Sunday, October 21, 2007

ACTE Conference 2007

Okay, before I forget too much about it, I would like to write a little about this year’s Alabama Council of Teachers of English conference. I was invited to submit a proposal for a workshop a long time ago and did so. This workshop is titled “Introducing Process Writing Using Legos.” I’ll get to that in a bit.

The day started off with a keynote speech by Carol Jago. She was lively and entertaining, as well as thought provoking. She posited that teachers are often not working in their students’ Zones of Proximal Development (ZPD) as proposed by Vygotsky. She thinks that a lot of teachers (and she did not exclude herself entirely) work in their students’ ZME: Zone of Minimal Effort.

She thinks that too often teachers make the work too easy for the students. She believes we should challenge our students more in the classroom. I have to say, she made some good points in her speech. She shared a lesson with us and got us talking to each other and sharing with each other. It was well done and thought provoking. A little while later I had a chance to meet her and talk to her a little one on one. She was friendly and interesting in person as well. She autographed a copy of her book Cohesive Writing for me. As soon as I finish Writing Brave and Free: Encouraging Words for People Who Want to Start Writing by Ted Kooser and Steve Cox I plan to read it.

The speaker at lunch was Watt Key, author of Alabama Moon. He was an entertaining speaker and kept the crowd of teachers laughing. He didn’t do a reading from his book, saying he always disliked going to readings of other authors (no matter how much he happened to like the author). Instead he told us stories about his time in college and his visit to New York after his book was accepted for publication.

My workshop came up after lunch. I started by defining an old definition of an expert--someone who travels more than 20 miles and provides handouts. It got the hoped for laugh and broke the ice. I then quickly explained the idea behind the activity, passing out bags of 25-30 Legos to groups of students who then build something with them. They also have to write specific instructions for another group to do the same. Then I take pics, the object gets deconstructed, and then another group (in a different class if possible) tries to recreate the original object following the directions.

It doesn’t take long to explain, even with a PowerPoint show of what my students created and what the next group created using the provided instructions. The meat of the workshop was actually breaking the teachers up into pairs (and one group of three due to the odd number) and letting them construct something, write instructions, deconstruct it and swap with another group. They all worked happily away while I wandered around the room and tried to keep out of their way.

I didn’t have my digital camera, as the battery is fried and will not hold a charge. I was a little at a loss until I though of my cell phone. I took pictures of the original objects with it and then emailed the pics to my myself. I was then able to open them up and show them to the group over the LCD projector hooked up to the classroom computer. It worked out pretty well. One of the participants told me that she appreciated the opportunity to actually do the activity. She said that if I had simply told them about it she would not have “gotten it.” But by letting them do it themselves she “got it.” I was pleased. I was also pleased that the extra handouts I had were mainly taken by the participants to share with other teachers at their schools.

I was going to try to go to another session after mine, but due t me heading for the wrong room, and staying there a while, I would have been unfashionably late. I was also a bit fatigued from the drive to Birmingham and the equally long search for a hotel room (apparently the Birmingham hotels were full with fans going to the Alabama/Tennessee football game the next day--serves m e right for not being a football fan). I decided to head for home.

Before I left, Cindy Adams, the president of the ACTE, and my friend, asked if I would like to be a Representative-at-Large for the ACTE, as there was no representation from my part of the state. I agreed. Now I will patiently wait for the other shoe to drop and find out what, exactly, I have signed on for. Whatever it is, I will do it the best I can. I am excited that Cindy is reviving the ACTE. It is a needed organization in the state.

I look forward to the next ACTE conference. I will try to have a new workshop set up for that one.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Tabloid Headline Poetry

One of the most common complaints that I get from students is that writing is boring. They never have any fun. And my exhortations that what they write can be fun, and if they share that with others they share the fun, often fall on deaf ears. So today I did a "fun" lesson. It comes from "Tabloid Tone Exercise" by Lee Upton, found in The Practice of Poetry edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. It was adapted by my friend and colleague John Pennisi, one of the co-director's of the Sun Belt Writing Project.

The idea as we use it is to take a headline from a tabloid (take your pick from any of the weirder ones), turn it into the title of a poem, and write a poem about it. I ask to treat it seriously, but my own poems almost always tend to come out tongue-in-cheek. Here are the three I wrote today. I do not vouch for their quality, but it did get me writing in the classroom with my students. Always a worthy goal.

LOST DOGGY TRAVELS 1000 MILES TO COME HOME attack the owner who abandonded him!
Revenge of the Yappy Dog

"Taco killed him!" cried his wife
"That little chihuahua took Stan's life!
He told us that Taco had run away last week,
Now he's been killed by that little pipsqueak!"

Who knew that Taco, weighing only four pounds,
Could find his way home and bring his owner down?
The guy tried to ditch him in another state,
Driven crazy by the yap, yap, yapping, early and late.

Taco came home and snuck in through the back,
For once he was silent, waiting to attack.
As his owner passed by, in the middle of the night,
Taco took him down--and it served him right!

Leaving that little yappy dog allalone in the woods,
He should have known it would come to no good.
Now he is dead, hea has paid for his sin,
But Taco's escaped--and may strike again!

©2007-Art Belliveau


They always ask about the beard and the hair.
I don't know why they even care.
"Man, why's your hair in a ponytail?
Don't you know that style is stale?"

After 12 years of Catholic school,
Where short hair was always the rule,
I grew it long, so just back way off!
Least that's how I try to play it off.

But it's not the truth, at least not all,
So now I'll tell the whole truth to y'all.
It happened way back, 25 years ago,
Right before I decided to let it all grow.

I was at the barber's, waiting my turn,
When this one dude's new crew cut started to burn!
All of a sudden his went BOOM!!!
So took off running out of the room.

I'll take no chances, I decided then,
I'll just let it grow and avoid firemen
And the bomb squad--I know it is weird,
But that's why I've got this long hair and this beard.

©2007-Art Belliveau


There are some things, I just don't wanna know.
Some facts that I don't need to learn.
Some places that I just don't wanna go,
For fear that I'll never return.

I do not care how old I get.
Or how many gray hairs I may grow.
I never would try it, no, not on a bet,
I could never win enough dough.

Apparently, though, someone has tried it,
Though I could puke at just the mere thought.
And the change that occured, well, he couldn't hide it.
He left the stall and was caught.

Some things in life just aren't worth it.
Some things I'd rather not be told.
I wish that they never did unearth it,
But, though they did, I would rather grow old!

©2007-Art Belliveau

A Couple of Writing Lessons

Yesterday my classes and I did a little work on specificity with sensory images. I started with a writing assignment I pulled from Room to Write by Bonni Goldberg titled “Seasons.” Here is what they were supposed to have written the day before:

Today pick your favorite season. First, recall a personal moment during the season. Then focus on only the details that evoke that experience. Use texture, smell, and sound if appropriate. Be truer to your response to the moment than to its features. Notice whether you start with specific features and move to general ones, or the other way around.
So today I started by writing Sensory Images on the board and asking the class what the five senses were. Then I listed them and pointed out that in my experience with beginning writers, most of them put about 90% of their details on visual images, and 9% on auditory images. Ninety-nine percent of sensory details coming from 40% of the senses—a little on the overkill side.

Then I wrote Vague Words on the board and under that wrote delicious. I asked if they could figure out why that was a vague word. After a few guesses, some of the classes hit on not everyone likes the same foods. I illustrated the point with my own love of red cabbage, a treat that makes my Southern wife gag. Just saying it had a similar effect on most of the students in the class. I then pointed out that my wife loves collard greens, a food I wouldn’t eat for pay. Where we grew up and what our families considered normal made us grow to have some very different tastes in food (pardon the pun).

I also pointed out that I cannot make myself eat steak sauce. The students inquired as to why and I explained a traumatic childhood event when my father, to teach me a lesson about way overusing the steak sauce one night got a spoon and made me finish all the steak sauce left pooled on my plate. After about three hours at the table it was gone and I never ate steak sauce again.

After putting some other vague words the students love to use, good, pretty, and nice prominent among them, they started to get the idea. So I gave them highlighters and asked them to mark any word or phrase in their papers that was vague. Then they numbered the marks for future use.

I then made another apparent digression into the difference between Revision and Editing. Every class got what editing was right away. Not a single problem in figuring that out. Almost all of them were stumped by revision. We finally got to the point that we agreed it had to do with content, and that it involved organization, adding in details and deleting irrelevant details.

I told them to look at the highlighted words on their papers and then, either on the back or on a new sheet to write the number one. Then look at the vague term and try to come up with something more specific. I briefly explained clustering to get ideas rolling, and let them loose for a while. Now I can look forward to reading them and seeing what they think is vague. And I’ll add a different highlight of what I find to be vague. Should be fun.

They also had another writing assignment from Room to Write: “Stranger Than Fiction.” The idea here was to write about a recent story in the news. For this I did the first part of the “To Be or Not to Be” assignment I picked up at an idea swap at NCTE a long time ago. The original lesson was donated to the swap by Dr. Tracey Johnson of Clarion University.

The idea here is for the students to write a page or so and then swap it with another student who highlights all the “to be” verbs (be, being, been, is, are, was, were, am, the apostrophe m in I’m, and any apostrophe s that means is). Then I break from the original plan to talk to my students about Klingons. Yes, I am ubergeek enough to use Star Trek and Star Wars references in my classes.

Apparently the writers who originated the Klingon language for Star Trek had decided that the language would have no “to be” verbs in it as Klingons would define themselves by their actions. Ironically, the first thing they were asked to translate was Hamlet’s soliloquy. I am not sure how they did it, I didn’t hear that part of the story, but my best guess would be something like, “To live or to die—This I ask!”

This sets the stage for my students to revise their papers, changing the words without altering the basic message. They need to rewrite all the sentences with “to be” verbs in them so those verbs are eliminated from their papers.

I haven’t checked them yet, but I do have some high hopes.

Okay, ‘nuff said for today. More than enough. But after so long a silence, can I be blamed for my logorrhea?