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]

Tengrrl Cooks: A Collection Space for Family Recipes

Hanging Pans in Kitchen by रोकावट के लिया खेदEarlier this week, I wrote about my ongoing challenge to organize the bits of paper and pixels in my life. The one category that I was most lost on was how to handle the many recipes and cooking ideas spread around my desk.

I have recipes in a plastic recipe box, in a 3-ring binder, and in a folder on my computer. I have some online recipes hidden in Delicious and others in my Food Network recipe box. I have a few in a wiki I tried to create as an online cookbook. And I have printouts stuck in various piles on my desk and in the kitchen. In short, I’m overrun with recipes, and I never know where the one I need is.

After a lot of thinking and advice from my friend Lisa Fink, who has her own online recipe collection, I decided to set up a blog specifically for recipes. After all, they really do not belong here with the teaching ideas.

I did a little research and found a WordPress plugin specifically for recipes, hRecipe. It adds in the headers and sections to keep the recipes consistent, and uses the hRecipe 0.22 microformat that optimizes the recipes for searching and classification. The microformat is used on the Food Network website as well as a number of other sites.

So if you’re interested in cooking, take a look at Tengrrl Cooks. There are only four recipes there so far, but they’re great ones:

Tell me what you think of the new site, and let me know if you have a favorite recipe I should try!


[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by रोकावट के लिया खेद]

Searching for an Organization System that Clicks

Stack of Papers by quinn.anyaA pile of papers has slowly taken over my desk. Like a vicious mold, it started with a small bit, and it’s grown larger and larger until it seems like there’s no clear area left.

Hidden in this pile I found expired coupons, a couple of shopping lists, some recipes, a couple of articles pulled from magazines, and a very large number of web pages that I’ve printed out over the last year.

Why? I can’t seem to find the right way to organize things. I print them out and try to lie them in useful places so that I can return to them when I need them. Digging through that pile today, however, showed me that things I thought I would need in August of last year were sitting untouched at the bottom of the various collections of paper.

No system seems to click. Nothing gives me that perfect “this is RIGHT” feeling. So I’ve gone through the lists and tried to find a new way to deal with them, a way that doesn’t result in a lot of dusty piles of paper. Here’s what’s evolved:

Gmail for registration information: I have a reginfo folder in Gmail and every email with a serial number, registration information and the like goes in that folder. I don’t try to organize them any further than that. If I need anything, a search of the folder can find it quickly. This system has actually been working for me for years. Previously, it was a folder in Eudora or one in Pine, but Gmail is nicer because of the search and the easy access from anywhere.

Google Tasks for writing ideas: Right now, most of my writing ideas are in a massive to-do list in Google Tasks. I got this idea from Ryan Cordell’s guest post on Profhacker. Ryan was actually talking about Cultured Code’s Things, but I wanted a cross-platform, free solution. Tasks seemed like a great idea back in January when I dumped everything in there, but it’s just not working. I have more than a page of ideas and no easy way to organize them. There’s not even an easy way to count them. There are no printouts involved, but it’s not working.

Evernote for writing ideas: The elephant icon has been up there in my toolbar staring at me for a while, nagging at me to look at Evernote again. When I glanced at it Thursday, I thought it might be a handy way to store ideas I wanted to come back to. I poked a few things in there, but that was about it. Today, however, as I unearthed printouts that I needed, I realized that Evernote might be quite useful. As I found the corresponding pages online, I added them to the proper folder in Evernote and tossed the paper in the recycling bin. Maybe Evernote can work for the majority of things I was printing out:

Recipes? Recipes are my biggest confusion. There must have been 20 printouts, clippings, or jotted out recipes in the piles I’ve gone through so far. I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with recipes for months now. I tried creating a Wiki for them, but it’s not getting very far. I wish there were plug-in templates for different kind of Wikis, but having to figure out the layout and setup is just more work than I’ve had time to do. Tonight, as I found the recipes in the pile, I added them as private Delicious bookmarks. I’m not really happy with that solution either. I don’t want them out in the public, because everything else in my Delicious account is work-related.

Dropbox? I have a Dropbox account, but there’s nothing useful in it. I’m not sure it’s helpful in this great printout organization effort, but I did diligently follow Lifehacker’s instructions to get an extra 250MB of space yesterday. And hey, if you don’t have a Dropbox account yet, sign up with my link and we’ll both get another 250MB of free space!

So that’s what I’m trying right now. Do you have a good solution? Know some way to keep online resources ready and easy to find without printing them out? Let me know in the comments. Please. I need all the help I can get.


[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by quinn.anya]

Officially a Geek Now

Computer Engineer BarbieSo I was bumbling along last week, doing a pretty good job of keeping up with everything. I was even working on blogs ahead of time and had a series of entries on using Twitter in the classroom underway. And then something happened.

Last Thursday, I was invited to join the staff on the Geekshed IRC Network. If you’ve been around since the MBU days of Computers and Writing, you probably remember IRC as the place where the Netoric Project (which you may remember as the Tuesday Cafe) started off, before moving on to using MOOs.

If you weren’t around back then—or if your memory is sketchy, you’ll need a little more detail. IRC stands for Internet Relay Chat. You can think of an IRC network as a collection of chatrooms, where people can use fairly simple commands to communicate. For the most part, the benefits of IRC conversations are quite similar to the benefits of chatting at the Tuesday Cafe.

I’ve been known the folks who run the Geekshed network since May of 2005. That’s when John Walter showed me BlogShares, a fantasy stock market for weblogs. Blogshares had a chatroom, which was hosted on IRC. Accustomed to hanging out on MOOs, I naturally logged right in, and I’ve been on the network ever since.

So I hope you’ll understand that thing got a little derailed during this last week. To go from plain old network regular to network staff is a bit of a change. I suddenly found myself reading documentation, searching for a Mac client that doesn’t suck, and trying not to break anything.

I still don’t have all the answers, but it’s time to get back to the blog writing I’m supposed to be doing every day. And who knows, maybe before too long I’ll finally be able to connect teachers back to IRC. I’ve been thinking for quite some time that we need to set up a regular online chat meeting. I miss Tuesday Cafe, TechRhet Barn, and chatting with the Talkies in the MOO on Friday nights. If you’re an educator and you’d be interested too, let me know by email or in the comments below!

[Barbie Photo © Mattel]

Still Trying to Move to Virginia

UHaul Trucks photo by rolandUsually I stick to the pedagogical writing and educational news here, but I’m going to spend a few minutes on personal things today.

As some of you may know, I left my job at NCTE back in November 2008 to help my mother with the day-to-day things. She’s well, nothing wrong with her. It’s just that she doesn’t go up and down the stairs as easily as she used to, and the household to-do’s were getting to be too much. She needed help, and so I stepped in.

Of course, moving seems easier in theory than it actually turns out to be. The little move from Illinois to Virginia still hasn’t quite been finished, but I’m much closer. We spent the last full week of May packing boxes in Illinois, and I’m leaving tomorrow morning to go finish up that task. My brother and some other folks arrive late Tuesday, and they plan to load the U-Haul Wednesday.

Cat in the box photo by There are still a lot of questions and curiousities. Do I really need all these books? What’s the point of all these papers in all these file folders? Do I have enough boxes?

Will there be a wicked, scary creature on the side of the U-Haul truck? Is there a U-Haul big enough for this many boxes of books and papers?

Will I open a box and find that I packed the cat? Wait, when did I get a cat? I don’t have a cat.

I don’t have many answers, but I know next week at this time, most of my belongings should be in Virginia.

In the meantime, the news stories and blog posts will fall silent again. Look for me to return on Flag Day, and if you wonder how the move is progressing, check my the updates on @tengrrl (public) or Facebook (login required).

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo of U-Haul Trucks by roland ]
[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo of cat by mava ]