November 30, 2010

Your Brain on Laptops

Just when I think the world has succumbed to shortness of expression, shortness of time, shortness of breath, and shortness of movie scenes, I am spun around in my little worrisome mind and stumble upon a piece of evidence to the contrary:

An article on a cafe in Brooklyn where the majority of customers write on their laptops - all day!

"Gone were the newspapers and the strollers. Laptops had colonized every flat surface. No one uttered a word; people just stared into screens, expressionless. "

I loved the lighthearted writing style, and yet the message came through that these screen hounds were gurgling over with creativity, or at worst, reading FB messages while avoiding finishing an article. But that is all part of being a writer! My hope for humanity is restored.

Since my last post I've met with 3 current adult clients - and I am touched by how much they open up about their history of anxiety and shame around writing. I can relate, although not with writing. I have shame when it comes to hand-eye coordination. I can hardly throw a ball to a dog, but I can do a mean downward dog in yoga.

So that shame regarding ball sports is what I bring to mind when I meet with my adult clients. I also refrain and reframe my own tendency to get effusive about writing with them, not assuming that they share it.

I have one woman who is "treptified" of writing because she fears a huge red pen will descend upon her press releases and online newsletters that she writes for her job. So the pen I use is purple. We go sentence-by-sentence in her practice pieces, and I haul out Grammar Girl for humor and clarity. She often asks "Why didn't I learn all this in school?" I have a long answer to that, but the short one is that good writing instruction means a fantastic writing mentor, and some one-on-one time, and not all teachers have that gift.

So she buckles down and fires up her brain. We joke about going back to 7th grade English.... All those comma rules! I have narrowed the 16 or so of them down to a highly simplified list:
  • Introductory Words
  • Interrupting Words
  • A Sentence that could be 2
  • Series or Lists
  • Clear Thinking
Since my website is called Reading Writing Thinking, I often read geeky stuff about the brain and attention. Only in the last decade have we really looked at brain health. We took it for granted, just like we took our lungs for granted while smoking in the 50's.
In order to LEARN, we have to have alert and flexible brains.
My favorite layperson-friendly brain expert is Daniel Amen, because his passion bleeds through when he speaks and he has concrete advice.
He is the PBS guy who happens to have one of his four clinics right here in the Seattle area.
I haven't yet coughed up the $4000 to get a thorough brain scan work-up.

November 28, 2010

It's not a screen, a twitter, a video game, or a sound byte TV news clip....It's a BOOK!
See the preview here.

Teachers and parents are assaulted with the competition of novelty: gadgets that pull our kid's attention into a time warp, or anything battery-operated that promises salvation from boredom. What a challenge we have to direct their attention back to the seemingly mundane world of books, where we have to get our entertainment more from the inside out. The time warp of visiting "planet book" is one that paves the way for richer writing.

Teachers have to set strict rules with students about not using characters from video games or plots from TV or movies.

Okay, truth heals, so I will admit that when I am not obsessing about having tiny love handles that menopause is bringing on, I am perseverating about what to do with my clients. My kids. I often refer to "my kids" in passing, when referencing my students, and people think I am a mom. The truth is that I was so set on helping kids that I intentionally skirted past my opportunities to become a mom. I figured I was not patient enough for the task, and that it would prevent me from having the many careers and residencies that I have had.

Voila! I have more of my self to give. And I can dish out detailed parenting advice to my clients, consisting of success stories of other people's kids, not my own. No risk of hypocrisy. And....No regrets about being choicefully childless.

Last week I saw Nora Ephron, best known as the author who wrote the script for 'When Harry Met Sally', since she is on tour for her new book, I Remember Nothing...She is an author I get green with envy over. She uses turns of phrase, plus wittiness laced with such candor you either drop your jaw at what she gets away with, or you laugh out loud. She also sprays some illuminating guideposts about the writing process onto her audience of readers.

So like her, I am searching for the invisible upside to aging that I am not seeing or feeling. Looking in the mirror or at all my post-it notes doesn't help my search. She simply says the only upside is that she is still here.

So I am presently baffled (but have faith that I will come up with something) by what to do with students who insist on detail-arama when summarizing a book. They go on about a character's braid's, or their invisible cloak, their doctor’s mannerisms, science fair project, or even a magical creature's eating habits, but they don't write about the fact that the problem of the book is, for example, that a) Jenny’s friends are envious of her braids, b) the magic cloak helps Jeremy follow the suspect, c) Miranda keeps getting sick, d) after 3 attempts, Billy wins the science fair, or e) a tribe of magical creatures is taking over a kingdom. And these are the students who write simplistic, minimalistic sentences that lack detail, when they are writing descriptive paragraphs of their own lives! It is like detail got vacuumed right out of their page, whereas in the summaries, that is all there is.

I have to remind myself that writing summaries is one of the hardest skills of all the comprehension menu of strategies and skills.

And Story Maps for everything. And practice telling true life events out loud, WITH detail, and then just as a summary. I ask for them to tell me in 3 sentences what they did on Saturday, for example, if I want a summary. Or I ask for 5 Key Words, and then those are what they have to use in their recap.

Too many error messages tonight while trying to get all the links and photos inserted, so I am posting it like this....

November 19, 2010

Jumping Through Hoops

Some of my kids think of writing as just jumping through hoops, with no passion for how writing can elicit thoughts and feelings you did not know you had, until the pen moved, and no thrill for the magic of words, or even the opportunity to express their opinion. (Jumping through hoops is how I approach drudgery tasks like online applications, or taking the garbage and recycling bins up to the top of our steep and long driveway.  Not much passion). 

So I have to be careful when I say things like "use 3 supporting details" because I risk they will see that as just another hoop, instead of a guideline to prevent rambly writing, or dimly supported topic sentences.

I read over 100 postings on several teacher forums this week, about teaching writing.  The gist of the discussions was:
  • Kids need a lot of variety of forms to practice writing
  • It takes an inordinate amount of time and organization to teach writing
  • The good teachers read papers and journals all night and all weekend
 I searched for what to do with the kids who aren't keeping up, yet the answer to the nit picky, struggling writer questions was basically just to have them write more, and more often.  Well, haven't we been there; done that. Funny how our kids don't say, "Oh thanks ________ (insert significant adult's name here)!  I am going to sit over there right now and write up a storm!"  Telling these guys to just write more can be like telling a dieter to just go to the gym more. It's another hoop to resist jumping through! 

Microscopic assignments,  a sentence a day, a comic a day, a line of a song.  Tiny pieces of writing to keep that part of the brain alive.  Word Games. Written notes to said parents or guardians convincing them to let them go ________ or do __________.  I know a parent who is currently holding her ground on letting her 12-year old son get a cell phone, UNLESS he writes a persuasive letter that convinces her otherwise.  I saw his first attempt and it was meek and unconvincing.  "Take 2".  He is attempting a second draft.

A healthy hoop to jump through.

Healthy Thanksgiving Wishes,


November 1, 2010


So..... I come upon another study about the value of one-on-one instruction, in a blog by a local neuropsychologist couple

Eide Neurolearning Blog

The Eides create this blog for parents and practitioners, and I admire them for their Harvard-based intellect and therapeutic compassion.  They assess and work with kids like those that I work with, and we all advocate for kids - pressing schools to customize themselves enough for the nuances that come with the territory.
I have met them at conferences and for coffee, and they are humble yet geeky, quirky, yet cheeky.  Kinda like me.

So this week I hit a wall with my gifted 4th grader who is absolutely struggling to write book summaries.

Okay, I am supposed to insert a cute graphic or another link, if i am to follow blog protocol, but I am going to rebel against the blog experts.