Managing Stress: The CDC and me. Part 1

Each of us is experiencing this shared crisis not only as one of many, but as an individual who is coping with a unique set of circumstances. For me, those circumstances include trying to figure out how best to support my students in a way that helps them stay on track with their academics while not unduly stressing them out. That’s a tall order. I worry, a lot. I worry about students who ‘disappear,’ I worry that too many students are doing too little writing and their skills are plummeting, and I worry that too often I myself come too close to running on empty.

One day, while I was mindlessly following links about stress as a sort of ‘break’ from real life, I came across this page from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About a third of the way down the page I found a little section titled, “Ways to Cope with Stress.” For me, the little list of four items offered there was the best thing on the page. It got me thinking – which was a welcome relief from the empty-headed mindset that had set me on the path of clicking for answers. The list, I decided, was a good fit for writers and teachers, and I set myself the task of adapting the advice to the context of building skills as a writer and as a teacher. The result of that work – on the first piece of advice – is below.

The CDC advice –

Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting. (CDC)

Here’s my take-away for writers and teachers –

Do Something Else Repeatedly: Write

Checking media can be a habit, and when you want to change a habit the first step is to replace it with another habit. Writing, as a habit, offers great payback:

  • It is therapeutic – you’ll carve out personal time to check in with yourself, think your own thoughts, and come up with ideas you wouldn’t have had – or known you had – otherwise.
  • It will improve your ability to get your thoughts on the page, and therefore your skill as a writer.
  • As a teacher, you have the opportunity to create primary documents that you and your peers can consult and use for lessons on history, health, writing, etc. For example, you can set aside part of your writing time to write a letter to your future students. What is it you’ll tell them about this global experience?

3 Simple Steps to Cultivating Writing as a Habit

  • Gather your basic tools – something to write on and something to write with – so they  are ready for you.
  • At least once a day when you go to check your phone for news or find yourself heading to Facebook to keep tabs on the feed, say to yourself – “First, I’ll write half a page.”
  • Go write. Sometimes you’ll only write a scanty half page, other times you’ll find yourself on a roll – go with it.

Final Advice

Remember, the goal is health. Smile to yourself when you’ve written, and smile when you realize the day is gone and you haven’t written. On those no-writing days (and there will be no-writing days), say to yourself, “Tomorrow, friend; I’ll meet you on the page tomorrow.”

Faster Feedback: A Teacher-Talk Telegram

Working on giving your students feedback on their written work?

Wonder where you’re going to find the time?

If you agree that:

Feedback takes time,  Quicker feedback works better, and Talking is faster than typing –

Try this WORD combo: Comment and Dictate

  1. HIGHLIGHT the text you want to comment on
  2. Go to INSERT
  3. Click on COMMENTS
  4. Go to HOME
  5. Click on blue microphone icon DICTATE (a red dot will appear when it’s ready)
  6. TALK to your student just the way you would if they were sitting there

Practical hint: if you mess up (repeat a word, misspeak, sneeze . . .) just keep going – you can easily edit that out.

Pedagogical hints: 1) When you can, give general guidance, rather than specific information: “There’s a word missing in this sentence” rather than “You’ve left out the verb”  2) For missing words and glitches in meaning, suggest that the student use Read Aloud to have the computer read the sentence to them: they can often hear the error, and they’ll learn a valuable self-editing tool.

7. CLICK on the blue microphone when you’re done

8. PROOFREAD the comment – you’ll see you need to add capitals and punctuation. Fix any errors. I speak more slowly than my usual fast pace when I dictate, but not much more slowly. I find few errors (far fewer, for instance than spellcheck routinely commits on my students’ papers).

Questions, Comments? Let me know.

(I generally use my own images, but the colorful stopwatches are by Gerd Altmann. You can find their work on Pixabay.com)

Author Visit: Little River School

This week I met with students at the Little River Community School in Canton, NY to discuss my as yet unpublished manuscript, Lucky, and talk about writing. The young writers had many questions and they each shared something about the kind of writing they are doing.

Some of the questions were about plot elements, some about my process of writing the book. One student asked about my take on the meaning of the book, another asked how I went about writing descriptions.

In answering that last question, I talked about the items Christopher found and explained that I used small things I own and am really fond of – it was fun to write about them. I began to rummage in my backpack to take out a couple I’d brought with me.  Some of the students said they hoped I’d brought the turtle, and I had. The turtle, which is a metal ‘frog’ – a device meant to sit inside a vase and keep the flower stems in place – was well received. Here’s the description in the book (Nursie, by the way, is a dog):

Christopher sat back on his heels to examine it. Nursie sniffed the object, then nuzzled the boy. “Yeah, check it out,” he whispered to the dog. It was a metal turtle. It didn’t weigh much. Resting in his hand, it almost covered his palm. The turtle’s front legs and arched head fit between his fingers, one back leg rested between thumb and finger and its curved tail and other back leg nestled against his palm. The turtle’s shell had a shallow pattern of pentagons that looked like chicken wire. In the middle there was a hole he could fit the tip of his pinky finger into, and around it circled eight more holes. The metal was sturdy, but the inside of the turtle was hollow. He turned it over. This side had the same set of holes, but no pattern of lines. Christopher ran his thumb along the edge between the turtle’s domed shell and its convex belly. It was smooth, he couldn’t feel a seam. When he held the turtle up towards the light of the window, he could see that the holes almost lined up. He smiled. His friends would probably laugh at him, but he liked it.

The questions and my replies worked their way around the room. When it was B.W.’s turn, he slid a sketch across the table. B.W. said he liked to doodle. I am a big fan of doodling, myself, and of course was super pleased to see this sketch. Here it is alongside the turtle, Frog –

“Frog” by B. W. (Copyright held by artist, used with permission)

Frog is a turtle with an attitude, and I think B.W.’s sketch captures that perfectly. As I was gathering things up to go, a couple of writers told me they had imagined a painted turtle when they read this scene, a colorful rather than monochrome one. That made me think back to my answer about writing descriptions: I described starting from scratch to build an image and then trying to go back to the viewpoint of the reader and seeing what image the words actually build. I see now that in my description of the turtle, I left off color entirely. I’ll need to ponder whether I want to clarify that in the book or not, but either way, their comments are great examples of why getting feedback from readers is so helpful. Writers can do a lot to see their work with “fresh eyes,” things like setting the work aside for awhile and coming back to it. But there’s nothing like a reader’s “new eyes” to reflect back to a writer what the text actually accomplishes.

I had one question for the students, about their reaction to Rachel, one of the characters in Lucky. Several of the writers gathered at the table really enjoyed her, and I’m glad I asked the question. Feedback I received from some readers in earlier drafts about Rachel was more tentative – maybe this latest feedback is an indication that I’ve built her role in a way that justifies the attention she gets (well, being Rachel, sort of demands).

Then the students spoke about their own writing – from work that might develop into a novel in stories, to game scenarios, to finally finishing a story (deadlines are the writers friend!), to sci-fi scripts and inspirations for topics.

We talked about writing as a stress-buster (that has certainly been my experience of it), and their recent experience trying their hand at flash fiction. Beyond its potential as a means to get across some of the most poignant aspects of being human, I find work on flash fiction to be a powerful tool to honing craft at the sentence level.

For me, the hour-long conversation was thoroughly enjoyable – to be part of writers talking about writing is something most writers value deeply. Those of us who make a home in a rural area are especially grateful for the chance to get together with other writers. My thanks to the students at Little River for sitting around a table to talk about my writing and theirs, and to Steve Molnar, Director of the school, for inviting me.

Some information about the Little River Community School: it is a democratic school serving 39 students, grades K-12, in a four-classroom schoolhouse, in Canton, NY. Here’s the link to the school’s website: http://littleriverschool.org/

On Teaching Writing

I always feel a tiny bit of “why’d I ever say I’d do this?” when I first start a class. Like many writers, I’m more comfortable with a book than with a room full of people.  But it is always worthwhile if the room full of people are writers. And despite the disclaimers of “I’m not a writer,” I hear as a class starts, by the end of the first session, we are all writers. As a writer who is also a teacher, it doesn’t get any better.

The SOAR writing class I taught this spring confirmed for me, again, my faith in two conditions that will help writing break out in a group: time to write and time to share that writing and get audience response. Long ago a colleague taught me, “If you want something from your students, teach it to them.” Following his wisdom, whenever I teach writing, I teach how to respond to a piece of writing in a way that encourages the writer to keep writing and entirely avoids false praise.

Getting a response from a reader is such an important element of the process of crafting a well written piece that I am very specific in how students can respond to each other. I limit feedback to these two observations: “I noticed . . “.   and, “I wonder . . . ”  Just that, and it works.  There’s no room for false praise because the only praise that fits with those two sentence starters is the praise that the writing got my attention in some way, and it got me thinking and wondering.

Another ‘rule’ I impose on my students is that as we’re learning this approach to feedback, the writer doesn’t get to respond verbally. Why do I do that? Because I want the writer to listen to the feedback and process it – mentally and in their writing. I don’t want them to ‘answer’ the feedback, but to use it to consider its value to them and to think about whether to return to the piece and implement something that the feedback made them want to explore.

No doubt I’ll teach other writing classes. For the moment I’m happy to refocus my creative self on my own writing, and I’m back to devoting more time to working on my novel, Lucky.