Sunday, November 4, 2007

Our First Edition is Dedicated to Al Massey

Participants of the Eastern Michigan Writing Project's 2007 Invitational Institute were fortunate to work beside a dedicated educator and musician, Al Massey. When this electronic newsletter became a reality, we were looking for a name that would capture what the Writing Project is all about. Once Al softly spoke "eMuse," we knew we had a winner. Sadly, Al died before he could read this first edition. His death came on the eve of our first continuity meeting in September, 2007.

As an educator, Al loved to teach writing. Paraphrased from a conversation with one of this summer's participants, he remembers Al saying, "Writing a good story is easy. Think of a character and then put him 'up a tree.' The goal of the story then is to get that character down from the tree. You let the story happen from the point of that problem."
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Up a Tree
by Nick Kalakailo
a dedication to Al Massey, October, 2007

We could certainly pull out an ax and start chopping down all the trees, furiously fixing the problem, felling the timber and youth simultaneously, rejoicing in our power to take control over the situation. We all know an administrator or colleague who'd like the sound of that plan. But writers, teachers, and learners need the forest -- we need the trees. We need the kids to get stuck every once in a while; we need to get stuck with them. If we don't climb that damn tree we'll never touch the sky. Wingless as we are, how else can we reach the sky?

And, we'd never have the opportunity to climb back down and become grounded. How does one become grounded in this way? Some might say encouragement, belief, confidence, skill are all key to establishing some roots. Regardless, in the classroom, it might look like this: A student's cry for help, followed by a teacher's voice, calling up, coaching and coaxing. The youth begins to step down, believing in the power of his own footing and grip, descending earthward. Branches snap and knees knock, and finally the student reaches the ground. He smiles at that tree, appreciating the challenges it presented to him. His admiration for this oaken obstacle transforms into desire. He scans the forest and starts looking for the next tree to climb. The teacher stands back in relief, knowing nothing heroic was accomplished yet nothing tragic had occurred. The teacher closes his eyes for a moment, catching his breath, and upon reopening them, he finds that he is now the one who is up a tree and the students are on the ground, calling to him, "Come back to us!"

Something clear cut all the sturdy trees in Al's body long ago. The parts of him that were once firmly rooted in the fertile soil of life escaped him, washed away in a downpour. He wandered alone too long in the desert, looking for that one tree.

We didn't know him well, but we knew him.
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Continuity Meeting
by Bill Tucker
September, 2007

The first meeting began with fragile hopes
And resolutions best made early and often:
To be better writers, teachers, friends and to remember

We remembered writing in a sacred hour
Reading tenderly each other’s words
Teaching strangers who became our friends
Like therealalmassey.

In June Al begged his doctor
To study in our company.
To write and teach and be our friend.
To make September resolutions.

With the dark-framed lenses, the frizzy hair,
The unruly beard like a hip high priest,
Al thought nothing sacred but his writing, his music,
And kids writing of their families.

He arrived late, often stood in the corner,
Held his pain in the knob of a cane,
Never left without a question that kept us musing
Or a musing that left us questioning.

In disbelief we clutched for continuity
Without therealalmassey.
We hardly knew his passion, his pondering, his pain.
But we remember Al: writer, teacher, friend.
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Tapped into Writing - A Successful Launch

Meeting in Ypsilanti, Dexter, and Plymouth establishments this fall, local educators came together for informal discussions about ways to handle the paper overload and to incorporate the teaching of grammar in an established curriculum, as well as discuss Young Adult Literature. After perusing the menus and ordering, participants settled down for a brief introduction by the facilitator. The discussions that followed were timely, giving focus to topics that impact the classrooms and lives of Teachers of English.

Considered a success, the Board of Directors for the Eastern Michigan Writing Project is planning to extend the series into 2008. Check back soon to see what is planned for next year.
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Teacher Citizen

Teacher as Lobbyist
by Sarah Lorenz

My involvement with the NWP over the past ten years has always been the source of wonderful personal and professional growth. But I never expected lobbyist to be one of the hats I’d wear when I started out to learn more about writing. Hmmm, isn’t there some quotation about all writing being a political act? I suppose it is true, because during the last Thursday and Friday of March, I found myself as part of the first pair of EMWP delegates to the annual NWP Spring Meeting in Washington D.C. Every spring, TC’s from all over the nation gather in the capitol for a day of meetings and a day of contacting their legislators to talk about the work of the writing project. As I have always found to be true with new experiences with the NWP, this trip was mind-broadening, informational and personally enriching, as well as full of good food and nice people.

I’ve been pretty deeply connected to the writing project for a decade now, but this experience made me feel like a little kid who finally comprehends that mom and dad have to work to pay bills, and that you can’t just go to the bank and withdraw money any time you want. Wow! Here all these people have been working tirelessly in Washington for years to make sure that the writing project funding exists each and every year! And I’ve just been sitting back at my own site, sponging off their efforts {I thought of "asking Mom and Dad for allowance" to continue the metaphor}. It was an eye-opener.

First of all, it was really exciting to go to our legislators’ offices on Capitol Hill and talk with them about the work of the writing project. We made appointments in advance with legislative aides from Congressmen Dingell and McCotter’s offices, covering most of EMWP’s territory. We were actually scheduled to meet with Congressman McCotter in person, as well as be addressed by Senator Cochran in our opening meeting, but the huge, controversial spending bill was being voted on that day, and the senators and representatives were tied up on the floor for the entire day. People from other Michigan sites were meeting with their representatives’ aides during the same time. Then we all gathered in Senator Stabenow’s office to talk with her education aide. (The aide from Senator Levin’s office was supposed to be there but wasn’t able to make it at the last minute.) Some of the Michigan delegation, like Lynn Chrenka from Crossroads Writing Project, have been meeting with the same staffers over several years, and they have built a relationship. They feel like they are able to add to the stories and knowledge base each time.

Congressman Dingell and Senators Stabenow and Leven have been supporters of the NWP in the past, and their aides knew about our work. Congressman McCotter’s aide was new to the idea. If you live or work in the 11th district, it would be great for you to contact Rep. McCotter and let him know that you and your students have benefited from the NWP and you would like him to support it. A personal letter with a story about your or your students’ experiences would be perfect. He visited my school in the past for an event and was very gracious to a student group I had in Washington one year, taking time to come out of his office and talk with the kids when we stopped by to pick up tickets. He also has school-aged children himself. It seems like he is quite interested in students and very approachable. So please take time to do a little lobbying yourself, and maybe we can pick up another supporter in Congress.

For your own info and for when you contact your representatives, here are a few facts. The total appropriation for NWP this year is just over 21 million, and we are asking for an increase to 30 million next year, in order to fund more expansion. Did you know that we are just three shy of hitting the 200-site mark in the U.S.? And that 60 new sites have been established since 2000? We are asking for a tiny amount when it comes to federal programs, but we do incredible work with that money. One point we made when talking with the legislative aides was about the concept of leverage. The NWP is very skilled at leveraging the federal money it receives by requiring each site to secure in-kind support from its host university, with space, staffing, and other support. And when TC’s pay tuition for institutes or school districts contract inservice work, that money goes back to supporting the local site. We leverage $3.34 additional dollars for every $1 of federal money. And the quality of NWP programs is unsurpassed. We are the largest and longest-standing teacher development program in U.S. history. We aren’t just a PD program—we are a valuable national infrastructure that is highly effective at improving student writing.

One last exciting thing that happened: on Friday, in our general meeting, many people stood up and shared what had happened on Capital Hill in their meetings the day before. We discovered that many, many folk had the legislative aides ask them about No Child Left Behind. They were looking for ideas on how to improve the legislation when it comes up for reauthorization soon. One of the key players in that rewriting will be Dale Kildee, who represents Michigan’s 5th district, which includes the Red Cedar Writing Project. His aide invited input from the Red Cedar TC’s, and hopefully we’ll be able to use that contact to route ideas from all over the country to the people who are writing the legislation. Many hope that it will be taken care of in the next few months, because “nothing gets done in an election year, or, worse, the issues get turned into a political football,” according to Stabenow’s staffer.

So I invite everyone to add “teacher as lobbyist” to your list of accomplishments. Visit a local or DC office, call or write to your representatives, and thank them for their support or ask them for it. Send them samples of student work, or better yet, have your students write specifically for them. If you are in DC on your own business, stop in and do your own little lobbying call, or be part of our DC delegation in the future. Don’t forget what we tell our students: writing is a powerful act that brings about change. Let’s all use it to make sure the NWP’s funding is secure for years to come.
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Teacher Writer

by Angela Knight

When I grow up, I want to be an author. I want to be a published author. I want to go on book signing tours, and complain about horrible hotels with toilets that don’t flush, water main breaks, and then no hot water for the next two days, culminating with twenty hungry minutes of seeming invisible at the restaurant where the bride’s family is waited on as if they were royalty. Oh, sorry. That was my recent experience at a hotel in Pittsburgh. But if your characters end up staying in a hotel and you need a few plot devices to move your story along, then feel free to use mine.

If you’ve ever dreamed of someday writing a novel and having your name on the top of the New York Times Bestseller List, please keep reading.

Insert list of excuses here about why you haven’t yet tried to write a novel:

1. no character ideas

2. no plot ideas

3. not sure which genre to use



(You may use additional sheets of paper, if necessary.)

Insert list of excuses here about why you don’t have the time to write a novel:

1. job

2. family

3. house/apartment responsibilities

4. other hobbies

5. social commitments

(You may use additional sheets of paper, if necessary.)

You have only thirty days to write 50,000 words. You have ideas and resources, inspiration and commiseration at your fingertips.

“But I don’t have any good ideas.”

So use the bad ideas. During National Novel Writing Month, you don’t have to be a great author. You don’t even have to be very good. There are no bonus points for quality, and no penalties for not finishing your novel. It’s all in your head and your heart. It’s up to you. You don’t have to create characters—you can adopt them! You don’t have to have a plot—you can adopt one! Now, what is your excuse?

“I’m a teacher. I grade papers every night.”

I’ve long since given up the delusion that I would grade papers at home. All I did was carry them back to work, untouched, the next day. So, I finally saved myself the time and trouble of packing and unpacking them. In the time I saved, I could have typed 200 words! I recommend assigning a really big project that is more work for them than you… and you can grade it in December. Or—here’s a really crazy idea—get your students involved in the Young Writers Program so that you can all spend November enjoying the same joys and sufferings in the realm of the author.

“I have kids and pets and high-maintenance spouse/roommate(s)”

Sure, I also don’t have any kids at home (or anywhere else, for that matter). My foster cats are fairly low maintenance. And my fiancĂ©, who already does all of the cooking, was terrific at saying, “No, I’ll do the dishes tonight. You have a novel to write.” He didn’t understand entirely, but he was supportive in his own way. He even promised me ice cream when I finished my second novel. So, I went upstairs, wrote the ending, went over 50,000 words, went back downstairs to interrupt his television watching, and said, “Okay! Let’s go!”

“Where are we going?”

“Out for ice cream!”

“You finished?”

We went to Red Robin and shared a Mountain High Mudd Pie, the knowledge and satisfaction that I had completed my second novel, and the promise that I would start doing the dishes again.

Some people promise themselves a present or treat of some kind for finishing their novel, but that’s up to you. There is usually a message board thread or two that asks people what their rewards are going to be. Adults have created sticker-reward charts at every five- or ten-thousand words, added a bead to a bracelet, or promised themselves a trip to the bookstore. My first Nano-buddy promised herself an iPod if she finished her 2005 novel. She bought it in mid-November to help her finish, but she did guilt herself into writing over 50k that year—to help earn her prepaid reward.

“What if the novel isn’t any good?”

It doesn’t have to be good. The beauty of NaNoWriMo is that it is all about quantity, not quality. The first year I tried to write a novel, I spent a lot of time reading the “Tips and Tricks for Reaching 50,000” thread on the forum. One author said something like, “I’ve just written two thousand words describing a farm. There is no farm in my novel. My characters do not live on or near a farm. They don’t plan to visit a farm. Does this count towards my 50k?” The overwhelming response to this person was that yes, absolutely. Another person posted a message to share that whenever he/she got stuck, the main character woke up and something completely different happened, as if the previous events were all just a dream.

Oh, the novel is still complete crap, but it’s much less crappy than my 2005 novel, and even that was a huge improvement over my 2004 attempt, which was only 32,000 words of complete drivel. My book tour is still a long way off, but now the dream has more realistic potential, now that I’m doing something to work towards it.

After I publish my book and sit in bookstores across the world, signing my novel for the fans who loved my book, I also can’t wait to meet the fans who are really anti-fans, who showed up to ridicule me and tell me that they couldn’t believe that I got a publishing contract for such drivel and that they could do a much better job, if only they had the time. No time? Try November. It’s a great month to write a novel.
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Lifeboat No. 4
by Angela Knight

“Everywhere you go
always take the weather,
take the weather with you.” – Crowded House

writing under the boat
my shelter and refuge

today’s not stormy
or tumultuous
just gray –
or is weather grey? –
and sad,

a meteorological message
to stay inside
with a mug of hot chocolate
and a good book

the book I hold – still empty
and only time
and some revision
will tell
if this book is any good

unnatural for an
August morning:
this weather
this adventure
a new experience

a morning on the lake
with cooler temperatures
telling us that
even the beaches
need a vacation
during the busy season

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