A Little Tale

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When I visited my nieces and nephews in LA over Christmas, we made little storybooks. Mine was about a bug named Albert. I recently created a second book in the series, but had to share it online since I’m back home in Pennsylvania. Here’s a link to the finished product: Albert Makes a Friend.

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Digital Portfolios

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I just read a book on using digital technology in a writing workshop.

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Prior to reading this book, I had been dreaming of having each of my students set up a WordPress blog on which to post their writing assignments. Troy Hicks helped me think through some of the rationale and logistics of having students blog. For one thing, blogs give students a genuine audience. This would almost certainly motivate students to increase the effort they put into their work and would give them the satisfaction of knowing their work is going to be read outside the classroom. As Troy Hicks points out, “Writers write to be read” (82). For another thing, blogging is a real-world activity many students will continue to engage in after graduating from school.

At some point I would have to assess students’ blogs. Hicks suggests having students prepare for that assessment by compiling a digital portfolio showcasing some of their work and growth as a writer. The portfolio could easily be set up right on the WordPress blog. All students would need to do is add a page to the blog called “Portfolio” and create a linked table of contents to each page they want to include in the portfolio.

Blog page assignments could include book reviews (in place of old-fashioned book reports), photo essays, creative writing pieces, and even re-posts (forcing students to read other blogs). Students could also be asked to respond to each other’s posts. Hicks suggests having students request specific types of responses from peers:

Writers…are asked to tell readers whether they want their work to be “blessed,” “addressed,” or “pressed.” If you are new to the online community, or feel that your piece is very personal and do not want it to be critiqued heavily, you might ask for a responder to bless it by simply offering praise. Inviting readers to address the piece means that you have specific questions about it, such as about character development or the flow, and want feedback on that. Finally, if you want a reader to press in his response, you are willing to accept any critiques that could help you move toward a stronger version of your writing. (83)

My main concern with this whole idea is students’ privacy, but in many ways helping my students to learn how to navigate the cyber world safely may be one of the most practical lessons I can teach them in English class.

Poetry in the Bible

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I recently read a fascinating book:

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Ryken makes a compelling case for essentially literal Bible translations (like the KJV and ESV) as opposed to dynamic equivalent translations (like the NIV and NLT). Of special interest to my English-major self was Ryken’s chapter on poetry. Ryken posits that roughly one-third of the Bible is poetic in its form. As he addresses how poetry should be translated, he notes:

The first principle of poetry is the primacy of the image. An image is any word that names a concrete object or action….[P]oetry is predominantly a right-brain discourse.

In an effort to make the Bible easier for laypeople to understand, many modern translations trade out the poetic images in the Bible for abstract applications. Ryken points to Psalm 1:1 as an example. Essentially literal in its translation, the ESV renders the first part of the verse, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked.” In contrast, the NLT renders the same portion, “Oh, the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked.” Notice that the metaphor of walking has been eliminated from the verse in the NLT. What difference does this make? Ryken notes that the strangeness of poetry is part of what makes it linger in our minds. In addition, the use of imagery in poetry often gives the poem more than one layer of meaning. Ryken quotes Ray Van Leeuwen:

Metaphors grab us and work on us and in us. They have the spiritual power to transform our minds.

By eliminating much of the imagery in the Bible’s poems, modern translations give the reader only one possible meaning of verses that in the original had layers of meaning, and make many passages less memorable than they would have been had the metaphors been retained.

Writing for Real Audiences

For years and years I’ve harbored a sort of vague dream of publishing a book someday. Lots of people share that dream. Few bring it to reality.

Last summer I enrolled in a writing seminar at Millersville University. One requirement for getting an A in the course was that we submit a piece of writing for publication. I agonized over that requirement. I hadn’t realized just how high the stakes feel when you know you’re writing for a real audience. After much agonizing and editing, I submitted an article to Daughters of Promise magazine. (It was accepted!)

The experience taught me something I don’t want to lose sight of as an English teacher. Writing for publication is different than writing for your teacher or your classmates. It’s different than writing in your journal for yourself. Writing for publication raises the stakes. It causes you to write your very best and to seek counsel from others on how to bring the piece to its full potential. More than any other writing you’ll ever do, writing for publication forces you to grow as a writer.

Which means, my dear students, that you’ll be writing for publication come fall…..

Use your pen as a camera :-)

So many of my friends are talented photographers. I take my photos with my phone and struggle to get clear shots. But there’s another way to capture a moment:

I was roused from a deep sleep by my brother’s shaking my foot. “Dani, can you take Baby for a while? Maria and I really need to sleep.” Instantly awake, I untangled myself from my little niece sleeping beside me and crawled out of my warm bed. I heard Claudia’s newborn cry from down the dark hall. I took her from her apologetic mama. The clock blinked 1:00. “I’m sorry,” Maria whispered. “But I haven’t gotten any sleep yet tonight.” I took the whimpering little bundle and held her upright against my chest, her wee head nestled under my chin. Only two days old, my niece already had strong opinions about how she liked to be held.

In the living room, I paced back and forth and hummed softly. I rocked her as I walked, that unique baby-holding dance that seems to quiet little ones better than anything else. Her whimpers became sporadic. Underneath my humming I listened to the sounds of the city outside: traffic, distant sirens, dogs barking. Streetlights illuminated the living room even though all the blinds were drawn. I felt the warmth of the little body against me, felt her grow heavy as she relaxed. After she quieted, I stretched out on my back on the couch with her nestled on top of me. Half asleep, I pondered the wonder of a new little life. Regretted how quickly babies grow up. Marveled at God’s goodness in allowing me to be a part of this miracle in my brother’s family.

Claudia stirred and I patted her gently back into dreamland. 

I’ll add a photograph by one of those talented friends: Claudia’s mama.

Claudia's Birth Announcement

Post-Structuralism and the Bible

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“[O]ne of structuralism’s characteristic views is the notion that language does not just reflect or record the world: rather, it shapes it, so that how we see is what we see. The post-structuralist maintains that the consequences of this belief are that we enter a universe of radical uncertainty, since we can have no access to any fixed landmark which is beyond linguistic processing, and hence we have no certain standard by which to measure anything.” Thus explains my Beginning Theory textbook (Peter Barry, 2009). In The Death of the Author, post-structuralist Karl Barthes further explains:

Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.

As I muse over this abstract philosophy, I think back to a conversation I had with a man of God whom I highly respect. “At one point the Bible was an idol to me,” he said. “I had to give up that idol and focus on Jesus Christ.”

I was somewhat mystified by his comments. Can the Bible be an idol?

The Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines an idol as “any thing which usurps the place of God in the hearts of his rational creatures.” Can the Word of God in text usurp the position of the Word of God in Person?

Or, to frame the question differently, can I have too great an affection for the words of Jesus Christ?

Strangely enough, if the post-structuralists are right, the answer is yes. Because if the post-structuralists are right, language is a slippery thing that cannot accurately convey a message from an author to a reader. Thus Barthes’s insistence that in the best reading of a text, the author is dead. Reality is created by the reader as he reads. It varies with every reading. In fact, there is no universal reality outside the text at all.

So from a post-structuralist standpoint, the Bible cannot accurately portray the message of its Author. Therefore, the Author must be sought outside the text. Too great a focus on the text might actually hinder our seeing the Author.

As you may have guessed, I am not a post-structuralist. I believe language (although slippery) can portray—to a large degree of accuracy—the message intended by the author.

However, even as I concede to my post-structuralist friends some slippage in language, I realize that the God who created language made provision against that slippage. He gave us His Holy Spirit to quicken (make alive) the Word as we read it (John 14:26). As we read the Bible, the Author of the text is willing to sit beside us and make His meaning plain. The Word in text, when so enlightened, leads us straight to the Word in Person. To love this Word is to love both the Bible and Jesus Christ.

from George R. R. Martin

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I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed, and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if they planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.

(quoted in Marchetti and O’Dell’s Writing with Mentors, page 123)

The point: Don’t try to force all your student writers into one mold. Allow each student the freedom to find and write out of his or her native style.