A Story Jar

“Tell her about the polar bear!” I prompted my seven-year-old when my sister asked how our latest zoo trip had gone.

It had been probably our best visit yet, full of up-close encounters, including the polar bear swimming right up to the glass where the seven-year-old had been standing, face full of wonder.

He looked at me funny. “What do you mean?”

“Tell her how cool the polar bear was.”

“But I don’t know what to say.”

The same thing happened during writing time with school. I’d ask him to write a story — just a one-page, second-grade-level story — and he’d be stumped for ages, even if he already had a prompt and knew what he wanted the story to be about.

I hated seeing him so tense about it. I wanted him to gush with excitement over both the real story of the polar bear and his own made-up stories.

And I realized that the skill we needed to foster was storytelling.

As usual, Pinterest came to my rescue with the idea of a story jar. I sliced up neon note papers and told the kids to write down anything.

The usual protest of not knowing what to write didn’t persist long. Before I knew it, they were begging me to cut more slips. They’d filled out every single one and still had more ideas!

Once I finally said “enough,” the storytelling itself was just as fun. They took turns drawing slips from the jar and adding to an epic-level story with a cast as big as their imaginations.

When their contribution felt weak, I pressed for more details:

Me: “What did the monster look like?”

7yo: “Ugly.”

Me: “How come?”

7yo: “He had brown spots all over him, like dirt and mud.”

Gradually their descriptions became more generous, like when the four-year-old’s monster turned “brown with blue spots and huge horns and three green — no, I mean red — eyes.” They also improved at connections that gave the story a better arc. When a random object showed up, I’d ask how it got there and they’d say things like, “The clever princess gave it to him.” Characters had believable motivations, such as the mouse putting on a life jacket and jumping into the sea to get away from the monster who couldn’t swim. Most impressive of all, the ending circled back to the beginning: the monster had squashed the mouse’s house, and in the end the mouse found a treasure chest that he used to make a new house.

We’ve done it twice now, changing slips to create a completely new story, and it’s such a hit that I’m sure it’ll continue to be one of our favorite school activities.

It gets me thinking, too. Maybe I need more creative exercises for my own writing. Maybe I need to work on my storytelling. Maybe I need to find ways to have fun instead of feeling stumped as I stare at the screen. Maybe I need to stretch my imagination just a little more.

Funny how even elementary school can be for grown-ups too.

Maybe I need to put all my story elements in a jar and mix things up a bit. 😉

Reprise: Homophones, Nazi Cows and Other Banned Books Dangers

I wrote this post two years ago for Banned Books Week 2009, and I’m re-posting it this week to kick off Banned Books Week 2011. There are some really extreme ideas out there about what censorship means, so I share this post in the hope of illuminating a moderate view. Later this week I plan to write more on the subject. Enjoy!


speak your mind

It’s a little funny at first, the whole concept of reading banned books. I mean, it feels dangerous, right? It feels like you’re doing something you shouldn’t, peeking at something you have no business seeing.

Until somebody explains to you that Little House on the Prairie has been banned. Or The Giving Tree. Or Alice in Wonderland. Or The Lorax by Dr. Seuss.

ACLU Freedom ConcertThen it just seems plain ridiculous.

I think my students recognized this yesterday when I introduced the concept of Banned Books Week to them.

Their first reaction was confusion, since they thought I was telling them Harry Potter is a “band” book (oh, the joy of homophones).

Their second reaction, after I showed them the PTA meeting clip from Field of Dreams (“Step outside, you Nazi cow!”), was laughter mixed with a tinge of uncertainty. After all, aren’t banned books banned for a reason?

Their third reaction, when I showed them the covers of the children’s books I mentioned above, was a collective gasp. 

“Wait a second,” that gasp clearly said. “Something’s not right.”

Read Banned BooksIt seems to me that this is exactly what Banned Books Week is all about: showing people what censorship really looks like.

The trouble is, of course, that it’s complicated.

Does my freedom to have books available at the library impinge on your right not to walk into something offensive? If I want my children to read the picture book And Tango Makes Three, does having it on the library shelves endanger your children by exposure to the idea of gay adoption?

I live in a conservative community. I can’t pretend that I don’t understand that side of it. We all want to protect our children. But a lot of people don’t see it the way I do: that there are books and ideas out there that can save our children–except that if those books are banned, the children and the books might never meet.

For example, Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Twisted was challenged in at least two school districts this past month. She shared with blog readers the letter she was sending to those superintendents, and it included excerpts from letters she’s received from teen readers who were thinking of committing suicide–one who had even attempted it twice–and decided against it after reading Twisted.

So, yeah–I meant it literally when I say that books can save.

One of the comments in class last night that I really appreciated was that the way things should work is that parents should be in tune enough to their kids that they can communicate about every issue openly, whether suicidal feelings or gay adoption or racist terms in To Kill a Mockingbird. But too often children and teens can’t turn to their parents about the things troubling them, and it falls to a perceptive librarian or teacher to choose a book off a shelf and hand it to that student and say, “Here. Try this. See if this helps.”I read banned books.

That’s what I’m fighting for this week. I’m fighting for the right to have the right book on the shelf when the right reader needs it.

At the same time, I believe that parents should still have a say–for their own children.

In high school I did many alternate assignments in the library while my history or English classes watched R-rated movies, because my parents and I decided that movie rating was inappropriate for our family. We didn’t try to dictate, however, that the other students shouldn’t watch Braveheart either.

After discussing it as a class last night, it was great to see how a little bit of information helped open minds about the topic of banning books. That’s my hope for this blog post and this week, too: that a little bit of information will help stop censorship from removing books that are on the shelves for a reason.


*                    *                    *

On a side note, I once heard from some librarians at our university library that there is a case of certain books they keep locked away.

“Whoa!” I thought. “Those must be the really dangerous books.”


As it turned out, they were books that had been locked away for their own safety.

It was the readers who were dangerous to the books. Writing over offensive words with a permanent marker. Ripping out offensive pages. Shredding whole novels.

So the librarians locked the books away to keep them safe from the efforts of censors, and you had to get special permission to check them out.

Interesting, huh?

The Root of the Problem: Underlying Emotions

Earlier this week, Hubby texted me from work to ask if I was okay because I seemed stressed. I do? I texted back. He proceeded to tell me that I’d seemed angry while cleaning the kitchen the night before, and he wanted to know if it was work or family issues or just what. I thought of texting *shrug*. I hadn’t even realized I seemed angry, let alone did I know why.

Instead I texted a funny by-the-way about how angry the twelve-month-old on my lap got when I failed to relinquish another bite of the peaches I’d stirred into my yogurt-and-granola breakfast. The kid ate half my fruit! But he was so hilarious about it that I didn’t mind (too much).

Two of my favorite picture books are What’s Wrong, Little Pookie? and What Are You So Grumpy About? In the first, by the time the mom is finished with her outlandish guesses, Little Pookie the pig has forgotten his reason for being upset. In the other book, it ends by asking if you’ve got the worst reason of all for your moodiness: because someone made you laugh when you were trying to be grumpy. In either case, the books sidestep the issue with humor, which is a pretty good strategy for kids to learn, in my opinion. Humor usually cures my moods too.

In writing, though, it feels like I’m never allowed to sidestep. When a character is angry, I have to get to the bottom of it. I have to know why.

It’s just such an issue that brought my first manuscript to a halt: I couldn’t figure out why my main character was so worried about her sister. Maybe that’s why I sometimes procrastinate dealing with underlying emotions in my characters, because I’m nervous that I won’t be able to figure out the answer, and that my guesses will be as outlandish as Pookie’s mom asking,

“Did tiny green elephants
with wings oh so blue
fly off with the cookies
and leave none for you?”

So this week I’m breathing a sigh of relief for just one paragraph that finally opened an answer about why, in my second novel, the main character Wendy is angry with her dad after the divorce. My other guesses were clichéd and way off: Because he had an affair? No. (And he didn’t.) Because they both have temper issues? No. (And they don’t.) Because he’s forcing her to stay with him in California for the summer? No. (And that’s a side issue.)

It’s funny how you can tell when you’ve hit on the right answer. It slides into place like the cardboard puzzle pieces my four-year-old matches up next to me while I write. It feels like “Of course!” You can tell that it matches because it “goes with” all your previous discoveries. You feel like you should have seen it so much sooner, it’s that obvious.

Here’s my discovery of the week (unpolished, rough-draft paragraph, so don’t judge my writing by this!):

Her parents had always joked that her brother Brandon was their mom’s replica, analytical and cautious, while Wendy was their dad’s—eager and curious.  Family disagreements split down predictable sides: Wendy and Mitch versus Brandon and Cheryl.  “Fine,” her dad would usually conclude, “you two stay if you want.  Dee and I are going.” But this time he’d gone without her.  Brandon was off to UW; her mom had been impossible to relate to even before post-divorce grieving set in.  Her one family ally had abandoned her, slunk off like a traitor, leaving her alone.

Somehow the dad finally comes alive for me in just these few sentences, especially with the bit of dialogue. I can finally grasp the paradox of how much Wendy loves and hates him at the same time, which makes sense, considering you can’t hate anything you don’t care about first.

It’s also funny how sometimes the right info/insights just land in your lap at the right time. A couple of weeks ago I attended a church class about mental health and one of the speakers discussed bereavement and how you can go through the grieving process with events besides death, like when you have your first baby it’s normal to grieve the loss of your freedom, or how it’s normal to grieve after a divorce. The steps and symptoms of bereavement also helped me understand the underlying emotions Wendy and her mom are going through.

So yeah. While in real life there are plenty of times to let things go and not worry about the past, in writing, the more you can dig down to the root of your character’s emotions, the better you’ll understand them.

Any thoughts? How do you cope with negative emotions? Laugh them off? Purge through catharsis (like a tear-jerker flick)? Eat rocky road ice cream? Take a drive — such as a road trip down the Pacific coast like Wendy does? When’s it important to isolate the cause?

Leave a comment!

Real Salt, Proverbs, and the Paradox of Learning and Happiness

Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding. ~Proverbs 3:13

Over the weekend, I flew down to Arizona for some special family events, leaving Hubby and the older two kids at home while I took the baby on my lap. Baby was a champ, by the way, sleeping through every flight (we had to change planes, so there were more flights than you’d think). And on the first flight, I ended up talking with the man next to me for an hour while baby slept. He was headed down to see his new grandchild, and it turned out we had more in common than I would have guessed.

For example, he works for the company that makes Real Salt, and since Real Salt is based in Utah, my parents had asked me to buy some and bring it to them, so I had a pouch of it in my luggage. He told me more about the company, like the value they place on hiring employees who are willing to continually learn new things and broaden their understanding of health-related topics by reading books and participating in continuing education, etc. That got us started talking about the importance of learning, how he’d felt stagnant in his old job driving trucks because despite listening to books on CD, etc, he didn’t feel like he was “growing.”

I could tell by talking with him how happy he is with his current job and also how much he’d learned (he told me about the minerals in the salt; about how leaving it unrefined makes the difference; how even if bits of dirt get in there, the dirt’s “good for you”).

We discussed the paradox of it, though: that despite the joy of learning, it can also be scary as hell.

He likened it to standing at the edge of a cliff when you first realize how much you don’t know. It’s absolutely frightening to feel so incompetent all the sudden.

I can relate to that! I told him how as I’ve learned about health topics, I’ve felt completely incompetent at providing meals for my family. I’d spent eight years collecting recipes that I suddenly learned weren’t healthy (many of them, for example, relying on canned substances whose ingredients labels I had never even glanced at), and there were a couple awfully frustrating months as I experimented with substitutions and new recipes, amid the grumbling complaints of my husband and kids whenever healthy did not equate with tasty.

Maybe especially because of that plane ride conversation, the proverb above caught my attention when I came across it this morning. Am I really happier with all my new understanding of health? It’s been so aggravating all along the way that sometimes I’m hardly sure. Often I’m more inclined toward the saying, “Ignorance is bliss.” Or in my case, “Ignorance was bliss.”

I thought back to Made to Stick, the book I’ve been (slowly) reading about how to improve the longevity of an idea. It mentions proverbs at least a few times, saying, “Proverbs are simple yet profound. Cervantes defined proverbs as ‘short sentences drawn from long experience.’ . . . The proverb is short and simple, yet it packs a big nugget of wisdom.”

I’d have to agree. That’s why I put a proverb at the top of this post. It manages to say in one quick line what it’s taking me paragraphs to get across.

There is a certain bliss to ignorance, but the happiness of wisdom and understanding is so much deeper, and I think in the “long experience” Cervantes describes, wisdom would win out over ignorance. In the long run, I think my family will be happier by eating healthier, the young grandpa I met on the plane will be happier in a job that lets him keep expanding his understanding, I’ll be happier as a teacher once I incorporate the wisdom from Made to Stick, and the temporary incompetence and discomfort we felt will be just a brief memory.

What do you think? Know any proverbs that say, “Don’t worry — the scared-****less, edge-of-the-cliffs-of-insanity feeling of total ineptitude will be worth it eventually and we (the wise, ancient originators of all proverbs) swear that the happiness of wisdom trumps that of ignorance”? Or equally as good, have you had experiences that prove it?

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First Impressions

Monday is the beginning of another new semester at the community college . . . and I’m nervous. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been teaching since 2004. It doesn’t matter that I have a stack of glowing evaluations from satisfied students last semester.

What matters is that for some reason I’m not so hot at first impressions.

I swear that I wear professional-looking clothes and shoes, comb my hair, show up on time, smile, all of that. I’m not flunking on those counts. It’s just that somehow I fail to convince students to be excited to show up to my class again for day two. It usually takes until day five, eight, or even ten.

Over a lunch of Cafe Rio pork salads and quesadillas, I talked it over with my sister on Wednesday. Her university courses started this week, and already she had such glowing praise of her professors! “This teacher is amazing and so nice and the books she chose are going to be incredible to read because the way she described them made you want to open them and read them right now, and this other teacher—”

“Um,” I interrupted, half raising my hand like a timid student. “How do I do that? How do I make my students excited about my course?”

She winced a little. “Well, the class is about [such and such technical and highly interesting thing] and the books deal with [fascinating angle of said interesting thing], so . . .”

I finished it for her: “So the trouble is that I teach first-year composition, and who’s excited about that?”

Is that really it? Am I doomed from the get-go because I teach a general education course, whereas my sister is at the end of her major, taking classes custom designed by the professors to be exciting for English nerds? It seems like such a defeatist attitude!

So every semester I go in armed with some new first-day strategy to bolster instant enthusiasm. I give them letters written by previous students, reassuring these newcomers that the course is great and they’ll learn so much. I do activities and show movie clips and try to warm them up to me and to each other as quickly as possible. But still, somehow they won’t be convinced for a few weeks.

Any suggestions? What’s the key to it? What could a gen ed college teacher do or say on the first day to win you over?

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Vacation Stress

What it is about vacations? They are supposed to be relaxing. They’re supposed to be stress reducers, as in, “You look stressed. Maybe you need a vacation.” And yet I find myself always feeling more anxiety before and during, relieved to finally get home.

Okay, with one exception. Going to Cancun a couple years ago without children — that was relaxing.

So obviously the children are a big factor. There will not be much relaxing at Lake Powell this weekend because I will be constantly worried about where the kids are and if they are (a) getting hurt or (b) getting into trouble.

But another factor in the stress is getting everything done in time to leave.

Here’s a taste of how crazy the past few days have been.

I ordered a birthday package to get to Arizona in time for my mom’s birthday today (happy birthday, Mom!); yesterday it showed up on my porch. Yes, there was a forehead smack involved and some minor swearing: I’d forgotten to change the shipping address when I processed the order.

Then there’s been  job stress. My students have a report due tomorrow and I needed to finish giving them feedback on all their previous assignments so they’d be able to do the reports. Plus, I needed to put together a lesson plan for last night that would help teach them how to do their reports. Specifically, since they’re required to create a chart or table, I kind of needed to show them how to do that.

So I spent all morning yesterday making sure I knew all the steps myself. I’ve done tables and charts before, but when you have to teach other people how to do something, it’s good to go through the process specifically with teaching in mind.

And — don’t laugh too hard about this — I decided the simplest chart to make on the spur of the moment was the one I’d been wishing to come across in all my cloth diaper research anyway: a comparison of brands and types and prices, etc, that I could see at a glance.

There it is, in all its glory! And maybe by posting it here it’ll be of some use to somebody Googling cloth diapers. Although I should mention that this isn’t a very comprehensive list. I’m not particularly interested in cloth diapers that require separate covers, so this only shows All-in-Ones and pocket diapers of the major brands that offer 30-day trials.

The other thing that took me all morning yesterday was then figuring out how to convert the table from Word into a jpg image. I Googled the question and was not impressed with the results, which including everything from transferring to a PowerPoint slide to pasting the table as some kind of html which would supposedly save somewhere on my computer as a picture file.

Have you ever tried to find a file that you didn’t save yourself and you don’t know the name of? Well, I’m sure some people know exactly how to do this, but I do not.

In the end, the simplest thing was to copy the table, paste it in Paint, click “crop” under the Image tab at the top, and then save it as a jpg. This takes exactly 16.2 seconds (depending on the speed of your hard drive). So there you go. Maybe this post is just for people Googling stuff that I was Googling yesterday and couldn’t find. See how helpful I can be when stressed?

Today has already shaped up to be better. I finished reading and leaving feedback for all of my students just an hour before the internet went down at our house. I’m writing this post in Word, hoping the internet will come back on before we leave so I can publish it. But maybe it’s possible that I can leave today with a little less stress. 

Anybody else hate vacation stress so much that it’s tempting to just stay home . . . always?

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