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Last year we began a tradition of words for Advent.
This year, we decided to follow the same path and began like this...
Think ADVENT L. adentus "arrival" The coming or arrival, especially of something important.
Think ONTOLOGY L. ontologia Dealing with the nature of being.
Think PRESENCE Old French praesentia The state of being before.
And after all the thinking, we enlisted wax-resist medium and watercolor to ornament and order our contemplation of
all the while keeping in mind the words Madeline L’engle assembled about words:
“We think because we have words, not the other way around. The more words we have, the better able we are to think conceptually.”
Might our words give presence?
Let's think on that...
E. Nesbit, storyteller extraordinaire, weaves quite a yarn. The Book of Beasts is a favorite of my three sons. Why? Not because the protagonist is a small boy, but because that small boy becomes king! What boy doesn’t dream of being king at one point or another during childhood? But the adventure for Lionel does not begin at the coronation. No, the adventure begins in the library when Lionel dares to open a book.
And so the lesson begins.
And while the lesson can easily be accomplished without E. Nesbit’s book, it’s the spark for the lesson in the first place and highly recommended.
To begin, I asked my writing apprentices to consider the things that we struggle with as humans. While they were contemplating on paper, I wrote Latin on the whiteboard without explanation:
HC SVNT DRACONES
We generated our list below the Latin——greed, laziness, gossip, gluttony. After we were sufficiently steeped in considering the flaws of our flesh, we began a discussion of what shape these "fleshly foes" might take. We started with thumbnail metaphors. Each child began sketching his or her mythical beast, animating its beastly qualities.
From here we began to write the Beast Tale. They were to describe the character of their beast in detail, to create a situation in which the beast might feed, and, of course, they were instructed to concoct a way to slay the beast. All this in 500 words or less!
The writers eagerly worked to draft idea to paper. I was amazed by the depth of engagement I witnessed as they crafted minute details about beasts that they encounter in the real world.
As drafts were completed I saw pencils released and re-reading begin. I saw little hands making red marks—scritch, scratch—then more re-reading until the stage of polish began.
Sufficiently satisfied with the stories, each writer then moved back to the visual realm and began animating their thumbnail beasts to a form that was ready for canvas—light pencil traced with Sharpee was then hand painted with fabric ink. Beasts were hand-stitched to felt and felt was machine stitched to calico.
But there was one more piece of fabric to deal with once the visual project was accomplished a few weeks later. And so I asked the apprentices to read, once more, their polished Beast Tales. To their surprise, they stumbled on little errors, or bumps in the story. Everyone found a little something to refine, which proved to them without me lecturing, that writing needs to incubate, that writing is a process.
And so, after this final polish, the tales were written by hand on the remaining scrap of canvas. And the stories were machine stitched to felt and the back was stitched to the front and the pillows were stuffed. And that’s how the Beast Tales came to be.
When it comes to writing… show don’t tell.
So the next time any child grumbles or complains about engaging in the art of writing simply remind them that writing is an adventure, lift an imaginary sword and cry, “Beyond Here be Dragons,” and let the adventure begin.
“Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”
- Jasper Johns
Find a word you like.
Take the word and write it on canvas.
Mix some colors you like.
Take your word and paint the colors you like into the shape of the word you like.
Paint Jasper Johns Words.
And soon you'll be thinking like Jasper Johns:
“I am just trying to find a way to make pictures.”
Characters do things. They feel things. They hear things. They say things. They think things. They go places. They can walk, run, leap, and jump. They may sit and rock in a rocking chair. They may just lie in bed, sleep, and dream. But the important thing is that characters act. And it is precisely these actions that show us just what kind of imaginary people characters are—friendly, sad, nosey, happy, confused, angry, or inventive. And we need to know because something always happens in great stories. Character determines the outcome.
Earlier this month, my son Søren sat on the couch chuckling to himself, turning the pages of an old favorite. It’s Lewis Carroll re-imagined. Christopher Myers keeps the text the same but re-imagines the beast as a basketball-playing-Jabberwocky. And the protagonist? Well, he becomes a small boy with basketball-shaped-stars in his eyes.
What fascinated me about the scene was what happened when the book was closed. My son smiled, got off the couch to rummage around the art cabinet for paper, scissors, and tape. Silently he concentrated, cutting shapes and connecting them until the characters emerged. Then he swept up the scraps, set his characters to hold the gesture, and walked away from the table without a word.
I know what he was up to. This was literary analysis at its best. Carroll’s Jabberwocky is a larger than life, but there is no doubt that the storm of neologism and nonsense qualifies it as a very difficult read. To most, Søren’s hive of post reading activity might be deemed at best a responsive craft. But Søren was actually deep in thought. This post-reading activity was uniquely contemplative, was Søren’s way of unpacking Lewis Carroll’s poem and the consequent reimagining of Christopher Myer.
And I know where Søren’s pondering will lead. It will lead to an idea. Sometimes we begin with a study of someone else’s idea to incubate an original idea of our own. So it might not be this week, maybe not even next, but I’m sure Lewis Carroll and Christopher Meyer offered fodder that has been sufficiently tucked away in the mind of my son.
Linda has two little boys, has always dreamed of homeschooling but she’s brand new to the Guild Method. So she flew to California this summer so that Sara and I could help her shape her the lessons. Her oldest son, Zach, was ripe for Kindergarten and so was she!
Back home, when school days arrived, she was ready and so pictures of little boys water coloring apple trees, little fingers writing words in salt, little paint brushes encoding CVC words in tempera on butcher paper in the bright sunshine, and little minds constructing giant floor puzzles delighted my email inbox. SO cute! Sure, there were tiny kinks to adjust here and there, but the transition to school days was a beautiful thing in Linda’s little Ohio Guild.
But we all know what’s coming, right? The very first one of those best-laid-plans days. So here we are, nearing October. And a different kind of email was grimacing in my inbox, “…it turned out to be a super frustrating experience…Grrr.” It seems Zach recognized that he was face-to-face with a pencil-to-paper challenge and he took an about face.
I smiled, “There it is…!”
Linda was super excited to begin our Fall Discovery Guide with her son. I still am. I am super excited for her rocky beginning because it tells her precisely where Zach is strong and where Zach is weak. Now the trick is to slowly strengthen him so he sees the uphill climb as an adventure.
Our Earlybird Discovery Guides are recommended for a range of Kindergarten and lower level primary (grades 1 and 2) children who are in the process of acquiring foundational decoding and encoding skills, but not yet reading and writing independently. What this means is that the material must be approached with the child’s ability in mind. The important thing at this stage of academic development is to challenge the child to press into work that requires discipline without crushing the marvelous innate passion for learning.
Here are the tips I offered Linda—Easy as 1, 2, 3:
1. Pace important work over 5 days.
Tackle the writing in 15-minute increments. Shrink some of the responsibility for writing, but not the problem solving and idea making.
Read the story.
Have Zach draw the characters and to describe their personality traits—how they think, act, feel. Capture three “trait” words from his stream of communication and write them out so he can copy them into his guide. Give him 15 minutes to do the copy work.
Work on the vocabulary matching exercises together. Then, read the sentences with the missing words and have Zach choose between two of the vocabulary words to complete the sentences. Write the words that complete each sentence for Zach to copy during his 15-minute “Important Work” time.
Read the story again, this time stopping periodically for Zach to tell you what is about to happen.
Work with Zach to complete the comprehension sentences from the Word Bank. Write the words that complete each sentence for Zach to copy during his 15-minute “Important Work” time.
No reading today… unless, that is, Zach asks you to read the story again!
Today, for the sentences in the Comprehension section that are to be completed with original phrases—dependent clauses—let Zach dictate while you inscribe. That’s right, NO writing for Zach! As you complete each sentence, write slowly, and say each word aloud as if you are sounding out letter that forms the word. In doing so you will be modeling the art of encoding language.
Have Zach re-tell the story in his own words. Then, read the creative writing prompt for the Writing Exercise. Pass the Earlybird Guide to Zach and let him “draw” his story with colored pencils. When he is done drawing, let him dictate a two or three sentence to you. Inscribe his ideas…NO writing for Zach!
2. Think Longitude.
As Zach becomes more comfortable with writing—and this will take time, think longitude—allow him to take over bits and pieces of the writing you are doing for him.
3. Reach for the Stars!
Create a Star Chart and a prize box filled with dollar-store trinkets. For every ten stars, Zach gets to go shopping. Here, Linda came up with the terrific idea to use beans in a jar, clink clink clink, what boy would not love this noise? Thanks Linda!
There’s a phrase I’ve learned to grip tightly over the years. Recently, my dear friend, Christian, added a quirky little “whoa, horsie” sass to the phrase. This made me chuckle, “Yes!” The phrase is “stagger, tortoise.” Now you try it. That’s right. Now, say it again, only louder, “S-t-a-g-g-e-r, tortoise!”
Poetry is a larger part of our world than we often admit. It’s the songs we sing, commercial jingles, rap, billboards, and YouTube. Poetry is headlines, Facebook, and blogs. Poetry is in great books and essays. Poetry is everywhere!
And so poetry is worth our while—worth reading, worth writing, worth speaking out loud, worth memorizing.
This past winter, when I challenged my writing apprentices to memorize a poem, I had to endure another collective groan, “Noooo…!” And when I showed them the poem they would have two weeks to memorize, they went pale and were silenced.
The poem “Television” by Roald Dahl was the perfect poem for this project not only because we were exploring the theme “Unplug” in our writing workshop, but because if was long enough to prove the vast potential of their ability to memorize.
The lesson began, “Memorized poems fill the pantry of our imagination with food that is sure to sustain us in lean times. If you don’t believe, read Frederick, by Leo Lionni.”
I went on, “I know, these days we’re not used to memorizing long passages of traditional poetry. But, wait think about all the memorizing we do on a daily basis!”
We generated a list and I saw color return to their cheeks.
Row, row, row your boat…
The wheels on the bus go round and round…
Peter Piper picked a peck…
Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there…
I shared a story about my oldest Hannah being able to recite all of Beatrice Potter’s Peter Rabbit when she was three simply because I read it to her so often, “Memorizing is something you are equipped to accomplish!”
Still, I was struck by downcast attitude of my writing apprentices, as if this was the most arduous task on the planet. Can you say “Mountain from a molehill?” It was actually painful to watch them shilly-shally.
I’m happy to report that by the end of week one most of them found their footing. By the beginning of week two, they were having so much FUN that I announced we would be making a film of the project. We would turn Dahl’s poem into a documentary.
Here’s how I helped them break the memorization into manageable bits:
1. Begin with a close reading. This poem is a very long single stanza. Count the sentences in the poem. Translate each sentence into your own words. Write out each translation on a piece of paper.
2. Copy the poem, one sentence at a time and say the sentence slowly as you write.
3. Break the poem into small, manageable sections. Read and repeat one line at a time from a section without looking. Listen to the rhythm. Read the next line from this section, then repeat (without looking) the two lines. Continue on in this manner.
4. Once the entire poem is memorized, breathe life into your reading by going back to your close reading notes. Use your voice to add inflection.
At the end of the list I promised, “Soon you will not only have the poem memorized, but you carry the poem in your heart.”
And they did.
And they do.
So before summer slips too far away, plan an UNPLUG activity or two… and please, please, please, memorize a poem!
As tradition goes, our Guild ushers in summer with a collaborative iMadonnari creation.
This year's inspiration was “Still Life with Apples” by Paul Cézanne.
In our world where fast paced technological communicating is the norm, our lexicon is shrinking hand over fist. But the potential of words is a great wonder. Words are salty goodness that pepper writing with flavor.
So this month at the Guild we are, once again, making words.
Last spring I introduced my writers to the idea of “neologisms” coined by Lewis Carroll. I began by asking the writers to remind me of the details from last spring’s lesson. I was surprised that they remembered with great detail the suffixes we explored so long ago:
» cosm [From Greek kosmos, order, universe.] Universe; world microcosm, macrocosm
» esque [F., fr. It. -isco. Cf. –ish.] An adjective suffix indicating manner or style Arabesque, Romanesque
» ism [Greek -ismos, -isma noun suffix] A suffix used to form action nouns from verbs, distinctive doctrine, system, or theory skepticism, truism
They even remembered more than a handful of the words they crafted, words like: appleism, s-e-e-ism, TVism, tablesque, pencilesque, windesque, bouncehousecosm, balooncosm, and lollycosm
As I sat with the group, I marveled at their retention, but more significantly at their delight. can’t say the same about any of the vocabulary development lessons that I’ve utilized through the years from various curriculums that shall remain nameless!
The art of crafting neologisms focuses the writer’s attention on the specificity of words and their potential to enact ideas in a very meaningful way. And lessons that are meaningful are lasting.
So we began our exploration of suffixes, mining for meaning and application:
» able [From Latin abilis, capable of, fit for.] washable, enjoyable, pitiable
ex. Neologism - baloonable
» nomy [From Greek nomos, system of rules or knowledge.] astronomy, economy, autonomy
ex. Neologism - iPodonomy
» ization [From Greek izein, to become.] popularization, organization, generalization
ex. Neologism - basketballization
» ology [From Greek logia, to speak of, study or science of.] biology, geology, anthropology
ex. Neologism - pickleology
» phobia [From Latin phobia, abnormal fear] claustrophobia, arachnophobia, xenophobia
ex. Neologism - flipflopphobia
» ward [From Middle English ward, specifics of direction] toward, homeward, backward
ex. Neologism - chocolateward
» biotic [From Greek biotikis, of life, method of living] antibiotic, probiotic, microbiotic
ex. Neologism - fauxbiotic
Ultimately, I challenged the writers to create a list of neologisms for each suffix. Now I challenge you to do the same. And as you do, keep in mind, words are a great wonder! Go and salt the earth.
These curious little balls commonly known as water pearls (I prefer my name) are in a word...captivating.
Their usefulness in exploring science and math are obvious and you can find tons of great ideas all over the Internet for incoroprating these little gems into your learning adventures.
Or maybe simply playing with and marveling at them holds just as much educational value.
Sometimes poetry can be found in the most unexpected places.
So this past week, I walked into our living room and saw my son reading The Great Divorce—the brand new copy I bought him a couple days earlier, the one now missing its cover with a bite out of the spine reminiscent of Jaws. I burst out laughing, “What?”
“Um, yeah, the dog ate my homework. But don’t worry mom, it still works.”
“Classic!” I managed to squeak out between sobs of laughter. Once I gained my composure, I plopped myself on the couch beside my son, and launched an investigation.
“So how was the dog able to get hold of your book?”
“I don’t know.”
“Remember what happened to your Vans?”
“And your basketball?”
“How did the dog get those items?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you leave them within the dog’s reach?”
“What was our plan after the dog chewed your bike helmet to shreds?”
“Put things away out of the dog’s reach.”
“So how did this happen to your book?”
“I wonder how many things the dog will chew before you remember.” And with that motherly comment, I stood up from the couch and walked away counting backwards from 10 slowly.
Of course I’m discouraged by the excessive financial loss that my son’s forgetting represents. A new pair of shoes, basketball, bike helmet, and a book is not a small change loss. But honestly what discourages me more than the monetary loss is the ongoing struggle to impart the value of personal responsibility.
My son is not alone.
As a teacher, I receive countless excuses why math lessons are half completed, why science research is not conducted and why reading is not accomplished. These excuses range from absent-mindedness to outright blame shifting.
I’ve stood by many a parent who, like myself, with knee-jerk compassion offers a hug to a tearful child, “I’m sorry mommy. I forgot.”
Now don’t get me wrong it’s not the compassionate hug that I object too. No. Loving our children when they stumble is good grace. What I am saddened by is what often follows the hug, “That’s okay darling.”
I think many of us are guilty of this pat-on-the-back-and-off-you-go style of parenting. Only because I find myself slipping on the slope along with my apprentices, have I been able to contemplate the long-term ramifications of this careless habit of shifting blame.
Whether we are shifting blame into the ether or shifting the blame onto someone else, I believe blame shifting, even the tiny absent-minded kind, is not a healthy habit for the soul.
So as I was counting slowly backwards from 10 I remembered a recent opportunity I had to encourage personal responsibility. At the Guild we have a clearly delineated play area. The other day the older boys in our group decided to Parkour the stairs up to the sidewalk one floor above our cement lunch area. They were just about to jump, “Noooooooo!”
This is not the first time the boys were bit by the PK bug. And, between you and me, I was tempted to turn a blind eye. Being a mom of three teenage boys, I can’t relate, but fully recognize the need for adventure. But that’s another post and in this case, at that moment in time it was completely the responsible thing to stop these boys who are not trained in the art of PK from cracking their skulls on my watch.
“Boys, where are our play yard boundaries?”
I watched them look at each other and shrug, “Don’t know,” in solidarity.
“Okay, come on, what’s the rule regarding scaling walls and jumping?”
“Oh, we forgot,” came a dissonantly symphonic response.
“Well, since you forgot, I’ll remind you.” I walked them around the perimeter of the small slice of asphalt we call the play yard. Ah, life in the city, “Now get a piece of paper and write an essay or a short story or a poem or song that communicates the value of personal responsibility.” That’s how I do it with my writing teacher hat on.
I walked away wondering if it might be possible to hire a visiting specialist to lead PK Day at the Guild. Not a bad idea. And afterwards we’ll write about the experience. Maybe make a film. Always planning lessons...
But the true take away? Somehow, my being forced into the responsibility of keeping my apprentices cognizant of personal responsibility, I am empowered as a mom to do the same.
So in the end, after counting to 10 backwards very slowly and composing this little contemplation, I stumbled upon a quote to hang on our refrigerator, words to help us remember that puppies love to chew:
“If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn't sit for a month.” -Theodore Roosevelt
PS...Did I mention that our puppy is named Theo after Roosevelt
A: Why an Ars Poetica of course.
Q: A what?
(Now the fun begins…)
A: Well, being a Latin phrase “ars poetica” is translated “on the art of poetry” in English. And art by definition allows the imagination to speak. Art shows.
Q: So how does poetry show?
A: Let’s explore.
To begin, compare a poem to the unexpected and you will begin to see the art of poetry:
A poem is an orange balloon against the blue sky.
A poem is a gift-wrapped pair of well-worn sneakers.
A poem is a baby crying at the end of a nap.
A poem is a collection of musical notes.
A poem is a silver spoon diving into vanilla ice cream.
A poem is honey on the tongue.
Think about how the poem infuses the senses and you will begin to “show” the art of poetry. Generate ideas by answering the following questions:
How does poem sound?
Example - A poem is river tumbling stones.
How does a poem look?
Example - A poem is a glass tower in gloaming.
How does a poem feel to the touch?
Example - A poem is nestled in velvet and fingertips stroking bark.
How does a poem taste?
Example - A poem is cayenne smothered in chocolate.
How does a poem smell?
Example - A poem is honeysuckle on a warm spring day.
Where does a poem take the reader?
Example -…to stars hanging in night sky.
Gather more fodder by imagining a series of “what if” scenarios…
If your poem was on the moon, how would it
If your poem was on stage, what would it wear and how would it act?
If your poem was a bird, what would it see?
What if your poem went exploring?
Keep imagining until you have a page of ideas.
Now, began by crafting your ideas to single sentences that describe the art of poetry and the essence of a poem:
A poem is the clap of rain, the trumpet of thunder and takes me to stars hanging in the night sky.
Next, break each sentence into poetic phrases. Feel free to make little word adjustments as you craft your line breaks:
A poem is
clap of rain,
trumpet of thunder,
and painter of stars
clinging to the night sky.
As you see, each sentence will be crafted to a single stanza. Try another and another. Soon you will have your Ars Poetica.
Archibald MacLeish "Ars Poetica" (1926)
A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
As old medallions to the thumb,
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown --
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,
Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind --
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.
A poem should be equal to
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea --
A poem should not mean
Chemistry is much more than a table of elements, complicated theories, and experiments in the lab. Chemistry is the foundation of literally everything we know. But for our children, chemistry is at best a daunting subject, at worst downright boring. Mention the word chemistry and they will run! That’s why this year I chose to introduce my elementary and middle school apprentices to the subject before it was too late.
Honestly, chemistry is no more daunting than any other subject to be mastered. And chemistry is certainly NOT boring! Developing an imaginative view of chemistry is the key to unlocking its wonders.
Here are some ideas to get started.
1. Transcend the Textbook
There are all sorts of wonderful books available to help simplify this expansive subject. Chemistry: Getting a Big Reaction, by Simon Basher, is a really good introduction for children.
In his book, The Periodic Kingdom, P.W Atkins transforms the periodic table to a fictitious kingdom where we can explore the potential of its topography. This is the perfect, albeit heady, way to move beyond the mundane and journey into the wonderful territory of chemistry.
2. Go Digital
One of the best resources available on the web is hosted by The University of Nottingham. Trust me, The Periodic Kingdom of Videos is AMAZING, crazy-haired scientist and all! Your apprentices will want to watch every single video and once they do, they will never be bored by chemistry again.
3. Demonstrate Virtually
These ChemDemos from James Madison University help kids to visualize chemical concepts. (The Gummy Bear Sacrifice is particularly dramatic.)
Experiencing the wonders of chemistry is to experiment. But keep it simple. Focus on the concept of chemical reactions. Teach the budding chemist to hypothesize.
Or purchase a book of experiment recipes like, Janice Van Cleave's Chemistry for Every Kid: 101 Easy Experiments that Really Work, by Janice Van Cleave
The Elements Puzzle: 1000 Pieces, by Theodore Gray
The Periodic Table of Elements Magnets, by Smart Memory Art
Elementeo Chemistry Card Game, by Alchemist Empire, Inc.
Periodic Table Playing Cards, by Les Entreprises SynHeme
6. Sing Along
I provided each of my apprentices with a frame from my local craft store—only $1.00 each—and gave them specific instructions to stain the frame with a color that would best represent or compliment their element (I, of course provided the watercolor). They were to put periodic table information on the front of the frame and amazing facts on the back of the frames. The frames would not only guide them in an oral presentation of their research, but in the end become a larger than life game for our guild, “Scramble them up and see how fast you can order them!”
Here are some wonderful resources to have on hand
during the research:
The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe, and The Photographic Card Deck of The Elements: With Big Beautiful Photographs of All 118 Elements in the Periodic Table, by Theodore Gray, and The Periodic Table: Elements with Style! by Simon Basher.
PS – And just for a little more Periodic Table fun!
About a dozen years ago, a friend came to me who decided that she would bypass handwriting with her children and jump straight to keyboarding. She and her husband would allow their child to learn manuscript printing, but when it came to mastering a cursive form, their firm response, to this day, holds a prominent space in my long-term memory, “This is the computer age. Handwriting is archaic. Why do the work?”
Forget the obvious, “What happens if the computer is inaccessible?” The attitude of this parent was a reflection of a broader ignorance bubbling to the surface. My friend’s utilitarian reasoning was naive. This was my first encounter with creative illiteracy.
When I pressed her, my friend agreed that handwriting is an art form. She simply did not see the value of her young children expending effort to master an art form that would not be useful in college a decade or so in the future.
Mastering the art of handwriting fosters the ability to concentrate, to contemplate, and to communicate confidently.
Let’s face it. We are a distracted people. We are technology-centric, and our children are at risk. We are obsessed with digital signals that tickle our attention.
But we all, somewhere deep down know the difference between a personal, handwritten effort and a computer generated one. And we long for the personal touch. Check for yourself. There are countless sites on the World Wide Web that offer fonts simulating hand-written text. We download them for free. Sometimes we even pay for these fonts. But can the illusion of personal really fill the void?
Technology is here to stay. We all need to be technologically literate. I’m connected to my iPhone because I value the many benefits this technology offers. But what if a technological world without the balance of human artistry is shrinking individuality?
My eldest son is a composer who is now studying at the college level. He writes all his pieces by hand on archival paper. Last semester the Dean of the Applied Music Department pulled him aside and praised his melodic compositions that are equally beautiful to the eye and the ear. However, while he crowned Taylor one of the last “by-hand” composers, he suggested that purchasing a notation program such as Sebelius is imperative. This is not because the program will make Taylor’s work easier, but because most musicians who will read his work have never played from music that is handwritten and the foreign individual nuances are challenging to interpret. Taylor will purchase the program, but assured the Dean he will always begin the process of composing by hand hoping to, in the end to also be known for the individuality of his hand on the page. This got me to thinking, how many times do children come to me and say, “I can’t read cursive.”
Voice is the fingerprint of the writer, that one-of-a-kind something that no two writers have in common. Even though C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien encouraged one another in their craft, their voices on the page are vastly different. As a writer, I believe the hand is connected by the voice. Handwriting is an extension of the writer’s voice. When it comes to handwriting, we are known by the whisper of our loops and on the page.
I often remind my writing apprentices, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” That’s Hemingway of course, from, A Moveable Feast. This week in the guild, we’ll spring from Hemingway and embark on a back-to-handwriting adventure. We will carve out fifteen minutes a day to compose one true sentence, but not just the truest sentence we know, the truest-most-beautifully-handwritten sentence we know.
We’ll begin with these things in mind:
Choose the right writing implement and the right paper. The feel of the pencil or pen on the page is a personal choice. The balance of resistance and flow has to be just right. Take time to explore the options.
Consider grip and posture. While I don’t believe there is a right way to grip the writing implement, I do believe the pressure of the grip matters. The grip should always be relaxed, not cramped. The posture should be upright, comfortable, and the arm should rest on a table so that the arm directs the stroke, not the wrist.
Beautiful handwriting begins with beautiful lines. Remember, our alphabet is a set of symbols developed by human beings to represent spoken sound. The symbols, from an artist’s standpoint, are simply arbitrary looped and curved lines that represent the spoken word.
Be the tortoise. Slow handwriting is nimble. Slow and steady is non-chaotic. Fast handwriting is mindless, awkward. Fast and rickety is chaotic. Consider the metaphor. An investment of time practicing the art of handwriting will generate much more than beautiful strokes on the page.
The Many Health Perks of Good Handwriting, from the Chicago Tribune.
Why Handwriting Is Important, from the National Handwriting Association.
Why Handwriting Makes You Smarter, from Reader's Digest.
Yesterday one of my apprentices brought me a gift. She simply handed me the sunny little package and smiled. Actions really do speak louder than words, but in this case the action was sparked by the whisper of words. And that whisper was echoing all the way from Elizabethan England, a whisper from the Bard himself.
This particular apprentice has been part of my high school literature and composition workshop for three years. When her parents came to me for help at the beginning of her sophomore year, she was on her school’s “at risk” list. But, after meeting this girl, I knew she was not at risk. This girl was not interested in words—not the reading of words, not the writing of words, not the speaking of words. This girl was not interested because she could not imagine what in the world words had to do with her.
I receive calls on a regular basis from parents deeply concerned by apathetic, and often dangerous, behavioral tendencies in their uninspired adolescents.
My heart breaks each and every time.
The solution to this dilemma is a complex choreography that can only be accomplished longitudinally, one step at a time. But the dance can’t begin until I teach the dancer to read. I’m not talking about phonics—this is not about learning to decode language on the page. Truth is, illiteracy is much more than an inability to decipher letters on a page. I’m talking about the insidious kind of illiteracy that begins with three small words, “Books are boring.” This is the kind of illiteracy that shrinks possibility.
Choosing to read is courageous.
More than one parent has asked me, “What have learning to read and write got to do with promoting individuality?”
Great stories are chock-a-block with possibility.Possibility has the potential to spark curiosity.
Curiosity leads to imagination.
Imagination fuels dreams.
Over the years I’ve mentored countless young people whose GPA does not reflect their potential. And this particular apprentice was no exception. So I began as I always do, I handed her a book.
Great stories contain the potential to be instructive and experiential. For those who know how to use them, books will spark curiosity, evoke imagination, and foster creative critical thinking. Because the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual components of a story are inseparable, a single story can profoundly impact an individual. A great story may encourage us to revel in the beauty of creation, coax us to embrace heroism, fight injustice, may inspire us to love our neighbor as ourselves. No matter the case, great stories hold the potential for the reader to glean wisdom. Great stories encourage us to persevere in the complex tasks we encounter while reaching for life’s potential.
I took this high school sophomore by the hand and stood with her at the first page of a book, “In this particular story, as seventh grade comes to a close, Allegra Leah Shapiro has been selected as a finalist in a prestigious violin competition and this stirs up all sorts of inner conflict…”
Why does summer have to be so hectic?
What does it mean to be half Jew and half gentile?
Why is soprano, Diedre, crying?
How can I be a twelve-year-old violinist and have time to be a friend?
Why is my brother so annoying?
How has Mr. Trouble lost his song?
What is this gift from Bubbe Raisa?
And what of this great-grandmother I’ve been named after?
Will I be able to dig deep enough for Mozart?
Can I undo what has been done?
I read this to my apprentice believing with all of my heart that Allegra, might be able to inspire her, if she dared to read between the lines and listen, “You are not alone.”
“The Mozart Season,” I tell her, “is a quiet story, one filled with resounding music that just might change your life.” I leave it there, hand her the book and ask her (well, okay, require her) to read a bit so we can discuss the story in a week.
I’m always hopeful, but when a week has passed, I know she might still be at the starting blocks. This particular type of race is never a sprint.
A week later I ask, “So have you completed the reading?”
“Well, no, not really, I mean, well…”
“This was required reading.”
“I just really don’t get it.”
Obviously this is not about decoding the words on the page. This girl knows how to read, thing is, she has no idea how to be inspired by a story, has no idea how to embrace the universal truths, let alone apply them to her life. This girl has no idea how to animate a character like Allegra.
So I read the opening paragraph on the first page of chapter one: “In Mr. Kaplan’s studio is a needlepoint pillow, on a chair. On one side of it is a violin. The other side says, A teacher is someone who makes you believe you can do it. Somebody who took lessons from him a long time ago made it. When I was little, I couldn’t read it clearly because needlepoint letters have odd shapes.”
“Seems to me Virginia Euwer Wolff is using pretty plain language. This is not Shakespeare!”
“Um, I don’t know.”
“Has anyone ever told you that a great story is a mentor?”
She is about to roll her eyes, but surprisingly trusts me instead, “What?”
With I sigh of relief, I don’t miss a beat, “If we dig deep enough into the heart of a story, dig to its very core, we always discover a treasure. And I believe that this treasure has the power to inform our life. A book leads us by the hand on an exploration of discovery that will make us a richer person.”
“But my mind wanders when I read.”
“Yes. I’ve worked to slow down when I read, worked to build habits that help me ponder words, phrases, passages, peculiar shape, sound and meaning. And this work, this habit of being, has enabled me to value reading. Truth is, I’ve learned to love stories because I’ve discovered that stories enrich my individuality. I know you can too. I want to help you through this book because there is embedded treasure just for you. I want to help you do the work of extracting that treasure because your individuality matters. You matter”
She is beaming, but only for an instant. Then the work began.
That was three years ago. We made it though The Mozart Season in much the same way that Allegra got through the violin competition, gathering strength along the way. We read Pictures of Hollis Woods. We read Milkweed. We read another and another. Last fall we read The Screwtape Letters. This fall we tackled Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet.
So when my apprentice handed me the bag of snacks smirking the slogan, “Much ado about Mango,” I know she’s learned to read, really read. I hear the violins and see Allegra smile, “Remember, what’s down inside you, all covered up—the things of your soul. The important, secret things . . . The story of you, all buried, let the music caress it out into the open.”
Up until recently I thought that the Twelve Days of Christmas were the twelve days before Christmas. Not so. These twelve days, The Twelve Days of Christmas, are twelve days after Crīstesmæsse, the Chrsitmastide.
Twelve days came down to us from centuries past to represent the timing of the Magi, the Wise Ones from the East who followed stars and discovered something unimaginable—the Christ child in a stable.
And so this year, here in the 21st century, we are celebrating for twelve days after Christmas anticipating Epiphany or Three Kings Day.
Here are some ideas how you might too…
Here’s to keeping our hearts contemplating the curiosity of days, hope and joy for the New Year.
- The Whole Blackbird Team!