Award-Winning Sentences

Stormy nightOne day, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton sat down and wrote what have become one of the most infamous opening lines of his novel Paul Clifford (1830): “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Bulwer-Lytton wrote other memorable lines. He penned “the pen is mightier than the sword” too, but chances are that if you know his name, it’s because of “It was a dark and stormy night.” Part of that sentence’s familiarity is thanks to Snoopy, who works so hard on that first sentence of his novels. If you’ve never quite understood the problem with that sentence, it’s likely that you’ve never read the full thing:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Quite the sentence, isn’t it? Since 1983, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has honored that epic sentence with a competition to write an equally spectacular sentence. This year’s winner, Sue Fondrie, teaches at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. The Guardian has more details, including the award-winning sentence which compares memories to wind turbines and sparrows and a groaner of a winner from the Fantasy category.


This post is the introduction from the Bits Flashback for July 31. Read the rest of the post on Facebook.

 

[Photo: Stormy night by Andrew J. Sutherland, on Flickr]

Software, Teamwork, & Collaboration

Google DocsThis week in Inside Higher Ed, Joshua Kim asserts, “The world is divided into two types of people: those who prefer Track Changes in Word and those who prefer to write collaboratively in Google Docs.” Kim’s explanation of the two ways of working with text sparked conversation on the TechRhet discussion list. Some spoke to Kim’s explicit question: “Which one are you?” while others extended the focus to consider different ways to write HTML texts.

Naturally, there’s no correct answer to Kim’s question, and the situation is not as binary as it is presented in his article. That ambiguous quality makes the article and its overarching question perfect for a class discussion of collaboration and teamwork. Students can share their own alignment, and then move on to talk about how Kim’s article is defining writing and collaboration. They can widen the discussion of writing and collaboration to include more tools and kinds of composing. With that groundwork in place, they can then talk about their own teamwork in class. Focus their conversation on how different kinds of collaboration suit different projects and ask them to brainstorm strategies for working together when you have different preferences.

Kim’s article is short, but it touches on how software, teamwork, and how people collaborate—all valuable topics for the classroom.


This post is the introduction from the Bits Flashback for July 3. Read the rest of the post on Facebook.

 

[Photo: Google Docs by BobChao, on Flickr]

Reading, Writing, Eating

Lemon CakeAlyssa Rosenberg wrote about Food in Fiction and How Cooking Brings You Closer to Characters this week in The Atlantic. The article asks readers to think about how cooking and eating the same foods as fictional characters strengthens the connection between reader and the text.

Rosenberg describes some lemon cakes she made as a connection to Sansa, a character the books by George R.R. Martin that are the basis of HBO’s Game of Throne:

The cakes weren’t anything like I’d imagined from reading about them in the book—they were spongier and less sweet, and hard to imagine as a dreamed-of delicacy. But they were delicious, a powerful visceral connection to the people on screen and the world in which they live.

Such connections between reader and text reminded me of the potential writing about food has in the composition classroom. Jay Dolmage has written two entries this year that include assignments and discussion ideas. Take a look back at Writing About Food and Food Rules for ways you can connect with students just as Rosenberg connects with those fictional characters.


This post is the introduction from the Bits Flashback for June 26. Read the rest of the post on Facebook.

 

[Photo: Lemon Cake by Charles Haynes, on Flickr]

Another Trauma Narrative: Bits Flashback for May 8

KeyboardOn Saturday, Black College Wire posted an article on a composition assignment that had consequences the teacher never expected. The teacher, Lisa Carl, asked students to write “either a first-person autobiographical account of a significant event in their lives or an analysis of a graphic novel or anthropological classic.”

In response, student Jessica Martin wrote the essay “I had an affair with my high school teacher,” which was later published in the N.C. Central University’s newspaper, the Campus Echo, as part of an annual collection of first-person narratives. The student’s account has resulted in campus scrutiny of her decision to write the essay and the newspaper’s decision to publish it—as well as the arrest of the high school teacher she wrote about.

As I read about the aftermath of the essay’s publication, I thought immediately of Holly Pappas’s Trauma Narrative post last month and how pertinent all the questions she raises are in this situation. It’s worth rereading Holly’s piece and thinking about how it applies and the new questions that it raises.

While you’re looking at past entries, also check out these Bedford Bits posts from last week:

A Few Extra Links

Let us know what you want to know about teaching writing or about using digital tools in the composition classroom by leaving a comment. Your response will help shape upcoming posts.

 

[Photo: Keyboard by cheetah100, on Flickr]

March Madness! Bits Flashback for March 20

March MadnessIt’s the time of year for basketball and brackets, underdogs and dream teams, last-second miracles and heartbreaking losses.

In the classroom, why not try a March Madness Poetry Tournament? It’s an activity you can easily customize for your class. Don’t have time for all 64 participants? Just move down a level or two to the Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight. Not teaching poetry? Focus your tournament on whatever you’re reading, viewing, or talking about in class (or out). How about a Final Four showdown among four authors you’ve studied?

Even if you aren’t following basketball, we have some slam-dunk strategies for you, all posted on Bedford Bits in the last week:

A Few Extra Reminders!

[Photo: March Madness by toddwickersty, on Flickr]

38 Ways to Write about Writing

Writing writing writing...The second National Day on Writing is nearly upon us. Wednesday, October 20, is the day established by the National Council of Teachers of English to celebrate the many kinds of writing that people everywhere do.

Chances are that the students you teach are already writing and already talking about writing each and every day. What can you do to make this one day stand out?

NCTE has some celebration ideas, and the National Writing Project has gathered details on how many sites plan to celebrate. Last year, there were school-wide celebrations at places like Eastern Michigan University and Boston University, special acuities in college writing centers and writing program offices such as the University of Minnesota and Arizona State University, and hundreds of people adding submissions to the National Gallery of Writing like these writers from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The New York Times Learning Network blog even suggested writing activities for students.

For a classroom-based celebration that can fit in with whatever theme or topic you are teaching, try asking students to write about writing. No matter what they are doing, they can reflect on the writing they are doing, the strategies they use, and the different experiences they have had as writers.

The resources below come from a variety of sources, but all ask students to think about themselves as writers. Though some are framed for specific projects (e.g., writer’s blogs) they can easily be adapted and customized. Just share the question and ask students to discuss it in whatever way you like.

Whatever you choose to do, I’d love to hear about your celebration. Please let me know about your plans in the comments.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by dbdbrobot]

 

Photo Writing Prompt: A Voice From the Past

My senior portrait This prompt is inspired by the piece that I wrote about my high school yearbook photo back in August 2009 for Laurie Halse Anderson’s for Write Fifteen Minutes a Day (WFMAD) and that I submitted to Bedford/St. Martin’s Gallery of Writing.

For this project, students choose their own photos, based on the kind of project they are completing. Here are some options students can use:

  • Choose your own school picture or yearbook photos or school pictures, and write an autobiographical memoir.
  • Find a photo of a famous historical figure or contemporary figure, and write your comments after completing some research on the person and the events in his or her life.
  • Use the photo of a family member, and write a biographical reflection, informed by your interactions with that family member.
  • Find a random photo on Flickr, and write a fictional piece about the imagined thoughts of the person in the photo.

A Voice From the Past. What would the person in the photo you have chosen say to you? What would that voice from the past tell you. Your job is to create a text from the perspective of the person in the photo. She will speak to the future, sharing something about things she has learned and what she has done.

Try freewriting on one of these questions to get started:

  • What choices would the person in the picture tell you to make?
  • What would the person regret that was happening when the picture was taken?
  • What would the person look back on with a smile?
  • What would the person wish could be different?
  • What advice or warnings would the person give you?
  • What would the person see now if she (or he) looked back at the photo?
  • What secrets would the person confess now about life then?
  • What does the person in the photo not realize yet?
  • What would the person tell you about goals and dreams?
  • What was important to the person in the photo? Has it changed?

 

Top 10 Things to Do with a Banned Text

Banned Book Week 2010 Poster from the American Library AssociationHow will you discuss Banned Books Week (BBW) this year? It’s easy to find ideas for displays and activities for libraries. The problem is that most of them are too general or would be difficult to use in the writing classroom.

To solve that problem, I began brainstorming ways that students can think critically about censorship. The result is this collection of projects that focus primarily on argument and persuasion. When possible, I tried to think of options that allow students to speak their own minds, for or against limiting access to a text.

So here are the top ten things to do with a banned book—other than read it, of course!

  1. [Mock Trial] Put the author of the banned book on trial (or a character from the text). Let Gustave Flaubert’s experience with Madame Bovary be your inspiration. You can adapt Mock Trial resources and the ALA’s suggestions for conducting a challenge hearing for the project.
     
  2. [PSA] Make a Public Service Announcement (PSA) that supports the text and the freedom to read (or BBW). You can create a video, audio, or slide show PSA. There are audio examples at the ALA site. Your announcement can focus on BBW as a whole or might be a campaign for the freedom to read a particular text.
     
  3. [Character Diary] Write a diary entry from the perspective of a character from a banned text. The character may be one whose actions are cited when people talk about banning the book or someone else in the text. There’s a List of Ten Character Diary Prompts you can use if you want to extend this activity.
     
    Adapt this writing prompt for students: Someone wrote the story of your life, and the book has been banned from _____ because of _____. Write your reaction as a diary entry—Are you shocked? pleased? upset? Do you think the banning was fair?
     
  4. [Warning] Create a warning label for a banned text. Examine that appearance and wording of warnings that are added to movie and television shows, cigarettes, and prescription drug commercials and ads. Have students then create a label that would be placed on the cover of the text. The label can be realistic or satirical. Here’s an example for Huck Finn and some additional tips on designing warning labels you can use to supplement discussion.
     
    Introduce the Warning Label Generator to add some play to the project. The images may not match properly, but the tool is fun. And if students think no one would ever put a warning on a book, you can share “Ratings, warning labels don’t belong on books.”
     
  5. [Testimonial] Write a testimonial letter or blog entry that explains why you support (or don’t) a banned text. Your goal is to convince readers to read (or not read) the text. Alternately, you can argue that the text be kept (or not kept) in the school or public library or read by students in a particular class.
     
    Your testimonial needs to personal, based on your experiences and beliefs. This is your chance to make a personal statement about why the text should (or shouldn’t) be read.
     
  6. [Language of Persuasion] Choose a statement for or against banned text, and examine how the language contributes to the argument. These questions can guide your analysis:
     

    • How are specific examples from the text used? When and to what effect?
    • What about euphemisms — how do the authors sugarcoat or generalize their messages with their word choice?
    • What about their sense of audience? Do they understand their readers? How can you tell?

    After you’ve examined the language, compose a blog entry, podcast, or video presentation that analyzes the authors’ language, explaining what you can conclude about their goals, their sense of audience, and their ideas on the issues.
     

  7. [A Fable] Have each student brainstorm a list of things that might happen if a text is banned from a library or classroom. You can focus on a specific text or just banned books in general. Next, students share their lists with the class, and identify the items that recur and those that seem particularly significant or surprising. Ask each student to choose an item to focus on, and write a fable that tells the story of the banned text and ends with or discusses the item chosen from the class lists. The moral of the fable will be related to whether books should (or shouldn’t) be banned.
     
  8. [Biggest Myth] What is the biggest myth that you’ve heard in the media about a banned book? Write a letter to the editor, to the television show, or to the general public that explains why you disagree with the coverage they have given to the myth you’ve identified.
     
    In your letter, describe the myth that you’ve heard and read, explain why you believe the assertion is untrue, and suggest reasons that the myth has developed. Identify and share more realistic explanations. Persuade your readers to change the way that they talk about the banned text.
     
  9. [Investigative Report] Describe the book banning in the form of an investigative report—the kind of piece you’d hear on 60 Minutes, Dateline, or 20/20. Start with a question or issue that the banning focuses on, explain all of the facts and details that you uncover in relationship to the issue, and conclude with the insights you gain as a result of your investigation.
     
    Like an investigative report on TV, your report should stir your reader to some kind of implicit action as a part of the conclusion — the point might be to stir the reader’s emotions, to inspire the reader to challenge the banning, or to suggest that the reader take an active role in how books are chosen for the library or classroom.
     
  10. [Censor It] Identify passages from a banned text that have been cited for using inappropriate language. Have students work in small groups to rewrite the sections. Ideally each group should have a different section of text to work with. Collect the two versions of the passages. Share the rewritten version of each passage with the whole class first, and then reveal the original version. Talk about what is lost (or not) in the censored versions.
     
    Use the activity to talk about how rewriting, expurgation, and omission are used as a way to talk about banned texts. Class discussion can include:
     

    • Radio versions of songs that get air play versus original versions with explicit lyrics.
    • Beeping out words in audio and video broadcasts.
    • Blocking images with a black box or blurred area in television broadcasts.
    • Adding a “clean” voiceover for inappropriate words said in a movie played on television (e.g., “shoot” for “shit”).
    • Cutting scenes and events from a movie before playing it on broadcast television.
    • The name of the CBS sitcom referred to as “Stuff My Dad Says” when spoken and often shown in print as $#*! My Dad Says. (The show based on the Twitter feed Shit My Dad Says and the related book Sh*t My Dad Says.)

For some specific lesson plans, see ReadWriteThink’s calendar entry for Banned Books Week. Check out my Bedford Bits post for Persuasion, Argument, and Book Banning in 10 Steps.

 

List of Ten: Fun with Crayons

Crayon Lineup by laffy4kI’m a sucker for office supplies. Snoop around my desk, and you’ll find colored pencils, a rainbow of Sharpies, and a full range of notebooks and pads of paper.

It’s no surprise then that I was excited when I found a link to a Vintage Crayons, Paints, & Art Supplies Flickr set on a friend’s Twitter feed (John D. Lemke aka @lumpy).

Sadly that collection is limited by copyright restrictions, but you can find plenty of other images, like the illustration on this post. Just search for Creative Commons-licensed content for the keyword crayons.

Once you have found a collection of images you like, students can use one of the topics below to inspire a project such as an essay, a Powerpoint presentation, or a YouTube video.

  1. [Persuasion] Look at the vintage boxes in the image included on the Crayola entry on Wikipedia. You can also use more recent images of crayon boxes. Ask students to analyze the boxes for persuasive information. Point out the box that proclaims, “Not injurious to the hands and will not soil the clothes” as an example. There’s also an early advertisement you can analyze. Discuss how the boxes appeal to customers. How do they attempt to persuade customers to purchase a box of crayons?
     
  2. [Gender & Race] Ask students to look at how gender and race are represented in the images includes in the Vintage Crayons, Paints, & Art Supplies Flickr set. Crayon companies literally have all the colors of the rainbow to choose among. Are the images diverse? Do they accurately represent the people who will use the product? [You might begin this assignment by asking students to consider the Flesh crayon and the current Multicultural Crayons collection.]
     
  3. [Naming] Where do crayon names come from? Typically, the name seems to describe the color, but if you read the list of Crayola color names, you’ll quickly see that some are a bit unusual. Consider the Inchworm crayon. That’s hardly a name you’d expect. Review the list of Crayola color names, and choose one color to explore. Consider the connotations and denotations of the name, think about the alternatives that Crayola could have used, and draw some conclusions about their final choice. Your project will be an analysis of the name for that crayon—exploring the name, what it means to people, and why it was probably chosen.
     
  4. [Perception] Take a look at XKCD’s Color Survey Results and the related resources the results have inspired. Colors are deeply personal and quite objective. Discuss the role that gender plays in the analysis, and suggest what other personal characteristics might influence the names people choose for colors. If your resources allow, the raw data from the survey are linked from the XKCD site. Try your own analysis of the data and report what you discover.
     
  5. [Culture] Consider how cultural connotations of colors (alternative discussion) compare to the names Crayola has used to label various crayons. You can use Poynter’s Color, Contrast & Dimension in News Design to talk in more detail about how color works. Are there names on the list of Crayola color names that could be culturally insensitive? What alternate names would you suggest if the crayons were used by children in a different culture?
     
  6. [Color Bio] What if your life were a crayon box? Identify 8 to 12 significant events in your life. The times might be especially happy memories, things that changed your life, or milestones you achieved. Choose a crayon color to represent each event, and explain why the color is appropriate for the event. The project might be published as a kind of graphic life map.
     
  7. [Special Collections] Crayola has created special collections of crayons over the years. Some are named for the kinds of colors included, like Silver Swirls. Others are specific to an event or situation, however, like the State Crayon Collection (image 2 , image 3 ) or America’s Top 50 Crayons. Create your own special collection of crayons—choose a theme (e.g., the Mardi Gras collection, the Halloween collection, or Thomas Dale High School collection), and 8 to 12 crayon colors that you would include. Provide names and explanations for the colors that would be in your special collection. The Educational Chemistry Crayons are a great example of such a project.
     
  8. [Tell Your Story] Almost everyone has memories tied to crayons—whether coloring worksheets in preschool or filling in the images on a place mat at a restaurant. Write a personal memory about crayons. Brainstorm the things you remember when you think about crayons. Choose one or two, and tell us your crayon memory.
     
  9. [Coloring Pages] Take a look at a collection of Coloring Pages or Craft Projects on the Crayola Website. Choose 5 to 7 pages from a collection, and analyze the images and text that are included. How is Crayola presenting the issue or idea? What is included and what is not? The pages are obviously intended for children, but are there other aspects of the audience that your analysis reveals? [Expand this activity by including coloring pages from one of Crayola’s international sites, which include Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, Mexico, and Italy.]
     
  10. [Coloring a Place] Dump a collection of crayons in a bag (or names of colors on slips of paper). Each student pulls out a crayon (or a color) randomly. Have the student look up the color on the list of Crayola color names if you use slips of paper. Imagine that the color is the name of a place. Using the color of the crayon and the crayon’s name as inspiration, describe the place. What does it look like? What happens there? Who goes there? What sounds and smells are associated with the place? NOTE: If a student has trouble working with a color, just have him pull another one. The idea is for the color to be relatively random, but there’s no reason a student should be forced to stick with a color that he’s having trouble using as inspiration.

Most of these activities will work with any collection that is based on colors. You might use paint chips, for instance, or if students do scrapbooking, the names and colors of paper and ink used by Stampin’ Up would be work.
 

Check out the other Lists of Ten for writing activities, professional development ideas, and other classroom teaching tools.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by laffy4k]

Easy Supplemental Reading: 100 Best Magazine Articles

Stack of Magazines by theseanster93No matter what textbook I choose for class, there’s always a class or two where I wish I had a few more readings available. Nothing in the text seems quite right, so I end up searching for something online that will fill the gap.

For those class sessions, I now have a collection of 100 best magazine articles, gathered by Kevin Kelly, cofounder of Wired and author of the forthcoming What Technology Wants (Viking/Penguin, October 2010).

Links are included for most of the articles; however, many go to only abstracts or snippets. To access the full article, you’ll need to pay for the download. Of course, on a college campus, you’re bound to be able to find any of these articles at the library with the citations that are included.

If I were teaching a graduate course, I think I’d ask students to divide up the articles and create short abstracts and keywords for each. I’d definitely ask them to include an indication of whether the article was free, subscription-based, or one-time fee-based. Published as a class collection, the annotated entries would give every student a rich resource for the future.

The list of articles could also help me point undergrad writers to key articles for research projects. For instance, a student writing about online bullying would certainly want to look at Julian Dibbell’s “A Rape in Cyberspace,” and the list gives me both a link to the article and a citation to find a print copy at the library.

My favorite find on Kelly’s list is Tom Junod’s Can you say- Hero?” from the November 1998 Esquire. The creative nonfiction essay weaves several anecdotes about Mr. Rogers into a profile that casts everyone’s favorite childhood neighbor as hero.

Take a look at the list yourself. You’re bound to find something new or forgotten that will be worth a read. What’s your favorite on the list? Be sure to email Kevin Kelly, who is building a Top Ten list.

 

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by theseanster93]