Saturday, June 16, 2018

Book #1 of summer done

Tom Romano is one of my favorite writers in the field of composition.  He is the reason I teach the MGRP.  I've been reading him since I first encountered his work in graduate school (wayyyy back in 2001-02).

His Crafting Authentic Voice is one of the best books on writing I've read since Donald Murray's classic, A Writer Teachers Writing.

Romano has long been one of my heroes, and I was fortunate enough to tell him just that when I ran into him after my session at NCTE 2015 in Minneapolis.

His latest book, Write What Matters: For Yourself, For Others, is part memoir and part textbook.  And it's ALL amazing.

Some of the highlights: his chapter on "A Writing Place," which focuses on the importance of having your own place to work and write.  This is one of the detractions of having students write in class.  They simply don't have a place of their own, but that is one reason why I free them to write in as many places as possible within LHS (and sometimes out of it when we venture over to The Wired Bean).

When I read this chapter, I was reminded of a couple of my favorite writing places in my life: my old wooden desk in my room in high school where I poured hours into writing horrific song lyrics and horror stories.  My desk in my apartment when I attended NCTC (the good old Chaparell back then and now Sunrise Apartments) where I cranked out articles for the newspaper and also several papers for Dr. Drake.  The kitchen table at my parent's house where I wrote the bulk of my extra credit paper on Moby Dick for Dr. Drake over Thanksgiving break.  A table buried deep in the bowels of the old AC Clarke library at BSU where I cranked out my Shakespeare paper on Friar Lawrence for Dr. Field and my paper on Medea for Dr. Donovan for Myth and Folktales.  I loved this last place so much that I'd get up early on writing days and sneak my way over to the table.  In one horrific instance, as I came upon my spot - facing the lake but with no windows to distract me - I saw someone else had beaten me to my spot: Shane Zutz!

While Romano makes an excellent case for having a place to write, I would argue - as Murray does - that the place to write takes a back seat to the habit of writing.  Like lifting weights, running, or anything else really, writing is simply a habit.  The more you do it, the easier it become and the better you become at it.  So when I do have students write in class, I remind them of this.  If you're a runner and you usually run on a bike trail, but if you're traveling and have to run on the hotel's treadmill, you can do it and get a lot accomplished, even if it isn't your ideal place to run.  The same is true for writing.

Another excellent chapter, "The Sense of it" is devoted to hitting the senses.  As I was reading on the way to San Francisco with the choir students, one asked me what I was reading.  I showed her and then showed her this chapter.  She cracked a smile and said, "So that's why you were always writing "Show! Don't tell!!" on all of our essays.


If there is one drawback to this book, it's that much of it seems like a re-write of what Romano already covered in Crafting Authentic Voice.  In that text, Romano has an excellent chapter called "Hit 'Dem Senses."  However, Romano does include new students examples and excerpts from his own journal to offer a bit of a fresh take on this.

One of his ideas has me rethinking on of our first descriptive prompts: "Choose an activity -- cooking, playing, loving, working, sporting.  Jot down the senses involved that you remember.  Then write directly into that experience, describing with those brainstormed senses and accepting others that present themselves in the heat of writing."  I like that.  He offers a piece from his journal that I'm going to use as a model piece.  This is gold.

The following chapter, "Dramatic Narrative," might just be my favorite.  This chapter speaks to me because this seems to be where I spend most of my time with my College Comp I writers.  I always circle a sentence or a paragraph and write, "This is rich with potential" and "Explode this!"  What I mean by that is really delve into this moment or detail and - hitting the senses and smacking us in the face with key details - develop this key moment more fully.

Romano offers an example that is going right into my class next year: "The mother and daughter stood in line outside Dunkin' Donuts, having a disagreement."

I would circle those last three words and write "Explode this!"

And that's exactly what Romano does with the next passage as he adds dramatic narrative to the scene:

Just ahead of me in the long line to get into Dunkin' Donuts stood a mother and daughter. The mother wore a wide black headband that held back curly brunette hair. She bounced one leg, moved aside the sleeve of her jacket with one finger, and checked her watch. The daughter -- a girl about ten -- wore a read stocking cap and matching mittens. She sighed.

"Don't be impatient. The line's moving fast"

"It's not moving at all," said the girl. "I don't even want a donut."

"It's too late now. Look how many people are behind us."

The girl rose up on her tiptoes and looked past her mother, over my shoulder. I stepped to the side.

"We could go to Starbucks," said the girl.

"You can't get breakfast at Starbucks."

"What?" The girls' eyes widened. "You can't?"

"Not really. It's for coffee."

The girl pulled off one red mitten. Her forefinger shot straight up, and she began counting. "one, we could get a sonic. Tow, chocolate marble pound cake, Three, a banana nut muffin, Four, a croissant --"

"That's not breakfast," Mom said, fluttering her eyelids.

The girl pounced. "But a donut is?"

"I just want coffee," said Mom. "We're already in line."

"And I want a Starbucks hot chocolate."

Mom rolled her eyes, checker her watch again. "All right, but it'll take longer. I don't want to hear any complaints."

The girl plucked off the other mitten and shoved it in her coat pocket. They stepped out of line and headed to Starbucks.

That right there is what I spend the bulk of the first quarter of College Comp I doing.  I take lines from students' papers and explode them.  Now I have another example to show them.

Another excellent chapter is "Break the Rules in Style."  You guessed it, this is about breaking the rules in writing.  You know.  Sentence fragments.


The one word paragraph.

And another one of my all time favorite rules to break: beginning a sentence with a conjunction.

Romano calls this "Grammar B."  I love breaking the rules, but there is a catch.

Students have to first know what the rules ARE before than can break them intentionally. Or at least with style.

So this is good motivation for me to really be more intentional about how I teach grammar next year (which, by the way, is one of my summer goals).

The final two chapters I'll talk about are about leads and conclusions.  I spend a ton of time getting students to write engaging leads, but I don't really spend any time about developing effective conclusions.  That' something I'm looking forward to working more on this summer.

And now, I suddenly feel a lot of pressure to end this blog post effectively.  Maybe one reason I don't spend a lot of time with my students on revising their conclusions is because I'm terrible at it.

Thanks for the epiphany Mr. Romano.  Challenge accepted!

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