Reading Comprehension 101: Five Strategies for Scaffolding Challenging Texts for Not-English Teachers

Welcome, Teachers!

A few weeks ago, our instructional coach Val Hoose asked me to help her plan and run a professional development session on reading comprehension for teachers who teach math, science, social studies, and various electives, as well as for new and experienced English language arts teachers. I readily agreed.

Below, you’ll find all of the information from our professional development session, as well as links to various resources you may share with your colleagues. You may also participate in our professional development session from the comfort of your own home! Just follow the directions below! Continue reading

Chapter 4: Josiah Remington

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Author’s Note: You are about to read a working draft of the fourth chapter in my novel, The Six Provinces of Debris. You may wish to read Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and Chapter 3 before reading Chapter 4. I hope you enjoy it!

A cool, refreshing breeze blew through the open window, causing the bloody curtains to billow and flutter. Josiah Remington sat on the dead man’s bed, his hands clenched into fists. He had never done the deed himself; he usually got others to do it for him. He looked down at the sword, the hilt still shiny with blood. He slowly unclenched his Continue reading

My Soul in the Mirror

Howdy, dear reader!

Here is my response to the first Quills and Thrills writing prompt: Use imagery and figurative language to define the importance of writing in your life.

For me,
writing is like
looking at my soul in the mirror.
And I don’t mean writing for
school
or for Continue reading

Quills and Thrills: Writing Prompt Week One

Good afternoon, Thrillers!

Welcome to Quills and Thrills: Creative Writing for the Google Generation! Not sure what Quills and Thrills is?  Find out here!

Figurative Language Throw Down Challenge

Prime your mind for creative thinking every week with the Figurative Language Throw Down Challenge! Check out the rules for the weekly challenge before playing.

Thanks to @SSMindSchool for this week’s challenge!

Five Minute Burn

Your first writing prompt will require pre-writing using a nifty method I like to call a “five-minute burn.” Here’s how it works: I’ll set a timer for five minutes. As soon as I say go, you will start writing without stopping until the five minutes are up. If you run out of things to write about, simply write “IDK IDK IDK” over and over again until something comes to you. The trick is to keep your pencil moving. Don’t worry about erasing errors or scratching out mistakes. Just ignore them and KEEP WRITING!

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Ready for your prompt? Here it is: How would you define writing and why is it important to you?

If you’re following along at home, use the video below to keep track of your time.

Time is up! How did you do? Take a moment to reread your burn. If you come across a phrase or word that you really like, underline it.

Now, we’re going to revise our burn to be a publishable piece of writing. Here’s your new prompt: Use imagery and figurative language to define the importance of writing in your life.

Before you start revising your burn, check out two tricks of the writing trade below to help you jazz up your writing a bit.

Continue reading

The Boy Who Left The Village

The wind ignored the boy’s thin white cotton shirt. It cut through his skin and skirted his small, undeveloped muscles before settling deep down into his bones. The silhouettes of the tall woodland trees stood proudly against an orange glow, and the boy squeezed his eyes tightly shut and pressed his hands against his frozen ears to keep the screaming from permeating his tiny heart. The bark of a great big cottonwood tree seemed to clutch the thin fabric of his shirt, relentlessly digging into the soft skin of his back. He could smell the smoke and he knew he should run, but his legs refused to straighten from their crouched position.

He was warm now. His skin tingled, thawing gratefully from the cold. He cautiously opened one eye, peered down at his bare, knobby knees and the hard, frozen dirt, and pushed himself up to standing.

He felt a tickle in his throat, teasing at first, then insistent, then relentless. He coughed, forcing the pungent, ashy air out of his lungs only to suck it in again. And again. And again.

A strange heat – so hot it was almost cold – pressed on his eyelids, forehead, knuckles, and toes.

He opened his eyes.

Flames tasted the tree branches. The silhouettes of the trees, once proud and tall, now buckled in pain, frightened and charred as some beast with long, fiery fingers ate them alive. Sensing his presence, the beast reached toward Willy with a hiss and a crack, and Willy could see nothing else, feel nothing else, smell nothing else, but a bright, white light: neither hot nor cold, neither alive nor dead.

Analysis Shmanalysis: Making Analysis Accessible for All Students

Man, I haven’t published anything in a while. I let life get in the way. And Netflix. Lots of Netflix (New Girl, anyone?).

I also think that I’ve been a little burnt out on writing, and I know I’ve been burnt out on teaching. It’s been difficult to bring myself to spend brainpower on anything aside from lesson planning, grading, and all of the administrative tasks required of teachers. Basically, I haven’t wanted to spend any time on anything extra. Hence the Netflix.

But perhaps I’m leaving that strange funk because I’ve been thinking a lot about analysis lately, specifically about why my seniors are struggling with it so much. I started this school year thinking that they would already know how to analyze a piece of text. Isn’t it something that they’ve had to do since sixth grade? I mean, check out the progression of textual evidence and analysis in the RL. 1 standard:

  • The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts (ELA) specify that by the end of their sixth grade year, students should be able to “cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” (RL 6.1)
  • When they get to seventh grade, they should be able to “cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” (RL 7.1)
  • The eighth grade standards are even more specific, specifying that they need to “cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports analysis of” blah blah blah. (RL 8.1)
  • When they get to high school, they need to “cite strong and thorough textual evidence…” (RL 9-10.1)
  • And by their junior and senior years, they should be using textual evidence for everything mentioned before, but they should also use it to determine “where the text leaves matters uncertain.” (RL 11-12.1)

Whew. That’s a lot of fluff, don’t you think?

So, why are my students struggling with analysis so much?

If you’ve been paying any attention to anything related to education in the United States (which I’m assuming you have since you’re reading this), then you’re already aware that this is the Big Scary Year for teachers and students living in Race to the Top states. In just four short weeks (hot damn, that’s soon!) my students will be taking the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) assessment for the first time. Never heard of PARCC? Other Race to the Top states opted for the Smarter Balanced Assessment System. Same difference.

The whole point of the CCSS and the PARCC assessment is to prepare our student for college and choice careers. The fact is, American students have already fallen behind many international students, and it’s freaking everybody out. Ergo, the CCSS and the accompanying assessments (born of the grand Pearson Demon, but that’s a bedtime story for another day) have graced American educators with their unwelcome presence.

Don’t get me wrong; I support the CCSS for English Language Arts. I like how the standards build on each other, how the standards are designed to support student learning. I think they make sense. Sure, they’re super rigorous, and yes, the Math CCSS are ridiculous, but I truly believe the ELA standards will do good things for our students as long as ALL teachers, not just ELA teachers, are given the tools, resources, and professional development necessary to teach the standards well. Hopefully, my analysis of teaching analysis (HA!) will be helpful for other teachers, not just myself.

Now, back to analysis. Check this out: I plugged all of the anchor standards for reading literature and reading informational texts into Wordle to create a beautiful word cloud. After eliminating the common words, the image below is what popped up:

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 5.56.33 PM

Notice that the most commonly used word in the reading standards is “text.” Well, duh. So, after eliminating “text,” along with some other unnecessary words such as “two” and “e.g,” I created the lovely little cloud below.

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 5.58.26 PM

It appears “analyze” is the most commonly used verb in the reading standards, followed closely by “determine.” Let’s dive deeper into the reading standards though to make sure we really understand just how much today’s high school students have to analyze a text.

The first two Reading Literature Anchor Standards state:

  • 1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
  • 2: Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

Both of these standards require students to “determine” something, yet the standards seem to use the verb “determine” as a synonym for “analyze” in order to avoid sounding too repetitive and redundant. You can’t “determine” a theme of a text without some degree of analysis.

Analysis: meaningless buzzword, or meaningful skill?

Since the CCSS have come out, the concept of analysis – whether used as a noun, a verb, or an adjective – has become a popular buzzword for teachers, administrators, and politicians alike (well, maybe not politicians), yet it is the skill that challenges students the most. This is unfortunate considering it is also the number one skill required by the standards. In order to remedy this problem, we must ask why the problem even exists.

I believe (and I don’t have any scientific proof to back this up, just my own experiences) that despite their best intentions, many teachers don’t actually know how to articulate what analysis is. They know how to do it, they know what it looks like when they see it, but they cannot actually articulate what it is and how to do it in kid-friendly language.

– OR –

They think they know what analysis is because they’ve never had to define it before. Considering the standards require the students to start analyzing a text in the sixth grade, it’s possible that teachers in the later grades assume that the students already know what it is and how to do it. I certainly did at the beginning of this year. Then, students turn in “analytical” papers that mostly contain plot interpretation, and because that is a step above plot summary, the teacher is satisfied. I’ve done that before too.

I’m not trying to cast blame on America’s teachers, but it is a hard fact that we have to accept if we hope to make progress. Society expects teachers to be experts in their fields, and it is very unforgiving of teachers who don’t “know everything.” When I first started teaching, my friends would give me a hard time for not knowing specific historical facts or for not being able to recall obscure grammatical rules off the top of my head. They would say, “You should know that! You’re a teacher!” Many people don’t understand that teachers often have to review and relearn the material they’re planning to teach the week before the lesson. It’s almost as if people forget that we are human, and then they punish us for reminding them of that unfortunate fact.

I think that’s why many teachers are afraid to admit when they don’t know something or when their understanding of a concept differs from their colleagues’, especially something as heavily stressed as analysis. I’m not blaming teachers for not knowing how to distinguish it from plot interpretation or how to teach it, I’m blaming society for creating a culture in which teachers are afraid to admit that they need help with something. Instead of acknowledging the problem and confronting it head on, with support, they ignore it, hide it, and struggle to resolve it on their own.

How can our students hope to learn what analysis is if their teachers can’t figure out how to explain it to them? I don’t know about other teachers, but I was never taught how to teach analysis in college. I don’t remember being taught how to analyze a text. I just remember writing a paper for English 201 and everything fell into place. Someone must have taught me how to analyze though, right?

Not necessarily. Tulane University’s article titled “Teaching Analysis” suggests that analytical skills come naturally to people who read a lot:

“What is it that enables English teachers to find so many interesting things to say about something we’ve read? The simplest answer is this: all the other things we’ve read. More specifically, strong readers are those who have read a very great deal and who can thus carry into every act of reading something like a vast catalogue of memories of other texts. When we look at a new piece of prose, we do so ‘through the lens’ of the many dozens of other things we’ve read, texts that are at once very similar and very different from the one at hand. When we look at a new text this way, all sorts of unique features in the piece we are reading become visible, all sorts of ways that this particular piece is saying something new or making an unfamiliar move – or, conversely, repeating ordinary messages in fairly standard ways. In the simplest sense, experienced readers are able to supply the sort of context necessary to make a text seem more and more thickly dotted with meaningful moments and significant turns.”

Does that mean that only our avid readers will be able to dive deep into a text and use analysis to tease out the subtle nuances that make it worth reading? No. I refuse to believe that. It just means that teachers need to collaborate with each other to make sure their expectations are consistent across the curriculum, and that they know how to break down the concept of analysis in a way that is accessible to students.

Okay, so what is analysis?

Google’s Definition of Analysis

When unsure about what something is, many of our students rely on the handy dandy Google machine to give them more information about it. The problem is if Google doesn’t give them a useful answer, they tend to give up right away. Shucks.

This is a problem because Google’s definition of analysis is like flat fountain soda: watered down and boring: “Analysis: A detailed examination of the elements or structure of something, typically as a basis for discussion or interpretation.” Okay. Well, yes, that does seem to be a definition of analysis, but is it useful to our students? Does it tell them how to analyze something? Not really.

Dictionary.com's definition of analysis
Dictionary.com’s definition of Analysis

I found Dictionary.com’s definition of analysis to be much more useful, with three relevant definitions to academic analysis: “1. The separating of any material or abstract entity into its constituent elements; 2. This process as a method of studying the nature of something or of determining its essential features and their relations; 3. A presentation, usually in writing, of the results of this process.”

I really like Dictionary.com’s definitions because they all relate to the steps of analysis. In order to analyze a text, you must first separate it into its constituent elements: theme, character development, tone, etc. Then, you have to consider how a particular element relates to something bigger within the work. For example, how does Fitzgerald use the setting of The Great Gatsby to make a statement about the political or social issues of the time in which it was written? It goes beyond the obvious socioeconomic statuses of East Egg, West Egg, and The Valley of Ashes. Students must also consider how the characters’ behaviors change from one setting to the other. They must consider why Fitzgerald decided to place the car accident in the Valley of Ashes, why Tom’s infidelity occurs in New York, and the significance behind Daisy’s infidelity in West Egg. What does this suggest about the differences between the two affairs? What does it suggest about the pains and desires of the characters themselves? Finally, the students must be able to present their analysis to others. Usually, this is done through an analytical essay, but it can also be done orally in a discussion, or through a presentation.

While exploring the concept of analysis, I stumbled across this wonderful resource from Austin Peay State University that explains the difference between plot summary, plot interpretation, and literary analysis. Upon reading the words “plot interpretation,” I was first confused, then excited. I had never heard of plot interpretation before. Check out the differences between the three types of writing below, or read the entire article here.

  • Plot Summary: A condensed description of the basic plot points of a text. Plot summary does not address the deeper meaning, nor does it contain opinions. It simply explains what happened in the text.
  • Plot Interpretation: This is when a student describes details they’ve had to infer from the text, yet they still haven’t reached the deeper meaning. This is like picking up on someone’s body language or subtle sarcasm without understand why they’re acting that way. For example, students may infer that Lady Macbeth is experiencing extreme guilt because she is sleepwalking and having nightmares of blood-soaked hands that cannot be cleaned, yet they don’t take it further by connecting her guilt to the overall theme or the work or to the unchanging human condition.
  • Literary Analysis: Literary analysis requires you to first break down a text into its constituent parts, and then look at how each part contributes to the deeper meaning of the whole. You must first be able to comprehend the text (which is required to write an analysis), make connections within the text (which is required to interpret the plot), and then finally consider how one piece of the text contributes to a deeper or hidden meaning. Often, this deeper or hidden meaning relates to the human condition in some way.

Now that we know the difference between plot summary, plot interpretation, and plot analysis, let’s revisit the questions I posed about The Great Gatsby for the prompt, “how does Fitzgerald use the setting of The Great Gatsby to make a statement about the political or social issues of the time in which it was written?” A student who is at the plot interpretation level would simply discuss the obvious socioeconomic statuses of East Egg, West Egg, and The Valley of Ashes, and the corresponding characters’ attitudes about money. In order to reach the literary analysis level however, students must also consider how the characters’ behavior changes from one setting to the other. They must consider why Fitzgerald decided to place the car accident in the Valley of Ashes, why Tom’s infidelity occurs in New York, and the significance behind Daisy’s infidelity in West Egg. What does this suggest about the differences between the two affairs? What does it suggest about the pains and desires of the characters themselves? Now, how does this all relate back to the prompt, “how does Fitzgerald use the setting of The Great Gatsby to make a statement about the political or social issues of the time in which it was written?”

Literary analysis is as much about asking the right questions as it is about making connections between the elements. Ideally, the questions will require you to make connections between the elements. The Great Gatsby questions might lead a student to discover the relationship between setting and characters, and that relationship will then tie into a theme that is applicable to the political or social issues of the time in which it was written.

In literature, everything is connected, like a series of roadways. Students just have to discover the roadways. The question is the on-ramp; the connection is the road. Sometimes, a connection will be like a large, twelve-lane highway, easily accessible to everybody. More often, students will have to take the smaller streets or the tiny back roads to discover the connections. They may explore a possible connection before realizing it dead-ends far from where they hoped to be, but it may lead to something even better if they remain open-minded and willing to explore the unfamiliar.

How to Teach Analysis: A Step-by-Step Guide

Teaching analysis this year has been like building a sand castle with dry sand. I’ve had to break old habits while developing new ones: not an easy task when teaching high school seniors who think they know everything already. But it has forced me to rethink and redesign my practice, and I’m grateful for that.

  • Comprehension: As we already know, before students can analyze a text they first have to comprehend it. This simple truth is evident in the CCSS elementary standards. Tracing the RL 1. Anchor Standard back to grades one through three reveals a great deal of questioning, recalling, retelling, and summarizing. These skills lay the foundation for our next step: plot interpretation.
  • Plot Interpretation: Looking again at RL. 1, students in grades four and five are expected to start making inferences about plot, but first they must be able to identify the cause and effect relationships within the text. Initially, they have to be able to recognize basic patterns, using key details from the text as evidence of these patterns. As they progress through the grades, they need to recognize more complex patterns within the text, as well as across multiple texts and across disciplines.
  • Literary Analysis: Once students have a solid understanding of the plot and its inferences, they must then break the text down into its constituent elements. This includes theme, character, setting, plot, conflict, imagery, diction, symbolism, etc. Most prompts identify the element for students to analyze, but others are less restrictive. After choosing an element (or elements), the student must then refer back to the text in search of tangible, text-based clues that indicate the abstract, intangible concepts. When looking for clues, it may be necessary to forge connections that don’t already exist. Analytical essays are persuasive, after all.
  • Articulation: Finally, students must be able to articulate their analysis in a way that is both clear and concise. What’s the point of all the great analysis they’re doing if they don’t have the language to express their complex thoughts? I believe that organization is essential. Students need to know what concept to introduce first, where and how to use textual evidence to support their claims, and how to support their textual to their claim by writing support or analysis sentences.

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 2.38.17 PMWhen first introducing students to analytical writing, it is helpful to give them a formula to follow. Think of it as writing training wheels because without it, their writing is going to fall back into in the comfortable familiarity of plot summary. I like to use the eleven-sentence paragraph outline format in which every sentence serves a specific purpose. Not only does it scaffold the organization process, but it also provides a great opportunity to segue into sentence structure which the kids will eat up because they are learning it out of necessity, not because it’s on a to-do list. Vocabulary acquisition will also come much more naturally to the students at this point, and this is when I like to review lists of abstract nouns and transitions. Finally, when it is time to transform the outline into a rough draft, show the students how to embed textual evidence.

By the end of the unit, your students will have meticulously written something they’re proud of both because they’ve delved deeper into a text than ever before, and because they were able to articulate their complex thoughts in a way that makes sense to others. Basically, they’ll feel like a bunch of smarties, and they’ll have evidence of their intelligence! Isn’t that a great feeling?

So, next year when I get the chance to teach literary analysis all over again, with a (somewhat) clean slate, I’m going to start by identifying where my students fall on the plot summary, plot interpretation, literary analysis spectrum so that I can scaffold their learning appropriately without having to backpedal. I’m going to start with the ALA Protocol on the word “analysis,” explain the differences between plot interpretation and literary analysis, and force my students to forge connections where they don’t already exist with conceptual analogies. I’m going to focus on the skill of analysis rather than the product, because if the skills are strong, the products will be too.

But first, I’m going to finish watching New Girl on Netflix, because holy crap, I wrote way more on analysis than I originally thought I would. Thanks for sticking with it through the end!

Adventures in World Building

Lately, I’ve been feeling stuck. I’ve been stuck with my writing, stuck with my novel, and stuck with my teaching.

Momentary aside:

Is it odd that I just noticed how strange the word “stuck” is?

Seriously.

Say it ten times, over and over again, and you’ll notice it too.

Stuck. Stuck. Stuck. Stuck. Stuck. Stuck…okay, I’m done.

This morning, while surfing my newsfeed on Facebook before crawling out of bed, I clicked on a TedEd link titled “Comma Story” by Terisa Folaron. I clicked on it, hoping it would help me to become unstuck with lesson planning. It almost did help, and I almost picked up my lesson plan book to jot down some ideas for an upcoming writing unit, but then I got distracted and clicked on another link at the bottom of the page titled “More from The Writer’s Workshop.”

My train of thought is below.

Oh boy!

Videos on the three different types of irony! Videos that are actually helpful and student friendly! Those are going on my class blog.

And wait…what’s this? How to Build a Fictional World? I’m building a fictional world!

Screw lesson planning. I’m watching this.

(I watched the video) 

Well, crap. Now I’m inspired. I don’t want to do anything but write today.

(I write. And write. And write)

I need to take a shower.

(I continue writing)

I have to leave in an hour. I really have to take a shower.

(I continue writing)

Wow! I need to share this link on my blog. Then I can take a shower.

(Blogging)

Okay, but seriously, I need to take a shower.

Happy writing, friends! 🙂

Oh, and here’s the video: How to Build a Fictional World

On Writing

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My earliest memory of writing takes place in 1995 in my mother’s kitchen. I was in elementary school (maybe third grade?), and I had to write sentences using assigned vocabulary words every week. I hated it.

When it came to writing sentences, my mother and I had a routine: I would read the vocabulary word aloud, and then complain loudly that I couldn’t think of a sentence using the word. My mother would then make up a long, complicated sentence while kneading dough or stirring something on the stove, and I would use my fingers to count all of the words in her sentence. After almost every sentence she recited, I would impatiently inform her that the minimum requirement for each sentence was only five words, not ten words, and I couldn’t possibly write a sentence with more than five words. That would be too much work.

My mother would shrug and say, “That’s all I’ve got,” and I would sigh loudly and immediately make up my own sentence using only five words. I’m sure my mother smiled every time I bent my head to carefully write all five words on the paper. Then, I would read the next word aloud, and we would repeat the process.

Later, in eighth grade, I was painfully shy. I read constantly. So much so that it negatively affected my grades. I was the kid in the back of the class hiding her open book under the desk, completely oblivious to the teacher or the lesson. That was the year I turned in a personal narrative about my family’s Christmas tradition, and my teacher, Ms. Fabiani, was so impressed she read it aloud to the class. I was startled to hear my words come out of her mouth and thrilled by the polite applause when she was done.

At the end of the year, Ms. Fabiani had us write an eleven-sentence paragraph as our final exam. I remember swelling with pride and joy at the sight of the big red 100% written on the top of my paper. I ran up to my teacher after class, beaming and screaming, “Ms. Fabiani! Ms. Fabiani! I got an A on my final! I passed!” She just looked down at me and said, “Yes, but you still failed, honey.” Her words were like a brick to my chest. I hung my head and walked away, and at the end of that summer I started my second eighth grade year at a different school in a different state, my heart still heavy with shame, finally understanding the weight of a zero. Or twenty zeros.

I started my freshman year in college with a malnourished English education. I was able to substitute English 11 and English 12 with Creative Writing 1 and 2, and I remember my first college essay came back covered in bright blue corrections. The most glaring mistake was the word “defiantly” circled more times than I cared to count. That’s when I learned that there is no A in definitely. In spite of this, I earned high marks on the other essays, and continued to excel in my other English classes as well.

writing_pull3

That’s when I decided to become a teacher so I could help kids like me. Kids who need the extra push. Kids who need a person to notice that they need to be noticed more than once or twice a year.

Teaching became my passion. During my first year teaching, I enrolled in Reading and Writing Digital Texts with Penny Pence. She made us blog. A lot. I loved it.

I kept up with the blog for a while even after the class had ended, but eventually stopped posting new blogs because summer and a social life got in the way. When I stopped blogging regularly, I would occasionally feel the itch to write. I started a couple of new blogs here and there, but eventually deleted them because I would lose interest in the topic or become too lazy to write something worth posting.

I suppose my problem with writing is that it comes in waves. I’ll have periods where I write constantly, and longer periods where I’ll hardly write at all. I have a lovely collection of beautiful journals, all mostly empty. The first few pages are always full, though. There’s something about a brand new journal that always motivates me to write for a few days, but then the desire pitters out. Then next time I feel the urge to write, I’ll go buy another brand new journal and do it all over again.

iStock_book_typewriter_writingCurrently, I’m “writing” a young adult dystopian novel. I put writing in quotation marks because I haven’t actively written anything in about three months, but I’ve realized that writing doesn’t always involve scratching words onto paper or pounding them onto a screen. Sometimes, writing involves taking the dog for a walk or meeting up with friends. Other times writing involves staring at a blinking cursor for twenty minutes without typing a thing before jumping onto Facebook and posting a witty status update.

There are also times when I want to write, but I just don’t have the time. Right now, for instance, I’m staying up way past my bedtime because I’m finally feeling inspired. I feel inspired to finally start chapter four of my novel, but those pesky lesson plans keep tugging at my anxiety. I feel inspired to start blogging again, especially now that I’m at a new school teaching a new curriculum to a new age group, but that pile of grading is already large, and it’s only the third week of school.

I feel inspired to write, but guilty for setting aside the time to write when I know I should be doing other things. Like making dinner. Or sleeping.

I guess I should stop writing and go to sleep now. Ugh.

Red Pen: A response to the Monday Poetry Prompt

EnerGel pens are like crack at my school. So much so, that the English Department spent $600 on pens alone.  Good job, EnerGel.
EnerGel pens are like crack at my school. So much so, that the English Department spent $600 on pens alone. Well done, EnerGel.

Holy crap. I haven’t written a poem in years. I used to write poetry all the time back when I was still young and unfazed by what others thought about my eclectic combinations of words and emotions. Now that I’ve been tainted by age and experience, I care far too much about what people think.

BUT, since my goal is to improve my creative writing skills, I figured I should participate in the Monday Poetry Prompt I stumbled across while perusing the most recent posts tagged with “writing”…particularly since I need practice in order to write a creepy sing-songy rhyming thing for Josiah Remington’s character to whisper maliciously in the next chapters of The Six Provinces of Debris.

Anyway, since I’m supposed to be grading right now instead of writing (naughty teacher), I figured I would write something related to success and failure, as dictated by my iconic (though neglected) red pen.

Here were the rules:

  • You have 20 minutes or less
  • The title should be an item (instrument, utensil, etc.)
  • A call to someone/thing
  • The phrase “what will you say”
  • A type of bird
  • At least 25 lines
  • And the words: plum, nearsighted, string, open, gate, slip.

Red Pen

What will you say

if I don’t make the grade?

If I just fly away

like a raven?

Or a dove?

What will you say

if I slip?

if I fall?

Nearsighted – candor,

tethered to dreams?

I know what I’d say

if you couldn’t appease –

if you were tied

by string

to a withering dream.

I know what I’d say

if you dyed your face

like a plum

from wondering right

while stepping wrong.

I’d say “open a casket”

or “unlock a gate,”

the only importance

is what you make

of your fate.

The Ninth Baby

Author’s Note: The short story you are about to read is the backstory for three of the characters in the novel I am writing, The Six Provinces of Debris. To read the first chapter of that novel, click here

Emmeline paced the marble floor, back and forth, back and forth. The balls of her bare feet made gentle slapping sounds on the floor with every step, her heels a dull sounding thunk. The sound, the rhythm, soothed her. The sector doctors had requested that she stay in the hallway, refusing to let her into the birthing room. Periodically, rhythmically, she could hear the moans and screams of labor. With every moan, with every scream, she quickened her pace, slapping her feet against the floor with purpose.

She didn’t usually come when Amabel gave birth. It had become such a regular occurrence that Amabel didn’t even bother losing the baby weight afterwards.
“What’s the point?” Amabel had said once over tea. “If I lose it, he’ll just try again sooner rather than later. I may as well stay fat and delay the inevitable for as long as possible.” She then sipped her tea daintily, averting her eyes in an effort to avoid Emmeline’s worried expression.

Usually, Amabel didn’t even bother telling Emmeline that she was pregnant. What was the point? She spent more time pregnant than not these days. She married Merrick, a powerful senator in the sector fifteen years her senior, more than seven years ago when she was seventeen.

This pregnancy was different, heavier somehow. Amabel didn’t need to tell Emmeline that it was wearing on her; Emmeline could just see it in the lines on her young face, in the way she carried herself to council meetings, in the way she stopped voicing her strong opinions so fervently as she had done in the past.

Two weeks ago they took the children to the park one Sunday afternoon. The great marble wall surrounding the sector glinted with a pinkish pearly hue, the great stone figures carved into the wall looking down lovingly on the city, protecting them from the uneducated masses beyond. Emmeline and little Willy had arrived first, and Willy, only eighteen months old with white blonde hair, was digging happily in the sand at the foot of the slide. Amabel arrived fifteen minutes later with her two children Pullox and Castor. The boys were fraternal twins and had just turned six two months earlier. Pullox had red hair and a light smattering of freckles across his nose and cheeks, with a random spattering of darker freckles across his forehead. Castor had a darker complexion and was more serious, but he also had freckles to match his brother’s.

Emmeline and Amabel sat in silence for a while as the children played. Amabel’s belly was round under her dress, and she rubbed it absentmindedly as pregnant women often do. Emmeline watched her, noticing the crows feet etched in the corners of her older sister’s eyes, thinking she looked far older than twenty-four.

“What is wrong, Amabel?” Emmeline asked, placing her hand on Amabel’s.

Amabel squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head as if to clear her thoughts and regain composure. “Did you know this is baby number nine?” She said, adding a second hand to her large belly. Emmeline was silent, ashamed to admit that she had lost count of her sister’s babies.

“I can’t lose another one, Emmeline.” Amabel said quietly, smiling at Castor who looked over at the two women with curiosity.

Emmeline didn’t say a word. What was there to say? It was out her control, just as it was out of Amabel’s.

“How do you do it?” Amabel asked, watching little Willy stick a fistful of dirt in his mouth. “How do you keep from being…like me?”

Emmeline was silent for a while, unsure of how to phrase her response. When she married Langston three years earlier she told him she wouldn’t be a “birthing cow” like her sister. She was ashamed of the memory and ashamed of her words. She could feel Amabel’s eyes watching her, waiting for a response.

“Well, I told him I didn’t want to give any away.” Emmeline responded, watching Willy absently, “So we find other ways to satisfy his needs…and mine.”

“And yours?” Amabel responded, sounding confused.

Emmeline looked her sister in the eye. “Yes, and mine. I enjoy it too. Langston…he’s very gentle, and very…sensitive…to my needs as well as his own.”

“I don’t enjoy it,” Amabel said. “I never have. Merrick, he claims to be doing his ‘duty as a senator’ by ‘spreading his seed around the Provinces.’” She had deepened his voice to imitate him.

“I think he just enjoys the act, and damned if he gets me pregnant or not.” She sighed, and started rubbing her belly again. “I’m tired, Emme. I can’t lose another one. Not again.”

Another scream sounded through the double doors leading to the birthing room, and Emmeline couldn’t take it any longer. She looked back at Langston who was sitting on the couch at the end of the hall. “I’m going in.” She announced, and Langston nodded his head and stood up to follow.

As soon as Emmeline pushed the double doors open, the screams grew much louder. She broke out into a run, and pushed her way past the doctor and nurses to her sister’s side.

Amabel’s face was covered in a sheen of sweat, and she looked pale and delirious. Next to her a nurse checked her pulse, watching a timepiece on her wrist intently.

“We asked you to wait in the hall!” The doctor said angrily, motioning for the nurse to grab Emmeline’s elbow to lead her out of the room.

“She’s not doing well…” The nurse said, looking uncomfortably at Emmeline. “Perhaps we should let her stay.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” Emmeline said, grabbing Amabel’s other hand and squeezing it. It was cool and clammy, and Emmeline couldn’t remember if that was a normal reaction to labor.

“She’s not leaving.” Langston said coolly at the doctor’s shoulder, and the doctor glanced over his shoulder at Langston’s large, muscular frame.

The doctor shrugged, defeated. “Amabel, you need to push.” He said, sounding annoyed.

On the bed, Amabel just shook her head slowly, her eyelids drooping shut. “I can’t.” She whispered, looking at Emmeline. “I can’t lose another one. I won’t.”

Emmeline brushed the red hair out of her sister’s eyes. “Shh, don’t worry about that right now. Just push like the doctor said.”

“You have to take her.” Amabel said, looking at Emmeline desperately. “You have to take her. Don’t let them take her. I can’t lose another one!”

“Shh, you have to push, Amabel.” Emmeline said again, her heart quickening with the doctor’s stern commands to “get her to push or we’ll lose them both!”

“You have to take her, Emme. I won’t lose another one. I won’t let him give her away like the others. Please, take her, Emme.”

“Okay, I’ll take her, but you have to push, Amie! I can’t take her if you don’t push!”

A tear fell down Amabel’s cheek. “I can’t, Emmeline, I just can’t. I have no more energy. I just want to sleep.”

Emmeline looked at the doctor frantically and shook her head.

“We’ll have to do a caesarian.” The doctor announced, frustrated.

The nurse shook her head sadly, and turned to get a silver tray on the table behind her.

“No!” Emmeline shouted, growing frantic. Women in the sector rarely survived emergency caesarian procedures because the doctors were more concerned with the life of the baby than the life of the woman they were about to render infertile.

“Amabel, you have to push now! You have to, Amie!”

“I’m just so tired,” Amabel whispered, closing her eyes.

“Nurse!” Emmeline called, shaking Amabel’s shoulders to keep her awake. “Nurse!”

The nurse set the tray down and peered over her shoulder at Amabel. She walked over and picked up her wrist, checking it for a pulse again. She shook her head and shoved her fingers into Amabel’s neck, moving it around a few times to find the telltale pulse. She pursed her lips disapprovingly and shook her head at Emmeline.

“You’ll have to leave now so we can finish the procedure.”

“No!” Emmeline shouted, “I won’t!”

“She stays.” Langston said angrily to the doctor. “She stays or I will speak to your supervisor about your lackadaisical attitude about the lives of the wife and daughter of Senator Merrick Xadic.”

The doctor glared at Langston, and Langston glared back. Finally, the doctor sighed and said, “Fine, you may stay, but this part is not pretty.”

Emmeline didn’t move. She just clutched Amabel’s hand hard enough to crush the bone. Amabel didn’t react at all.

“Here we go,” The doctor said, holding a large silver scalpel in his hand and moving it across Amabel’s round, rippled belly in a single, smooth motion. The sharp smell of iron filled Emmeline’s nose, and she continued to grasp Amabel’s hand, now more for her own comfort than for Amabel’s.

Suddenly, her ears were greeted with the weak cry of a newborn. She turned and looked, immediately wishing she hadn’t. A bloody baby with a shock of dark, slimy hair screamed as the doctor swept her into the waiting arms of the nurse. He promptly removed his gloves, covered Amabel’s open belly with a cloth, and turned to walk out the door.

“Wait! Aren’t you going to stitch her back together?” Emmeline called after him franticly.

“There’s no point now.” The doctor said, shrugging. Emmeline looked down at her older sister’s big, green eyes, staring vacantly into a world Emmeline could not see.

“No! Amabel! Amie!” Emmeline shook Amabel’s shoulders, slapped her face, stroked her forehead, all the while repeating her name and hoping for a response.

Finally, Langston pulled Emmeline off of her sister and into another room, free of blood and afterbirth and sharp doctor’s tools.

“Shh, quiet.” He said, gesturing to a bundle in a basket on a table in the middle of the room. Emmeline took deep breaths, trying to steady herself and her pounding heart.

“Look, here she is. Amabel’s little girl.”

Emmeline looked down at the baby girl and remembered Amabel’s final words. You have to take her! Don’t let them take her!

“Langston,” Emmeline said, tears running down her face, “we have to leave. We have to leave the Sector. We have to take her.”

“Leave? Where? Why?” Langston asked, confused.

“Amabel, she asked me not to let them take her. She didn’t want to lose another baby. I think – I think she gave up, Langston. She stopped fighting. We have to leave, become readers, something. We have to leave the Sector.”

Emmeline’s body shook with distress as tears streamed down her face, “We have to leave. We have to take her.”

“Shh,” Langston said, holding Emmeline close to his body. “Shh, we’ll figure something out. Let me find the nurse.”

Emmeline nodded and gathered the newborn baby into her arms. She held her close to her body, whispering gently to her.

Langston returned shortly with the nurse, who looked uncomfortably at Emmeline and the baby.

“We need you to do something for us,” he said to her, placing his hands on both of her shoulders gently. “We need your help.”

Three days later, Langston and Emmeline submitted their resignation from the Senator Council and left the Sector to become readers.

They concealed the baby in a basket in Emmeline’s lap in the back of the wagon, and as they approached the large, marble wall, Emmeline looked up at the marble figures carved into the stone. Was it only two weeks ago that she had looked up at those same figures with fondness, thinking of them as protectors rather than jailors?

Their wagon was searched at the wall, and Emmeline pulled a sourdough roll out of the basket and passed it to the guard with a smile. “You look hungry,” she said, pressing the roll into the guard’s hand. He smiled back and bit into the roll gratefully. “Yes, ma’am, thank you very much,” he said through a mouthful of bread, moving on to the next part of the wagon. Both the baby and little Willy slept through the entire ordeal, and the guards accepted Langston’s transfer orders without hesitation.

Emmeline couldn’t believe how easy it was to leave the Sector. Not just physically, but emotionally as well. The death of her sister had disillusioned her from the Sector’s controlling laws: No more than two children to a family, one to replace each parent upon their deaths. Any and all children born after the first two would be sent beyond the sector to be adopted by the illiterate villagers of the provinces, sent to help repopulate the human race that was still suffering from the devastation of years past.

Once well beyond the walls of the Sector, Emmeline looked down at the baby in her arms. Only three days old and she was already growing quickly.

Langston glanced over and said, “You know, she still needs a name.”

Emmeline nodded, and remembered a conversation she had with Amabel when she had first married Merrick, flushed with excitement at her first pregnancy.

“If it’s a boy…Castor,” Amabel had said giddily, “And if it’s a girl…Adelaide.”

“Adelaide,” Emmeline said aloud, testing the name on her tongue.

“Adelaide Anders,” Langston repeated, “Adie.”

They rode in silence as baby Adelaide slept in Emmeline’s arms, Willy’s head in Langston’s lap, surrounded by the quiet dark of the unknown.

Want to read more? Check out chapter one of The Six Provinces of Debris, “The Table of Joy