Saturday, March 26, 2011

readaloud ruminations

I love to read aloud.  In fact, most of the people who have spent any time with me have probably heard me read to them--"Listen to this," I'll say, and read a bit from whatever I'm in the middle of.  I read to my students; I read to my children every night: Sharon Creech's Ruby Holler, Beverly Cleary's Ramona series, Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing, and all of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.

On many occasions I've read aloud to D. as well, like when we read all of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide series or when we finished Neil Gaiman's Stardust on the edge of Lake Isabel in Glacier National Park, pausing in between paragraphs to bang our sticks together to keep the bears on the other side of the lake from wandering over to sample our peanut butter tortillas.

I read on road trips--the hour between home and the grandparents' place is  frequently filled with the sounds of Cornelia Funke's The Thief Lord and Inkspell or Robert C. O'Brien's Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.  I even read aloud when I'm all by myself--either from my own works in progress or from published authors, especially poetry.  All poetry gets read aloud.

I read to my students--delivering Old Major's dream speech from Orwell's Animal Farm and Jacques' "All the world's a stage" speech from Shakespeare's As You Like It.  Some of my favorite moments in homeroom are the times I have read to them: for my sixth graders the light and whimsical prose of Katherine Hannigan's Ida B. and the endearingly earnest voice of Addie from Leslie Connor's Waiting for Normal, and my eighth graders enjoyed the heavier themes of Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak.

Maybe I just like the sound of my own voice--it's certainly possible.  But what I love about reading the words of a wonderful author aloud is the music of it, the way the words fall into a beautiful rhythm.  I love to capture that music, or at least to try, to embrace the beauty of dialogue, of a well-placed pause.  And, okay.  I like to have an audience. It's the drama geek in me.

In college, I studied Spanish, and I read almost all of the assigned readings aloud, practicing my accent, enjoying the musicalidad of the words, the way the phrases would almost dance with each other on my tongue.  I think reading aloud not only improved my Spanish-speaking skills, but also my "ear" for the language, and the same can be said for reading aloud in English.

Reading the words of great writers influences my own writing, and hearing them spoken--paying attention to the sound of the words as well as their meanings--inspires me to work toward that same sense of rhythm and...even pitch, it seems, that my favorite authors achieve.

Another thing I love about reading aloud, especially with my kids, is that sense of being able to share what I'm reading with someone else, to hear and see and share their reactions.  When Jabber and I read Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn-Dixie, we read the last four chapters with our arms wrapped tightly around each other, squeezing tight so we could feel the story together.  I love encountering new words, learning about different times, and places, and the great discussions we get into (even when they're silly, like my sons' fits of giggles that resulted from reading about how Margi Preus' protagonist has to try to drink his own urine to survive on Bird Island, in her Newbery Honor book, Heart of the Samurai, which we're in the middle of reading right now.)

What about you?  Do you have favorite readaloud books, or memories of reading aloud from childhood (yours, or a child you have read to)?  Do you read your own writing aloud to hear the rhythm of the prose, and if so, do you think it helps?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Second Annual Ask a Classic Author Event!

Edith Wharton
Last year, my fellow teacher and Jane Austen fan Mary and I organized an event at our school where all of our 7th and 8th graders read a classic book during the third quarter, research the life of the author, and then dress up like their author.  On the day of the event, they assemble some visual representations of their author's life and workspace, and they sit at their "writing desk" and answer questions from other students, staff, and community members about their life and works.  I wish I could post photos of the wonderful costumes that my students came up with last year--there were some students who were absolutely amazing!

I love the fun spin on the classics, and I love that, with the help of abridged classic books and reader's theater adaptations, all of our students can participate at their reading level, and answering the questions orally helps a lot of students who struggle with taking the information from their research and putting it into their own words for a writing project.

This is my, "I write serious, inscrutable literature" face.
I had such fun at the event last year, and I'm so excited we're doing it again this year, even though I was a little stressed about putting together my own costume.  Last year I went as James Joyce (and I read Dubliners,  though I admit I've never been able to manage more than about fifteen pages of his novels before I have to go back and start over...)  In any case, dressing as Joyce wasn't perfect, but I at least managed to don a dress shirt, a tie, and a hat.  I also attempted to imitate his thick black spectacles, but the best part was actually the wispy eyeliner mustache that I do not have a photograph of and which startled me a little to see how masculine it made me look.

Edith at age 19
This year I read Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and I've greatly enjoyed learning about her life and writing, but the entire time I was reading, in the back of my mind, I was thinking, but how am I going to dress up like her???  I mean, look at her clothes.  The painting at left is explained here, at this fascinating site that explores paintings of the people and places of Wharton's life.

"In 1881, when Edith was nineteen, she was painted in London by Edward Harrison May. He captured her keen intelligence, and at the same time her fashionable dress, with its narrow waist, puffed sleeves, and bustle--showing her at once the debutante and also the keen observer who would later become the brilliant writer."

So.  Kind of a daunting task, to dress like her.  I scoured our drama closet for some kind of dress options.  My main hope was for something with maybe some lace at the throat and possibly a poofy skirt that I could pretend was bustle. I layered several dresses on top of each other (all of which were, strangely enough, sized to fit a middle school girl, haha!) and sort of sewed in some pieces of fabric to make up for the fact that none of the clothes actually fit me (I am wearing two full dresses plus another skirt/petticoat thing underneath it all), and voila!  I have a costume!

I look, maybe not like Edith Wharton, but maybe like a slightly unfashionable guest at a social event that Wharton may have also attended?  A guest who is a sloppy seamstress and has lost her corset?  Maybe.     

Now.  I just need to find a good hat.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

dreaming in dialogue...writing woes in the wee hours

Happy for and ideas!
For about an hour this morning, as I was trying to wrangle a little more sleep before the alarm went off and catapulted me into my somewhat waking life, my brain decided that I needed some writing lessons--specifically, writing dialogue.

I had a creative writing teacher once who said that all (interesting) dialogue is an argument--the interaction serves as a way for each of the characters to make his/her point.  Somehow, the characters need to be coming at the conversation from slightly different angles, and then they duke it out until they agree.  Or until the killer jumps out from the bushes.  Or the world ends.  Or they start kissing, I don't know.

In any case, in my dream, I had to write the scene I had been working on before I fell asleep last night, a scene that has been giving me a wee bit of trouble for some time (or...just possibly, one scene in a long string of scenes that have been tormenting me and filling me with paralyzing and agonizing waves of self-doubt about my worth as a writer and indeed as a human being...but anyway, that's not relevant), and instead of allowing me to wallow about in a restful sleep, my brain kept putting me through these dialogue exercises.

Okay, said my brain, or some cruel dream-time taskmaster, write the scene except Darin doesn't believe anything that Cass says.

And in my sleep, I did it.  I held it up, shiny and perfect.  "NOW can I sleep, please?"

Now write the scene except Darin doesn't believe anything Cass says, BUT he doesn't want her to know that he doesn't believe her.

I mean, sure, I can do that.  Dream-writing elissa writes in her dream.  Sleep now?

Now write the scene except Darin doesn't believe her, he doesn't want her to know, but she suspects that he doesn't believe her and not only does this make her angry but it reminds her of the way her brother spoke to her earlier that day and she realizes, with suprise, that he didn't believe her either.

Yikes.  Okay...dreambrain working working working...the alarm ticking on toward an abrupt and painfully noisy conclusion...YES! There! Perfect!  Dream-writing elissa feels a bit smug.  A bit...genius.

Now make her start to doubt herself, but hide that from him.


Now make her hide that from herself.

Arghhhhh!  The alarm sounds.  Groggy elissa swims up out of the murky waters of dialogue exercises, disappointed that she didn't actually write all those perfect conversations in real life...maybe it's enough that she did it in her dreams.


Saturday, March 5, 2011

jabberish interlude...

Jabber:  Yeah, I don't really like grapefruit.  But I like grapefruit juice.

Me:  Grapefruit is basically grapefruit juice.  If you like the flavor of the juice, you like grapefruit.

Jabber:  I like the flavor of the juice,'s just not the kind of flavor I like to use my teeth with.