jonathan lovell's blog

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Redefining the Art of Response

Redefining the Art of Response

“And thus do we, of wisdom and of reach,
With windlasses and essays of bias,
By indirections find directions out”

Hamlet, Act II, scene 1, lines 63-65

You know how it is with a class that’s gone unexpectedly well. Gone a lot better than you’d anticipated.

You’re convinced it was an accident. The gods were smiling on you.


The law of unintended consequences broke in your favor. It was a fluke. It will never happen again.

This is how it’s always been with me in my use of Peter Elbow’s prompts for responding to others’ writing (Writing Without Teachers, pp. 85-92).


I was fortunate enough to be introduced quite early in my career to the idea of giving “movies of one’s mind” in response to the writing of a fellow writing group member. It came at a point when I had, more or less, no choice but to give Elbow’s approach a try.

I was teaching in my first university level position, at Teachers College in New York City,


and had been assigned to teach a course called “Composition for Teachers of English.” I had forty-odd students in my class, some of them credential candidates, but the majority hardened veterans of the New York City public school system.


After spending the first few Mondays of this once-a-week class providing a modified version of the seminar style teaching I’d learned at Yale, I was desperate. My classes were hardly scintillating, but matters had been made far worse by one of my students. Having endured the first few seminar discussions I’d conducted on the readings for the class, she wrote to Professor Lawrence Cremin, then President of Teachers College.


Praising him for a lecture he’d recently given on the professionalization of K-12 teaching, she suggested that a good move in that direction would be to terminate the services of a young professor who had just begun teaching at TC. That young professor, of course, was me.


So I was more than ready to hear the advice of a group of my Teachers College doctoral students, when they told me that they’d had good success using Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers with their basic writers in the CUNY system. Might I give this book a try?

I did, devouring it that weekend, and coming into my class the following Monday with what my students later came to call my “Composition Manifesto.”


We would write together in each of our upcoming sessions, I told them. And we would respond to each other’s writing with the “pointing,”




“telling,” and “showing” responses


that this innovative writing teacher, Peter Elbow, has detailed in his chapter on the “teacherless” writing class (pp. 76-146).


It was not as if my fears of humiliating failure were immediately assuaged by my embrace of this new and unabashedly weird pedagogy, however. Quite the contrary, my heart was in my throat at the beginning of just about every subsequent class. This stuff was just SO DIFFERENT from anything I had been taught.


And if I felt this way, what must my often cynical city-savvy teachers be feeling?

But for those who stuck with me—about half the class as I recall—the rewards were palpable. We watched and heard the writing of our fellow small group members grow week by week in courage and voice.


I saw and heard this in my own writing as well.

I never did learn if any of my tough-minded colleagues actually used these prompts in their New York City high school classrooms. It was enough for me to experience the eagerness with which they were now showing up, each successive Monday evening, with what they’d revised the prior week.


Perhaps there was something to these unusual and quirky prompts after all?

As I journeyed over the next decade through four more university positions, teaching composition classes for college students and conducting writing workshops for practicing and preservice teachers, I stuck to my Elbow prompts. Since they contributed so consistently to the eagerness with which participants returned to their writing after hearing it responded to in this way, I figured we must be doing something right.

I even became somewhat articulate in explaining why these prompts might work. Since we all harbor a basic fear that nothing we have written is worth someone else’s attention, it’s quite reassuring, I argued, to have a group of listeners “say back” the words and phrases they remember from hearing a piece of writing read aloud.


For the short term at least, these simple “pointing” responses could act to calm those dark feelings of inadequacy and insignificance that we all feel at some level.

And similarly, the prompt to write a summary of what you had just heard, more or less as one run-on sentence, would give a writer a pretty clear sense of the emerging coherence of his or her piece.


Wasn’t this, after all, what most reading researchers used to measure students’ comprehension of passages they had just read? And in general, the more coherent the writing, the more the listener would be likely to recall?

And although I never learned to embrace Elbow’s “telling” responses, requiring that listeners tell writers what was going on in their minds as they listened to a piece of writing, I did develop a special affection for Elbow’s “showing” responses. Especially those that compared a piece of writing to something else. “”If your writing were a type of weather,” a listener might say, “it would be a warm afternoon breeze in early fall.” Or “if your writing were an article of clothing, it would be one of those faux cowboy vests.”


“When you [listen to] a piece of writing,” Elbow had written in the ‘showing’ segment of his chapter on leading a “teacherless” writing class, “you will have some perceptions and reactions which you are not fully aware of and thus cannot ‘tell.’ Perhaps they are very faint, perhaps you do not have a satisfactory language for them, or perhaps for some other reason you remain unconscious of them.” But although you cannot convey these half-hidden responses explicitly, “you can show them if you are willing to use some of the metaphorical exercises that I describe below” (90-91).

Because I so often found these “showing” responses the most memorable and inspiriting in relation to my own writing, I gradually developed a way of arguing for their importance. “One of the clearest markers of the resonance and consequence of a piece of writing you have just heard in your small writing group,” I would explain to participants, “is the new and unexpected thinking that it inspires.


This might be called its ‘catalytic’ capacity—the ability of a piece of writing to bring something entirely new into the world, something that would not have been thought or felt were it not for the inspiration the writing provided.

And that’s what these metaphorical responses are tapping—the more powerful and memorable the metaphor, the more consequential the writing.”

Or so I claimed. Truth to tell, I had grown to treasure these responses, and I felt I needed to provide some reasonable explanation, to my students and to myself, for my growing partiality.

But when you’re engaging in practices in the teaching of writing that are as uncommon as Elbow’s, you better keep doing them if you expect to hold onto your belief that they’re worth doing. And sadly, my expanding responsibilities as the director of a large and growing urban writing project drew me further and further from my role as leader of and participant in these Elbowesque “teacherless” writing classes.


I’d engaged over the years in a fair bit of “sleuth advocacy” as a university supervisor,


by suggesting to one or another of my supervisees that he or she try an “Elbow approach” with his or her secondary level students. And now and again I’d raise the flag for the value of “pointing,” “summarizing” or “showing” responses,


as I was directing this or that invitational summer institute.

But nothing sustained. Nothing that could serve to re-convince me that these unconventional responses actually inspired fledging writers to return to their drafts with an eagerness to revise and improve what they’d written.

So it was with that all too familiar sense of dread and apprehension that I began, two summers ago, to organize and plan for a week-long advanced summer institute, open specifically to San Jose Area Writing Project Teacher Consultants. We would be offering these advanced institutes in alternate summers for the foreseeable future,


in part because federal support for our longer invitational institutes had been halved, and in part because we needed to conduct such “continuity programs” for Teacher Consultants in order to remain eligible for state funding.

There were a few givens for the summer program I’d be directing–ones I’d written the prior fall into our project’s application for continued funding. Participants would be spending their afternoons revising units of study they’d already taught, building on some work I’d been pursuing over the past two years with two of my SJSU College of Education colleagues.[1] Based on the work my colleagues and I had done with beginning teachers, participants would use the “moves” suggested by Joseph Harris for upper level college students revising source-based essays. They would re-apply these “moves” to their teaching, however, in order to “rewrite” a unit of study they wanted to revise. And of course reading and responding to Joseph Harris’s text on this subject—Rewriting, How to Do Things With Texts


—would necessarily be part of the program.

I also knew that I wanted to make reading and responding to “research” in the teaching of writing a more consequential part of our shared experience.


I wanted to make the “research” part of our program, that is, as fundamental and as inspiriting as Teacher Consultants had generally found their work with their small afternoon writing groups.

So I did what must have seemed highly idiosyncratic at the time (one participant later wrote “Jonathan has surely gone off the deep end this time”),


but which makes a certain amount of sense in retrospect. I asked participants to regard the four chapters in which Harris explains his four moves as “drafts” of a work in progress.


With that understanding in mind, I also asked participants to respond to passages they selected from these chapters in terms of one or another of Elbow’s “showing” responses. And in order to provide grist for our responsive mill, I eschewed the simple “this is like that” metaphorical responses and asked participants to select from one or another of Elbow’s more adventuresome “showing” responses (Writing Without Teachers, pp. 91):

“Assume that Harris wrote this passage instead of something very different that was really on his mind. Fantasize about what you really think was on his mind.”


“Pretend to be someone else—someone who would have a very different response to this passage. Write about who this person is and why her or she would respond in the way he or she would.”


“Imagine this passage is a lump of workable clay. Write about what you would like to do with this lump of clay.”


What could I have been thinking?


But partly due to the good will of the 18 Teacher Consultants who signed on, and partly because of the inventiveness of their responses, and the increasingly spirited nature of the “rejoinders” we freewrote each morning in response, the week went remarkably well. Joe was clearly bemused by the experience of being responded to in this way, writing: “What struck me about the responses was how friendly, assertive, and witty they all were. They read like a group of good friends kidding one another in an affectionate yet serious way.”


The gods had smiled on me.


The law of unintended consequences had broken in my favor. It was a fluke. It would never happen again.

But pigheaded person that I am, I decided to give it a go nonetheless.


The following summer we had about half the number of Teacher Consultants, and I’d chosen Tom Newkirk’s Minds Made for Stories: How We REALLY Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts as our focus.


Participants would be using their afternoon sessions to rethink and revise their already taught units of study, that is, with a mind to the importance of narrative as the “mother of all modes.”

To say the week exceeded our fondest expectations for professional development would be an understatement. Starting early in the week, when Lorena Lopez responded to a moving piece by Sarah Nielsen describing her father’s inventive teaching of high school biology by writing “Give me a gaddamned break! Really? There were teachers like that? Where was I? Oh, that’s right, this happened in the 70’s . . . and I wasn’t born yet,”


we knew we were in for a memorable experience.[2]

But clearly the highlight came on the final day, with Susan Seyan’s response to Tom’s short final chapter on “Space, Rigor, and Time.” She chose the following as her Elbowesque prompt: “Assume that just before Newkirk wrote this passage he did something very important or something very important happened to him—something that was not obvious from the writing. Write what it was that he did, or that happened to him.”

“Tom clicked the ‘Save’ icon and closed the Montaigne quote book he always kept on hand,”


Susan began. “He turned back to face his computer monitor, ready to resume his narrative duties once again. Then, he heard the doorbell ring.”

Susan goes on to describe Tom’s quandary about whether to answer the door, and his finally deciding to slip into his “”faux sheepskin slippers” and move “down the carpeted stairs,


past the quiet kitchen, and through the bright and airy foyer to the front door.”

After some confusion, it becomes apparent that the unwonted guests are in fact representatives of the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes, there to tell Tom that he is their “Grand Prize Winner!”


What lifts Susan’s response into another realm entirely, however, is what “Tom” decides to do with his new and unexpected earnings. Putting aside his revising of his last chapter (“No need to make that last chapter as long as the others. My readers will figure it out. They’re teachers!”), Tom dons a “full length, navy blue jumpsuit with delicate laurel leaf epaulets” that his wife Deborah had “lovingly crafted for him,” and responds to the predictable final question of “what are you going to do with all your money?” by asking himself “What would Brian Boitano do?”


What makes this response exceptional is not only that it conveys such an inventive range of mannerisms for the “Tom” that Susan has invented, but that skating with the artistry of a Brian Boitano is such a compelling metaphor for what Newkirk has been writing about all along: the need to understand writing as an activity aspiring to graceful and elegant “movement in time.”

As Marty Brandt wrote in response to Susan’s piece, “I can only guess at Peter Elbow’s intentions here: that perhaps, by jarring students’ preconceptions about the usual kinds of prompts they get, he is trying to help them to embark on imaginative flights of fancy of their own. I’m thinking that the response needn’t be tied directly to the point of the reading, but can instead take the reader someplace new. And in order to do this, the student will have to engage in a kind of thinking and writing that can’t be easily bullshat.”


While Marty concludes that he does not know if he’ll use these prompts when he returns to his high school classroom, Susan’s “utterly and delightfully original” response has “made me want to consider it.”

Exactly. As Tom wrote to the group shortly afterwards, “Please thank your consultant-teachers for their invigorating responses to Minds Made for Stories. So varied, thoughtful, and creative. It is an honor to be read in this way. You guys are reinventing the art of the response.”



Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers, 25th Anniversary Edition. 1998. New York: Oxford University Press.

Harris, Joseph. Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts. 2006. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press

Newkirk, Thomas. Minds Made for Stories: How We REALLY Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts. 2014. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann.

[1] See the article “Rewriting Our Teaching Practices in our Own Voices” (English Journal, vol. 104, no. 6, July 2015, pp. 55-60) for examples of how Harris’s four “moves” can be used to “rewrite” one’s teaching practices.

[2] All participants’ responses to Tom Newkirk’s chapters, as well as the schedule for the week as a whole, can be found below

(published in California English, November 2015)

“It Don’t Mean a Thing If it Ain’t Got that Swing”

Writings in Response to Tom Newkirk’s Minds Made for Stories

by the participants in the 2015 Advanced Summer Institute

of The San Jose Area Writing Project, July 6-10, 2015


Elbow’s “Showing” Responses

(select one of these Elbowesque responses in relation to your chosen passage from Chap’s #1 to #9 of Tom Newkirk’s Minds Made for Stories)

1. Think of your selected passage as a piece of writing that has magically evolved out of a different piece of writing, and will eventually evolve into some other piece of writing. Write about where it came from and where it is going

2. Assume that Newkirk wrote this passage instead of something very different that was really on his mind. Fantasize about what you really think was on his mind.

3. Assume that just before Newkirk wrote this passage he did something very important or something very important happened to him—something that was not obvious from the writing. Write what it was that he did, or that happened to him.

4. Imagine this passage is a lump of workable clay. Write about what you would like to do with this lump of clay.

5. Pretend to be someone else—someone who would have a very different response to this passage. Write about who this person is and why she or he would respond in the way she or he would.

6. Write about what you think Newkirk’s intention was in writing this passage. Then write about some crazy intention he might have had, instead of the intention you are attributing to him.

* These responses are slightly altered versions of some of the “showing” responses Elbow writes about in the 25th Anniversary Edition of his Writing Without Teachers (Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK, 1998), pp. 90-91

Lorena Lopez. Response to Chapter #1, “Sustained Reading,”

read on Monday July 5, 2015

Elbowesque response #4 (workable clay) intertwined with #5

re passage on pages 18 – 19:

So it is a Sunday, after the 4th of July mind you, and I am seated at my kitchen table with my ever trusty laptop when I realized that I would really much rather be eating ice cream with large gobs of Kit Kat in it than trying to crank out a response. And you see automatically I am giving this information via story.

I cannot help but wholeheartedly agree with Thomas Newkirk’s arguments (takes me back to a Saturday morning when Laura Brown and I met at Crema and she was so excited over this book, but at the time I did not fully understand why – well guess what? Now I do!). Even at this moment I am predicting that when I read this out loud that the majority of the listeners will try to cling to what I am saying via pictures in their minds or try to find the plot so that they can follow along…good luck.

To help, imagine this: David Letterman in some dark gray suit with a purple tie strolling on stage, waving, giving us that gap toothed smile as he takes a seat behind his brown desk, whips out a book and says, “Tonight I would like to talk about Thomas Newkirk and his book Minds Made for Stories: How we Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts.” Imagine him giving us a real serious look. “Now according to Newkirk, we tend to gather information best when it is told through narrative or stories are intertwined with it. Now that is such a simple idea that I don’t know why he had to write a whole book – the first chapter was sufficient!” The audience laughs. Letterman whips out a white note card and says, “So folks here we go, I will share my Top Ten Things of what I Would Like To Do With This Passage from pages 18 – 19:

10) Leave a copy of it in it teachers’ boxes and see if it leads to a massive educational overhaul where teachers teach reading and writing for authentic purposes and in authentic ways… Perhaps that hamburger and color coded insanity for writing would finally disappear…imagine that! (the audience laughs)

9) Ask myself, if we gear reading and writing towards narrative then where the hell is the rigor? Haven’t we been asking that all along?

8) Mail a copy to the textbook publishing companies (McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Harcourt Brace) to see if they will change their approach and forward a softcopy to the so-called “academic” writers, just to see their reaction.

7) Reincarnate John Dewey and Ralph Waldo Emerson, invite them to a public roast and at the end let them read this passage! And yes Newkirk would be in the room!

6) Ask, is this really the reason why so many of us struggle to read informational writing? What about comprehension strategies – are they being taught to kids these days? What about text features? Does that go out the window? (in the back ground the audience laughs)

5) Wonder if this is the reason why I don’t own any informational texts other than The Onion’s Our Dumb World book.

4) Use it as a passage to be incorporated at the Advanced ISI 2015 session and have the participants respond to this response (the audience roars with laughter).

3) Ponder whether this might be another political movement that makes Americans come across as dumb, like saying, “Hey we don’t read informational texts unless they’re entertaining! We don’t understand it unless you start with ‘Once upon a time””

2) Reread it and make sure I truly understood what Newkirk was saying.

And the number one thing I would like to do with this passage is . . . drumroll please:

1) Ignite a movement of enthusiastic readers who refuse to read “boring” books, because that’s really the bottom line!” (the audience laughs and applauds).

Cymbals chime in the background, Letterman giggles and the lights dim, leaving me at my kitchen table, wondering if I should get the ice cream now or later.

Roohi Vora, Response to Chapter #2, “Minds Made for Stories,”

read on Monday July 6, 2015

Elbowesque Response # 6

Write about what you think Newkirk’s intention was in writing this passage. Then write about some crazy intention he might have had, instead of the intention you are attributing to him.

The Tragedy of Babar and Haris Suleman: Home Grown Heroes

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. – Franz Kafka

Inspiration can be derived from the oddest of sources. Who would have thought that the tragedy of Babar and Haris Suleman , my childhood friend and his son, would become the prime example in the Elbowesque response to my chosen section “Becoming Heroes of our own Stories” in Newkirk’s book Minds Made For Stories.

Newkirk states: “ Constructing causal narratives also allows us to imagine ourselves as agents, even heroes, in our own life stories, which can be purposeful and coherent (‘things happen for a reason’). Psychologist Shelley Taylor summarizes a range of studies to argue that this heroic representation of self, although not fully realistic, has major positive benefits for personal happiness. This exaggerated sense of personal agency emerges so powerfully and quickly in early childhood that it is very likely ‘natural [and] intrinsic to the cognitive system.’ Like the evolution of organs or immune systems, it may be hardwired to support the perpetuation of the species – as anthropologist Lionel Tiger (his real name) has argued ‘Optimism is a biological phenomenon.’ The key beneficial illusion is a heightened sense of being able to master one’s environment by acting in a causal way:

The illusion of control, a vital part of people’s beliefs about their attributes, is a personal statement       about how positive outcomes will be achieved, not merely by wishing and hoping that they will happen, but by making them happen through one’s own capabilities. (41)

Of course, events are not in our complete control, and humans face trauma and tragedy. Luck and chance play a huge role in any life. But even victims of terrible illness and loss are often able to derive meaning and benefit from their situation, perhaps working to inform or help others in their same situation.” (28-29)

Seventeen year old Malala Yusufzai, the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize winner (in 2014), would be the perfect example for Newkirk’s claim. From the age of twelve, Malala, born in the Swat Valley in Northern Pakistan, campaigned for the rights of girls to receive an education. At age 15, she was shot by the Taliban while travelling home from school on the bus with her friends because she defied the Taliban and stood steadfast in her quest for education by writing blogs against them. They tried to stop the girls from going to school. Malala made a remarkable recovery after the shooting incident and was able to return to school. Now living in Birmingham England with her family, Malala continues to campaign for the right of every child to go to school. Khaled Hosseini, interviewing Malala on June 26 at the Event Center at San Jose, aptly said “The Taliban shot the wrong girl.” Malala’s bravery and unwavering dedication to her cause has seen her honored throughout the world and earned her one of the highest honors: the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala sailed through this tragedy and came out triumphant. She received an outpouring of support throughout her ordeal, and set up an International fund – the Malala Fund – which is dedicated to help promote education for girls throughout the world. Malala, according to Newkirk, would be a shining example of someone who suffered a tragedy and bounced back to show the world that she had come out stronger from that experience. This girl has no fear; she still speaks against the Taliban in spite of the threats against her life, and she still continues to inform and help other in the same situation as herself. She has even written a book I am Malala: The Girl who Stood up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban that makes you believe in the power of one person’s voice to inspire change in the world!

However, coming back to my argument, Newkirk’s intention in writing this passage then was not just to show this. There is a twist to this intention. I believe that events (no matter how much we plan ahead) are sometimes not in our complete control, and humans do face trauma and tragedy, but in the following case, it is not the “victims of terrible illness” [who] derive meaning and benefit from their situation, it is the ones that are left behind after such a loss, who continue to carry on the legacy of those victims to inform and help others with their writing. Such writing can thus become an informative narrative with a purpose.

Here is the courageous story of Babar and Haris Suleman. It is also the story of Babar’s wife and daughter who carried on the legacy of husband/mother, and daughter/sister. They continued to bring to completion the project that Babar and Haris had started. Life is truly unpredictable but stories can be told about life events to bring about difference and change and to create awareness. Babar and Haris (father and son team) were flying around the world to try and raise funds for a charity called TCF (The Citizen’s Foundation) in Pakistan that builds schools for deprived children in places where education is not available. Babar and Haris started out from Indiana on a “fly around the world in 30 days for education” mission on June 19. 2014. On the way they made many stops, but in the end they both perished in a crash just after take-off from Pago Pago in American Samoa, so close to fulfilling their dream. But surprisingly enough, this is not the end of their story. Following the tragedy, Babar’s wife and his daughter continued their mission by creating a website and writing blogs about their adventure and their mission and asking people to help carry it out. The kindness of people who were following their flight all over the world took the initiative and raised $ 3 million to open many schools. This great and lasting tribute to the two brave pilots will last for many generations to come. July 23 2015 will mark their first death anniversary, but their deaths were not in vain.

Anyone who is interested in their cause can still donate a small amount (or a large one) for the good cause at the following link: Someone has also created a website titled “Tribute to Babar Suleman and Haris Suleman” where people contribute pictures and write notes in their loving memory. Babar and Haris continue to live not only in the hearts of their family and friends but also in the hearts of the people who benefited from their generosity. They live in the hearts of those who are enthusiastically involved in spreading education just like they were. All this would not have materialized had Babar’s story not been told and kept alive by his wife, Cookie and his daughter, Hiba.

Jerry Dyer, Response to Chapter #3, “Itch and Scratch: How Form Really Works,”

read on Tuesday July 7, 2015

A movie pitch:

JB: Hey, Rupert, I don’t have but a few minutes, gotta meet with Johnny Depp for early lunch, so let ‘er fly.

Rupert: Well, okay. But a little context first. You remember how big Roxanne was, with Steve Martin? Well that was 1987, almost 30 years. Time, I think, for another re-make of Cyrano–

JB: Are you crazy, another Cyrano? Who’d wanna see it?

Rupert: Wait, let me explain! Remember 10 Things I Hate About You? Remember Clueless? Not remakes, but updatings, baby! Even Joss Whedon’s update of Much Ado About Nothing. JB, these old stories have legs, and I got a great script! Get this, written by an academic!

JB: What, come again, an academic?

Rupert: Yeah, a New England professor, patches on his sport coat sleeves, the pipe, everything. And what a writer. Dalton Trumbo, baby, without the politics!

JB: Okay, give it a spin.

Rupert: All right. First thing viewers see, a black screen, and then white words materialize, framing it all: “ literature, only trouble is interesting. Only trouble is interesting.”

JB: Is this the academic, or Gertrude Stein?

Rupert: Just a quote, it doesn’t matter. And this is sexier than Gertrude Stein, believe me.

JB: Sexy?

Rupert: Listen to the first scene. A table, in a newly remodeled Student Union, the new brutalist style. On the table, a book: A Mysterious Form of Attraction: Readers and Writers Together. Camera stays on the book, but then it’s picked up by a drop-dead beautiful girl. She sits. Imagine: a reader, sitting still, this book in her hands. For a moment, long enough to raise the tension in the theatre, nothing happens! Maybe a page gets turned; a short pause for her to brush back a strand of hair. Her brow knits in concentration. Then we shift to a guy a table or two away, watching her-

JB: What, a stalker, a perv?

Rupert: No, it’s the author! He’s watching, see, to see how she’s going to react. He’s trying to get her to stay with him, sure, but that’s not the real game here. See, she thinks that she’s reading a novel, but actually, if she sticks with the book long enough, she’ll discover that it’s a chemistry text.

JB: What? Cyrano’s a chemist?

Rupert: Right! And Christian, in this version, is a writer in residence, and she thinks that she wants to be a writer, and our prof has seen her mooning over the writer. He, of course, wants her to enroll in his course, some basic Chem course, so he sets out these books for her to discover, sequentially, and he watches her reaction. He figures, once she gets hooked, he can invite her to sign up for his class the next term, and then…well, he has dreams and hopes of course. He believes in his science, in what he knows. He figures he has a variety of resources and appeals at his disposal to maintain the relationship, once it achieves an activation energy, of course…Think of the paradox: the power of knowledge, arranged in such a way as to arouse desires, appetites that only work in the lab can fulfill, or maybe balancing equations…

JB: I don’t know, Rup, sounds pretty dry to me-

Rupert: Dry? No, but that’s part of the tension too: we’ll use everything we got to hint at the emotions roiling there, the drama just under the surface. The art, the costumes; and the acting. Already got interest from Fassbender to play the writer, and we think we can get Vikander to play the girl.

JB: Who’s your chemist, your Cyrano?

Rupert: We’re still working on that. We need someone, of course, that has dynamism, a raw energy you know, someone whose moves can bind time together into the shape of his desire. Who do you think, someone who can propel the viewer into the field of his longing, who can invite or seduce the viewer, make him or her itch in just the right place, and then know just how to scratch…

JB: Opposite Vikander? Well, I could ask Johnny if he’d be interested…

Rupert: Beautiful, perfect! I thought you’d see the power of this idea.

JB: But wait, wait, how does it play out? What’s the climax?

Rupert: Oh, it’s brilliant, just killer. You remember how Cyrano has that bittersweet ending, how Roxanne knows, at the end, that her true love was really Cyrano, but he’s dying? So, he never has his love consummated. She, on the other hand, at least knows the truth, about whom she really loved…

JB: Yeah, I remember.

Rupert: Well, the way this story ends: the Chemistry prof dies too, but in the meantime, his love for the girl, his wooing her with his texts has freed her from the illusion that she can only love a novelist, convinces her that she wasn’t really in love with Fassbender, no, not down deep. She wants to dedicate her life, now, to doing chemical assays, you know, like essays. Montaigne, you know, invented the form of the essay, which comes from the French word meaning ‘attempt.’ If you think about the root of the word attempt, we’re back at the doorway of temptation, being invited in, pulled toward our deepest desires.

JB: Rupert, you’re such a show off.

Rupert: So, anyway, at the end, she’s standing in front of the chemistry lab, and you see her face working its way to a decision, to go in or not. And then, just like at the beginning of the film, she brushes back that strand of hair, gives a little Mona Lisa smile…

JB: Okay, okay, good, send me the script, we’ll take a look. I imagine I’ll hate myself in the morning, but okay, let’s do it.

Laurie Weckesser, Response to Chapter #4, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Textbooks,”

read on Tuesday July 7, 2015

It might be objected that I am simply trying to turn textbooks into creative nonfiction and that entertainment was never one of their primary functions. Their purpose is to convey information in a straightforward way. But I am accepting that premise, or at least that intention. And I am arguing that these so-called creative techniques will help in the retention of information. They satisfy a human need for causality, for fitting information into patterns, sequences, narratives; they present us with a world in motion, with actions and consequences––not one of unconnected “facts.” These strategies also pull back the curtain on the telling; they present us with a narrator, a human presence that is acting as our guide. These are, then, not simply stylistic tricks. They are strategies for helping us retain what we read.

Newkirk’s intention in this passage is clear. He is simply saying that narrative is what all of us are drawn to – we crave stories, listen carefully to the set up, follow the quest while anticipating the climax. And details about the characters, plot, conflict stick with us because of the familiar narrative format.

This chapter feels like a textbook to me. I read a bit and then have to mentally rewrite it before I can even understand it. This mental rewrite is so difficult. I study each example in italics, rewrite it mentally so that I can understand it before moving on to Newkirk’s version and go through the same process. It takes me twice as long to read as the rest of the book. No wonder so many students become expert procrastinators when it comes to reading a challenging text.

Why does he have to use so many examples from a science textbook? I am no good at this subject! Just as Marty mentioned yesterday, I, too, only took the required Biology and avoided Physics and Chemistry because I could. I don’t really care that stars need to convert hydrogen into helium for energy, it is still just science to me.

Deep breath. I can do this. Then it hits me. This entire chapter is a metaphor for teaching. Students crave a class with a narrative. They want teachers who will pull back the curtain and act as a guide, a sort of emcee. They want to be entertained to be sure, but really what they are asking for is to be engaged in the act of learning in your classroom. Newkirk’s chapter then, is a guide on what we must avoid if we are actually to teach.

The Seven Deadly Sins of Teaching are:

The class never gets any easier nor does it get any harder. Students will attend class without complaint, but they will not engage in learning. This occurs when teachers refuse to create interest in the classroom. The bland reading of power point slides during any lecture, bores even the most highly interested student.

  1. Overuse of “To Be” Verbs and Passive Constructions. This is a warning against those assignments that are given over and over and over without any active learning taking place because “the subject of the action is not as important as what the subject does.” The student is not the focus, the assignment is.
  2. Piling On. More = Better. Unfortunately, the teacher who commits this sin believes that the more students work the more they learn. The hours of homework given is exponentially greater than the number of hours spent in class each week. I am guilty of this occasionally when I get excited about a new project and let the enthusiasm cloud my judgment.
  3. Refusal to Surprise. Sticking to a rigid schedule without any variation.

Outline chapter 1. Look up vocabulary words. Listen to lecture and write Cornell style notes. Discuss in class. Take a test.

Outline chapter 2. …

Or the teacher who pulls out the lesson for day number 57 and delivers it with no regard to what happened the day before nor what will occur tomorrow.

  1. Lack of a Point of View. This teacher teaches a subject not students. This is not Penny Kittle who believes that getting to know who the learners are in the classroom is critical to her teaching.
  2. The Refusal of Metaphor and Analogy. Even though most English teachers live in the world of metaphor and analogy, there are many other teachers who do not. They are the ones who subscribe to the “just the facts ma’am” style of teaching. These teachers have passion for the subject they teach and are just so deeply entrenched in the subject that they do not understand the need for scaffolding the information for students. They refuse to cloud the subject with a narrative and the opportunity to connect students and increase their understanding is lost.
  3. Ignoring the Human Need for Alternation. Think of the teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off who stands in front of the room and calls roll every day without looking up – “Bueller. Bueller.”

 Teachers must not succumb to these seven deadly sins if they are to “pull back the curtain on the telling” as Newkirk this institutes’ emcee, does in this chapter.

Katie Adelman, Response to Chapter #5, “All Writing is Narrated,”

read on Wednesday July 8, 2015

Hello. My name is Victor Viper and I am going to write a five paragraph essay to tell about how all writing is narrated. Okay, I’m not really going to write a five paragraph essay because my teacher, Mrs. Adelman, didn’t really teach me how to do that yet. And I’m not really going to tell you about how all writing is narrated because I’m not really sure what that means. But I am going to tell you about some of the nonfiction books I have really loved reading this year in Mrs. Adelman’s class because the authors made me laugh, they surprised me, they used really cool words, and they wrote about topics that kids are actually interested in.

One of my favorite stories that we read was from a memoir by Esme Raji Codell from her book, Sing a Song of Tuna Fish. “The Egg Patrol” is about a time when Esme’s mom cajoled her into egging some dude’s car. They were watching out the window and saw this guy park his shiny red Jaguar in front of the fire hydrant. So the mom thought that she would teach this shmuck a lesson by egging his car. Except the mom impells Esme to throw the eggs. “Do it, the mom hisses.” That part was extremely comical. Nick laughed so hard that snot came shooting out of his nose. And I was also really surprised. I mean, what kind of a mom would make their kid chuck eggs at some dude’s shiny red Jaguar? Not my mom. I ended up reading all of Esme’s books even though Armando said that they were girl books. Which is so stupid because how can a book have a gender?

I think I may have answered my question because my next favorite book is clearly a boy book—Guy-Write by Ralph Fletcher. Man oh man, when Mrs. Adelman pulled this book out I thought she was really crazy this time. What could be more boring than a book about writing? Just when I’m starting to like to read, I have to read a book about writing, which I will never like, by the way. Well, this dude, Ralph Fletcher, surprised me. Chapter three, “Riding the Vomit Comet: Writing About Disgusting Stuff,” is really all about show not tell. Mr. Fletcher’s exact words are, “you’ve got to make sure that your ‘movie’ of your writing comes alive for the reader.” And the beauty of it is that Mr. Fletcher actually writes the most beautiful descriptions to show, not tell, how to do just that. I won’t include my favorite part here when he tells about a character, Matt, who finds a dead body. A waterlogged dead body. A waterlogged dead body with an eel slithering out of its mouth. Mrs. Adelman says that if my grandma wouldn’t want to read it then I probably should keep it at home. I ended up reading all of Ralph Fletcher’s books too, in the Elbow Room, which is our boys’ only writing club, but I only go there to read everyone else’s stories because I don’t like to write.

The last book I will mention, is one that my grandma would definitely not want to read—Guts, by Gary Paulson. These are all the true stories behind Hatchet and the other Brian books. Chapter five is my favorite, “Eating Eyeballs and Guts or Starving: the Fine Art of Wilderness Nutrition.” Can I just say, if Ralph Fletcher and Gary Paulson ever decide to write a book together, I will be the first in line to buy it. So, I guess that Gary Paulson actually lived in the wild, like Brian, the character in all these stories. He says that “as the hunger increases the diet widens.” I wasn’t really sure what Mr. Paulson meant by that until he employs show not tell, like Ralph Fletcher. I guess that when a guy is starving, I mean really starving, he’ll eat anything, even grub worms wrapped in dandelion greens. Gary Paulson explains that this is not really so astonishing because this practice was common among natives in most early cultures. Now I get what the textbook was talking about with those hunter-gatherers eating the whole animal—including the stomach, kidneys, and lungs. The last chapter, “Joy of Cooking,” is kind of like a cookbook. My dad said that the next time we go camping he’s going to let me try out some of the recipes. I’m also going to bring Hatchet with me. And a notebook, just in case I want to write some stuff down.

All in all, I really liked reading non-fiction books a lot more than I thought I would. Those authors really surprised me with their humor, their really cool topics, and how they explained tricky things in ways that I could understand. In fact, the book on my nightstand right now is called Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science, by Jon Fleishman. I’ve already read the first couple of chapters and it’s given me some ideas for a story I want to write about camping, fishing and eating trout brains, which I can’t wait to read to Armando in the Elbow Room. I’m trying out different ways that I can make it seem like a movie. I just wish that I had Gary Paulson’s phone number. I think he’d want to know how my trout stew turns out.

Sarah Nielsen, Response to Chapter #6,

“On Miss Frizzle’s Bus, or How We Really Want to Learn Science,”

read on Wednesday July 8, 2015

Newkirk passage, pages 85-6, “I expect that if today’s students….for ‘binding time’.”

Elbow Response #4: Imagine this passage is a lump of workable clay. Write about what you would like to do with that clay.

Do you know the Gaudi basilica in Barcelona? It reminds me of a giant sandcastle with the startling and intriguing around every curve and in every cranny of the building, inside and out. It is a physical structure that feels more like a story, something moving in time and space, transforming, an acid trip or the strange associations that emerge near the edge of sleep.

I want to turn the clay of Miss Frizzle and her magic school bus into Mr. Nielsen, my dad, King and Subject of the Spooky and Enticing Biology Classroom. As I begin thinking about that shaping, the clay is already morphing and twisting and bubbling in ways that surprise and alarm me, as if Gaudi’s own hands had taken hold of this lump instead of mine.

My lump.

My dad was a science teacher a lot like Miss Frizzle. As a little kid in summer, I loved to accompany him to his biology classroom as he prepared for fall. The room itself intrigued me, full as it was of the stuff of experiments: lab stools, microscopes, petri dishes, deep sinks, Bunsen burners. The shelves around the room held jar upon jar of specimens—a fetal pig, an octopus, a big ol’ bull frog, a brain. DNA streamers made by students decorated the room as if biology class were a perpetual birthday party.

I usually got a small job to do for his classroom while he worked on the bigger project of creating an exciting world of discovery for his students. As we worked away together, he would sometimes pause to invite me into the world of science.

Come here, let me show you how to use a pipette over at the fish tank.

Now you try.


Let’s put a drop of that water on this slide.

Now look in the microscope.

Imagine my five or six year old surprise and delight at discovering a whole new world of wiggly creatures bustling about doing all their crazy business in a DROP OF DANG WATER! How is that even possible?

For his high school students, Mr. Nielsen was the kind of teacher who had them study fermentation by making wine, documenting every part of the process, discovering the whys underneath what they observed, getting a taste for the excitement of inquiry. (It is hard to imagine a public school teacher being able to make wine with his students today. It was the 70s, and even then, students had to wait until they were 21 to pick up a bottle of the wine their class made.)

Mr. Nielsen surprised and engaged and inspired his students. On a recent visit to see my dad, I saw so much evidence of this as I looked through his old San Juan Spartan year books, each one full of notes from his students.

You made science interesting, Mr. Nielsen!

I know I gave you a lot of grief, Biology Bob, but I learned a lot in your class. Thank you. I really mean it.

My lump of clay won’t stay put after forming Mr. Nielsen, Biology Bob, King and Subject of the Spooky and Enticing Biology Classroom out of Miss Frizzle and her magic school bus. This chapter of Newkirk’s on the ways effective science writing “gets us on the bus” had many compelling examples of pieces that generate interest, bind time, deepen understanding through narrative. I feel the weight of one example in particular in my hands, workable clay whose final shape is known and not yet fully known.

Mr. Ludwig, the cancer patient Denise Grady uses to help explain a medical breakthrough, can I shape his story into my dad’s? Can science and doctors and his own body shape my dad’s story into one like Mr. Ludwig’s, a cancer patient with few options and one last-ditch effort that actually works.

We are not to last-ditch efforts quite yet and maybe not for a long while still, but unfortunately, I have learned to read difficult texts, ones without narratives, like the articles I found after reading my father’s pathology report about the prostate cancer that has spread to lymph nodes and at least one rib. An eight-year old article provides stats on cases like my dad: one-year survival rate 40%. A more recent article puts that one-year rate at 47%. Progress. Hope. At least a little. This is not the story I want to tell, the clay I want to work. But here it is unfolding, shaping and being shaped. Organic and out of control, deeply frightening and strangely beautiful, like Gaudi’s basilica.

I think we need to bind, fully and joyfully, the time we have now.

Jonathan Lovell, Response #2  to Chapter #6,

“On Miss Frizzle’s Bus, or How We Really Want to Learn Science,”

read on Wednesday July 8, 2015

Response to pg. 97: Rob Drugan and the endogenous mechanism in rats

Elbowesque response: Pretend to be someone else—someone who would have a very different response to this passage. Write about who this person is and why he or she would respond in the way he or she would.

 I can’t stand the way Professor Newkirk talks, with his cocky sense of tweedy know-it-all-ness. Like we’re supposed to be his little teacherettes, fawning over his UNH “colleague” Rob Drugan and how his goddam resilient rats will “blow our socks off.”

Gimme a goddam break.

I can just picture those tired-ass rats, swimming like all get-out to save their sore little butts. And probably swimming in one of those narrow lab beakers with impossibly high glass sides.

Of course they’re letting out “high-pitched shrieks.” That’s ‘cause they don’t have the fire power to blow the heads of the dumb-ass behavioral psychologists who are subjecting them to this inhuman torture.

But Professor Newkirk wants us to be impressed.

Gimme a goddam break.

Kate Flowers, Response to Chapter #7, “Can An Argument be a Story?,”

read on Thursday July 9, 2015

Narrative Shame: The Foul Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

An Elbowesque response to the passage on page 119 of Minds Made for Stories:

“Let’s be honest—we are somewhat embarrassed by this affection, this dependence on narrative. We can feel it is an indulgence, a lapse, a form of sentimentality. It is a desire for the easy way out, the verbal equivalent of a craving for sugar and fried food. If we were only more intellectually rigorous (we tell ourselves), we would rely solely on rationality, on data, on logical argument, on objectivity. We would be convinced by it. We wouldn’t be so “anecdotal,” so tied to emotional appeals.

But we are not made that way. At the end of a great poem, William Butler Yeats (1993) describes a shift in his poetry from the grand themes and mythology of his earlier work, to a more intimate kind of poetry:

                                    Now that my ladder’s gone

                                    I must lie down where all ladders start,

                                    In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Persuasion does business in this “foul rag and bone shop of the heart” (remember that the Latin root for “core” is “cor,” meaning heart). If we are to prepare students for the world as it is—and not as we pretend it to be—we need to let them in on this secret.” (Newkirk, 119)

This evening, trying to find a way into this piece which is due tomorrow at ten a.m. and hopefully won’t keep me up until three, I’ve been “ricocheting slowly off the blue walls of this room,” as Billy Collins writes in his delightful poem “The Lanyard.” In it, he describes himself searching for inspiration for a poem, which he finally finds in the “L section of the dictionary” when he reads the word lanyard, launching himself into his past and a rumination on mothers and crappy gifts and the arrogance of childhood.

There are so many reasons that I love Billy Collins, but perhaps the biggest is that he’s brilliantly transparent, that he cuts the bullshit and consistently teases his audience with slightly embarrassing universal truths, often using himself as the butt of his poetic joke. He narrates his poems, allowing the reader to stand beside him, giving us an authorial presence who we both laugh at and with while he takes us into a story. Even Billy Collins, a former Poet Laureate, struggles with the age old tyranny of the empty page–I find this immensely comforting.

And so, I join Billy in this quest for a worthwhile idea, the random moment that might pull a poem from where the ghost of it lurks somewhere in my mind. Tonight I’ve read and reread the chapter, pinging from passage to passage, trying on personas and discarding them, grabbing on to one line and then another, trying to create a life raft out of Newkirk’s words.

I’ve considered all sorts of ultimately humiliating ideas. Here are a few:

To Response #1: Newkirk’s chapter actually came from a literary analysis essay he wrote in twelfth grade about Yeats’s poem, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” His English teacher (really a football coach who needed a paid full time gig) gave his paper an F because a) it wasn’t five paragraphs and b) he wrote it as an imagined interview with Yeats’s rotting corpse. “This was supposed to be a theme,” Mr. So-and-so scribbled in red in the margins of the essay, “What would you even call this? Multi-genre? Come on.” But Newkirk isn’t satisfied with this passage yet. On Newkirk’s deathbed, he’ll dictate this to a devoted protégé, shaping into an epic, casting himself as a modern day Odysseus, trying again and again to bring narrative back home.

To Response #2: Newkirk actually wrote this passage instead of the romance series he’s been secretly ghostwriting for the past thirty years. Remember V.C. Andrews, she of Flowers in the Attic notoriety? Yeah, well, she’s been dead since 1986. All these other writing books he publishes under his own name? Just a beard.

To Response #3: Just before he wrote this passage, Newkirk was saved from almost certain death when an unstable graduate student (third year English teacher, overworked, underpaid) in his composition seminar at University of New Hampshire held his whole class hostage at gunpoint. (This is America, kids. We love our 2nd amendment rights!) Using his undying faith in narrative, (“Go ahead,” Newkirk beckoned. “Tell us your story. It’ll all be okay in the end.”) Newkirk was able to coax the gunman into telling his life story to the class, leading to a resounding confession from all the fellow English teachers in the seminar that grading essays makes every English teacher want to kill themselves at least twice a semester. (This is why no English teacher should ever own a gun.) Guaranteeing his silence in exchange for everyone’s lives, Newkirk helped the almost-killer transfer into UNH’s administration credential program, and word is that in the years since, the young vice principal has paid this favor forward while blissfully ignoring parent emails and covering Saturday school, without even one essay lurking in his briefcase, demanding to be read that night after dinner.

See what I mean? Pretty humiliating stuff. But if I preach the gospel of Anne Lamott to my students—especially the sanctity of her advice to give ourselves permission to write shitty first drafts—then the least I could do is follow that advice myself. Okay, enough fun. Let’s get to point, woman.

Here’s what I really wonder: Is this whole Common Core movement to devalue narrative and promote formal, logos-heavy informational writing just a jaded reaction to the fact that children are often more creative than adults, that adults have a harder time using their imagination? Does this narrative shame that those of us feel who inhabit the world of story—the “fried food” of writing—come down essentially to adult insecurity about the loss of childhood creativity? I’m thinking it does.

If it makes you feel any better, even Yeats admits to feeling this creative decline. His poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” (one of his last, written when he was seventy or so) from which Newkirk pulls the line “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart” begins with the shockingly familiar problem of most writers:

“I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.”

(Wow. Six weeks? I never thought I’d say this, but thank god for a ten a.m. deadline. If necessity is the mother of invention, perhaps deadlines and a waiting audience are the mother of the finished draft.)

I wonder, has David Coleman secretly nurtured a childhood desire to write the great American novel? Does he stare forlornly at the empty page? Does he find himself “ricocheting slowly off the blue walls” of his own room at midnight, no ten a.m. gun to the head to force out a shitty first draft? It’s okay, David. Let go of that narrative shame. We’ve all been there. Just take Yeats’s advice and “start/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” Go ahead, tell us your story. It’ll all be okay in the end.

Marty Brandt, Response #2 to Chapter #7, “Can An Argument be a Story?,”

read on Thursday July 9, 2015

Gradgrind & Squeers

Attorneys at Law

Somewhere on K Street

Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. Newkirk:

We represent the interests of our clients David Coleman, Pearson Education North America, and the Common Core State Standards, defined as but not limited to the education standards currently adopted in 43 of the 50 states (including California), the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA). We understand that you have recently published a book about reading and writing informational and persuasive texts. Our clients, joining with the United States Department of Education, have asked us to contact you in order to enlist your cooperation in helping us to convince the remaining seven states to adopt the Common Core State Standards for themselves.

The fact that these seven states have so far refused (and in the case of three of them, renounced) the adoption of the CCSS is, we are sure, a sad story about which we need not concern ourselves here. What we seek from you, sir, is your aid in helping us to achieve a speedy resolution to this conflict.

As a scholar of what we understand to be considerable renown, you are more likely than most to appreciate the need for a strictly logical approach to this particular rhetorical situation. Evidently, these states would continue to coddle their students in the puerile world of drama, poetry, and fiction. We would like you to help us to construct an argument that relies on claims and evidence, obviously, since this is a real-world situation and not just another of those useless and fanciful tales that flighty English teachers have foisted on generations of otherwise productive future workers and consumers.

We envision some hard data about the benefits of the CCSS (our liaison at Pearson should be able to provide you with some impressive numbers about how that company in particular has benefited), and it should of course be free of the soppy sentimentality of self-indulgent anecdotes. We are quite certain that, as a writer of a book on reading and writing informational texts, you would work within the Spartan virtues of pure logic. Stick to facts, sir!

Please get back to us at your earliest convenience. If you would like to come to Washington D.C. to discuss the matter in person in our offices, we would happily welcome you. We could even offer you a night on the town with your wife—or come stag, if you prefer. Be assured that this town caters to all manner of tastes. We look forward to hearing from you. Until then please accept our warmest regards.


Thomas Gradgrind V., Esquire

Wackford Squeers V., Esquire

P.S. We are very much looking forward to reading your latest book

Marie Milner, Response to Chapter #8, “Numbers That Tell a Story,”

read on Thursday July 9, 2015

Dearest Andy (Andrew, Drew),

“I love to write. I love to write. I love to write.” Thus you wrote in your 2011 summer assignment for our English Honors class together. You followed this declaration with the idea that you were aware of the power of the number three in writing – well, in anything. Right you are. Right you are. Right you are.

“Math has changed my life,” you now write and state. Emphatically. Sincerely.   And with shining eyes.

You are two years into college and math proofs have enraptured you. And why wouldn’t they? You find math beautiful, mystical and compelling.   I know I’m right because in English class one day I took from you a calculator on which you were using math to create elegant graphics rather than “staying with me,” as someone I respect very much would say. I was annoyed, irritated and insulted at the time, but how ridiculous was I to be any of those things? Pretty damn ridiculous.

You still love to write, but mathematics is your bliss, and you are entitled to that. Because I see, admire, and envy your writing talent, does not detract from your pursuit of the symmetry and elegance of math. Those proofs speak to you. They compel you. They are a different kind of story to you.


I know that last claim makes Ms. Milner seem even more eccentric than usual. But it’s true.

Math is story. Science is story. Robotics is story. Biology is story. Primatology is story. Chemistry is story, damn it! Physics is story. Dance is story. Music is story. Andy, getting up in the morning and brushing your teeth is narrative, and story drives human existence.

When you told me years ago you wanted to be an astronaut, I sent you a poem, which you said you liked very much. Here it is once again. It’s one of my favorite stories in…well, in the universe:

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
By Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts, the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Quite a story, that poem. And profound beyond belief. Embrace the science here, Andy. Embrace the math. But please also embrace that last line and moment of recognition. There’s a story in what we don’t know and will probably never know. Something in the mystique of the unknown and quiet stars in the profound distance. We struggle to plot the celestial unknown , but we can surely appreciate the story of our human wonder. The wonder when we try to read the stars and when we read a poem and pause. “How do poets do it? Why does Whitman move me so? What’s the “story” here?”

I’ve been reading a book called Minds Made for Stories by Thomas Newkirk, and this I now believe:

He writes:

Not only might the [math] “problem” be presented in story form, but the process of mathematical reasoning also has a story arc.  Recall an earlier quotation from Burke that literary form is an “arousing and fulfillment of desire.”  Now compare that formulation to this description of how “meaning” is sought in the process of mathematical reasoning, as described by the British math educator Leone Burton.  She describes the “ebb and flow” of cognitive activity in three phases: entry, attack, and review.

 As meaning is sought, commitment is tentatively aroused.  This phase of engaging is described as entry.  Surprise, curiosity, or tension creates an affective need.  To resolve this need requires further exploration that in turn satisfies the cognitive need to get a sense of the underlying pattern…[T]here are two possible affective means of dealing with conflict.  One is to engage further and attack the cause of the conflict.  The other is to withdraw with a sense of failure and incapacity.  Moving from the entry phase to attack and engaging is likely only in the person who is already aware of enough success from previous attacks for his or her confidence to cope with the possibility of failure on this occasion. (1984, 41)

This process involves the manipulation of elements (a diagram, an equation, a picture) that can help the learner achieve a gratifying resolution, a “sense of pattern or connectedness” that “releases the tension into achievement, wonder, pleasure, or further surprise that drives the process on” (41).  Although there are skills of manipulation that are specific to mathematics, this process, as Leone affirms, is not specific to mathematics; it is identical to the sense of plot that I attempted to define throughout this book.

So you may be doing higher math, Andy, but you’re still doing “story.”

I’ve been reading and listening to Lisa Cron who wrote Wired for Story. And this I now believe:

She says:

Once upon a time really smart people were completely convinced the world was flat. Then they learned that it wasn’t. But they were still pretty sure the sun revolved around the Earth . . . until that theory went bust, too. For an even longer period of time, smart people have believed story is just a form of entertainment. They’ve thought that beyond the immense pleasure it bestows—the ephemeral joy and deep sense of satisfaction a good story leaves us with—story itself serves no necessary purpose. Sure, our lives from time immemorial would have been far drabber without it, but we’d have survived just fine.

 Wrong again.

 Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs.

Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.

She’s right, Andy. And she states what Khalil Gibran would suggest “already lies half-asleep in the dawning of your knowledge:” That is that “story is the only thing that changes how we see the world. The power of story is yours. Use it wisely.”

So…Yes, I know Andy. Math has “changed your life” and you “love to write, love to write, so love to write.” You write well enough to win writing contests in our district. You write well enough to have had your work included in a book I co-wrote about writing. But most importantly, your writing voice is so strong that I can’t ever read anything you’ve written without my breath catching a little.

So use your stories wisely, whether those be about your role as the janitor at Hogwarts or entering the suspenseful world of math proofs and where that narrative might take you. Keep sending me those stories, and please, please, please never stop staring “in perfect silence at the stars.”

In Friendship and Admiration,

Ms. Milner

Susan Seyan, Response to Chapter #9, “Space, Rigor and Time, Or Our Metaphors Really Matter,”

read on Friday, July 10, 2015

  • Chapter 9: “Space, Rigor, and Time”
    • Passage: “We do better at complex tasks if we enter them with a sense of lightness, not feeling tense or rigid or under stress.”
  • Elbow’s “Showing” Response #3: “Assume that just before Newkirk wrote this passage he did something very important or something very important happened to him-something that was not obvious from the writing. Write what it was that he did, or that happened to him. “


Tom clicked the “Save” icon and closed the Montaigne quote book he always kept on hand. He turned back to face his computer monitor, ready to resume his narrative duties once again. Then, he heard the doorbell ring.


“Who could that be?” Tom asked himself.

Of all the days to have an unexpected visitor, Tom thought. Here I am, on the final chapter of my new, ground-breaking expose of the misconceptions upon which Dave Coleman’s Common Core Writing Standards were based. It will open teacher’s eyes and create dialogue where there was once silent angst, Tom thought. He continued thinking: It will fling open doors formerly locked tight by narrative shame. The resulting floods of storytelling that would erupt from student journals across the land would change the course of… of…

“This is important work,” said Tom, banging his fist upon his desk. “Should I let my wife get the door?”

At that moment, the doorbell rang again.


“Well, shit, I guess that’s me!” mumbled Tom to the cat, Muesli. Muesli merely blinked in response.

Tom slipped into his faux sheepskin slippers and ambled into the upstairs hall. He moved down carpeted stairs, past the quiet kitchen, and through the bright and airy foyer to the front door.

“Who could it be at this time of day?” Tom thought, to himself.

He could see a blur of shapes through the door’s frosted glass. After wiping his spectacles with a shirttail and replacing them upon his nose, Tom assumed a professorly expression as he grudgingly opened the door.

A group of ten or so people, of varying ages and in various states of dress, stood on the front porch. There was a smallish video camera a pointed in the direction of his very own face; Tom also noted the red fuzzy thing hanging a foot or so above his head. WTF? Senior prank? Mislaid (no pun-intended) swingers? Clown college field trip? “Who are these people?” Tom wondered.

“We are looking for a Mr. Thomas Newkirk. Are you Thomas Newkirk, sir?” asked a blonde haired, sideburned middle-aged man in a beige suit and yellow tie.

“May I ask who wants to know?” posited Tom, using a classic instructional technique designed to elucidate a questioner’s thinking and develop it further.

“Mr. Newkirk, we are here from Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes. Congratulations! You are our Grand Prize Winner!”

Tom froze. Then, Time froze. A flood of memories and desires came floating into his mind just then, images fleeting yet persistent, rolling and tumbling from the dark recesses of a fertile and story-filled childhood imagination. Tom stopped short at one of these images. He paused. He savored.

“Really?” Tom asked.

“Really!” said the blond man.

“Hold on a sec.” Tom said. Leaving the front door hanging open, he hopped back up the stairs to his office, where Muesli was waiting, Sphinxlike.

“This is a great day, old boy. A great day!” Tom said to the cat as he rubbed his hands together and looked around the office.

After a few moments of furious typing at his keyboard, Tom clicked “Send” with a flourish. “No need to make that last chapter as long as the others!” he crooned. “I’ve said all I need to say! Those people will figure it out! They are teachers and stuff!” Tom rose from his chair and, after clapping his hands twice, fairly leapt across the hall to the guest room and the extra closet therein.

Once in front of said closet, Tom reached for a full length, navy blue jumpsuit with delicate laurel leaf epaulets and double rows of shiny gold buttons riveted down the front. He dropped trou and smoothly slipped into the jumpsuit, adding a blood red sash-lovingly crafted by wife Deborah- for drama. Tom laced his skates, and ensured that the jumpsuit’s pants’ legs covered the boot of each completely.

Ten minutes after his abrupt exit, Tom reappeared with a smile at the front door. The Publisher’s Clearing House crew were still there, and quicker than one could say, “…people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think”, bright lights were shining in his face, and cameras were rolling.

The blond man held a microphone up to Tom’s face.

“Thomas Newkirk, you’re our Grand Prize Winner! Tell us: What are you going to do with all your money?”

Tom stopped, poised as if on the edge of a great precipice, one that loomed over a giant bowl of gumdrops, comic books, and Chardonnay. He smiled with the same smile Muesli wore after a particularly delicious bowl of kibble. It was his moment. He looked directly into the camera

“What would Brian Boitano do?”


ISI-A, 2015, on Newkirk’s Minds Made for Stories

Monday July 6

10am to 12:30pm in SH 448

Chapter #1: “Sustained Reading”

Laurie, Katie, Sarah:

–select passages, read them aloud, explain why you chose as you did


–write an Elbowesque response to your own selected passage, reading this aloud


–write responses to Lorena’s response; read some aloud to group as a whole

Chapter #2: “Minds Made for Stories”

Jonathan, Kate, Marty:

–select passages, read them aloud, explain why you chose as you did


–write an Elbowesque response to your own selected passage, reading this aloud


–write responses to Roohi’s response, and read some aloud to group as a whole

1:00pm to 2:45pm

Meet in self-selected groups of 2 to 4 to “come to terms” with a unit you taught this past year

2:45pm to 3:00pm

Debrief back in SH 448, with 2 or 3 groups reporting out on their discussions

Tuesday July 7

 10am to 12:30pm in SH 448

Chapter #3: “Itch and Scratch: How Form Really Works”

Marie, Susan, Lorena:

–select passages, read them aloud, explain why you chose as you did


–write an Elbowesque response to your own selected passage, reading this aloud


–write responses to Jerry’s response; read some aloud to group as a whole

Chapter #4: “The Seven Deadly Sins of Textbooks”

Roohi, Jerry, Katie:

–select passages, read them aloud, explain why you chose as you did


–write an Elbowesque response to your own selected passage, reading this aloud


–write responses to Laurie’s response; read some of these aloud to group as a whole

1:00pm to 2:45pm

Meet in self-selected groups of 2 to 4 to “counter” a unit you taught this past year

2:45pm to 3:00pm

Debrief back in SH 448, with 2 or 3 groups reporting out on their discussions

Wednesday July 8

 10am to 12:30pm in SH 448

 Chapter #5: “All Writing is Narrated”

Laurie, Sarah, Jonathan:

–select passages, read them aloud, explain why you chose as you did


–write an Elbowesque response to your own selected passage, reading this aloud


–write responses to Katie’s response; read some aloud to group as a whole

Chapter #6: “On Miss Frizzle’s Bus, or How We Really Want to Learn Science”

Kate, Marty, Marie:

–select passages, read them aloud, explain why you chose as you did

Sarah and Jonathan:

–write Elbowesque responses to your own selected passage, reading these aloud


–write responses to Sarah and Jonathan’s responses; read some of these aloud to the group

1:00pm to 2:45pm

Meet in self-selected groups of 2 to 4 to “forward” a unit you taught this past year

2:45pm to 3:00pm

Debrief back in SH 448, with 2 or 3 groups reporting out on their discussions

Thursday July 9

 10am to 12:30pm in SH 448

 Chapter #7: “Can an Argument be a Story”

Susan, Lorena, Laurie:

–select passages, read them aloud, explain why you chose as you did

Kate and Marty

–write Elbowesque responses to your own selected passages, reading these aloud


–write responses to Kate and Marty’s responses; read some aloud to group as a whole

Chapter #8: “Numbers that tell a Story”

Jerry, Roohi, Katie:

–select passages, read them aloud, explain why you chose as you did


–write an Elbowesque response to your own selected passage, reading this aloud


–write responses to Marie’s response; read some of these aloud to group as a whole

1:00pm to 2:30pm

Meet in self-selected groups of 2 to 4, “taking an approach” with a unit you taught

2:30pm to 2:45pm

Debrief back in SH 448, with all groups reporting out on their discussions

Friday July 10

10am to 11:15am in SH 448

 Chapter #9: “Space, Rigor, and Time, or Our Metaphors Really Matter”

Sarah, Jonathan, Marie:

–select passages, read them aloud, explain why you chose as you did


–write Elbowesque responses to your own selected passage, reading this aloud


–write responses to Susan’s responses; read these aloud to group as a whole

11:15am 12:30pm in SH 448

 All Participants

Gather in small groups of 5 to come up with a central visual symbol, and five separate “personal connection” symbols, representing your collective and individual “take away” from MMFS as you end this program and head toward your various school year responsibilities. Easel size post-it paper and magic markers will of course be provided.

1:00pm to 2:00pm

Meet in in your “Harris Groups” to plan and rehearse the activity described below

2:00pm to 3:00pm

Back in SH 448, tell a “five minute story” of what you are planning to teach in your revised unit of study or unit of instruction. Use images as well as words to tell this story.

Chapter responders and rejoinders to be emailed to Jonathan:

Chap #1        Lorena as responder                                          Chap #6        Sarah/Jonathan as responders

–Roohi/Susan as rejoinders                                                    –Lorena as rejoinder

Chap #2        Roohi as responder                                             Chap #7        Kate/Marty as responders

–Katie/Laurie as rejoinders                                                    –Jonathan/Laurie as rejoinders

Chap #3        Jerry as responder                                               Chap #8        Marie as responder

–Sarah/Jonathan as rejoinders                                              –Kate/Sarah as rejoinders

Chap #4        Laurie as responder                                            Chap #9        Susan as responder

–Marty/Lorena as rejoinders                                                –Marty/Sarah/Roohi as rejoinders

Chap #5        Katie as responder

–Marie/Kate/Jerry as rejoinders

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2 replies

  1. Learning is all about discovery and I think the work you describe is exactly that.
    You’ve put Elbow and Harris and Newark together in new ways.
    It’s an old story, isn’t it, about the need to explore imaginatively. A story we need to discover all the time. I fear many people don’t. I mean that many don’t have the edge on how to let go and just “do it,” how; to even vaguely understand what it’s all about; and how to embrace the possibilities of the practice.

    I am so much about all this— I mean my teaching.

    Yesterday, while with my 4 year old grandson, we were working with a new sand that’s come out—a sand you can work with that’s like wet sand, not dry. I was intent on making a head of hair to add to my face when everything collapsed and instead used what I’d made as a mouth. Then all sorts of wondrous things happened. Otto, my little guy (grandson), joined in the fun, and my simple readjustment lead to a new experience for this little guy and a new “art project” for me.

    I won’t go on, but what you say on your blog and your recent essay, is true, useful, vastly important, and hardly understood. It’s too bad funds are drying up.


  1. Jonathan Lovell: How I Learned to Teach Writing Without Teaching | Diane Ravitch's blog

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