Monday with Martin: Nurturing the Writer’s Garden

This post from David Martin goes back to the very beginning — 1994.  In it, David describes how he came to see how important personal writing could be as an educational method.  Check it all out below.

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By David Martin
By David Martin

This year I tried to make something special happen in my classroom. I decided to teach what I knew was right for me and my students. I sacrificed the tired, traditional composition format of grammar, mechanics, and the five-paragraph theme. I instituted a new divine trinity: the first person pronoun, writing from direct experience, and the journal.

So far, I am not sorry with my decision. In fact, I see tremendous improvement in my students. In previous years, I taught the following levels of English composition: pre-remedial, remedial, hospital English, terminal English, pre-civilized sophomores, academic juniors, twelfth grade night school, creative writing, and college undergraduates (freshman and advanced upperclassmen). Many students from each level told me quietly, in secret, so none of their friends would hear that they felt writing to be fun again. They told me they learned self-discovery through their writing.

I was most inspired, however, to find proper punctuation magically appearing where necessary, when the students believed what they were writing was important and someone was going to read and believe what was written, inside and outside the classroom. Passion, al kinds, entered into their papers, to stay, to grow, like seeds well nurtured in a garden.

My high school is an above average, college prep school. The faculty and administrators are very happy with the schools image and success. It provides good teachers and good education for the average, above average, and the gifted teenagers. I saw a way I could add to this quality by increasing the warmth and humanness in English class. I offered a place of caring for the individual student with personal journal.

In my high school classes, one day a week is devoted to journal activities. By far, the most successful writing-teaching technique I have used to incorporate the personal journal into all my lessons. I feel strongly that my students’ writing improved with the journal that 20% of my class time is concentrated in this yearly project.

I prepared a list of over 300 topics for students to write about if they could not find interesting ones of their own, but I always gave them a choice of topics on which to write.

The first day of class, students had to design the own coat of arms by cutting pictures from old magazines to pictorially represent the following characteristics of themselves: 1) one important item of their past, 2) one important item of the present, 3) one important item of their future, 4) one important item of how others see them, 5) one important animal that symbolizes their personality, 6-7) two favorite quotations which illustrate important concepts wit which they identify.

Each student must bring an open loose leaf, three-ring notebook with rings two to three inches in diameter. I store them in my so they are always available to me, and I may read them at my convenience. The students take loose-leaf paper home with them and when the assignment is finished the next day; they simply insert the pages into their notebooks. This prevents loss of books and increases neatness and orderliness.

I read the notebooks weekly. Each student writing is titled which lets me read selectively when I must, but each page is at least spot read. I always leave a check on each page to let the student realize that his pages have bee read even if I don’t comment on each one.

When it comes time for grading the journals, I inform the writers that the grading in done by the pound. Effort and quantity are the primary qualities I am looking for. I only make positive comments in the journal. I never make a negative one.

This writer’s garden receives only nurturing and fertilizer, never any poison or salt. With this system, I have seen changes in students’ attitudes towards English class within two weeks time. This positive reinforcement of the writer’s individual communication greatly affects not only my classes but the students’ self-confidence and their outlooks on life in general.

This year-long project develops into a warehouse of feelings, emotions, ideas, and personal revelations. In less than nine months, it surprises me every year how many students tell me, “Mr. M.! I was re-reading my journal last night and I don’t feel the same way about…that I did in September and October.” The students’ ideas move and evolve through their writing and because of their writing.

Frequently, I give students a topic and four minutes time to finish writing their ideas. Usually, they will write one-half page per four minutes. In a forty minute period an average student will finish four to five pages. This is half of their weekly writing assignment for the journal. I give “A’s” to those who produce 10 pages a week.

I try not to let the students come up for air on these days. Just as they start to breathe easily, I give them another topic. I always let them leave room on their paper, as much as they want, so they can go back and finish any uncompleted thoughts when they relax. In this way, they start in class and can finish as much as they choose.

Jokingly, I say to switch hands if their first one gets tired while writing. Even the slow composition students enjoy the challenge after a few times because they make so much progress in their journals. The ones who can’t think of something to write about must find new excuses not to write.

The journal is simply the biggest project undertaken all year. Neatness, effort, pride of ownership, creativity, they all count, but quantity is paramount. Some journals are all letters; some are all short stories; some are all possible mixtures. I don’t care, as long as they write. All prose papers written in class or for class may count.

Creativity is encouraged daily; we write at football games, at museums, in study hall, looking out windows. Seventy-five pages at the end of the semester are required for a “1.” All other grades are pro-rated on a percentage basis.

Extra credit may be earned in excess of 100%. I have given journal grades as high as 300%. If the students want to write, I never put a ceiling on their productivity or their earning potential. Write on. Right on.

I write every assignment that I give my class. I read them out loud to each class and treat all the students as if they were in my small group. This breaks barriers more easily than anything else I have found when it comes to getting reluctant student writers to share their work in class. My children at home keep a journal, and sometimes I bring their work to share with my high school students.

One student graduated a year ago and continues to write. Her production now includes thousands of pages, only a few years after graduating from high school. Once every two months, she brings her notebooks to me so I can read them.

This student and I went to her grandmother’s grave in a local cemetery one day so she could say important words to her that she never had a chance to speak before this favorite relative’s death. The student’s invitation was the most unusual one I ever received. After clearing the trip with her parents, we found the grave and sat down in silence. One hour in the cemetery with this student was a guaranteed stimulus for writing. She has not quit writing in her journal since.

I try to have fun with the journals in many ways. I include stickers with funny sayings on them. “Far out! Now you are going to town! Excellent! Teeeerrrriiiiffffiiiicccc! The stickers remind some of elementary school, but when a student of mine does not get one, I sure hear about it.

My students stopped complaining about how much writing they were doing after the first quarter, when they saw that I was not going to stop expecting them to produce, and neither was I going to quit writing myself.

When they saw that I was passing out grades in excess of 100%, they became believers. If a student writes more than 10 pages per week, I liberally pass out extra credit grades, resounding praise for that person’s enthusiastic composition, and send their best work in to the Fine Lines editors.

Journaling is the greatest tool that I have found for encouraging students at all levels to write, to improve their writing, and to enjoy writing. No matter how slow students might be at the beginning of class, if they don’t give up on writing. I promise it won’t give up on them. No matter how good students might be upon entering the class, if they continue to write in their journals, I promise them they will improve.

I tell all my students that if they keep their faith in their journal, their journal will keep its faith in them. Writers must write what they mean and mean what they write. Write on. Happy journaling. Keep the faith.

Sure it’s late June, but here’s a piece about winter storms

Screen Shot 2016-06-25 at 10.23.57 AMThe College World Series is underway.  The temperature will slide up into the 90s by the afternoon.  Still, it’s good to remember that winter is out there waiting.  What follows below is the start of a prose piece from the current issue of Fine Lines.  The author is the late Howard Dwyer, who was born in 1887 and lived in Hastings, Nebraska.  He had worked as a columnist for country newspapers.

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Mondays with Martin: Work Blissfully

This essay from David Martin dates back to 1994.  As always, there is plenty of good advice to be found here.  Enjoy.

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By David Martin
By David Martin

People spend too much time running away from things they should face. We run away from threatening people, embarrassing predicaments, scolding mothers, belligerent fathers, crying sisters, awkward brothers, boring husbands, silent wives, suffocating jobs, stifling homes, uninteresting schools, and tough homework. However, more people run away from themselves than from anyone or anything else.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “No thing is at last sacred, but the integrity of our own minds.” If this is the case, most of us have little that is sacred, even less integrity, and we don’t know our own minds. Fear of the unknown and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were a great pair. Remember? “There is nothing we have to fear but fear itself.” I think Emerson would agree with FDR. They suggest if we knew our own minds, there would be nothing to fear after all.

I give myself notice. I accept the challenge. I will say the truth and live accordingly. This process will sting at times, but I vividly remember what it was like to live behind facades. I was afraid of trying new ideas; I did not enjoy each day. I wasted good friends, and I forgot how to live. I want the real me to be on the surface of life, swimming in the sunshine. I hope to be more like the “Sage of Concord” with my feet on the ground and my head in the air. I must make life’s journey by myself. I may only care for other people, but in the final analysis, I only learn what I teach myself.

I do not have to run anymore. I am not competing against anyone in this life, unless it is I trying to achieve the true potential that resides in me. I go at my own pace. I don’t have to be Gandhi or Jesus Christ. I only have to be myself.

I know I am a seeker. I know my drummer beats at a progressively different tune than many hear. I find it hard to pay attention to the rhythm that is in my mind alone. It is hard to leave the herd and dance my own dance.

I was an average student in school. Infrequently, I would reach for an “A” and achieve it, when I felt motivated by the subject matter. I remember one day in twelfth grade, however, when I wanted to learn for the fun of learning. I wanted to absorb all I could about why the mind works the way it does. I also hoped to see the shocked surprise on the faces of all those gifted girls who traveled all the way from kindergarten to high school graduation. Just once, I wanted to show those intelligent girls who always got better grades that I could beat them at their own game. I felt they thought they were much better than I was, and usually, they were. Most often, I didn’t think I could compete with them, so I did not try, but this day was different.

Mrs. Kaiser’s twelfth grade psychology class intrigued me. She was a big woman with a strong, German accent. A quiet and stern lady, she ruled her class with a no-nonsense approach to teaching. When she tried to smile, her lips formed a thin, straight line that barely curved at the corners. She never repeated herself twice, nor did she have to. Everyone listened intently rather than get burned by her piercing stare when a mistake was made. Everyday, the class valedictorian and salutatorian answered all her questions, while the rest of us watched.

One day, this woman and human psychology appeared warm and human. Something clicked inside me during class discussion, and I started answering the questions she did not think to cover or the class all-stars did not mention. She looked at me in an odd way. She leaned her head to the side, and her reading glasses rose slightly, when she stopped talking to the class to look at me directly, coolly, without speaking.

I did nothing wrong. I couldn’t figure out what happened. I dressed well. I sat straight in my seat. I didn’t talk to anyone. I smiled at her. I was alert, and I knew the material. What was wrong? She never said a thing to me the rest of the period but went on with assigning the class a unit test for the following day.

That night, after supper, I puzzled over those looks and the stare Mrs. Kaiser gave me in class for no apparent reason. I felt angry, but I didn’t understand why. What was the matter with her? I did everything correctly, and she still acted upset with me. I wondered if I would ever understand teachers. Probably, she thought I was too slow to be in her special class.

I reread the entire unit that night, which was something I never did. I even read a few extra chapters because they were interesting. I spent all evening preparing for that unit test. I went to bed early, so I would have plenty of rest to tackle her intimidation the next morning. I ate a good breakfast, which I knew would give me enough endurance to persevere through her class.

When I took the test, I was calm. I answered the last question before anyone else did. I looked around the room and was surprised how much time was left in the class period. The other students were still struggling with the last few questions. I forced myself not to turn in my paper first. I stayed in my seat and reviewed every question one more time. I took the full period and turned in the paper two minutes before the bell rang. On purpose, I was the last person to lay my test on Mrs. Kaiser’s desk. As she took the test, I looked her in the eyes and smiled. She noticed that. Her eyes met mine, and I grew more confident because I could see her puzzlement.

She asked, “Is there anything wrong, David?”

“No, Mrs. Kaiser. I thought this was a most interesting group of chapters we studied in the last few weeks. I wish the entire book and this class could be so informative about why humans do what they do.” She stared at me without saying anything.

The day following the test Mrs. Kaiser passed out the graded exams. She returned my paper last and mentioned that I received the highest grade of all. Without raising her voice, she looked at me and said, “I never thought anyone would score this highly on my difficult test. Certainly, I never thought it would be you, David. Well! Well!”

I thought she smiled. It appeared that she did not know how to handle the situation, so she dropped her eyes, turned her back to me and the class, and we started working on the next unit.

This nearly negative reinforcement did have a positive effect on me. I knew that I made an impression on her. I was interested in the subject and tried to do my best. When I decided to study hard for the exam, I was surprised that the material flowed through my eyes, effortlessly, because my interest pulled the pages through my mind. This was one of the few times in any classroom when I felt completely relaxed. I found myself studying psychology for the simple interest of learning, not to achieve a grade, or to impress the teacher. Unconsciously, I discovered synchronicity.

This surge of energy occurred when I studied the topic simply for my own enjoyment. I now know that I waste my time if I do not find myself absorbed in the message of what I am doing. This is the only way I overcome my fear of failing and achieve my potential. Thanks to Mrs. Kaiser and those students in my class, I now see my potential reflected more completely when I blissfully enjoy my work.