Saturday, November 12, 2011

Margin for magic

I am currently in the midst of NaNoWriMo, an attempt to write 50,000 words of fiction in 30 days. For me it is all consuming, so why am I writing about margins? There is a magic that can come from placing myself in front of my novel, with my fingers on the keyboard. Sometimes it takes awhile, but in the course of this month my imagination will send more to my typing fingers than I ever thought possible -- but I have to give my imagination a margin -- I have to sit at the keyboard and do the work, even when it takes a long time.

Similar in my family life in the concept of quality family time. We do not always have quality time every time we are together, but the value in being together is that it can be wonderful. But if we never give it the time, it won't be. We are tempted to fill up our evenings with commitments and skip family dinners. It's true that sometimes our dinners are far from transcendent. Some one is mad at someone else, or the food isn't very good, or the conversation is boring. But sometimes we have a fabulous time together, we talk about interesting things, or learn something that we didn't know. Those are the dinners that I want to happen, but to experience them, we have to live through the other kind too. We have to provide a margin for the magic to happen.

"I am not responsible for your feelings"

I have recently been thinking a lot about this idea "I am not responsible for your feelings."

While it is true that no one can enter my mind and fiddle with my feelings, we certainly learn to push the buttons of our loved ones. I have noticed, particularity with my children, that upsetting siblings (or other loved ones) is in some way rewarding, and people learn quickly how to do it. It seems to me to then teach them that they are not responsible for the feelings that arise from their words or actions is somewhat immoral. It allows them to commit egregious deeds and then respond without compassion to the feelings that arose in the other person as a result.

But let me take a step back and look at two extremes. The first is the case where someone, in fact, truly did nothing and their friend or relative is having strong feelings about them. I will risk my reputation when I say this has happened to me, that I have become angry or unhappy about a person when, in fact, nothing has actually happened. I expect that I am not alone.

At the other extreme, a person has willfully been hurtful, has spread rumors or spoken cruelly, been physically or emotionally abusive, or stolen from or cheated someone in someway that most of us would see as justifiable reasons for negative feelings.

Having laid out what I think are self-explanatory examples from which you will draw your own conclusions I want to return to the idea of being responsible for feelings. I am going to venture the opinion that no one is responsible for anyone's feelings, even our own. There are a few enlightened beings among us who can control their thoughts and feelings. There are others among us who are at the complete mercy of our thoughts and feelings. The rest of us ride a middle course: attempting to turn our thoughts and feelings to the positive, but certainly not always succeeding. My understanding of Buddhist belief is that thoughts and feelings happen, but it is up to us whether we chose to believe them. This comes close to my own opinion.

My experience is that I can only be somewhat successful in controlling my thoughts and feelings, and that some responsibility for triggering negative thoughts and feelings may sometimes be reasonably applied to an outside source.

As a parent this is an interesting question to me. Take the case where one of my children gets upset and tell me "He made me mad." Sometimes I agree -- one brother may have set up another brother in a way that made him mad in the past and is likely to do the same today. The mad brother, though, has a history of over-reacting -- again this is our subjective opinion. I personally do not see this as a case of not being responsible for the angry brother's feelings. I see it as more like the case where one car rear-ends the car in front of it without much force, but the driver, who was predisposed to injury through pre-existing conditions, suffers traumatic neck injury. In this case the driver of the car causing the accident is legally liable for the injury.

With my kids I want them to look at the upset person, acknowledge that they have acted in a way that contributed to the out of control feelings, and make appropriate amends and, hopefully, refrain from acting the same way again. The angry child has a job too -- to try to tone it down, to recognize that they are very sensitive to getting angry and to begin to get a handle on that. We live in a family, a community, and we cannot live alone. These are the steps I think the involved persons need to take to live in harmony with each other.

I recently had the experience of two people making a decision that negatively impacted my life. One was able to listen to my upset, and validate that she could see why I might feel that way. The other told me that she was not responsible for my feelings. Guess which one I'm now happy to be in community with? The first didn't change what she had done, but she did help me to deal with my own feelings about the event. She didn't "Gaslight" me by telling me in any way that my feelings were invalid, and because of that I was able, on my own, to recognize the ways in which my feelings were out of proportion to the event and it's actual effects on me and my family.

If empathy is foremost then we can in fact say (but only in our heads and never aloud to the upset person) "I am not responsible for your feelings." It may be true, but it is a way of saying "I don't have to care what I did, and I don't have to care about you and your feelings." If we can be with the person, hear them, empathize with their feelings and make reasonable accommodation not to repeat the result will a better community/family.

These are some other interesting discussions of this same topic:

I am not responsible for your feelings


Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Monday, August 29, 2011

"Self Learning" in our Homeschool

I'm working on a self-learning model for my oldest, who is turning twelve in November (although I'm not a fan of the term). I'm motivated by the fact that I'm feeling a bit burnt out and we haven't even started the year yet! But just as importantly, the self-learning option has a lot to recommend it. My current plan is to give him a loose list of topics and books to work from, but not so much he can't add his own, or find more resources on a topic that interest him, or go lightly on something that doesn't spark his interest. I'm also making him a planner to keep track of it all. He has a composition book sectioned into topics for notes and narrations. I'm not willing to give him completely free rein, but I do think that giving him choices over books and when to study each subject can have positive effects. I'm not willing to put aside books and methods that I have researched, but I will be flexible.

My hope is that I will have far less to do -- I have never yet been very successful at giving him a list of things to do. I tend to watch the clock and decide if there is time for one more thing. My hope is that with this plan, he takes over much of that work, to his benefit and mine. I need time to work with my other two. Last year my youngest mostly tagged along and didn't get much work targeted to his own level. I don't think much harm was done, but I want to be able to work with him individually. And my nine-year old needs some help to learn to set thoughts on paper. He has a way to go.

These are some of the best resources I've seen on self-learning for homeschoolers:

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Thoughts about the day

I am grateful today for the lovely weather, and for not having been in the path of a tornado yesterday. My gratitude makes me much more patient than I have been for the last few days, and motivated to make my house look a little less as if it has been hit by a tornado (which, just to reiterate, it hasn't). I would like to be in the position, should the occasion occur, to offer hospitality to anyone who might need it following yesterdays storms. Yesterday I could easily envision all of my clutter rising into the air and adding far more to the mess of destruction than any one house has the right to do. The thought that I do not keep up well with the house makes me feel inadequate and grumpy. But also the universe has been sending me the message, "You are enough," and as I go about my day, doing a lot of work of various kinds, but not managing to keep up with the clutter, I try to keep that message in mind, to do my best and to acknowledge that I am, in fact, doing a lot in this multifaceted life of household manager, cook, and homeschooler, and that perhaps no one, and certainly not I, can do it all.

I took my patience into a nice morning. We cancelled plans for a fieldtrip today due to evening sports commitments, and as a result I would have a full fledged mutiny on my hands if I tried to assign tablework. Instead we sat outside and read The First Book of Birds and had a great Nature Sit (that's like a nature walk, but without the perambulation). I have mixed success with nature walks, and today's version worked well. By sitting fairly still, we managed not to scare all the wildlife away! We saw a bluebird in the backyard (and I have never seen one here before, and it makes me happy), and a woodpecker that was probably a Northern Flicker. We noticed other birds and watched a robin take a bath in the sandbox cover. We saw chipmunks and squirrels and had a good conversation about birds, using the Cornell site to look at bird shapes. There were no time limits, and no pressure to be done and move on to something else so we could continue as long as it seemed there was interest.

When people ask if we do science and history and whatever other subjects, this is the type of day that I can't quite use in my answer, but that best describes why we homeschool. Learning unfolds in these hours, but not in a way that falls into the traditional paradigm. This type of learning is vastly underrated, but in my opinion, it is some of the best.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

WiNoWriMo: Teaching Noveling, Pt 2

Well, I'm not getting these posts done, so I'm posting my outlines in the hope that they will help inspire someone else:

Noveling 2nd meeting:

Warm up: adjectives

The _______ dog gave a ________ bark.

The _______ dream left a ________ memory.

The _______ book gave me a _______ idea.

Check in: How is it going?

Word count -- graph it and discuss
discuss setting: a great way to add lots of words.

Hand out adjective sheet -- adjectives are a great way to add to your word count and bring detail to your story -- note that every noun could have as many as ten adjectives to describe it
List 20 adjectives that can be used to describe a setting
exercise: write 50 words describing a new setting you can use in your novel

What makes characters interesting? observe the people around you for tidbits to add to your novel.

Exercise (either written or orally): list 20 adjectives that can be used when describing a character

exercise: write 50 words describing a new character you can use in your novel
Who would like to read theirs?

Do you have a part of your story where you introduce a character that you would like to read to us?

What ideas do you take from these readings?

what use is a villain?
Who is the villain in Little House on the Prairie, Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel, Anne of Green Gables, The Odyssey?

Has your Main Character been pushed out of their comfort zone yet? What is the problem they are confronting?

tips for figuring out names?

Workbook: Make up your story p. 42

write the climactic scene

11:50 read week 2 pep talk from NPNP

Email to writers:
I hope your writing is going well this week. I hope you've had the chance to put the descriptions you wrote on Thursday in class into your stories. If not, that might be a good thing to do.

One thing I've done during NaNoWriMo that I've found helpful is something called a Word War. That's where you agree with someone to write for a certain amount of time. At the end you compare word counts. You can do this using the telephone or email. If you'd like to do it as a group, we could set up a time tomorrow to have one. You can also arrange your own with just one or more other writers.

Good luck! I'm thinking of you all this week!

3rd meeting

Warm up: Nouns -- use specific ones (5 mins)

Check in: go around the table (20 mins)
What's hard, what's easy, has it been the same the whole time?
Is there anything you'd like input on?

word count (15 mins)
work on milestones page of workbook
create wordcount plan to finish (work individually, using a worksheet I built before class)
Each writer should copy down their customized word plan somewhere in workbook or notebook

Character voice -- read 3 examples on pp. 52-53 of Magnificent Stories

Are your characters growing and developing?
Examples from books you have read:
Will your character do something surprising? (Examples from books you have read)

creative process (15 mins)
Liz Gilbert TED video starting at 6:30
What's your creative process like? What are you finding writing like? Where do your ideas come from? Do you have all your ideas before you sit down to write, or do they come to you as you write?
Did you hear anything from anyone else here that you'll use in the next two weeks?

Halfway video peptalk box castles
Suck dragon video from YWP

discuss different types of scenes: action, description, backstory, etc.

Where is your story? Has it reached the climax yet. It probably will this week, although it might be late this week or even early in the last week. (Exercise to go with this?)

Pep talk (text)

NanoWrimo 4th meeting

Warmup: Using all senses to describe a place or person

1. Update word count. Note who wrote the most in each week so far. Make plans with those who need a plan to finish.

Has real life helped you figure out what to put in your novel this week? Did anything unexpected happen that you ended up writing about?

2. Discuss some other aspect of noveling? Climax? Conflict? Summarize the conflict in your story.

3. Check in. Let everyone talk for a few minutes about their novel. Try to keep the kids from changing the subject to their own novel when it isn't their turn ;) Give them time to talk about process as well as ask for help/ideas about ending their novel if they want to. (I recommend more focus for a conversation like this one. We found that kids had a hard time describing their novels. Maybe ask them to read an excert that will help us figure out what their novel is about. YMMV)

4. 15 minute word war. Award winner prize. (We made a white duck tape sash that said Word War Winner.)

5.Talk about endings. How do novels end? What kind of ending do you like best? What kind do you think your novel will have?

5. Another word war?

6. pep talk for 4th week

NanoWriMo 5th session


Collect and graph word counts
Congratulations and applause, callouts for exceptional work
Maybe make a poster to share wordcounts? (as percentage of goal)

read your novel (We gave the kids some quiet time to read what they had written. Not everybody could read their whole story in the time we had.)

Talk about revising
(we did one week of revising before reading excerpts and having a party the last week)
1st, make a backup copy of your novel. You can use the words "rough draft" in the file name"
Most people recommend taking a break from your novel before revising it.
for revision categories, see the last section of your workbook
complete sentences
spelling -- how to approach spelling this week, and my philosophy of spelling in general
this week -- use your spell check and be aware of homonyms
in general -- very similar, but also notice words as you read so that you can recognize a word that is wrong.

My philosopy of spelling: it matters, it can affect how seriously your writing is taken, but it's not the most important aspect of writing. Do your best, and use the tools that are available to you (including proofreaders)
list of homonyms
phrases that are often misspelled: "Say your piece" Bare your soul,

Talk about NaNoWriMo November. Could we do it as a coop? What would you say to the rest of the coop to convince them.
(Make a poster?)

talk about choosing a passage to share with the coop next week

Write a blurb:
story is defined by: character, setting, genre
complete this sentence in writing: My story is about: (less than 2 minutes each) (make it interesting)
write a cover blurb to suck in readers who might buy your book
write a bio for yourself for your book cover

read excerpts?

Email sent:
The writers all did extremely well, all meeting, and some massively exceeding their word goals. We talked in class about editing spelling, paragraphs, and grammar. It is often recommended to let a piece of writing "rest" for a while before returning to it to make changes, but we don't really have the time to do that. I forgot to recommend that they make a backup of their files, but that is still valid -- they should keep a copy of their novel as it stands now and before they make additional changes to it.

In class we also wrote "blurbs" to describe our stories.

In addition to editing this week, they should also pick an excerpt of a page or less to read to Echo on Thursday. They can briefly introduce their excerpt, preferably with their blurb rather than a detailed description of their story. It would be useful if they worked with you to pick an excerpt to read, but if that doesn't work at your house, we will help them on Thursday morning.

We are looking forward to celebrating the hard work they've done in the last four and a half weeks!

6th meeting
This meeting was devoted to practicing reading an excerpt they chose. We sat with each writer and helped them pick an excerpt if they wanted us to, or just made sure it was a good length. One typed page is plenty, we found, YMMV.
In retrospect, it is very important to have them practice out loud and get any gentle coaching on talking louder and/or slower. Also, it turns out to be very difficult to stand up and launch into an excerpt without explaining it first (even though I encouraged them to do that). So talk about that and figure out how you want to handle it.
We had each writer write a bio that we used to introduce them. Most of them were pretty silly, but fun. It's a good idea to read these in advance to make sure they aren't offensive (like mentioning stinky little brothers who may be in the audience). We also had them write a cover blurb for their books, in part to keep them busy while we worked with writers individually.
We made a congratulatory word count poster, and each writer signed it with their word goal and actual words written.
Once all this was done, we presented our excerpts to our audience and then had party food!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

WiNoWriMo: Teaching Noveling, Pt 1

Here’s what I did for our 6 week NaNoWriMo-inspired noveling class (with gracious bows to Lydia, whose curriculum inspired many of my own activities). We had eight kids, ages 10-14, and two adults, who also wrote. We met around a table for about two hours, once a week.

The materials I used are what I had lying around the house. If you have different books on writing, by all means, use those!

Materials I used:

  • No Plot, No Problem: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days, by Chris Baty (creator of NaNoWriMo)
  • Guaranteed Non-Lame Young Novelists Workbook, from The Young Writers Program (they also have curriculum). I had access to a spiral binding machine and asked families to print out a copy and then I bound them (or I charged a nominal fee to print them out). Some kids kept them in 3-ring binders. I personally thought the Staples/Kinko price for printing and binding a bit high since in my class, at least, use of the workbook was optional. Some kids really got into them and enjoyed them, and found them useful, and others hardly used them.
  • Memorable Characters. . . Magnificent Stores: 10 Mini-Lessons on Crafting Lively Characters – the key to Great Student Story Writing, by Susie Garber
  • A big piece of paper to track group progress
  • I asked each child to have a notebook and pencil for class, but I was also realistic and had a stash to share. The notebook could be to write their novel in, but it was definitely for wordwars and other class writing. They could also use it to write down ideas they had about their novel when they were not actually writing, but I’m not sure any of them actually used them like that!
We wrote for one calendar month, but since we started in the middle of February, we only wrote for 28 days – 29 if anyone was sneaking in a few last words before our 10am meeting! Doing this project in November has the huge advantage of being able to take advantage of all of The Young Writers Programs perks, but if you can’t do in November, it’s still worth doing.


Session 1: Discuss the whys of writing a novel quickly. Brainstorm plot and pick word goals.
Session 2: Think about adjectives & conflict.
Session 3: Think about nouns and character voice. Do a wordwar.
Session 4: Share stories and do a wordwar.
Session 5: Wrap up, many congratulations, and discuss editing.
Session 6: Prepare readings and read a page or less to an appreciative audience. Follow with a party!

If you have the time, it would make sense to introduce the concept in the first class and then have the kids spend the first week working on the workbook. However, our schedule changed a couple of times due to snow, so this is what we ended up doing.

And now in slightly more detail. My apologies if many of the details have been lost, but my hope is that this is still useful to someone!

Session 1

We started by stressing very strongly that to make our group a safe place to share our writing we all had to be very respectful of each other and work hard to censor intended and unintended criticism. We had to reiterate this often, throughout the session, as kids often just say whatever pops into their heads!

Community builder: We didn’t end up doing this, but some sort of exercise to get kids working together and trusting each other would certainly be useful.

The Whys: Why try to write a novel or a story in a short amount of time? Read from No Plot No Problem. Chapter 1 deals with this. It is clearly written for adults, so preread and decide if you need to make any substitutions to the examples.

Genre: What is it, what are some examples, What are your favorites, what genre will your novel be?

What makes a book good? (Hero, villain, conflict)
Write a recipe for your novel (i.e. 2 cups adventure, 5 explosions, ¼ teaspoon romance, etc.)

Quick thoughts about paragraphs, quotations, chapters. (Use a favorite novel as a model)

Store your inner editor (workbook)

Brainstorm novel ideas in small groups

Where to write your novel? a notebook, Word, Google Docs

What to do when you get stuck:
  • ask for help: share email addresses (or set up a group) to get help from each other (I emphasized that no one has to use anyone else’s ideas, but that they may help to get the creative juices flowing, also, again emphasize being gentle and avoiding anything that can be construed as criticism of someone else’s idea)
  • Describe things in detail
  • Skip to another part of the story (write an exciting scene that you have to work up to)
What to do if you don't like your story? Make a change. It doesn't have to be logical, it's a first draft. If you end up liking it, you can go back and fix inconsistencies later.

Writing exercise to help determine reasonable word count (I’m sure this was a good idea, but we didn’t do it due to time constraints)

write an exciting scene (we didn’t do this either, but I’ve used this successfully myself for NaNoWriMo)

We did, however, pick word goals. The lowest the goal any of the kids had was 2400 words which is high for 5th graders (who made up a large portion of our class) according to the Young Writers Program guidelines. However, all the kids with that goal exceeded it, one by nearly 400%. The word goals varied between 2400 and 7000. The two adults writing had word goals of 15,000, which had the potential to mess up the group progress chart when we both got behind. On the one hand, the kids got to see us struggle, but I wouldn’t have been happy if my own failure to write had caused the group to fail to meet its goal. That didn’t happen, but I offer it as food for thought.

This is the email I sent to parents after the first session:
Welcome to the crazy life as a family member of a novelist!

Today in class we looked at the workbooks put out by the Young Writers Program ( I encourage the kids to make use of these workbooks, but I'm not assigning specific pages -- I want them to concentrate on writing their stories. However, if they seem stuck, the workbook is a good place to turn to.

As of tomorrow, they need a way to start working on their novel. If you need technical assistance, please ask. We talked about writing in Word (or another word processor) or in Google Docs, which is accessible anywhere you can get internet access. If they are going to write longhand, they should have a notebook devoted to that. I discouraged them from deleting or tearing out pages -- everything they write counts towards their word goals. If they really need to they can put gentle x's or grey out the words they wouldn't want to use in a final product. But we are not writing a final product! Our goal is exuberant imperfection -- there is no bad writing at this point, as long as they are writing!

My ideal is that they spend about 3 hours a week writing -- either three 1 hour sessions, or 6 half hour sessions, or whatever works for them. However, their progress is not measured in time spent, but in words written. Below is their word goal for the four weeks (writing from February 10 to March 10), with another column for the weekly goal. We're shooting for 100% success here, and they are encouraged to write more than their goal -- the goal is a minimum. If they are writing longhand they do need to count their words and make a note of it on each page (a cumulative count would be useful too). If they are using a computer, there is always a way to get the program to tell you how many words you have written. I encourage them to track their progress as it can be encouraging to see what they've accomplished. The Ready, Set, Write section of the workbook has place to note progress and goals (i.e. pages 83 and 85). Note that our "month" starts today and is 29 days long.

Word goal Weekly words
[Table of individual word goals and group total word goal]

If your novelist has an email address, please send it to me. I'd like them to be able to ask each other for advice. I'd also like to be able to nudge them personally during the week (I'll CC parents on that too, in case they don't check their email often).

Next week I would like them to bring their workbooks, a writing implement, and a copy of what they have written (with word count noted). (A small notebook would be useful also, and I've suggested they have one to write down ideas when they are not actually writing.) They will retain control of their own writing, and will be asked to share a bit if they would like to. I think that a hard copy is a useful, tangible mark of their progress, but even that is not required. I can print out their stories if you would like to send them to me on Wednesday.

Please let me know if you have any questions!

That's it for Session 1. More to come in a future post!