Category Archives: Adventures in Tutoring

Story Starter: Smithsonian Flickr

I recently posed this Story Starter to Story Problems and I thought I’d share it with you too. It was inspired by this post on the Smithsonian’s blog.

Visit the Smithsonian’s Flickr (or your favorite Flickr page) and select an image (like above?) that intrigues you.

Write about (choose one of the following):

  • What’s happening at that moment, or, if you’d prefer, what is about to happen.
  • Imagine you’ve just found this image in your grandmother dusty attic. Do you recognize it? Do you not? What’s your reaction? Oh no! Don’t tell me a deep and troubling family secret has been revealed at a most inopportune time?
  • You are very, very old and used to be very, very famous. One day a reporter comes to visit you and asks you about the photo. What do you tell them? What do you keep to yourself? What do you only tell us, the reader of your tale?

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Filed under Adventures in Tutoring, Story Starters, The After Hours Writer, This Business of Writing

Inspiration Sold Separately!


You may remember that I recently taught a workshop where I asked the students to write stories in the form of catalogs.

I realized something while preparing for it. While it’s true that junk mail refuses to die, even in a world where Print is supposedly shaking a death rattle, catalogs just aren’t the artifacts for the 12 – 15 year olds in my class that they were for me at their age. I doubt any of their families keep photo albums. If they do, they call them scrapbooks.

This meant there was a bit of a communication gap when it came time to describing how and why catalogs make for compelling, innovative storytelling vehicles. It didn’t help that my main example, (deep breath) Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry is not age-appropriate (due to lack of life experience on the part of the students) even though it is PG, content-wise. Neither is a reference to Norton’s narration in the beginning of Fight Club.

If you have any ideas on how to update this workshop for the (cringe) Millennial generation, I’d love to hear it. Something to do with on-line shopping perhaps? Or maybe I should just wait until the hipsters reclaim analog purchasing methods along with rendering their own lard.

Generation gaps aside, preparing for the workshop helped me realize that determining what a person might own is a great way to build a character. I think of it as my twist on Alice Munro’s maxim that you should always decide what a character would carry in her purse (or his wallet or backpack).


May 29, 2012 · 10:15 AM

Some more thoughts on erasure poetry

In March I taught a workshop at 826michigan about erasure poetry. That workshop, which I called “The Poetry of Absence,” was inspired by a post I’d published here on Klickitat a few months earlier. I wanted to report back and share some tips with you, in case you’d like to hold a similar workshop or program. As always, please credit me if you do happen to use my ideas, especially in a professional context.

I’m happy to report that the workshop was a success! We had a lot of fun and some fantastic work came out of the session. I was shocked and humbled that complete silence fell over the room when it came time for writing. Pretty awesome.

The basic format of my workshop (90 minutes):

  • Getting Started (15 minutes):
    • Pages of “raw material” and art supplies were on the tables when students arrived.
    • I explained what erasure poetry is, illustrating points throughout with a few images in a PowerPoint:
      • Definition:
        • Process for creating erasure poetry
        • Duality: artifact/art object and a written document
        • Unique nature of erasure poetry: An editor of the Poetry Foundation’s podcast, Off The Shelf, describes the white spaces in erasure poems as being “more loaded” than in regular poetry. The parent text will always be just out of sight, even when we look for it. Maybe the text will bend in ways we didn’t expect.
      • Possible directions for erasure poems:
        • Tree of Codes, Jonathan Safran Foer: die-cut “erasure” story of an entire book (The Street of Crocodiles)
        • Political commentary (Janet Holmes’ The ms of m y kin—poems about the Iraq War cut out of the text of Emily Dickinson’s Civil War poetry)
        • Thematically/experimental interpretation (Yedda Morrison, visual artist and poet, erased all evidence of humans from the text of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, leaving only natural imagery—rivers, rocks, trees)
        • Spur of the moment/gut instinct (Newspaper Blackout, Austin Kleon – adapts newspaper articles to kill time on his morning bus commute)
    • Together, using Wave Books’ on-line erasure poetry website, I led the class through the process, creating an example poem with feedback from the class. (Note: We didn’t actually get to do this because of technical difficulties but, if I taught the class again, I’d plan to do this.)
  • First Free Write (15 minutes)
    • Encourage students to create their first poem (or more, if they finish their first one).
  • More Things To Try (5 minutes):
    • After most students appear to be done with their first attempt, pause to offer new suggestions (different brushstrokes, trying to connect words in different ways – i.e. with lines or “speech bubbles,” incorporating color), again with examples in PowerPoint or by demonstrating on the whiteboard. (Note: This is the second to the last slide with all the images and no text.)
  • Second Free Write (25 minutes):
    • Ask students to create another poem (preferably more, if they have time) with a new technique.
  • Wrapping Up (10 minutes):
    • I offered suggestions of what more students can do with their poems: Start a story? Link several poems into a short story? Is it possible to make images or patterns with the words? Etc.
    • Ask students and facilitators if they have ideas. Brainstorm together other materials to experiment with (i.e. textbook or newspaper article with pictures – how do the pictures change the way the poem is read?)
  • Presentations (20 minutes):
    • I ended the class with students presenting their poems to one another.

Some general tips:

  • Wave Poetry has a fantastic on-line erasure app on their website. I used their public domain readings as the bulk of my source texts. You can do this by viewing the image as a PDF and printing them off. Alternately, if you happen to be teaching in a computer lab, you could always have students use the app on the website (as intended by the creators). A poem I wrote using the app.
  • On a whim, I grabbed a stack of the (free) campus newspapers to use along with the Wave Poetry cut-outs. They were a big hit! The students really responded to the chance to cut up the newspapers. (Granted, it got a little messy.) If I teach this workshop again, I’d definitely include newspapers (if they still exist in the future, that is.)
  • It’s probably a good idea to hold this workshop in a well ventilated space. The marker fumes get a little thick.
  • If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend this Poetry Foundation podcast, “Writing with an Eraser.”

Happy erasing!

P. S. I’ll be teaching another found object workshop on May 19th at 826. Check the workshop page for details and to sign up.


Filed under Adventures in Tutoring, Professional Practice, Story Starters, This Business of Writing, Youth Literature in the Wild

I’m teaching a found object workshop on May 19th at 826michigan

Inspiration Sold Separately: Storytelling through Catalogs and Found Artifacts
Ages: 12-15, 15 students
Saturday, May 19, 2-3:30pm (one session)

Catalogs aren’t junk mail! They’re actually on-going sagas in disguise. Just who are the people buying those clothes and furnishing their homes? What are their stories? In this workshop, we’ll explore how the things we collect tell volumes about our inner lives. Taking inspiration from real life auctions and fictional found object narratives, we’ll re-purpose images from catalogs and magazines to tell stories visually and with minimal text. You’ll never flip through J. Crew the same way again!

Visit the 826michigan workshop page to sign up!


Filed under Adventures in Tutoring, Field Trip, Housekeeping, Professional Practice, Story Starters, The After Hours Writer, This Business of Writing

Kafka, for Children

“His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.” – The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka

Last night at 826michigan’s Drop-In Writing we wrote from the perspective of our favorite animals. In the midst of helping an eight-year-old girl, “Anne,” think about how an animal might experience the world, Anne said, “Wouldn’t it be weird to be a bug?”

“That’s actually the subject of a famous short story*!” I said, delighted that I could impart some culture to the next generation.

Another volunteer joined in, equally enthusiastic. “Yes! It’s called The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka! A guy, named Gregor, wakes up as a giant beetle!”

Then, in a sudden panic, I met my fellow tutor’s eyes as the realization that the plot of the Metamorphosis isn’t exactly age appropriate for an eight-year-old washed over us at precisely the same moment.

“So what happens in the story?” Anne asked me.

“Uh,” I said, “he lies in bed a lot and his family is…confused. Hey! A red pen! Let’s use that to write with!”

Now I can’t help but envision bright Anne in her future Sophomore English class. “Can anyone tell me what happens in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis?” the teacher will ask. Anne will raise her hand. “A guy named Gregor lies in bed a lot and his family is confused,” she’ll say.


*Okay, it’s really a novella. But I didn’t think an eight-year-old would care.

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What Do You Believe? (Contains Santa Spoilers)


Last week, as I was helping facilitate a workshop at 826michigan, a young girl looked me dead in the eye and, as if she were doing me a favor, told me, “Santa Claus doesn’t exist!”

Realizing I was in a room full of 8 – 11 year olds*, I knew I had exactly five seconds to not crush a child’s dreams. So I pulled out my best confused face and said, “Noooooo! Where did you hear that? I have never heard that before.

“It’s true!” she said.

“Huh,” I replied. Seeing she wasn’t buying my lame attempt at extending her childhood innocence, I continued: “Hey, did you read that on the Internet? Because you can’t trust everything you read on the Internet, you know.”

The girl stared at me for a moment and I could tell I almost had her. Just as I was imagining rounding the podium to accept an Oscar for Best Performance While Lying to A Child, the spell was broken and she said, “No. He isn’t real,” and returned to her craft project.

Well, I tried.

Bonus parenting tip from my mother: Whenever I’d ask if Santa was real as a child, my mother never answered me. Without fail she’d turn Socratic and ask, “What do you believe, Julie?” It was so frustrating! And yet, it was also very effective. After all, she wasn’t technically lying.


*Who, yes, were probably already jaded about the whole Santa thing, thanks to the playground bullies of the world but I wasn’t going to test that theory and ruin Christmas forever.

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