Tag Archive for Two Writing Teachers

Slice of Life Writing Challenge: My Hot Tub Story

Preamble: This entry was inspired by Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres at the great Two Writing Teachers blog, where they issue an annual slice-of-life writing challenge. Essentially, to write every day through the month of March. I did not participate formally, but I like the concept — especially for anyone who attempts the near-impossible, i.e., to teach writing. Bless you all.

What I took from the challenge was a simple idea, to react to my daily life by writing . . . daily. Oh, and by the way, this is the book that Ruth and Stacey wrote . . .

My Hot Tub Story

It was my fourth hotel in little more than a week, I’d attended a literacy conference in Dublin, OH, flown into Philadelphia, and now worked my way north in a rented Kia through New Jersey on my own, personal traveling dog-and-pony show.

I was both pony and dog, whinny and woof.

It’s true there is no place like home, but hotel life has its comforts, episodes of ease and quiet. I’d adapted to the routine, moving like a shark through the murky waters, seeking out a good meal and an elliptical machine, maybe some free weights and a local highlight.

By 9:00 on this particular night, I’d exercised, eaten, washed and folded and repacked a load of laundry, and now read in the hotel lounge, warmed by an electric fireplace. I learned not to spend too much time in the room, supine, half-awake, fat and clickered. A thought came: the hot tub to melt these tired bones, perhaps slide more easily into sleepfulness.

Two men were already soaking in the water. Men like me. Away from home on some job. The younger man said he lived in California, looked about 40. The other was about a decade older — a solid, square-jawed guy bristled with gray, from St. Louis, MO. A sizable man, formerly sturdy, even forbidding, now with a vast distended belly.

St. Louis, I knew, was a baseball town, and in the previous October the Cardinals won the World Series in heart-stopping fashion, so we talked baseball, those cardiac Cards. Sports talk, old glue amongst men, binding us, opening our mouths, a language we shared. I brought up the Steve Jobs biography, said how much I enjoyed reading it, and he said that he was in the middle of it, too.

After ten minutes I rose, ready to leave, but before I could towel off, he climbed out like a great pale bear and produced three cold beers from his personal cooler. He was a bring-your-own-cooler kind of guy, a seasoned traveler, used to making himself at home in anonymous, sterile places.

So he offered me one, here, arm extended, beer tipped a little toward me. Ever have Yuengling? I could hardly refuse. Sat on the ledge this time, submerged in hot water up to my knees. More talk of work and technology and other things. Topics that left me smiling, nodding, a little bored, nearly done. I asked if he had children. Yes, he told me, a boy, 25, and a daughter, 17.

You must be doing the college thing, I said.

No, no, he answered. My daughter has severe cerebral palsy, she was born very small, very early. No, she won’t be going to college.

We talked for a long while about his daughter. He explained her condition, his wife’s difficult pregnancy, the forced bed rest and preeclampsia, the terrible choice he was forced to make. To save a life, to risk a wife or daughter. He said, I live with that decision every day of my life. And he described his daughter’s ability to hear and understand a conversation, but her near-total inability to communicate. I would give my left nut, he said, if she could just tell me that she had to throw up. He told of those occasions when she grew unsettled, distressed — talked of bathing her, of rubbing lotion into her skin, of making her smell clean and good, fresh clothes and baby powder, trying to calm and sooth this troubled creature.

But after two days of that, he said, fussing and fretting and still nothing works, it’s time to pay a visit to the pediatrician.

Was she happy, I asked, could he tell? He said how they loved to go camping, described in detail the whole elaborate set-up — and how she loved to ride on the back of his motorcycle, using the complicated harness system he’d rigged up for those trips. How, also, she liked to turn the pages of magazines and listen to music. The Steve Miller Band was her favorite, no one knew why. So yes he believed she was happy, yes, happy every day.

And a pause now, time moving slow like the smoke that rose from the heated water, and I gave a half-apology at the preposterousness of my next question, which I asked anyway. What has she taught you, this daughter of yours. What have you learned?

He thought it over. Patience, he said, and love. He said how he used to think that love was this or love was the other thing, that love was lust — he made a crude push-pull gesture, in and out with his bent arms — that love was only physical. But he had been mistaken about those things.  He said, I learned that love is a quiet river that runs through you, with the power to carve a valley through solid rock.

He said those exact words in a hotel hot tub somewhere in Jersey. We soaked in the echo of that amazing statement. Love is a quiet river, I repeated. That runs through you. With the power, I said, trying to recall the words exact, to carve a valley. Through solid rock. I asked his co-worker, who was now quiet and pensive, if he’d known this about his friend. No, he said, we just met yesterday on the job. And the man from St. Louis, whose name I never did learn, said it’s not something he usually talked about. So I thanked him for that, for telling us about his little girl.

She is so beautiful, he said. Blonde hair, pretty blue eyes.

The Dublin Literacy Conference — featuring Donalyn Miller, Sharon Draper, Ruth Ayres, and Hot Tubs

I had a great time at the Dublin Literacy Conference back in February. I saw a couple of old friends, Karen and Bill from the Literate Lives blog, and finally met two women I’ve known almost exclusively through their terrific blog, A Year in Reading, Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn.

You can’t talk to either Franki or Mary Lee for long before you are promising to read a book or two that they absolutely loved. These are the ones that sounded most interesting to me . . .

Wonder, by R. J. Palacio

The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate.

I also heard a morning keynote speech from Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer. She was terrific and inspiring, and an expert on building a classroom community of voracious readers. Boys, girls, whoever walks into the room. Many teachers told me that Donalyn’s professional book was excellent — fast, accessible, illuminating, and motivating.

So that was cool, meeting her. Riding in a car with Donalyn in the back seat. We didn’t get much of a chance to talk, pulled in different directions, always seated at different tables, but it was a pleasure to become aware of her, sit in the auditorium and hear Donalyn’s thoughts, humor, and classroom-earned wisdom. The pedagogical stuff was solid, but she really won me over when she talked about specific students in her classroom, these small laser-like observations, like the boy who informed her that he did not read any books the previous year, except this: “I think I might have read Hatchet.” He wasn’t sure. At those points in her talk, I recognized that Donalyn knew these kids, stone-cold knew 6th-graders, and that she loved them. I was sold.

At lunch, Sharon Draper was the keynote speaker. Sharon is a force of nature, strong and lively and confident and outspoken, a woman to be reckoned with. My daughter has already read Out of Mind, so I brought home a copy of this book for my 7th grade son, and he’s reading it now.

Oh yeah, she also had the line of the weekend, quoting from (I think) an African proverb, but addressing all the changes in education these days, today’s sad and misguided emphasis on testing:

“If you want an elephant to grow, you feed it, you don’t measure it!

My most unexpected pleasure came from a young woman I met. We got to talking, she was there to make a presentation, and I slowly realized that this was, holy wow, Ruth Ayres from the fabulous Two Writing Teachers blog.

Me: “I love your blog. You do such a great job. I think I’ve even commented a few times.”

Ruth: “I know!”

I guess I didn’t figure she’d know me, or care, but she did. Anyway, anyway. Ruth and Staci (the other writing teacher) do a “Slice of Life” Challenge through their blog. This is their fifth year, so it’s a slick presentation, there’s even a button thingy you can download or whatever, way beyond the capabilities of this bargain basement blog. Essentially, they invite teachers (and readers in general) to put their money where their mouths are. If you are going to teach writing, then write. And share it. And enjoy it.

By the way, Donalyn was on a parallel mission, calling on teachers . . . to read. It’s obvious, but there you go. A lot of teachers, for valid reasons, feel too busy to read. But even so: Read. No excuses.

To me, I’ve always maintained that teaching = enthusiasm transferred. You want them to catch the reading fever? It helps if you’ve already got the bug.

Next week I’ll share one slice of life from my visit, because I had a great encounter in a hot tub.

No, it’s not what you’re thinking.

Calvin & Hobbes & Self-Taught Artists

Unconfirmed info states that the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip below, by the great Bill Watterson, was produced more than 15 years ago. It still resonates today, a little bit, don’t you think? (Click on the strip to see it larger.)

As a child, I learned to draw by copying the comic strips. I’d fill pages with my own renditions of Andy Capp, Beetle Bailey, and Charlie Brown. It was relaxing, soothing, almost meditative, that physical/mental activity of drawing. Somehow as we get older, we stop. We learn that there’s “good art” and “bad art,” and decide that it’s best to leave it to the professionals. We get the message and the message is: Don’t. Just don’t.

Our loss.

When it comes to art — and we could easily be talking about writing here — the most dangerous questions revolve around quality. Is it “good?” Is it “bad?” Because the unspoken question is: Can I continue, or would it be best for everybody if I just stop? Because if I’m making bad art, then I’m probably a bad person, and this is absolutely a bad idea. So I better quit now.

I’ve always been uncomfortable when it comes to teaching creative writing. It’s such a fragile thing, the courage it takes to dare make something. The artist is exposed, vulnerable. The last thing I ever want to do — as the so-called expert, the professional — is to kill it. And it’s so easy to do. With just a few ill-advised comments, we can suck the joy out of just about anything. At the same time, it’s why I have such respect for people like Ralph Fletcher, and the insights of Lynda Barry, or the impressive bloggers, Stacey and Ruth, at Two Writing Teachers who work with such dedication to keep kids motivated and involved in the act of writing. All I know to do is say, “Great job, keep going, you’re fantastic.” And maybe — maybe — there’s a point where artists of any age need a little more help than that, though I have my doubts.

I remember being asked to interview Mark Teague very early in his career, late 1980s. In my preparation, I kept coming across information that stressed he was a “self-taught” artist. And I puzzled over that. Because, like, who cares? Why was that significant? What did it matter?

The conclusion I reached was that for most of us, we need permission to draw (or paint, or sculpt, or write). Sort of like going down to City Hall to pick up a fishing permit. You can’t be an artist unless you go to art school. Everybody else: Put the crayons down and please step away from the table.

The thing with self-taught artists is that somehow they manage to persevere without a license. They keep on making pictures, hand and mind in unison, and it seems to me like such a healthy, wholesome activity (in which we are made, figuratively, whole and at one, ommmmmm). Today my daughter Maggie still loves to draw pictures. We’ll sit down at the kitchen table, divide up the Sunday comics, markers and paper strewn everywhere, and recreate our favorite characters, music playing in the background. I hope she never stops. Because somehow the act of stopping is like a little death in all of us. An end of innocence, of participation, of creative joy, of play. We lose something very dear when we surrender our art (and our artistic selves) to the professionals.

FINAL COMMENT: Looking at the comic strip above, and how it reflects today’s financial climate, you are either struck by Bill Watterson’s amazing prescience . . . or by how little things have changed over the years. Given what we’re learning daily about the big corporations: The surprise in it is that anyone could find it the least bit surprising.

James Preller Interviews . . . Jack Rightmyer, author of A Funny Thing About Teaching

I recently picked up Jack Rightmyer’s book, A Funny Thing About Teaching. The subhead/tagline reads: Connecting with Kids Through Laughter . . . and Other Pointers for New Teachers.

A secondary teacher since 1980, Jack currently teaches seventh grade English at Bethlehem Middle School in Delmar, New York. Yes, that’s around the corner from me. Jack is also a book reviewer for a Schenectady newspaper, The Daily Gazette. Though we have some mutual friends, Jack and I have only spoken once in real life (and it was fabulous).

Not to belabor a point I’ve made before, but as a reader I often seek out books that will help me as a writer. Reading Jack’s book inspired me to totally rethink a character in my new (untitled) book. I initially felt that the story needed an unsympathetic teacher, someone who was unable to deal with a difficult student. But after reading Something Funny About Teaching, I saw that teacher in a whole new light. He became human. And I felt the story gain heft, and truth, and I watched as it turned like a big boat in troubled water.

Anyway, it’s a Snow Day here in the Great Northeast. Here’s Jack walking up the path now . . .

Day off today, huh, Jack? Life’s rough. Are you familiar with any snow day superstitions? Did you wear your pajamas backwards last night?

I don’t do that pajama thing, but I do pretend there’s no storm coming and I make my lunch and go to bed at the usual time. That way if I get a day off it’s a real treat!

Congratulations on publishing your first book, A Funny Thing About Teaching. I really enjoyed it. I’ve been doing some research about, for lack of a better term, “class clowns.” You know, those kids who fall into the “bright but challenging” category. And I came across something that reminded me of you. The writer advised teachers that rather than try to squelch the “bad” behavior, they should go with theirs guts — and laugh.

It took me a while to learn this, but that’s true. Most of the ‘class clowns’ are usually pretty funny. In fact, I was a class clown most of the time when I was in school. It took me a while to feel confidant that they weren’t really laughing at me, but at the atmosphere and restrictions of school itself. In 29 years of teaching I’ve encountered maybe 5 kids that seemed scary and dangerous to me. Kids are generally energetic and fun and why should teachers try to stop that. We should use that to teach our classes. It also helped that just down the hall from me was a teacher, Paul O’Brien, who modeled how to teach and have fun at the same time. Kids never seemed to give him a hard time, and I used to sit in his class and watch how he did that, how he juggled the content with the humor. He was a magician.

In some ways, I see you passing on that torch with this book. Not that you come off like Charlton Heston coming down from the mountain . . .

. . . but that in an informal, friendly way you are mentoring, passing along some of the things you’ve learned as a teacher.

I hope so. I also hope that my students see that I’m having so much fun teaching they might want to try this when they have to get a real job.

When you first began your career, you were anxious and insecure. You took the task very seriously. In other words, you were scared out of your socks.

That’s right. I thought I was supposed to be some tough, no-nonsense teacher, and I hated every second of it. In the afternoons though I coached the cross country team and was able to laugh and joke and coach the runners at the same time. I’ll never forget one of the runners saying to me, “Mr. Rightmyer, you’re so much fun at practice. How come you don’t teach this way?” That line really got to me.

Tell me about that advice you got in the teacher’s lounge, “Don’t smile until Christmas.”

I think a lot of the veteran teachers saw me as this young twenty-two-year old kid who was going to get chewed up and spit out by the high school classes. I actually grew a mustache the summer before I began teaching so I could look a bit older.

Oh, that’s hysterical. Nobody would dare mess with The Mustache! Was it one of those baseball mustaches, you know, nine hairs on each side? Or were you like some studly Keith Hernandez?

A photo is worth a thousand words . . .

Good God, Jack! I just fell off my chair! Warn me next time you do that. That photo is so great, it should have its own website. Anyway, you were saying about the advice other teachers gave you . . .

These teachers cared about me. They wanted me to get off to a good start, and they felt I needed to come down hard on the students. Before my first class, some of these teachers got me so worked up I felt like I was going in as a prison guard and not as an English teacher.

The irony was that while you accomplished many of your disciplinary goals in the classroom, you discovered that you had made yourself miserable in the process. And the kids were bored out of their minds.

I was a fake. I hated everything about it. I hated being a tough guy. That has never been my personality, and the truth was, I could never be a tough guy. The tough kids saw through that right away.

Kids can spot a phony a mile away. If you aren’t real, they will eat you alive. I think it’s true with books, too.

And I was a definite phony. But the track kids liked me from the start because they knew who I really was. We’d go for eight mile runs and laugh the whole time. My runners were doing well, improving their times, winning meets, and most importantly we were having fun. All I needed to do was figure out how to do this in the classroom!

It was as if a light bulb went off and you decided, “Why not have fun?”

It occurred to me pretty quickly that I loved the coaching because it was fun, and the teaching had not been fun. When I taught I was uptight, nervous, and unsure of what I was doing.

But not every teacher can be, or should be, George Carlin. And honestly, reading your book, it wasn’t so much the humor that jumped out at me, but the importance of being true to yourself.

My job is to teach and not to be a comedian, but funny things happen all the time in the classroom, and if I’m relaxed and aware I’m able to see those things happening and I can usually use them to teach the class or at least energize and motivate my students.

While you give due credit to the central importance of delivering content in the classroom, you also spend a lot of time and effort on relationship-buildiing.

I teach seventh grade, and many of these kids aren’t so cute anymore. These are some difficult years for many of my students and I might be the only one that will really listen to them during the day. They’re not quite adults and not quite kids anymore, and I actually find them very amusing. I love their insights into the stories we read. I love how raw they can be. Most of them don’t have filters yet, and I think they know they’re safe to say things to me and I won’t get upset. Yes, the content is important, but connecting with them is just as important.

There’s a blog I enjoy reading, called Two Writing Teachers. These women are so dedicated and talented, I’m really impressed by them. One of them, Ruth Ayres, spoke to this issue the other day. Forgive me for quoting this at length, but it’s so right on:

“Sometimes we get caught up in having the perfect plan, the perfect lesson, the perfect unit, the perfect curriculum, and our students producing the perfect pieces. This isn’t what really matters. A middle school student, Jessica, reminded me of this.

I was simply walking to my office when I saw her in the hallway. She smiled and I said, “Hi Jessica.” Her response — “You remembered my name.” I smiled; I had been in her classroom for two days. Then she chatted with me about the trouble she was having with her draft — getting the meaning to come out. Later in the week I conferred with Jessica. We talked about focusing her poem and a bit more about her meaning. Friday afternoon Jessica saw me in the hall again, smiled, and waved. It struck me then. Jessica probably won’t remember the details of our writing conference in years to come. What she will remember, though, is that I cared about her. I cared enough to remember her name. I cared enough to sit down one on one and have a conversation with her. I cared enough to smile and wave good bye on a Friday afternoon.

Those are the things that really matter. The things we do to care enough for our students.”

That’s what it’s all about, and I wish more teachers knew that. I didn’t know that when I started teaching. All I knew was that my students were supposed to be quiet and doing work. Once I began to see them as REAL people that I actually cared about, that’s when they started to do some REAL work.

What about when humor gets out of hand? Aren’t you opening up a can of worms when you give everyone permission to yuck it up?

I explain early in the year the differences between appropriate and inappropriate humor, and I still have quite a few students who never get it.

Put-down humor? I still have trouble with it. And by the way, your ears are really stupid, Mr. Rightmyer.

I wish my ears were the problem. I usually get bald jokes from the kids.

Once I had a kid tell me in front of the entire class “Your fly is down.” I said, “There’s no way I’m gonna fall for that one.” And that’s when the entire class laughed. My fly actually was down and my shirt was even sticking out of my fly. You either laugh at that or quit your job and move to Canada.

I also mention that I like to laugh, but if we can’t settle down and get back to our lesson then we can’t have the freedom to laugh on occasion. The kids get it, and most of them know when enough is enough. I’ve been teaching twenty-two years at Bethlehem, and I haven’t sent anyone out of the room for misbehavior in at least twenty years. I think the kids have learned to respect me and when I say, “Enough,” they don’t push the envelope.

In the book, you quote an article, “Discipline Zingers,” by John O’Neil (NEA Today, January, 2004). The author made an interesting point: “Kids today have the same needs as always – to be accepted, competent, respected – but they seem needier than ever.” Has that been your experience?

Yes, I think kids are needier today. So many families are in distress. So many families are broken up and dysfunctional, and so many kids today don’t know how to form relationships. They’re plugged into their iPods and playing video games. But at their core, all kids are still very much the same from one generation to another.

Overall, how did the publishing experience go for you? Obviously, as is true for all writers, now you are fabulously wealthy like J.K. Rowling.

I was lucky to find this publisher. My book isn’t quite a memoir and it’s not quite a teacher resource book either. It’s a small company in Colorado, Cottonwood Press, but they put together nice books. I haven’t made a lot of money, but that was never what it was all about for me. I just love the idea of writing as a way to reflect on something and think through a problem. I just finished another book about how I wanted to be a writer but ended up as a teacher. I had fun writing that one, too.

Wait up, hold on, you lost me. You think writing is . . . fun? What in sweet Lincoln’s mullet (gratuitous Anchorman reference) are you talking about?

Writing is more fun than correcting 120 essays. And I once had a job cleaning out sewers, writing is more fun than that!

Point taken. When will your new book be published? Will it have a title — or are you going for, like, a Beatles “White Album” effect?

I just finished my first draft and I’m calling it “Disturb the Universe: Write.” It’s another part-memoir and part “How To” book. I explain why I always liked to read and write as a kid, how I thought I’d one day be a famous journalist with Time Magazine, and how I ended up teaching at my old high school. I also give some advice about how to write and how to teach writing. Hopefully the book will have a few laughs and also some good advice in it. I’m hoping it will come out next fall some time, but I’m still very early in the publishing process
with it.

Good luck, Jack. It sounds like you are on a roll. Okay, buckle up: Lightning Round! Favorite books to use in your classroom?

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko; The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury; And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie; Endor’s Game by Orson Scott Card; The Girl Who Owned a City by O. T. Nelson; Trouble with Lemons by Daniel Hayes; poems, short stories; essays by Dave Barry. On the adult side, I love books by Richard Russo. My favorite of his books is The Risk Pool. Probably my favorite book of all time is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.

Yes! The Things They Carried is definitely in my Top Ten. It’s perfect. I’ve read it a few times. The audiotape is also outstanding. Russo, of course, is always great. I’m also a huge, huge Richard Ford fan.

My favorite book on writing is Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott, and I love the wacky humor of David Sedaris especially found in his collection Naked.

Favorite music?

I love all types of music from REM to Radiohead to Neil Young and Coldplay. I’m one of the few people who can play a Ramones CD and then follow it up with a Beethoven symphony.

Wow, Jack. I just realized: We’re brothers from another mother! How about movies?

My favorite movie of all time is “Chariots of Fire,” and I’m a sucker for those sports movies like “The Cinderella Man” and “Rudy.” If I could I’d go to a movie every night of the week. My two favorite movies this year have been “The Visitor” and “Frozen River.”


My favorite athlete of all time was Carl Yastrzemski. I also admire Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson.

Yaz! As a kid, I used to imitate how he held his bat. I’ll have to tell you my Carl Yastrzemski story one day — he taught me how to read! Sort of. Anyway, thanks for stopping by, it was a real pleasure. Please accept this XB-500 electric moped, equipped with brushless rear hub motor and powered by three chipmunks, as a parting gift.

I promise to drive it responsibly!

One Little Word

A simple concept: Pick a word, any word, and let it be your word for 2009. That’s the idea behind “One Little Word.”

My thanks to Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers — a great site — for first mentioning it here.

Today I’m just a conduit, passing along the good stuff. I hope you like it.

The above comes to you (and me) from Wordle, an online toy for generating “word clouds” from text. Check it out, a great place for a little creative fun (though, rats & snails, I can’t figure out how to get a larger Wordle image in my post — I made a few awesome ones yesterday using full paragraphs from favorite books, stanzas from Dylan songs, and such).

And now, excuse me, but it’s time to round up the kids and start bringing in the New Year.

ADDENDUM: I forgot to note that I discovered Wordle at the happy blog, A Year In Reading. The post was titled, “I Should Be Working,” and I know the feeling!