Learning to be concrete and specific

apples
Photo ©2010 Nayla [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

“Nine-tenths of all good writing consists of being concrete and specific. The other tenth doesn’t really matter.”
-Harry Shaw

It’s easy for us to be vague and general when we write. But that’s not how we experience the world. The world comes to us specifically: the red of a rose, the moaning of sirens, the squishiness of slugs, the snap, crunch and slippery saltiness of potato chips. But too often developing writers don’t linger on things long enough (or like my father teaches his fifth graders to do: hover), whether they describe an image in a sentence then they’re off to tell us about the next, or they’ve supported a claim with a vague reason or two, then they’re off to write that fourth out of five paragraphs. Either way they don’t hover to allow their readers to discover or experience it for themselves.

I repeat myself repeatedly in class and in feedback to students: be specific, use more details, more evidence. What I’m longing for is for students to clog their writing with more details, more images, more specifics. At least that way there will be more to choose from and work with and patterns will become more apparent.

I have ways and means to help students be more specific, but I’m rethinking them all because they don’t seem to be very effective. Rethinking, nothing. I’m ditching them altogether because I found something I’m hoping will work much better: Lynda Barry’s Six Minute Diary.

Let me show you what it looks like. This is one of my Six Minute Diary entries from a recent-ish visit to Hawaii:

hiinsix

This format fit my needs perfectly. It was the first time my kids had been to Hawaii and I wanted to capture the experience without spending my time writing a nightly novel, which is what our trip deserved. The trick is to spend two minutes jotting down what you did (or what happened) and another two minutes tracking what you saw (and/or heard as I did here). Then you spend 90 seconds drawing something from the day and a final 30 seconds transcribing something someone said.

Barry says “having to write it down makes us begin to notice when we notice something. We remind ourselves to ‘save’ it for the diary.” It also helps us hone in on the specific. Because we’re going to have to draw something we focus on what we actually see, and our ears are tuned in to the specific because we’re going to transcribe verbatim what we hear.

Then we get closer to how Barry describes the best way to write, “Let the image pull you. You should be water-skiing behind it, not dragging it like a barge. Writing should take you for a ride.” That’s how I recognize good student writing, when I feel like the writer is taking me for a ride. And I know a writer needs more support from me when I feel as if their writing is dragging me along their sentences from a barge, or worse, from a horse along the raw desert floor.

So whether you’re a student in my class, or just someone who’s hoping to capture your world with a tighter net, try out the Six Minute Diary for a couple weeks and see how it focuses your eye and tunes your ears and pulls them closer together with your hands and fingers as you write.

Watch the video below and be timed by the master herself, Lynda Barry.

A Thumbless Handshake

photo (11)[Cross-posted to The Teacher Challenge]

That’s what each of my students received on the first day of school.

So, as you can imagine, things started off a bit awkward. A new year, new class, a new teacher standing outside his door shaking everyone’s hand as they entered. And boy, there’s something just a little off about this handshake here.

Let me explain if you don’t know this about me already. I was born without thumbs.

Most students seemed a bit surprised to get a handshake at the door, especially a thumbless one. They were even more taken aback when I tracked down a couple students who slipped by me. When I asked who I missed, no one fessed up. I picked them out of the crowd eventually.

A few students needed a reminder to use those thumbs of theirs to tighten up their grip.

One student refused to shake my hand. “I just saw you last week Ziebarth,” she said, as if some law kept her from formally greeting her teacher too often in too short a window. I persisted. She caved.

I LOVE that we’re kicking off our Teacher Challenge with a personal greeting for each student. Traditionally, on the first day of school I memorize every student’s name and then practice them over the first week of school so I can consistently match their face with their name. I can’t imagine doing otherwise! I’m responsible to know these students, their strengths, their weaknesses, their learning styles. The least I can do is learn their names before I expect them to learn anything from me.

Memorizing their names is difficult enough, but greeting each student is probably tougher.

We only have seven minutes between class periods and if it takes any time at all to erase the board, clean up after the previous class, or do any last minute preparations, students stream easily into class before I can get to them. Then, like on Friday, I literally ran between the students who snuck in early and the students who were just entering the classroom. It was like catching sand with a sieve. The students got a kick out of my frantic ping-ponging between them though, so it was worth it.

One period I had to resort to greeting them on their way out of the class. I definitely prefer greeting them as they enter, but better late than never.

On the second day I welcomed students with a fist bump. It just happened that way. I like to mix things up, avoid ruts, and there I was fist bumping my way through 37 students in less than seven minutes.

The third day I used my elbow. Elbow bumps are a very effective way to greet someone who’s lugging around a tower of books in their arms.

By day three the students were totally hooked. If they had missed their greeting, they’d come up to me to get an elbow bump. Then students started suggesting other greetings, a high four, high eight, the turkey!

This challenge has been so humanizing. It’s way too easy for students to slip into class, unnoticed, take a seat, fly low and avoid a teacher’s radar for the entire class period. Maybe even for days at a time. Then they’re just a seat, a name on a chart, a grade, a face in the crowd.

Greeting each student on a daily basis shows that you respect them as people, as members of your community, your class. They are part of your class, right? It’s not their job to greet us. They are our customers, our students under our stewardship. They deserve a smile, a hello, a handshake. With or without thumbs.

The Courtly Love of Books

courtlylove

When I walked into class this morning I flipped out over one of my students reading Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, one of my favorite reads ever. Lost in my enthusiasm for the book, I grabbed the book from her desk, clutched it to my chest, and rocked back and forth, performing my twitterpation for the book in front of the class. Unknown to me, this student, Tiffany, had purchased the book for a friend and she sat silently in horror, terrified at my handling of the book. When I noticed the nervous juxtaposition of her broad smile and arched brow, she said to me, “Mr. Ziebarth, I’m a courtly lover.”

Talk about juxtapositions. I had no idea what she was talking about.

“You’re a what?”

“A courtly lover of books. Just like the essay we read over the summer,” Tiffany said.

Well shame on me for not recognizing what should be a common allusion. She was referring to the essay “Never Do That to a Book,” by Anne Fadiman. As she reminded me of the essay, another student, Tabatha, blurted out, “Me too!” as she quickly produced from her backpack a copy of the next novel we’re reading, The Catcher in the Rye, lovingly embraced by a padded manilla envelope. A small group of students burst into chatter about how hard it is to write in their books, while others proclaimed how much they enjoy putting pen and pencil to page, marking their books and making them their own.

Fadiman calls this drive to draw and annotate in books a “carnal love.” She explains, “to us, a book’s words [are] holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them [are] a mere vessel, and it [is] no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated.”

I don’t care how my students treat books, just that they love them.

Me? I’m a book lover of the latter sort, as you can tell by the photo of the Murakami novel above. See the little dog-eared corner of the first page? I did that. Much to Tiffany’s courtly-lover’s chagrin.

 

The DV8 Sound of Trust

I’ve been completely grooving on the new album by Toronoto-based Trust. The track “Rescue, Mister” sends me spinning back in space (to Salt Lake City) and time (the mid 90s) to a beautiful, but gritty club called DV8. The club served as an after hours headquarters to the DJs of KJQ and X96, many of whom did weekly stints behind the turntables of its dusty crows nest of a DJ booth (read Todd Nuk’em’s spot-on memorial of the club, written when it burned to the ground, a surprise to no one, back in 2008).

I put in my time at that club, under the moniker Sean Boy Walton, risking my health (the smoking was incessant), to play the unique blend of darkwave, industrial, and goth pop that was always popular in Salt Lake City. Trust fits that place like a black leather glove (fingers optional).

You want to experience DV8 circa 1995, drop this track into your head. The time warp is uncanny.

Show Your Work : : A Networked Reading 2

Reading @Braddo Reading @AustinKleon continues as Show Your Work: A Networked Reading

The old writing adage holds true with student work: Show, don’t tell!

I love John Green’s question: “is there a way that we can use this technology to build places for engagement, instead of just places for distraction? ” As Douglas Rushkoff has pointed out, yes the youth of today are digital natives, but they’re thoroughly worked over by social media. It’s not just the digital natives by the way. We all need to act more and not let ourselves be acted up, in other words: Program, Or Be Programmed.