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Historical Shot Tower

Historical shot towerWe drove back from Charlotte today, and I’m a bit behind on the work from the days off. I’ll upload more images in a day or two, but for now, here’s the historical shot town, near Fort Chiswell, Virginia. It’s 150 feet tall with another 150 feet below ground. More details soon.

Changing the Workflow to Get More Done

IMG_6433If you show up somewhere with your shirt on backwards, someone usually lets you know. People realize right away that the picture is on the back, the buttons aren’t where they belong, and the shirt just isn’t right. A friend or kind-hearted passer-by whispers in your ear, or perhaps you catch a look at yourself in a mirror. You excuse yourself to the bathroom and turn things around.

If only everything worked that way. Earlier this week, I was behind on my work. For months now, I’ve been behind on my work. Every day, I do the same thing:

  • Find and post articles to @newsfromtengrrl.
  • Answer any pending email messages.
  • Write the blog posts that are due.
  • Set up outgoing social networking posts for @RWTnow and @BedfordBits.

Intersperse spot checking email, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter, and you have a pretty good picture of my day.

The problem was that by the time I got through finding the articles I post to @newsfromtengrrl, I usually have to stop and go take care of family duties. When I got back to my work later in the evening, I felt anxious and stressed. The “real” work that I needed to do, the blog posts and social networking updates, only got done when I was in panic mode (and often tired). Many times, I found myself in the wee hours of morning sleepily wondering if I could just push a few things off till the next day.

One afternoon this week, I found my stress levels rising. I hadn’t finished finding posts for @newsfromtengrrl, yet I only had about 30 minutes left before I had to clean the kitchen and cook dinner. The inner dialogue started:

Why can’t I ever get enough done? The afternoon is gone, and I still haven’t gotten to the real work. Damn it. I never get to what I need to because of the stupid news posts. But I have to finish the news posts before 6:45 so that the blog post goes up by midnight.

Out of some corner of my mind, a quieter, calmer voice said, “You could change the settings for the blog post, you know. You made this problem when you decided the post needed to go up at midnight.”

It wasn’t just a lightbulb moment.

There were rainbows. And unicorns. And glitter.

For nearly a year, I have been doing my work backwards, but no one had kindly leaned over and whispered in my ear until now! So a couple of days ago, I flipped my work flow. The news articles are the last thing I look for. Writing blog posts and status updates come first. I reset the WordPress plug-in so that my blog posts go up at noon instead of midnight.

It’s made all the difference. Look, here I am actually writing a blog post and the dinner fixings aren’t even out of the refrigerator!


[Photo: IMG_6433 by abbybatchelder, on Flickr]

Top 10 List of Lion Features

LionMany people I talk to are super-excited about Lion and I thought it was time to share in that excitement by creating a List of Ten on my favorite lion features. Here goes, in no particular order:

  1. Lion are carnivores and therefore would share my love of bacon.
  2. Lions are family animals, though they are not exactly monogamous.
  3. Lions are vulnerable. I like a creature that is open to feelings and emotions.
  4. Lions have scary teeth that would make them great vampires if they need a second line of work.
  5. Lions are considered “a symbol of power, courage and nobility.”
  6. When a lion growls, the sound can be heard up to 5 miles away.
  7. Perfect for social networking, lions are “the world’s most social felines.”
  8. Some lions sing songs, usually in English, according to Disney anyway.
  9. Male lions have manes. Everyone should have a mane man.
  10. Lions, much like me, are mostly lazy. They can be found “sleeping, napping, and resting” for “up to 21 hours.”

I’m sure this list has inspired you. If you cannot afford a lion, however, do not despair. They are easy to make and require only a few things, like paper plates and crayons.

[Photo: Lion by cheetah100, on Flickr]

More Important Things to Talk About

As stories of the National Spelling Bee flood the news, I wanted to repost a personal spelling story that originally appeared in the NCTE Inbox blog. It’s a story I carry with me as I respond to the writing of others.


When I was nearly 13, my parents gave me a pad of light blue paper with delicate yellow and peach flowers in the upper left corner, their stems stretching down the left margin. I delighted in the pad of stationery and the matching box of envelopes they gave me as a reward for watching for my younger sisters and brother while they did their grocery shopping.

I stared at the paper a few times everyday. Occasionally I ran my hand across the smooth surface. It felt like a perfect silk, almost too precious to even write upon. After about a week, I broke down and decided it was time to write a letter. I found the best pen in the house and carefully wrote a message to my grandparents, describing our recent trips to the public library, the Dolley Madison biographies I had been reading, and our trips to Wrightsville and Fort Fisher beaches.

When I finished writing, I sealed the letter in the envelope and carefully added my grandparents’ address. After adding a stamp, I carried the letter outside, placed it in the mailbox, and raised the red flag that would tell the letter carrier to start my letter on its journey from North Carolina to Pennsylvania. Anyone watching this series of events would have thought I was participating in a formal religious rite. I paid no attention to my youngest sister and brother as they wove their tricycles around me. I had serious business to do. I was sending my words forth on that beautiful paper.

A week or so later, I found a small white envelope in the mailbox with my name on it, the looping letters telling me immediately that my grandmother had addressed this letter. I carried it inside the house and sliced the envelope open with my mother’s letter opener. Inside, I found a letter written by my grandfather. He told me how tall the corn was and about the latest Louis L’Amour novel he’d been reading.

I sat up taller at the kitchen table and crossed my ankles under my chair, like the ladies I’d seen on my mother’s soap operas. My brother and sister were across the room, playing with a Fisher-Price bus and a circus train. Such babies compared to me. I had sent out a letter and received a message in reply. Me. My perfect light blue stationery was powerful. It transformed me from clumsy pre-teen to young adult. I mused on how I would continue this exchange, sending letters back and forth just like Dolley Madison, writing letters to family and friends, and saving my letters for future historians to revisit so they could learn about my life. In short, I was euphoric, absolutely smitten with the power of writing.

I turned over the page to read the paragraph on the back:

You spelled their and a lot wrong. You need to spell right to do well in school.

I couldn’t look at anyone in the room. They’d all see what a faker I had been. I slid off the chair as silently as possible and went down the hall to my room. I folded the letter and put it back in the envelope, which I tossed on my desk amid piles of books and old notebooks. I never read it again. I probably threw it away, but I have no memory of where it went. I put the beautiful blue paper at the bottom of a dresser drawer, where it stayed for months.

My spelling had betrayed me. I wasn’t really a letter writer. No historian would care about my letters in the centuries to come. It would be months before I wrote my grandparents another letter. A thank you note for a Christmas present, it included only the basic information. I neither expected nor received a reply. My mother said to write, and I did. I assume she mailed it with similar letters written by my sisters and brother. I didn’t save the details.

Whenever I begin to circle a spelling error on a student paper, I try to remember this story. Spelling matters, of course. But there are times when what matters most isn’t that spelling conforms to standard written English. The story. Sentence structure. Supporting details. The writer’s engagement and enthusiasm. Sorry, Grandpa, but sometimes thier and alot just don’t matter. There are more important things to talk about.

Please Think When You Abbreviate

Dear World,

I normally do not like pointing out little errors of spelling, grammar, punctuation, mechanics, and other minor issues in public, but sometimes you go too far.

Va Ass Teachers of English (yeah, really)

Please think before you abbreviate



Top Ten Blog Entries for 2010

HP Winter Summit 2010It’s that time of year when we take a few minutes to look back and reflect. I asked Google Analytics to do some of the work for me, and it came up with these blog entries, written in 2010, which received the most traffic during the year.

  1. 6 News Stories to Connect to Orwell’s 1984
    Big brother really is watching you and the students you teach. These news stories (check the comments for additional links) talk about how schools and communities are using big brother tactics to track what you do.
  2. Top 10 Things to Do with a Banned Text
    This List of Ten shares ways that students can think critically about censorship, focusing primarily on argument and persuasion.
  3. Text + Image = Tagxedo: The Next Generation of Word Cloud Fun
    Word cloud-driven analysis (like Wordle) is ready to move to the next level with Tagxedo, which shapes your cloud of words into an image.
  4. List of Ten: Fun with Crayons
    This collection of assignment prompts focuses on crayons, everything from color names to childhood memories.
  5. 38 Ways to Write about Writing
    A collection of links to 38 ways that students can reflect on the writing they are doing, the strategies they use, and the different experiences they have had as writers.
  6. What’s the Trick to Building Community in the Classroom?
    Online or off, getting students to talk to each other is a tricky task. These three lessons about building community in the business world, make a lot of sense in the classroom too.
  7. 6 Reasons Blogrolls Are Dying
    When I tried to update a comp/rhet blogroll list, I found that blogrolls seem to be a dying breed.
  8. Thanksgiving Classroom Discussion: The Meaning of Thanksgiving
    It turns out Mark Twain was a bit harsh about Thanksgiving, according to an excerpt from his newly-published autobiography. Turn the short passage into a classroom discussion of culture and commercialism.
  9. Turning Blog Posts Into a Book Draft
    Thanks to NaNoWriMo and Literature & Latte’s Scrivener, I turned a variety of notes and blog posts into a very rough and informal book draft of 52,967 words!
  10. Literary Lists of “Ten Best”
    This round-up features unusual literary lists (like 10 best tattoos or 10 best pairs of glasses in literature) from an ongoing series published in the UK newspaper The Guardian. See the comments for links to more.

So that’s 2010. I was surprised by the popularity of the Orwell post. I just happened upon several stories and threw them into the post. Lots of teachers seem to come to it however, and it was even linked in October from the New York Times Learning Blog. Who knew I’d ever get a shoutout from the New York Times? Not bad, as I look back at my personal blog writing. Not bad at all.

[Image: HP Winter Summit 2010 by negotiable_me, on Flickr]

Turning Blog Posts Into a Book Draft

2010 NaNoWriMo Winner BadgeAfter thirty days of thinking, sorting, and scribbling, I turned a variety of notes and blog posts into a very rough and informal book draft of 52,967 words.

Now as I confessed a month ago, I went about the process as a rebel—writing a nonfiction, academic piece and borrowing from existing work as appropriate. Fortunately, rebellion is sanctioned in this contest, and I am now officially a National Novel Writing Month winner for 2010.

The Secret to My Success
I would never have taken on this project without a little nudge from Literature & Latte’s Scrivener NaNoWriMo 2010 Trial, a special trial version of a wonderful word processing program for Mac (and coming soon for Windows). Ryan Cordell reviewed Scrivener for ProfHacker, and that’s when the program initially caught my attention. When I saw that the Literature & Latte folks were offering a discount for NaNoWriMo participants, I knew I had to download the program and give the month-long writing event a try.

After a few days, I realized that Scrivener had completely changed the way I work on a longer document. Honestly, the program made it possible for me to see how my practice of writing short pieces could work in the context of producing a larger document.

I write dozens of short documents every month, almost always blog entries composed in Dreamweaver for upload to a blog platform like WordPress. When I’m not writing blog entries, I am writing very structured pieces like lesson plans and strategy guides for ReadWriteThink.

My greatest fear has been that I would never figure out how to write another book. I’ve become so used to these shorter, structured pieces, that I just couldn’t think through the problem far enough to understand how to structure and write a fluid, longer piece.

After playing with Scrivener a bit, I realized that I could create and import dozens of shorter pieces as Texts, arranging them in folders, and dragging them around on the cork boards until I had what I wanted. I soon had six chapters sketched out, and I ultimately ended up with 73 short texts sorted into those folders.

Admittedly, the draft is not close to finished. There’s little flow or consistency at this point, but when I realize that I went from 0 words to a fleshed-out folder outline and over 50,000 words in a month, I know it wasn’t just the pressure of the NaNoWriMo deadline that did it. The secret to my success was that Scrivener allowed me to collect my existing blog posts, compose some additional short texts, and end up with a book draft.

My Take-Away Lesson
After participating in NaNoWriMo, I realize that I was letting my belief that I had to have a finished idea for a book in my head block me from getting started. Working with Scrivener helped me recognize that my practice of writing short pieces could still work when I composed a larger book-length manuscript.

As I worked on my draft, I quickly learned that I could turn my blog posts into a very rough book draft simply by sorting things into reasonable categories and adding some missing pieces. My take-away lesson is to remember that I don’t need that finished piece figured out to create a longer text. I just need to be open and creative about how I fit my ideas together.

The Outcome
So here it is 30 days later, I have a roughly-arranged manuscript, which I’m currently calling Designing Digital Writing Assignments.

I’m not sure when I’ll get the manuscript finished or if I can find a publisher. I’m trying not to worry about that right now. It’s enough of an accomplishment to realize that I now know how to turn my blog posts into a book draft. I even know what I want to write a third book about and how to do that. Besides, I need to get back to anxiously checking my email for that 50% off discount for Scrivener that I should get from Literature & Latte as a NaNoWriMo winner.


NaNoWriMo Underway

NaNoWriMo Participant 2010I’m a rebel. I’m doing what I want, and ignoring the rules. Usually I’m the goody-two-shoes perfectionist, but as far as writing a manuscript was going, that wasn’t working for me.

I readily confess that I can’t remember how I ever wrote a book in the first place. Somehow I did, but as I’ve thought about writing a second manuscript, I kept returning to the feeling that it was a fluke. I didn’t feel I’d ever be able to do it again. Even restoring the mysteriously deleted companion website felt beyond me.

Then NaNoWriMo came along. November is National Novel Writing Month. This is the twelfth year of the event that encourages writers of all ages to write a 50,000-word piece of fiction by midnight November 30.

I’ve known about NaNoWriMo for several years, but never considered trying it. Just don’t feel like I have a plot in me, though I’d love to be a novelist or poet. Inspired by the special deal on Scrivener for NaNoWriMo participants though, I looked around a bit more yesterday, and I found that the rules are really a good bit looser. You can be a rebel and write nonfiction if you want. The goal is just 50,000 words of whatever. As the seed post on the Rebel forum explains, “This is a self-challenge. The REAL prize of NaNoWriMo is the accomplishment, and the big new manuscript you have at the end. Everything beyond that is icing on the cake.”

So I decided to set up a profile and try to crank out a book draft. Not sure that I will make 50,000 extra words since I have many other things I need to write this month. Still I can try. After midnight on November 1, I created a working outline, based on revisiting my first book, Designing Writing Assignments. Scrivener made this so easy. I created a bunch of folders and tucked some text inside the jotted out what I was thinking of putting there. Done.

In the wee hours of today, November 2, I collected notes and ideas from a few places to copy & paste some very rough ideas into place. That’s where the cheating part comes in. Technically, people write all new text for NaNoWriMo. For my purposes, that’s a silly restriction. I reread sections of Designing Writing Assignments last night, probably for the first time in more than a year. I realized how much of the book had been culled from things that I’d written elsewhere.

That artificially inflates my word count, I know. The thing is that I know I’ll edit it back down as I make all that pasted stuff fit in properly. Even though I know my draft is nothing but a collection of jottings and pastings, it feels remarkable to have collected 12,263 words of stuff. I can actually believe book in my head.

It’s only been two days, but so far NaNo has helped me remember how to write a longer work. And I’ve been freewriting like a fiend—I have the most typo-filled mess ever, but I typed things down. I gave my permission not to be to clean and neat. I just want to gather a bunch of text. I can edit later. If I do nothing else, I’ve accomplished a great deal.

The Back-to-School Organization Bug

Desk supplies by Russ NeumeierI couldn’t figure out why i suddenly cared about the mess on my desk and the piles of papers sitting around this week. Why did it suddenly matter?

I did think it funny that the printouts at the bottom of every pile were dated August of last year. Apparently, the last time i had a blank slate was last year this time. Since then, it’s all been piling up.

As I was working through the weekend’s news articles, I happened upon “Kids heading back to school? Create some room to think in your home.” The quotation that showed up in Google Reader said, “"I always spent my first month of teaching fourth- and fifth-graders teaching organization.”

Suddenly everything made sense. I had switched into back to school mode.

I haven’t actually been in a classroom in years, yet my brain switched me over just the same. Given the dates at the bottom of the piles, I did this last year as well.

I guess the back-to-school fever shows up differently for all of us. What comes naturally to teachers, however, may not occur to students and families. If you’re teaching younger students, you might share that article with families. If you’re teaching secondary or college students, have students read the article themselves and think about concrete changes they can make to ensure they have a great school year. You can use the article to evaluate the classroom as well and embark on a community-building activity with students to improve the learning space.

Me, I have to get back to cleaning up paper and straightening books on the book shelves. What have you been doing to get ready for the new school year?


[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Russ Neumeier]