Merkel, so when I become a world ambassador I could help broker peace deals that would save the world, and in the virtual worlds,  if I could speak Portuguese I could tell the World of Warcraft players from the Quel Thalas server to stop trolling.
In elevators and airports, I could understand people’s small talk, and thus understand their dreams.
On airplanes, I would travel internationally and soothe babies in their mother tongue’s lullabies.
Floating on ships, nothing would be lost in the depths of translation.
I could speak Elvish just like Tolkien imagined, and Klingon that would bring any Trekkie to tears.
And read the Russian masters in Russian, gaining insight into my son’s predilection for dark, Slavic humor.
But the language I wish I could speak most of all would be the words to stop hate: shush the distractions and liars, and whisper intelligence in the unhopeful and ignorant.
No one seems to know this language, though. It has yet to be created.
Any poem can be performed
What does the poem say?
And that is how it’s performed
What does the poem require?
Energy to the words
Don’t read flat
I wish I could bring students to this!!!
As we edit, put in the feelings and emotional tones
Soft spots: bursts open with feelings and emotions
Locate those moments first
Get rid of lines that are just thrown in there
Purposeful and lead into experience
List poems
Of what is in there and what is not
List of frailty
List of abundance
Writing territories
Create lists
List of all the languages
What do I need before I go on stage?
Why is this important?
Tell students to think about what they need: nervousness, not speaking or speaking
While on stage, why are you doing what you’re doing?
Speak and be in the moment
Exit strategy
Treat yourself in order to get back to yourself
Feel as good and genuine in your body as possible
Slam intentional movements
Point and down
Be careful of “poet” hands
You are all Genius and excellent writers
Several shades of emotions
Nuances of emotions
Record the performance
Make sure not so monotone
Please listen to self
Record self!!
Record self on mute and look at what body is doing
body language and voice can send a mixed message
Be authoritative when it calls for it
What an amazing partner activity
The voice/performance makes the world
Like Shakespeare makes sense when you hear it
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You know nothing, Mrs. Love.

Does anyone want to become a judge because they know how to write a claim, evidence and reasoning paragraph?

Has anyone played scales on a clarinet and decided music was their life’s calling?

Did you ever fall in love with someone because of their SAT scores?


Me neither.

In fact, I’m sensing legions of dissatisfied English/Language Arts professionals who bought into the dream of teaching the worth and beauty of communication rising up– an undercurrent of questioning and pushback to forces that represent the opposite of love of language. I’m pretty sure no one became an English/Humanities teacher because they wrote cursive well. They became a teller of stories.

In our data-driven world, we are forced to look at tiny points, a sieve of information that never shows the whole sky.

This doesn’t mean all data needs to be destroyed, any more than I am suggesting we sit around the just “feel the stories” — ew, no.

Look at Pernille Ripp’s work: she balances the formula with the big ideas so beautifully. Her project, Planting A Seed: Our Refugee Project should be our model. Look even closer: students are doing the highest level of Project Based Learning with self-assessment (annotating the way that makes sense to them?! REVOLUTIONARY. Sorry – sarcasm crept in. I’ve been showing students authentic annotations for years, and when true scholars use them, and for what purposes.)

Read John Spencer’s ideas about design thinking. Okay. I’ll wait.

I’ve spent going on eleven years trying to keep ahead of the curve, be innovative, and growth-minded. It is a bit galling to have old-fashioned thinking creep in like it’s something new. It’s not. We’ve solved many notions, and yet many ideas still keep being trotted out. We need to bury some ideas once and for all:

We need to bury some ideas once and for all:


Don’t display data with students’ names on it.

Don’t assume kids of poverty are somehow helpless or disengaged. by nature. And never, ever assume their parents don’t love them.

Don’t start the year out without providing some foundational love of reading and writing lessons. The skills will come. Skills without purpose are meaningless and thin.

Now, DO:

Go back to the top of this post and look at the work of StoryCorp.

Tell your story.

I want to hear it.

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The first rule of write club…


Must give credit to John Spencer once again for this idea. He tweeted:


Now the thought of Chuck Palahniuk writing the back story for a cartoon intrigues me, and I began to think of multiple mash-ups of writers and stories. This morning I envisioned a complete Nathanial Hawthorne Scarlet Letter version of Rugrats, whereas every time Angelica attempts to bully the babies she must wear her insignia “A” embroidered on her chest, serving multiple purposes. The adults are the villagers, of course, standing firm in judgment. Well, it played out better before I had coffee. Now I’m not so sure.

But what about Stephen King and a treatment of Roadrunner? I think Kurt Vonnegut could do justice to Bugs Bunny. Or as John quoted, ‘create sad backstories to all the Animaniacs.’ Brilliant. This, of course, is the essence of fan fiction, with a hefty side of writer’s craft, style, and voice for good measure.


Allow me to meander a bit:

Ayn Rand takes over an episode of Invader Zim.

Neil Gaiman rewrites a ‘Hey, Arnold’ episode.

J.K. Rowling takes on Powerpuff Girls.

G.R.R. Martin rewrites Dexter’s Laboratory.

Dr. Seuss: Ren and Stimpy, of course.

Suzanne Collins and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.

Okay, I could go on all day. I am seeing a really fun lesson idea here: D&D dice with each number associated with an author and then a second roll for the cartoon episode. 

What other ideas come to mind?



Now–parents–think for a second. When I was growing up Bugs Bunny and his ilk alluded to operas, literature, film, etc. I know there are ‘jokes for grownups’ in current children’s media, today, too, but I am a bit out of touch with the ten and under crowd these days. My sons are 18 and 21, and they share gritty, funny binge-worthy media. We are long past the Rugrats days. If you’re a parent of kids under 10-11 and let them watch tv, what do they watch?



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Sweet failure.

Sometimes we try our best, but...
Sometimes we try our best, but…

This week I was reminded I make mistakes. Missteps. Goofs. Gaffs. And while I’m trying to focus on some of the successes, the good moments, my amygdala, albeit not hijacked, is certainly in a time-out mode, a ‘stand in the corner and think about what you did’ kind of place. I tell a story about my wedding and reception, where it fascinates me that we think about the errors, and not the beauty, of an event. I forgot to have someone hold the door open for me, and the hence the door closed on the end of my dress, causing for not such a grand entrance. It was a detail that was my responsibility, because all details are my responsibility. If you watch the video of the ceremony, the moment lasts a blip on screen, a cute moment, but it remains in freeze-frame in my memory. We all have our “Bill Buckner” moments. For me, sometimes hourly:

Fans will always remember the error Bill Buckner of the Boston Red Sox made in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series against New York Mets. Credit Stan Grossfeld/Boston Globe, via Associated Press
Fans will always remember the error Bill Buckner of the Boston Red Sox made in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series against New York Mets. Credit Stan Grossfeld/Boston Globe, via Associated Press

And, turns out, being human, this is not uncommon. There is research that supports this idea that we tend to remember negative, not positive, events/emotions. This is not a case about optimism versus pessimism either, but how mistakes affect us longer.

In an essay by Alina Tugend, “Praise is Fleeting, but Brickbats We Recall,” March 23, 2012 New York Times, she discovers:

“The brain handles positive and negative information in different hemispheres,” said Professor Nass, who co-authored “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships” (Penguin 2010). Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones, he said. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them — than happy ones.

First -what the heck is a ‘brickbat?’ Oh, okay.

The truth is we do learn more from our mistakes than successes. It’s difficult to describe why or how something worked or flowed, but we spend a lot of time dissecting and problem solving when something doesn’t. I’m doing it now: devoting writing energy to this topic. We curse the writer’s block, but never feed the muse. We don’t know what she eats, we’re just happy when she shows up. We’re not sure why we’re great at geometry but not algebra, but we remember that D- in Algebra II forever. (Perhaps I shouldn’t use the pronoun ‘we’ so liberally here, and own that D-.)

Walk away with this: our students are extra sensitive to their missteps and mistakes. That’s why the first question out of their mouths in any private conversation is, “Am I in trouble?” And there are some things that are a one-off–a mistake that won’t be repeated because the scenario is unprecedented. Getting students accustomed to balanced feedback may be essential:

Also, perhaps the very fact that we tend to praise our children when they’re young — too much and for too many meaningless things, I would argue — means they don’t get the opportunity to build up a resilience when they do receive negative feedback.

Now students are quick to say, with any critique, a blanket response of “That’s rude.” I wonder if many of us have lost the ability to know a critique from a criticism, or advice from a put-down.

I was thinking about how we learn (abstract concepts) earlier this week: there are two stand-out moments from my undergraduate/post graduate days. First, the reluctance of my art professors to actually teach me anything about art except for the abstract ‘academic language’ about art. (Sound familiar? Teach academic language but not the academics? I think we teachers are all struggling with this at times, but a post for another day.) My biggest break-through moment was when a painting teacher physically showed me how to increase tone/light on a canvas, with my permission, directly on the piece using my brush and palette. I wish I could thank him. Instead of just passing me along, bumbling, he actually showed me what to do. The second came in my brief stint in graduate school, where a visiting professor ripped my work apart. I don’t remember what he said exactly, but in essence my work was horrible and I was bad and bad and should go away and not be bad. I quit my MFA program not long after that. It wasn’t just that one instance, it may have had something to do with a stupid boyfriend, being a pizza delivery girl, (and getting lost…a lot), deep homesickness, topped with a huge scoop of 20-something “What am I doing with my life?” merengue. But he didn’t help. At all. I haven’t made art since.

Here’s what I learned from my mistakes this week:

1. No matter how much I think about something, or consider it from all angles, and get advice from others, if it’s a difficult situation, I probably could have handled it better. And I’ll have that added information if there is a ‘next time.’

2. With humans, there will probably be a ‘next time.’

3. People construe things I say or think in ways I never intended. I am not in control of this, and never will be. It is their responsibility to either seek clarification or not. In the words of Deepak Chopra:


With new visions (visions in the forms of ideas, leadership, movements, etc.) come new ways to misstep, too, to not be in tune with the new song the orchestra’s playing. But that’s okay–truly. Think about it from students’ perspectives (and there is no other focus to consider). They are moving through multiple mazes of teachers’ personalities, quirks, peculiarities, and expectations. The clearly spoken and not-so-tangible unspoken rules. I like the idea of a ‘kudos’ folder– a place where they keep both genuine praiseworthy feedback, but perhaps also a moment where they received some criticism and made a decision about it: was it in their control to change, or not?

For every time I make a mistake, I am afforded an opportunity to play better, to gain experience that otherwise would be stifled. Mistakes fan the flames, make our brains fired up, provide the oxygen and catalyst for change. Is it painful? Yes, but these moments make for the best story. Pack a sense of humor, and check your mirrors, for objects may be closer than they are.

Now perhaps time to create something other than a mess.

TED Playlist on How to Learn From Mistakes