Consider the hummingbird: a reading and writing exercise

Today I met with Karma, an MIT employee and adult student whom I tutor in English once a week through a pilot program. We have a grammar workbook that we are going through rather doggedly, and we like to break up the formal exercise with reading, writing, and speaking activities.


Last week we read out loud together one of my favorite short essays, “Joyas Volardores,” by Brian Doyle (The American Scholar, Autumn 2004). Read the full text here: link. It is about the hummingbird, and more. The essay is full of beautiful facts and therefore new vocabulary, so it is suitable for an ESL student. There is also a curious passage about the blue whale and a meditation on the human heart. There is much to puzzle over.

Today, we did some free writing based on the nature of the essay (i.e., facts lead you to ideas and even strong emotion) and its first sentence:

Consider the hummingbird for a long moment.

I proposed to Karma that we generate more concrete nouns, in place of “hummingbird,” for things we had knowledge about that could be described.

Consider the __________ for a long moment.

microwave oven
maple tree
Bobcat (small truck)
… and so on

I suggested that we each take the first sentence, put in a concrete noun of our own choosing, and free write from there, trying to emulate some of Doyle’s declarative style and building paragraphs on sentences with the simple subject/verb structure, which is used lavishly in the essay.

We wrote for 15 minutes. We read aloud to each other the first and last sentences of what we had written, to see how far our ideas had come. The noun Karma had chosen was “computer,” and the one I had chosen was “kitchen.”

I wrote a lot in 15 minutes, yet felt unhurried the entire time. (See below the jump for the full text of my free write.) I really was following my thoughts. Karma wrote less than me yet seemed contented also. This is a good way to get writers to excavate what they know from experience and observation; this exercise could be followed up with a research assignment to start to develop material from the free write into an essay.

I noticed, when Karma read it aloud, that his last sentence has the word “unimaginable” in it. A word in my last sentence is “unconscious.” We seemed both to have traveled from concreteness to the cerebral. To get to an idea is the goal.

What will we do with what we wrote? As we parted, I told Karma there is no real homework, but that I hoped he would think about his last sentence, and I will think about mine. We will start there next week.

Keep reading for my free writing…

Continue reading

Out of the spent blossoms of the old year rise our resolutions

Lydia and I were a week into our new running habit and halfway around the reservoir when she asked me, “What are your New Year’s resolutions?”

I had been thinking about my plans for 2012, although I was not sure at that point if they had firmed up enough to be classified as resolutions. But, what the heck — why not put them out there into the universe, starting with my audience of one, and see if making a declaration has an effect?

I went looking for birds to photograph, but found dried hydrangea, tap tap tapping against the porch windows, instead. Jan 3 @ 2pm

“The first one is inspired by yours,” I said to Lydia, who aims for better time management in the new year. Both of us manage to get a lot done, and yet can fritter away our free time mindlessly. “I’m going to waste time in more meaningful ways. Instead of checking up on my friends’ and siblings’ status messages several times a day, for example, I’ll skip that and take a nap or watch a tv show with my family.

“Number two: write fiction. I told Eli about an idea I have for a young adult novel, and he liked it. Also, I want to do more than nonfiction is allowing me to do.” I described my start-up plan, which Eli and I worked out as we sat in the Publick House one night having dinner. During my January break and before classes begin, I’m going to write two pages a day and explore this novel idea. It’s an experiment, and yet I’m totally serious about it.

“The third one I already told you about. This year I’m going to compete in a skating event.” A week before Christmas, Fred (skating coach) had raised the question, and I said I’d do it. I want to. Performing or competing makes you better in a way that skating (or writing or singing or painting) only for yourself does not. It’ll be an entry-level competition for, er, seniors, and a powerful motivator.

Dried ornamental grass, roots in shade and seed heads in sun. Jan 3 @ 2pm

That was it for resolutions articulated between huffs and puffs around Brookline Reservoir. Shortly after, I had dinner with my friends, and Sue told us about her last year’s resolution, which she managed to keep 9 times out of 12: to see her mother, who lives beyond Albany, once a month.  Yesterday I told my mother my fourth resolution: to see my parents once a month this year, alone or with the whole clan, for a long visit for just the afternoon. That’s at most 1/30th of a month. Surely I have the time. We all do.

– Reading comprehension: the joy and the pain

It’s MCAS season, and all three of our children — a 3rd grader, a 7th grader, and a high school sophomore — are taking them. They seem unbothered by a few days of testing: Lydia announced, “They don’t matter,” and Grace said, “No homework this week!” Eli is his usual cool and collected self and has altered his behavior only a little, to get the recommended good night’s sleep.

This morning Grace emptied out her school bag from Friday, and after they all left the house — I’m grading papers at home today — I looked at the worksheets from last week. There must have been 25 of them. (I would say that the idea of a Paperless Classroom has been about as successful as the idea of the Paperless Office.) I was completely riveted — and I am not kidding — by one of the reading comprehension worksheets from the MCAS review curriculum.

It’s a social history piece, written by children’s book author Lucille Recht Penner and called “Don’t Throw Your Bones on the Floor,” on the Pilgrims and their manners. Here are some good (wonderfully disgusting) facts, verbatim: Continue reading

– Secret room dreams

I share an office with a few other writing teachers.  One of my office mates, T., recently told me about her adventures in flower pressing, and she gave me some petals.  Once curled and shaped, they are now paper thin and flat.

The pressed petals remind me of the bright, fallen, and wilted geranium petals on the floor of my room at Wellspring House, where I was in July for a week.  The boards of the floor were painted gray, and when I walked in the room I saw a scatter of droplets — pink, with white edges — under the window.  At first, without really thinking I thought they were painted fingernails.  Then on the wide sill I noticed the clay pot, the green furred and scalloped leaves.

There are geranium pots on our front steps at home, and these too, like T’s petals, remind me of my solitary and spare room at Wellspring.

Petals, on steps after rain.

Petals, on steps after rain.

Thoughts of that room prompt memories of other loved rooms, especially two more: a dorm room, an office.  What do they have in common?  Why these three, and not so many others?

I make a diagram.  (Later Lydia sees it and asks, incredulous, “You made a Venn diagram because you were bored?”  I answer, “I made a Venn diagram because I was trying to figure something out.”  She laughs kindly.)

Each room had its own wonderful qualities.  The dorm room: a big closet and a typewriter.  The office: a view into the greenhouse behind the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  The room at Wellspring was named after Emily Dickinson, and then there were the petals decorating the floor and catching my eye.

They shared some features too, and it must be these that cause me to consider them as a trio.  All three had a desk & chair, shelves, and a mirror.  They were intended for solo use, although I recall guests in each one.

"Three Rooms" by J. Kokernak (Venn diagram)

"Three Rooms," by J. Kokernak, 2008.

I am ruminating over the importance of these concrete details and what they mean now.  Each memory’s connection to my present life (and not my then student, staff, or retreater’s life) is what concerns me.

This exercise on the three rooms reminds me, too, of theme dreams (i.e., ones that recur).  Mine are about secret rooms.  In these dreams, I walk through a house I’ve lived in and find a door that I’ve never noticed before.  I open it, and inside is a room that presents an opportunity to me (space, activity, style), and sometimes to the people I live with.  Sometimes in one of my secret room dreams, I try to get another person’s attention: “Look, look at this!  The room we’ve been wanting!”  Sometimes in one of my secret room dreams, I close the door and keep its existence to myself.

About a dreamed secret room, Gillian Holloway, in The Complete Dream Book, claims that “This room has great possibilities… and represents a neglected potential in the dreamer’s life that the deeper mind is trying to reclaim” (155).

Are the three remembered rooms like secret dream rooms?  There seems to be some bounty there.

– Considering toast

Toast, from

Toast, from

I was thinking of a croissant with my coffee, but then I smelled toast. “Ah, toast.” This was as I got within 20 feet of the snack bar in my building at 9am this morning. I gave in to the toast impulse — I smelled it, I pictured it, I heard the sound of the word in my head — and it seemed foolish to get what I suddenly no longer wanted.

At my desk, I ate the toast. I drank water and sipped coffee but did not look at papers or compute while eating. I stared at the wall; I thought about toast.

Henry James said that “summer afternoon” are two of the most beautiful words in the English language. I cannot disagree. Yet, I’d like to add “toast” to a short list of beautiful, evocative words. Dr. Poppy, in her response to my post on snacks, reminded me of its sensuality and charm: “simple but… sustaining.”

And yet, I was thinking as I ate my toast, do writers always use toast as a detail to convey the same feeling? Is toast a cliché? Would it be possible to ruin toast for a reader, or at least subvert it?


At the last minute, she put toast under the pillow. All night, her hand worried it and not the hardened blisters on her wrist.

Their naked bodies pressed together, only Donna’s toast came between them: scratchy, buttery, and smelling of last night’s onions.

Before he tucked the dead squirrel into the shoe box and interred it behind the dog house, Little Guy lay freshly made white toast in the box’s bottom. The toast’s firmness supported the stiff body; a smear of blood seeped into the surface crumbs.

The doctor recommended toast in the sneakers overnight, to deodorize them. “And soak those feet in vinegar, twice a day,” he added. Joe would try anything.

Would the reverse also work? Could you take a noun with negative associations attached to it — like pus or viscera — and make it lovely?

Hmm. It seems easier to try to ruin something than it is to repair or beautify something else.

– Fall to pieces

In revising longer works, it’s easy to fall into the trap of endlessly polishing word choices and sentences, because they are small units that can be both held in the writer’s attention and worked on at once, and avoid dealing with the draft in its entirety.

That kind of fine labor, though, could be like running on a hamster wheel — it’s fun, it’s exercise, but you end up not too far from where you started.

For me, and I think for many writers, the hardest parts of revision are figuring out the big picture (“what’s my pressing question? theme? thesis?”); seeing how the pieces contribute to, or don’t contribute to, the whole; and sequencing the pieces in a scheme relevant to the big picture.

On and off, for months, I’ve been working on an unwieldy draft of an essay. It’s too long — 8600 words — for the journal I want to send it to, which has a word limit of 5000. When I read the draft from start to finish, it feels complete to me and every word precious.

So, the only smart thing to do is undo its completeness, which I did.

Draft in pieces

I cut it into pieces, based on a similar exercise I’ve done with students and on some remarks that journalist George Packer made to his audience at the Wesleyan University Writers Conference last June. About the structure of his own narratives, he has noticed that the “basic move is between scene and passage of analysis” and “sometimes both occur together.” In the image of my dismantled draft, the pieces in the grouping at the top are scene; the pieces that curve up from the bottom are passages of analysis and, for my purposes, reflection.

Yesterday I looked at each piece and sorted the pieces further: (1) ones relevant to my main idea, and (2) ones not relevant. This work went quickly.

Then I went back into the file for the draft, and I removed (and dumped into another document) all the irrelevant pieces. New word count: 5500.

I’m getting closer. Next step? I’ll lay those patches of paper out on the dining room table, and shuffle them around.

– Games teachers play

Items to keep in your school bag:

Five toys on ledge

Not by nature a maker of fun, I do like to have fun, and I believe that others need it, too. Do you notice, for example, in a classroom, if the teacher is not providing any chuckles, a student in class will start performing that function? Intuitively, we all know, even if we resist the knowledge, that the Class Clown is essential. Just as every group could use a leader or two, every group could use a fun-maker.

Even a serious teacher like me can design some fun. Props help. A few weeks ago, seeing that my September and October calendars were filled with appointments for visiting classrooms on campus and giving students my brisk “Come to the Writing Center” speech, I bought five toys. Diversely, they squish, boing, and bounce.

I bring them into the room and put them on the desk. Boing!I introduce myself in 15 words or less, and then I ask the students to think for 30 seconds on this question: “What makes writing so hard?” I add: “Every answer is the right answer.” I wait. And then I hold up the first ball and I give my brief instructions: “I’ll throw this to one of you. When you catch it, say your first name, and then tell us what you find so hard about writing.” I toss, a student catches, and the ball makes a surprising, mechanical “boing” sound. He laughs. The group laughs. The catcher answers: “I’m Paul. And getting my ideas down is hard for me.” Yes, I say, that’s challenging, for all writers in fact.

I give another stage direction: “Paul, throw that ball to one of your classmates. It’s someone else’s turn to tell us her first name and what’s hard about writing.” The next person answers. Squish spiderAfter that I introduce a new toy, and then another — they’re getting the hang of it now — and learn a few more things about what makes writing hard for students: “grammar,” “finding the right word,” “thesis” (over and over), “getting the length right,” and “starting.” Within a few minutes, all five toys are in play, and the students seem to have figured out the drill, and they’re looking at each other, waiting for a turn, aiming if they’re throwing, and talking to me and each other. The game, furthermore, is giving me material; I’m not a lecturer, and I get most of my energy from the questions and thoughts that students bring to or make in class. In this case, their responses give me an entrée to a conversation about how 1:1 tutorials in a writing center support students at all stages of the writing process and for any writing challenge.

Fruit loop superballIt’s fun with a purpose, I know. In order to teach, a teacher must build some sort of bridge — or, at least, toss a fruit loop superball — between herself and students.


Thanks to Joanne Manos and Kristen Daisy, in the Writing Center that afternoon, for their willingness to “lend a hand” to these pictures of the toys.

– Potatoes, and other prompts

I like the concreteness of things. Focusing on them while writing also frees me from my vague and persistent thoughts. Put an old key, a knife, an unfamiliar picture, or brooch in front of me, and I feel interest in at least describing the item. That inevitably leads to a connection with my own experience and, sometimes, a new question.

In her handbook, Writing Alone and with Others, which is filled with attractive writing New potatoesexercises, Pat Schneider offers many examples of using objects as “triggers” in her workshops for writers. Sometimes, she places a covered basket of 30 or 40 items on a table, removes the cover, and asks group members to take one or two objects, hold them, and freewrite for 10 minutes or so. Other times, she has multiples of the same item, and hands one to each member, getting them to all start writing from a similar place, as a way of seeing how individual writers will all mull differently over a shell, for example. Some items she suggests, like cinnamon sticks, even have scent.

  • Here are Schneider’s suggestions for a diverse basketful: shaving brush, rusty horseshoe, a ball and jacks, baseball, crocheted doily, piece of frayed rope, bottle of pills (with label scratched so pills become unidentifiable), rosary beads, crumpled cigarette pack, page of scripture written in Hebrew, small teddy bear, broken dish, mirrored compact, man’s pipe, baby bottle, old piece of jewelry, spool of thread with a needle stuck in it, dog whistle, artificial flower, plastic Jesus figuerine, and empty whisky bottle.
  • Suggestions for multiples of same object: mothball (in plastic snack bags to protect hands), piece of penny candy, a nail or screw, a vitamin pill, acorn, torn piece of a map, slice of raw carrot, rock, a small piece of sandpaper along with a bit of cotton, or a long stem of wheat or grass.

Collect some acorns. Buy a bag of wooden clothespins or new potatoes. Make your own object-filled basket. Offer surprise to your students. Or, assemble a collection, put it aside for a few weeks, and then take it out again to prompt your own writing. Surprise yourself.


Picture credit goes to BBC Food.

– Back to school

At an orientation for students involved in a bridge-to-college program, in which we offer enhanced, personal support to students who, in high school, were academically shaky, we asked them to put their heads together and come up with a list of characteristics delineating the “ideal instructor.”

What Makes a Good Teacher (according to students)

  • likes questions
  • loves what she or he is teaching
  • hardworking
  • dedicated to helping students achieve
  • active
  • could be fun in class
  • engaged in class
  • is like a friend
  • outgoing
  • is into it

Those items are all exact quotes. My favorite, and the most simply profound, is the last one. Personally, I don’t have a dog-and-pony show and, as anyone who knows me can tell you, I can’t tell jokes. I hope I’m a friend to my students, but I’m not a buddy. What I can do is show my students I’m “into it” — whether I’m in class or a tutorial — by engaging in what I want them to engage in. When they read in class, I read. When they puzzle, I puzzle with. When they write, I write. And I’m into it. Interested in an example? Continue reading

– Feed your head

This curious writing exercise, from Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and with Others, is unlike any I’ve done before. To begin, I had to put aside my internal language and “blank out,” in a way.

Imagine yourself looking down into a deep well. You are safe, comfortable, looking over the edge and down. You can see the surface of the water far, far down. As you watch the water, allow images to rise to the surface and float there, then recede again below the surface as other images rise. Do this as long as you want, then write whatever comes to you. (70)

I don’t want to say more and risk infiltrating your ruminations with mine. Just try it.