The Untarnished Moleskin

Mattias Aldofsson's fountain pen moleskin drawings
Mattias Aldofsson’s fountain pen moleskin drawings

I’ve been in love with journaling since I could remember/retain what journaling meant; I remember my first diary very clearly.  It was pink, glittery, and had a lock that was sure to keep out my little sister.  My grandmother bought it at the dollar store, along with the pack of pens that I would lose in the next hour.  But that diary….

It seemed to me (and still does to some extent) that both important people and everyday people alike kept a journal.  Lewis Carroll (of my beloved Alice in Wonderland stage) kept meticulous diaries, even though they would one day incriminate him.  Virginia Woolfe, the first writer I really understood as a woman’s writer, was an avid journal scribe.  Mark Twain was never seen without one, Kurt Cobin rarely seen with his but it existed.  It didn’t matter what walk of life, as a young girl I thought that people were supposed to keep diaries and journals.

I’d like to say that I kept up with my journaling through grade school naivety, through high school angst, and even through college busyness.  But only some of that is true- I went through spurts of intense writing, where every day was meticulously detailed, “Lunch: tray of fries.  Milk.  God, why can’t I stop eating fries.”  As I got older, details become ideologies ruminated at the end of the day, “How is it possible to know when you are in love, like the very moment?”  But the truth is journaling, like writing is hard.  And habit-forming, as in, you have to do it and make it a habit or you don’t do it and oops, where is that thing again?

And yet, I own at least seven, unused, neatly wrapped moleskins.  Every now and then, I take them out, fondle the unbroken spines (50 Shades of Molekskin anyone?), and wonder if today is the day I will write in one.

Hike Guy's Moleskin Page
Hike Guy’s Moleskin Page

I imagine some of my hangups are the same one my students face when asked to do an essay, rough draft, or even a creative writing piece; after all, the same questions they ask plague me.  What do I write?  How do I start? What if I get it wrong?  What is a good entry? How long should it be? Inevitable, I begin to compare anything I might do to the amazing work of others.  Like this guy, Kolby Kirk, and his amazing hiking journals.  I particularly love how his moleskins are hybrids of writing, mapping, and sketching.  I really like his philosophy that journals should be messy, dirty, interactive things that are free from constriction.  Like rough drafts, but fun.

And then, a thought happens: how could I use journaling in my classroom as a way to help my students become active journalists?  How could I help myself?  Where would one begin?  How would one start?  Could I start? I talk all the time about the value of a rough draft, a good outline, and a working thesis.  These are a lot like messy, dirty, interactive moleskins.  Maybe this is merit in journaling frequently in class, but how could there be proof without being intrusive?  What kind of negotiating would a teacher need?

And then: how do I let go of the part of me that wants to organize, label, and categorize every entry before I even start?  How do my students? Do I grade them?  How do I grade them if I want them to write freely?  Is the act alone enough to warrant a grade?

I almost think with my new project (gamifying the classroom), journaling will become a must- it must become both record book and reflection.  Journal prompts are a whole other issue- I have a love/hate relationship with using journal prompts in the classroom.  While I completely see the merit in a guided prompt, the non-teacher side of me cringes every time I see or use one.  I’m much more likely to use a writing guide, an insert if you will for my students.  I really like Mike Shea’s moleskin insert for writers; making one for high school students would be interesting.

The best start might be my own: unwrapping a moleskin of my very own this week and put the untarnished moleskin issue to rest.  Stay tuned.

Andy Looney Beat Me in Fluxx

Andy Looney!!
Andy Looney!!

Sometimes, the best part of my job isn’t my job at all.  Sometimes, the best part of my job involves play.  This was completely the case on Sunday, when Andy Looney of Looney Labs came to play with us during Casual Sunday.

Now that statement may not quite mean anything or sink in yet.  If you are a Fluxx player, then start melting.  Andy Looney, inventor of the Mensa approved game, Fluxx, ventured out of Looney Labs with 6 different versions of Fluxx, 4 of which were not published on the market.

I’d like to claim that I’m just so cool even Andy Looney likes to play Fluxx with me, but I don’t think I’ll ever reach that level of epicness.  My students however, are awesome.  It was their epicness that made things happen.  Let me explain.

A big part of my teaching philosophy involves gaming in the classroom. I firmly believe that strategic gaming is a great platform to engage play and higher level critical thinking skills.  About two modules ago (we teach on a module schedule), I asked my American Drama Module to create an adaptation for A Streetcar Named Desire.  My only rules: it had to be an adaptation, which means certain plot devices had to remain and the story had to be mostly recognizable.  Beyond that, no guidelines, no project format, no detailed page long project description.  Oh, and there was a prize: best project won movie tickets and me as a chauffeur.  For a boarding school, this was “jackpot”.  (Apparently using article is now not considered hip.)  As nervous as I was about the outcomes of this “open ended project” format (ermergawd I’m going to get cardboard-put-together-last-minute-diaromas), the students were much more in stress mode.  IMG_2274

“Can you at least give us a list of project options?”

“Can you tell me if my idea is right?”

“What if I do it wrong?”

This is exactly why I think teaching creative play in the classroom is so important.  I will spare you a diatribe until a later post, but I will say this: we have programmed our students to believe that thinking outside the box is too risky.  It’s not worth the risk of getting a bad grade, it’s not worth the risk of being wrong.  We have programmed students to think that creative play is wrong.  And that is fundamentally the opposite of what learning and the classroom should do.

Every single group blew me away.  I had a fairy tale adaptation, a Teletubbies version, a fake documentary, and A Street Car Named Desire Fluxx.  While they didn’t win, I did tweet their version to Labyrinth Games in DC (best game shop ever).  I didn’t realize this at the time, but Kathleen at Labyrinth sees Andy Looney for Small Business Saturdays (yet another reason to love this place).  In passing through, I showed Kathleen pics of the version, and lo and behold, in about the time span of a week Andy Looney wanted to come play it.

It was awesome.


Casual Sundays: Slash Game Review

It began as sort of a “I like board games. You like board games. Can we play a board game?” and has kind of become a thing. We call it “Casual Sundays.”

Each Sunday, a colleauge and I bring a new game for girls to play. Two Sundays ago, we brought Slash. Almost instantly, we started an obsession (at least for half of the 10 who played).

I’m way ahead of myself. I need a scale of measurement. Let’s say 1 is a “I’d like my _hours of playtime back,” a 3 is an “eh. Kinda cool,” and a 5 is a “I lost track of time this was so amazing ohmergawd can we keep playing.” At some point, I’ll include a rubric.

Slash is like Apples to Apples but with fictional characters. It’s completely unlike Apples to Apples in that you are the matchmaker; you’re not matching the best adjective with the best noun or even the best offensive category with the best proper noun (I heart you Cards Against Humanity). You’re playing Cupid with characters from classic fiction, cult fiction, television, movies, mythology, you name it. AND IT ROCKS.

My favorite part of this game (other than it generated at least three fan fiction stories) is the moments you have to explain a character to the current matchmaker. Example:

“You don’timage know who Captain Mal is? Ohmergod.”

“Nope. I also don’t know who The Kraken is.”

“One is a space captain. The other a giant octopus. Lots of tension could happen, but lets face it. The conversation about space vs ocean would be epic.”

The game combines two things well: romancey angst (which teenage girls love) and characters from all different kinds of verse. My favorite paring: Captain Jack Sparrow and The Golden Girls. All of them. I can totally see that too.

Rating: 5/5.

“Outlining Sucks” or Why Students Hate the Hard Parts

I tell my students all the time that essays are my favorite part of teaching English.  It gets me a lot of eyerolling, but it’s true.  Well, partly: I love teaching essay construction more than I actually like to do essay construction.  The part of the essay planning that actually involves, well planning.  But I’ve also been one for picking something a part to see how it works.  Essay construction is very much like that- trying to pick apart a piece of literature and figure out how it works while simultanously constructing an essay that works.  Most students I know skip this step.  Instead of outlining, planning, gathering evidence, figuring out a thesis, they jump right in.  And it almost never turns out well.

I tell my students this but inevitably they by pass this stage anyway.  When it came time for the big out of class essay round two, I was determined not to get the same paper- brilliant in spots but lacking evidence, well said in a sentence but lacking any structure.  I was receiving 30 papers that had moments of clarity but lacked any overall organization.

When did we start skipping this step?  When did I start skipping this step?

This aggression will not stand, Donnie.

So the last module, I decided to spend a two days on essay organization.  Not only did my students enjoy and really understand the importance of this process, but their papers were infinitely better.

I had them start out with a series of different colored post it notes.  The first step in this process is to identify a controlling idea, or a thesis.  Most students just jotted down a fragment, an idea. Outlining oneHere, this student starts with the blue sticky note, “pilate vs macon/life of freedom/both children of the flying Solomon”.  We then talk about how to create good thesis statements- that the significance is really crucial.  One can talk all day about how Toni Morrison uses a certain symbol, but if you don’t explain why this is significant in your essay then I don’t care. Yellow sticky notes indicate further exploration; the thesis becomes “Society shops the idea of freedom into different forms for each of Solomon’s children”.  While not completely finished, I give them the go ahead for outlining.  I use red, yellow, and green page tabs.  Yellow indicates to proceed, but know the thesis will need more once the outlining is complete.  Red means “ahhh no stop!  Give me more on this idea!”  Green is easy- it means keep going.

And then the fun begins.  We talk about different ways to outline and organize information.  I tell them a story two ways: in a chronological order and then in order of importance.  Usually it’s StarWars.  For example, I ask my students when would you prefer to met Darth Vader, when he’s young and just starting out in the force or later as an opposition to our young hero, Luke Skywalker?

Allow me to digress. This is important.

You see, some students will argue that meeting Darth Vader as a child takes away the importance of Luke’s journey.  I would agree- if the main point of the story is to highlight Luke Skywalker’s struggle with the dark side, then chronological may not be the best form of organization.  Instead, I’d highlight the most important plot points- his discovery of Leia’s message, the self discovery on Tattooine, the fight with his father.  You can skip in and out of the timeline.  However, if you are arguing the spirituality (lack thereof or glimmer from within) of Darth Vader, then one may want to tell his entire story, in chronological order.

This works for just about anything- even The Hunger Games.

Organization and structure are important; they decided how the reader gets the information.  It’s the most persuasive tool a writer can master.  Once they understand and develop their outline, they have to justify WHY (not just how) they are organizing their essay.  And this two minute conversation has been the most crucial part of the process.  Thinking about structure and the reader is the most important thing students can do in the revision/creation part of an essay. Outlining 3

Once they have their outline on yellow sticky notes (and another tagged approval process happens), I ask them to write a personal objective for their paper. This is the light green strip.  Here, this student’s personal objective is to “be less obtrusively wordy”.  With objective in mind, they start the writing process.  They go back (and I encourage them to do so) many times to their outline (now in digital form) and add, subtract, move.  Some even use the sticky notes as placemarkers; ways to imagine what their essay might look like if organized differently.

When they are about halfway through the rough draft process (I did this activity on the day of peer review), I Outline 2ask them to identify three things about their paper: the strongest sentence, the strongest piece of evidence (quoted material from the text), and a list of four to five words that they really feel articulate the paper.  This go on post it notes for reflection later.

I have a nine panel window door that I used for each of my nine students to hang their process.  The important part is that this does go on display for the entire process.  It creates a community that holds each other accountable.

From there, they embark on their own. They might hate you at the start, but I can tell you from experience they will understand and appreciate that approaching finish line so much better.

Below is the first essay’s beginning digitalized outline after pre-planning; it turned into one of the best papers I’ve graded all year long.


FLIGHT/ Freedom

Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon focuses on a

Thesis: Pilate and Macon’s determination and courage to pursue their ideal freedom are qualities that has been developed from their family roots; simultaneously society impacts the two characters which formed two different lives of freedom.

  1. Macon VS. Pilate( Beliefs+ physical appearances)


Macon-Tall, Strong, always carries keys around-pg. 55 “Own things=most important thing” quote, portrayed as “impregnable” the most feared and respected black man, willing to go to any extent for his money (power)(pg. 25 with Porter)

Pilate: Tall, strong->willing to go to any extent to protect her baby (Reba/Hagar/ Milkman?)-> Flexible: police scene, taller/ shorter in front of different people (pg. 206)

Isolated but regarded with respect, nobody bothers her (mentioned several times in the novel, people back off when they hear its related to Pilate)

Not well mannered (according to the people in the town in that time period in that society)

Beliefs: pg149->realizes how she wants to be seen in the world

Pg139->indifferent to money,

Girls and Graphic Novels: More than Meets the Eye

sesame-Street-055I don’t know when I started reading comics.  I guess that really depends on how you define that term, ‘comic’.  By the age of five, I was addicted to the Sesame Street Treasury.  My favorite thing, it hosted lots of short stories, poems, infographics (long before they were even called that), and comics.  I remember clearly strips about Oscar the Grouch, Ernie, Big Bird, and the Letter O.  I was hooked.

Years later, in my teenage years, I would read my way through the Marvel/DC universe in a weekend.  By the time I reached my junior year of high school, graphic novels had invaded my library account.  Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series enthralled me; the school library had to make me return it at least four times.  Batman and I were first introduced around tenth grade (by Batman, I mean the Dark Knight via Frank Miller); by eleventh grade I had added most of the Marvel universe, Watchmen, and some of DC (Supergirl).  My graduation was truly that- I had graduated into the world of indie comics by way of Ghost World.  images

It wasn’t until my year-in-between that I really understood the attraction of reading visually or even began to think about comics as an alternative mode of thinking/reading.  It was  Blankets by Craig Thompson that really married me to the ideology that graphic novels aren’t just an art form but a visually representation of some very complicated contexts and philosophies.  In many ways, it’s much harder to analyze and understand a comic book than a novel (Don’t believe me? Read Watchmen.  Or Maus.)

But I’m not trying to make a case for reading or even teaching comics- you either will or you won’t- and I’ll make that argument in another post.  Rather I’m reflecting on something I’m hoping to see change in the world of graphic novels and in school libraries.  Reading comic books is a great way for anyone of any age discover new worlds.  However, if you’re female, those worlds are still very much dominated and populated by men.  Male characters, male authors, male illustrators- they by and large own the market.  Now, I’m not a hater; I don’t think that it’s because women are systematically refused entry (video gaming is an entirely different story).  I just think it doesn’t dawn on girls who are indoctrinated into this culture to think about their heroes as female.  The stereotypes of old are very much alive and well: damsel in distress, the temptress, the virgin.  And I’m won’t argue their significance or lack of to our culture.

I am, however, asking that they be recognized for what they are- sidekicks and plot device.  And I want more for the girls I teach and myself.

She_Hulk_and_Wolverine_by_MarvelGirlIVThat’s why I started compiling a list of comics that focus on female protagonists, superheros, illustrators, and writers.  Because every time I see a girl reading a comic book, because every time we catch each other’s eye, I know there will be a moment when she recognizes that women, that she, is missing in that world.  At that moment, I want to reach over and hand her something different, something else, something that declares “you are here.  Read this.  Then, perhaps, you can start working on your own.” I want her to giggle at the snarky SheHulk (not the fourth wall…again), understand exactly how the new Ms. Marvel feels, learn about a different culture with Persepolis.  Mostly, I want her to know that superheros don’t have to wear capes or even costumes, and they don’t even have to be male.

Here is my list.  If you want a review, a recommendation, a suggestion for where to start, don’t hesitate.  I’ll be happy to point you in a new direction.


Fray by Joss Whedon

She Hulk Volume 1: Law and Disorder by Charles Soule
Persepolis by Marijane Satrapi
Rapunzel”s Revenge by Dean Hale
A Wrinkle in Time by Hope Larson
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch
Athena by George O”Conner
Delilah Dirk by Tony Cliff
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Marzi by Sylvain Savoia
Sita”s Ramayana by Moyna Chitraka
Alia”s Mission: Saving the books of Iraq by Mark Alan Stamaty
Anya”s Ghost by Vern Brosgol
Foiled by Jane Yoden
Regifters by Mike Careym
The Girl Who Owned a City by Joelle Jones
A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return by Zeina Abirached
The Plain Janes by Cecil Castelluci
This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki
Ms. Marvel by C. Willow Wilson
I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly
Gray Horses by Hope Larson
Aya by Marguerite Abouet


“It’s Alive!” (Kinda).

It’s been a little over two years and I’m in desperate need of an update.  It’s funny re-reading posts from two years ago; I was so trying to be an active blogger.  It’s kinda cute.

And boring.

There. I said it.

I thought about deleting my old posts, but I think they need to stay.  To remind me to be thankful of the past two years.  Rather than tell how I lost hope, how I really struggled to stay in the teaching profession in North Carolina, how lost I really felt in the public school system, I’d rather get right down to the now and the excitement I feel in my teaching career.  Perhaps even re-state some new objectives for this blog.

Here goes.

I’m teaching at an all girls boarding school (independent school, that is) in an entirely different state (Virginia), where I live on campus (it mostly rocks) and teach American literature (on a modular schedule).  And I love it. The school hosts about 300 girls of which 40% board.  There is a diverse mix of international, minority, and local students.  And they are all girls.  My day consists of four 80 minute “blocks” of instruction with some open blocks of 15 minutes in between the instructional blocks.  I don’t teach all four; because I coached field hockey this past fall,  I only teach two.  The last block for every teacher and student is an elective- anything from creative writing to playing on the school softball team.  It’s the first time the school has been on the “mod” schedule.  To me, especially coming from teaching at the university level, it feels a lot like the norm.

I have a lot to share about dorm life, the schedule, adjusting to a new state, and I can’t wait to start the reflection process of that, but mostly I just want to begin anew with this profound personal statement:

I am in love with what I do.  Again. I’m alive and teaching. Again.

This year feels very different than any other year I’ve taught (obvious reasons aside) and it can be attributed to several small things and two big ones.  It’s these two I’d like share and that mold the new objective for this blog.  The first is something I’ve always been into but never quite considered as a part of my profession: technology.  I have always been a computer/playstation/xbox/tech junkie.  I wanted my classroom back in 2006 to be a tech haven; public schools just weren’t there yet.  Neither was I- the english curriculum didn’t seem to need the kind of technology I used at home.  Technology was a learning outcome in my classroom, not a tool.  Years later, and I’m the teacher putting a playstation in my classroom (because girls are gamers too) and using OneNote as our class platform (more later).  Technology is the biggest tool (haha)in my teacher toolbox. I breathe it; I love it.  And the English curriculum is such a natural pairing for all those things I love: games, computers, writing, storytelling.

The second is more of a coming of age via the teacher version.  I am learning to embrace the things that I love to read and disect (StarWars, dystopias, Harry Potter, zombies, Cormac McCarthy, graphic novels…) in my own teaching.  Yes, the canon is important.   However, we should also leave room for things like the American Gothic, the role of philosophy in graphic novels, Asian American identity, ethics as explored in science fiction, readings in queer literature.  I don’t know that I fall into the camp of “it’s a classic so they must read it.”  I’m definitely becoming more of a “if it isn’t relevant anymore, why are we reading it?”  And that has reshaped a lot of who I am as a teacher.

So.  With this in mind, the objective of this blog isn’t to glorify the profession, talk about how to teach the canon, or even present all my successful lesson plans.

This blog is to share in both my success and failures, to examine why or how some things are taught, share some of my nerdy obsesssions, help my students understand my classroom, and help me reflect on me, the teacher.

Mostly, to share, reflect, and learn. And maybe play a game or two.

Creating New Syllabi

It’s almost two weeks late, but finally complete: the syllabus for the summer course I teach.  This is no small feat: I can crank out a book review, but a syllabus is a careful consideration.  Is it too boring? Will it fit my students? Is there too much reading? Is there too little reading?  Does it match curriculum standards? Is it challenging? A slew of questions attack the moment construction begins.  A good syllabus understands exactly who it is for and what the expected outcomes should be.  But I wonder- how many of my own professors’ syllabi fit this description?  Upon reflection, I think my undergraduate instructors were much more concerned or attuned to how the syllabus was interpreted by students whereas my graduate instructors catered their courses to emphasize their own strengths.  This makes a bit of sense:  graduate instructors understand their audiences are seeking specification (and perhaps even more so, are captive) while the undergraduate is a general study. My own audience for the summer is a fairly more complicated.  How do you teach Debate and Persuasive Rhetoric to the nation’s top 1% of preteens? (I know, a less rhetorical answer involves Bloom’s taxonomy.)

So far, I think I have a great start.  Good thing, class begins in 14 days.

Cornell Note-Taking

On note-taking:

I encourage my students to use the cornell note-taking method because it gives them an interactive guide to lectures, readings, and supplementary material.  Surprisingly, most college students do not have a defined method of note-taking and the majority were never really “taught” how to take notes.  In an ideal teaching environment, I’d love all my students to come knowing some kind of method; however, I spend the first day of class going over different methods.  The one I advocate the most is Cornell.  I find my students enjoy it more and stay with it the most.   Providing a template and an example help tremendously.  The example is found below; it uses Frye’s theory of symbol making as a reference.

Example of Cornell Note Taking: Heishman_Amy_Sample CornellNOtes

Teaching at Duke TIP

I’m excited to announce my return to Duke’s Talent Identification Program (TIP) this summer.  Last summer, I was asked to teach creative writing; this time I will be teaching Debate and Rhetoric (“That’s Debateable!”) to some very bright rising 8th and 9th graders.  I was in Davidson, NC last session, which was very convenient to my town of residence.  However, this session finds me flying to Sarasota, FL!  I should be worrying about how to pack two months into two suitcases, but I’m more worried about the course creation.  Creative writing is a bit more lenient in the course material; debate and rhetoric has very specific rules and guidelines.  I am a bit more schooled in rhetoric, but it will be the first time I’ve taught debate.  The textbook decisions were easy: I decided to use the current ones:

How to Write and Give a Speech by Joan Detz

Competitive Debate by Richard Edward

Ripples of Hope by Josh Gottheimer

Robert’s Rules in Plain English by Doris Zimmerman

…but the syllabus and course schedule remain a work in progress. Looks like I’ll at least have some reading to do.