Archive for January, 2015

Teacher’s Lounge: Peter Rabbit Meets Katniss Everdeen

January 31, 2015

How many of us really understand the power of language?  How many kids even have an inkling of the way a group of carefully chosen words can direct their thinking and mess around with their emotions?  All art forms in talented hands have an ability to provoke a response in the audience, but writing possesses some unique capabilities that young writers (maybe 12 and up) can learn to to use.

“Slant” writing is designed to provoke an emotional response in the reader, even if it’s posing as a factual statement.  It can be obvious or implied, as in

Just gimme the facts: It looks like there’s a snowstorm on the way.

Dig into my right-brain processor and plant a tiny clue: We’re about to get slammed by 3-6 inches of snow.

Hit me over the head with it: Winter Storm Jezebel is brewing up a traveler’s and homeowner’s nightmare in the Midwest.  Save yourselves!!

With a little practice, any young writer can learn to this with a greater or lesser degree of emotional subtlety.  Consider this classic piece of literature:

Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were: Flopsy, Mopsy, peter-rabbit1Cottontail, and Peter.  They lived with their Mother in a sandbank, underneath the root of a very big fir tree.  “Now, my dears,” said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, “you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden – your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”

“Now run along, and don’t get into mischief.  I am going out.”

This is stripped-down narrative, and undoubtedly better for it.  Certainly better than this:

Once upon a time there were four furry little Rabbits, and their names were: Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter. 

They lived with their kindly Mother in a sandbank, underneath the root of a very big fir tree, in a humble but cozy home.

“Now, my dears,” said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, looking lovingly over her spectacles at them,” you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden – your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”  A lonely tear slid down her soft cheek, but she swiped it away quickly with a furtive paw.

“Now run along, and don’t get into mischief. I am going out to trade some knitting for a half-dozen honey buns for breakfast.”

Still, if I wanted to produce a sticky, sentimental emotion in the reader (providing the reader isn’t more likely to hurl, either book or breakfast), I might try slip in a telling adjective and provide some additional sympathy-grabbing details.  But if I were writing a horror story, I might start it out this way:

Once upon a time there were four fatherless little Rabbits, and their names were: Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.  There was something a little odd about Peter, and it wasn’t just his name.

They lived with their Mother in a dark and gloomy sandbank, underneath the root of a very big fir tree that creaked ominously on nights when the moon was full and the wind was high.

On a morning thick with fog, old Mrs. Rabbit tied on her dusty black bonnet.  Peter couldn’t help noticing the peculiar glint in her eye.  “Now, my dears,” she said, with a peculiar glint in her eye, “you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden – your Father had an ‘accident’ there.”  Was it Peter’s imagination, or did the smile turn a bit sinister?

“Now run along, and don’t get into mischief. I am going out.”  Almost as soon as the door closed behind her, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail crept into a huddle.  Peter felt so . . . alone.

Shivering yet?  What if you’re more drawn to gritty, dystopian “realism”?

There was the blasted earth. There were the shriveled trees.  And there were four little Rabbits, and their names were: Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.

They eked out a miserable existence with their Mother in a sandbank, underneath the dripping root of a very big fir tree, where light never penetrated.

“Now, my dears,” sighed old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, “you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden – your Father had an accident there; it was–” she choked off an involuntary sob and struggled to get hold of herself: “It was—a—a–”

“Why don’t you just say it?” Peter demanded.  “It was a pie.  He was cooked by the overlords and eaten.

The other bunnies gasped in dismay.  But Mrs. Rabbit collected herself and ignored Peter.  Like she always does, he thought.  Nobody will face reality around here.  “Now run along,” his mother sniffed, “and don’t get into mischief. I am going out.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

These three introductions are  going to launch wildly different stories, and if any of them catch a young writer’s imagination she might want to go ahead and tell the tale.  But just for fun, how would you rewrite the first few lines of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” as

  • an adventure story?
  • a moralistic tale?
  • a humor piece?

I think I’ll try those myself–come back next week and see how I did it!

 

 

 

 

 

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Teachers’ Lounge: The Perfect Analogy

January 23, 2015

A simile is a comparison using the word like or as.

A metaphor is a comparison the does not employ the word like or as.

A personification is . . .

Ah, figures of speech.  The perfect analogy is clever, startling, and beautifully apt.  I have my favorites, such as

  • By now it was near five o’clock and the October sun, fat and golden as an egg yolk, rested on the cluttered horizon behind me.                             Cheaney, The Playmaker
  • If we left it to [the amateur stagehands] they threw great handfuls of snow bang on the centre of the stage, as if some great turkey with diarrhoea were roosting up in a tree.               Robertson Davies, World of Wonders

summers-day

When teaching a classroom of middle- to high-schoolers how to write comparisons and analogies, they may need more than a definition.  Here are a few pointers to get across (or try to):

A literary analogy (whether metaphor or simile) must be clear.

  • Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

On the other hand, it shouldn’t be TOO precise.

  • Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

A literary analogy should provoke an intellectual affirmation–other than “Huh?”

  • Joe and Mary had never met.  They were like two hummingbirds that had also never met.
  • The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.

Above all, similes and metaphors should provoke an emotional response appropriate to the subject.

  • Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.
  • He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River.
  • She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.
  • She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

(Most of these examples are supposed to be taken from actual high school essays.  I’m slightly skeptical, like a bowling ball that can’t make up its mind.)

Teachers’ Lounge: Five Ways to Get Kids Excited About Writing

January 16, 2015

Help!Okay, I’ll admit it–I, myself, professional writer, etc. am not always excited about writing.  I do it because it helps pay the bills and because I’m good at it, and . . . it nags me.  Even when I was in junior high, I couldn’t be sure of my thoughts about thoughtful subjects until I tried to express them in writing.  A little later in life, when I started noticing the days fly by like those calendar pages in old movies, I wanted to pin them down, and naturally reached for a pencil.  I write because–

Oh, wait!  This post is about how to get kids excited, not why.  That’s why you’re here; and your time is limited.  So

1. Make it about them.  I don’t mean this in the you’re-so-special sense, but in the write-what-you-know sense.  An educated person should know how to throw words together in a logical manner to make sense on any subject, but 10-year-olds are only on the way to being educated.  Start where they are: where they go, what they see, what they do.  Maybe even what they feel, though in my opinion the younger they are the less they need to be rummaging around in their feelings.

2. Use what’s near at hand.  For example, ask the students to make a list of eight items in their room they would sell in a garage sale.  Then ask them to select 4-5 of those items and write a couple of sentences describing a particular memory associated with each one.  For younger kids you can stop here, but if you’re feeling ambitious, ask them to write an outline for a short story (2-3 characters and a simple plot) incorporating at least three of those memories.  Are we excited yet?  Write the story!

3. Use what they’re interested in and what they’re good at.  Ask for directions in how to practice for a ballet recital, or how to get to Level 2 in whatever game is hot right now.  (Hint: find out what games are hot right now before you make this assignment.)  Discover what  their favorite movie is and ask for a description of one scene.  Only . . . write the scene as if you were in it, and describe it from a chosen character’s point of view.  The result may be sloppy and barely coherent but it will have more of the actual kid in it than any short story they were supposed to make up from a prompt.  That way, they just may care a little more about revision.

4. Surprise them.  Lots of ways to do this.  Here’s one: if you’re in a classroom, ask the students to write a paragraph describing how they eat ice cream.  Then hand out ice cream (if you still do this in a classroom) and, after it’s eaten, ask them to revise their paragraphs, adding more descriptive turns.  Or ask them to describe themselves playing a popular game, then go outside and play the game.  If you’re a homeschooler, plan a surprise visit to a favorite spot, like the zoo, and ask for descriptions before and revisions after.

5. Let them be.  Because not all kids will get excited about writing.  Ever.  If they can muster up interest in an assignment every now and then, and learn to write complete sentences and coherent paragraphs while they’re doing it, you’ve accomplished a lot.