Secrets of Storytelling 2

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One good way to start a story is to choose a character; think of what that person would least like to do and then have that person go face to face with his greatest fear.

Let’s look at each step:

The character:

If you have a clear picture of each of your characters it will make a big difference in the way your story feels because it will be more realistic. If you have a vague, fuzzy idea of a character, the story will be vague and fuzzy. For example, you shouldn’t write, “…there was this bad kid…” Give him a shape, size, place in school, home. Help us see him. But first you have to see him clearly in your own mind even if you never bring all of directly into your story. So, think of someone you know (especially if you love or fear that person) and go from there. Use your imagination. Ask yourself what does this person look like: height, weight, skin color, hair, eyes. How old is he or she? What kind of clothes does s/he  wear? Does s/he have tattoos or piercings or scars? How does s/he talk? Walk? What do other people feel when they are near this person…are they afraid, do they like him or trust her?

Keep going. You can’t stop here. Where does this person live? (in the city, on a farm). What kind of house. Describe his or her bedroom (what’s on the walls, bookshelf). What kind of computer games or hobbies does this person have? What is his family like? (one parent, brothers and sisters, step parent) Does he have a pet? Is he a good student in school? Is he homeschooled?

Now, think of what that person hates the most…snakes, speaking in front of a group, taking tests, camping, eating strange food.

And then, of course, put him in a scene or situation where he has to deal with what he hates the most. That’s the beginning of a good story.

Here’s a scene from my story, Can Do, Zan, where Zan who fears the bully, Lazelle, has to deal with him right in the middle of having a diabetic insulin reaction.

Zan took his time changing. Then he climbed to the middle trail carved along the side of the long hill that led from the beach to the main camp ground. The trail above went by his grandpa’s old cabin. The trail below was busy with noisy campers heading to the mess hall for lunch. He didn’t feel good, preferring to trudge along, alone, in the cool, quiet shade of towering trees. A familiar feeling passed over him—weak, sweaty, slightly dizzy. He recognized the beginnings of an insulin reaction. His diabetes. Normally he would avoid eating sweets but because he had just exercised so hard and then lost his breakfast, he now needed food or at least sugar. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a glucose tablet that he always carried for this kind of emergency. It would be enough to get him up the hill where lunch waited. 

“Hey, gimme that,” Lazelle growled, startling Zan, snatching the tablet from him.

Not him. Not now, Zan moaned to himself. His eyes rode up the towering bully. It’s like being in a dentist’s chair, he reflected, looking up someone’s nose, waiting for the pain.  “I need that, man,” Zan pleaded. “It’s, like, my medicine and I don’t have any more.”

“Yeah, right,” the older boy mocked. “Zan Man.”

“No. I mean it. I need it or I’m going to be real sick,” Zan cried reaching for the tablet.

Lazelle half turned. “Looks like candy to me,” he said, slowly unwrapping the pink pill.

Zan stumbled forward. Swiped at Lazelle’s hand. 

The bigger boy simply raised his hand high over his head. “Besides,” he continued, “don’t you know you’re supposed to share your treats, Toe Jam? Didn’t anybody teach you that?” he asked, slamming the smaller boy in the chest, knocking him to the ground. “You got no manners,” he said as he delicately dropped the pink tablet into his upturned mouth. Zan groaned.

“Yuch!” Lazelle cried, spitting the pill into the loose, sandy soil. “What kind of candy is that? Bleh!”

Zan scrabbled in the dirt, grabbed the slimy, sticky pill coated with pine needles and sand, wiped it on the bottom of his shirt and quickly sucked it into his mouth before Lazelle could change his mind.

The bigger boy stared, eyes wide. Zan hunched back against a tree and waited for the glucose to kick in.

“Dang, you’re for-real about this,” Lazelle said.

Eyes closed, Zan barely nodded, hoping he would feel better soon and the bully would be gone.

Objective/Subjective…educated distinction

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It’s important to teach a child the difference between objective facts and subjective feelings. Not all people recognize or respect the distinction between what is and what they feel about what is, e.g. I hate broccoli. Broccoli is bad. Here are some exercises to reinforce the learning point by concentrating first on neutral observation before proceeding to personal associations and feelings:

 1. Look at a picture. Ask the student to describe in writing what he/she observes— (objective). Then ask what feelings the picture evokes—(subjective).

 2. Combine sensory language drills with objectivity/subjectivity awareness using the five senses. Ask him or her to write a sentence describing what they touch, taste, smell etc.( objective), then write what this sensation reminds them of or makes them feel (subjective).

  • Touch: Have the student reach in a bag containing any textured material such as gravel or corn meal. Objective/subjective feedback.
  • Taste: Blind taste any liquid (orange juice, syrup) followed by objective/subjective feedback.
  • Hearing: Eyes shut listen to distinctive sounds (squeeze toy, bouncing ball) followed by objective/subjective feedback.
  • Smell: In a plastic pouch douse cotton or paper towel with a disctinctive smelling liquid (vinegar, vanilla) followed by objective/subjective feedback.
  • Sight: Hold up either a common or an unusual object followed by objective/subjective feedback.

 3. Offer simple words: (police officer, shark, race car) and ask for an objective then a subjective sentence for each.

 Once again, this is all done in the interest of instilling a deep seated awareness of the difference between what something is and the feelings we associate with it.

Sharp Characters Make Exciting Stories

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Sharp Characters Make Exciting Stories

 It’s easy to get excited about writing a story. We get an idea and start to see a plot… “There’s this kid and he gets to go fishing but he forgets to take along his life jacket and…”

But before you get too far into the story, it’s very important to stop and fill in the picture of who your characters are, where they come from, where they are in the story and how they got there.

1. Describing the characters:

  • Name: Pick a name that goes with your character’s personality. Tough names for tough guys. Nice names for nice guys. Interesting names for interesting guys.
  • Description: Age, height, size, hair color, skin color. Intelligence, athletic ability, musical ability etc. Class in school. Personality—considerate, thinker, action person, animal lover
  • Location: Where does he live? What is it like there? Farmland, dusty and hot? City, crowded and noisy?  What school does he attend? Public, private or homeschooled? What’s his house like—walk through the house in your mind. Picture each room. You might think of a friend’s house or some other place you have visited.
  • Family: Mom and dad? What do they do? How many brothers and sisters? Character’s birth order?

2. Here and Now:

  • How did he get to the time and place of your story?
  • What lead up to the scene you are writing?

For example, decide if a character going fishing was the youngest child in his family and no one paid much attention to him and now his uncle was going to spend a day with him. Can you see how this would make a big difference in the way the story goes? On the other hand if the character was the oldest child in a very poor family and the father kicked him out of bed and made him go fishing so the family could have something for supper…you would have a very different story.

 You should stop and do this background/backstory for each character. It’s so important to have a very clear picture in your mind of what each character is like. If you have details in your mind they will come out in your story. Some things, maybe even most things will be left out. But if you have a blurry image of your characters in your mind, they will be blurry and uninteresting to the readers of your story. Clear mind-pictures of characters makes for exciting stories.


Composting How-To

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I wrote this article for Mother Earth News some years ago. I include it in this blog for the parent/teachers as a source of information, ‘green’ experimentation and eventually writing for their students.

Communicating with a Compost Heap

What do you have to say to your compost heap? What does it have to say to you? Not much and nothing – right?  In a world where we have to communicate with our spouses, communicate with our children, communicate with our fellow workers, you would think you wouldn’t have to communicate with a compost heap. Right? Wrong.

For a stretch last summer, after local ordinances barred garden waste from landfills, I gave my neighbors an open invitation to feed my compost bins. The result was massive indigestion. Like grandparents spoiling the kids, they loaded all kinds of food into the bottomless pits without thought for the consequences. Grass clippings were the worst. Mountains of Kentucky Blue Grass were reduced to Okeefenokee swamp, stinking and oozing in black-green puddles. Meat and cheese scraps made my compost smell like a garbage dump. Woody, heavy-stemmed plants extended the decay cycle so I couldn’t predict a steady harvest of soil supplement. It appeared, as the marriage counselors say, that we had a failure to communicate – on two fronts: between me and the compost bins, and me and the neighbors.

Communication with the pits: I needed to listen more, pay more attention to how each pit was doing. I checked for moisture, watering when necessary. I layered with dirt or previously harvested compost. I periodically tossed the bins to aerate and mix the contents.

I sequenced the process, setting up the first two bins for fresh clippings and scrap. When they filled, I emptied them into adjacent bins to finish working with more mature material.

I found that shredding hastened decomposition and reduced volume. Since I had built the compost bins (four, 4’x 4’) into a slope at the back of the yard, I can access the pits at ground level using a sit-down mower to partially shred garden clippings or leaves laid out in windrows. A shredder works well for heavier material.

Communication with the neighbors:  My neighbors were eager to contribute to my soil supplement fund and attended the meeting I called to establish the ground rules. We discussed the amount of grass that could be dumped at one time which was followed by a demonstration of layering and ended with a reminder to create temporary piles of heavy stemmed and bulky plants to await the mower or shredder.

Finally, I made signs for the compost bins to let my neighbors know where and when to add fiber.

It worked. I monitored the compost heaps. The signs coordinated input and we all shared in a regular harvest of nutrient-rich soil enhancer.

What does this mean for you? Or, as teachers are inclined to ask, ‘What can we learn from this?’ Let’s talk about the composting process, some Do’s and Don’ts and how you might build a compost bin like mine.

Theory: This planet has been making dirt for a long time: decomposing carbon-based organic matter through a series of complex chemical and biological processes. Carbon-rich organic matter interacts chemically with nitrogen in a moist, aerated environment and is further broken down with the help of biological agents like fungi, worms, bacteria and other micro-organisms.

If we want to re-create the kind of soft, fertile soil we find under the leaf carpet of a forest rather than the gooey muck of a marsh, we need to think of a compost heap as a living thing that requires the essentials of all living things: air, food, and water in a balanced combination.

 Air:  My compost bins smelled like a swamp last summer because of a lack of air in the compressed pile of glass clippings. The grass was decomposing all right. Anaerobically – without oxygen, septic tank style. The composting microbes that make for clean-smelling, aerobic decomposition need air and lots of it. That’s why we layer compost ingredients – to create breathing spaces in the pile and then ‘tease it’, as a beautician would say, to keep the layers  from matting down. I find, after ten years of trial and error, that the pile decomposes more quickly when I turn it over or pitch it into adjacent bins once a week.

Water:  Compost microbes thrive in a wet environment. If too dry, the decomposition process will take forever (did you ever notice that dinosaur bones are found in deserts?) If too wet, the soggy ingredients of your pile will seal off air and you may notice a distinctive marsh odor. If you can step on a handful of compost and squeeze out a drop or two of water, it’s about right. If you have a lot of dry material to add at once, you will want to provide moisture as you layer in one of the following ways:

• use a hose

• toss in juicy kitchen scraps

• add fresh ‘greens’

• spread a layer of damp compost-in-progress from other bins

 If you’re having a particularly wet spell, you might want to cover your compost with a tarp to keep it from getting too wet and to prevent the nutrients from leaching out.

By the way, speaking of water-borne nutrients, some people make a kind of tea from compost and water (equal parts water and compost) to perk up house plants and transplants.

Food:  Compost microbes prefer two kinds of food: carbon based and nitrogen based, sometimes called ‘browns’ and ‘greens’ respectively. General wisdom on the subject says that compost heaps should ideally have a 30:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen (this can be as low as 10:1 if you turn the pile frequently).


Here’s a sample menu:

BROWN – Carbon                                                       GREEN – Nitrogen

dry leaves                                                                    fresh grass clippings

straw                                                                              weeds/trimmings

dry woody plants/stems                                          kitchen scraps

sawdust (not from treated wood)                        fresh manure

shredded/chipped wood                                          Coffee grounds, tea*

seaweed                                                                       *(filters and bags too)                                                                         

But here’s the problem, during fall and spring clean-up, you have more brown than you can handle while during late spring and summer, you’re surrounded by green.


            • Buy straw.

            • Bag leaves for later use.

             • Dry out yard-trim before adding it to the pile.

            Or you can do what I do, which is to layer twelve inches of ‘green’ with one inch of top soil/compost and ‘toss’ once a week. Even though I’m departing from recommended ingredients and proportions, I get good compost in a regular fashion all summer long, and that’s what counts.

        A note on leaf use:

After harvesting the last of the summer compost, I shred leaves into the empty pits with a mower making sure to layer with moist compost every twelve inches. When the compost pits are full, my neighbors and I rake windrows along the flower beds and I ride a sit-down mower over them to provide a combination of mulch, winter protection and compost. After all, I’m only short-circuiting the process. Instead of putting leaves in the bins and hauling the mature compost into the garden, I’m letting it all happen in one step.

 What not to add to your compost heap:

• Sawdust from treated wood. The chemicals used in the various processes might get into your food chain.

• Grass clippings sprayed with pesticide. It’s probably better to let the grass dry and mulch into the lawn to keep the pesticides where they were intended.

• Thugs such as ivy, peppermint, weeds gone to seed (hay has a lot of seeds, by the way) and dandelions have a way of coming back. Unless the compost pile gets hot enough (150-160¡ F) or you are willing to pasteurize the compost in your oven (180º F for 30 minutes), you may be cultivating the very plants you are trying to get rid of. Every year we get a surprise volunteer from my neighbor’s garden – a cucumber vine in the day lilies, a sunflower next to the acanthus, and the perennial cherry tomatoes wherever they please. I guess my pile doesn’t get hot enough or some seeds manage to avoid the heat. In any case, I find it easier to exclude some plants from the recycling process.

• Animal feces present odor and disease transmission problems.

• The generic category of ‘protein’ (meat, bones, grease and dairy products) will cause odors, attract pests and in the case of grease, block air flow. One exception I make to this rule is the use of fish offal. Maybe I still remember childhood stories of Indians putting a fish in each mound of planted corn. In any case, I’m not that great a fisherman, so we’re not talking about great quantities.

• Wood chips from home shredders or tree trimming services can take a long time to breakdown. A layer or so in the compost pile seems to be tolerated all right. I like to think our garden can always stand a little fiber in it’s diet. But to paraphrase the old joke:

              Q: What do you call a boomerang that won’t come back?

              A: A stick

              I say:

              Q: What do you call sticks that won’t decompose?

              A: Mulch

              I find it easier to shred branches and twigs onto selected garden spots for mulch rather than add them to compost mix where they tend to prolong the process of decomposition.

• Pine needles, pine cones and evergreen shrub trimmings do not compost readily and can contribute to acidity in the soil.

            Layering: At the risk of putting you off a favorite Italian dish, I like to think of compost heaps as a giant vegetarian lasagna – layer upon layer of alternating brown, green, black; brown, green, black. The ‘black’ is soil or mature compost. It isn’t absolutely necessary to add soil to your compost heap. However, it can speed up the process. Like the old chuck wagon cooks who always kept some starter dough on hand to add some leaven to the next batch of biscuits, I pile harvested compost next to the pits so I can easily throw a few shovels full on top of each layer. This helps compact springy matter, adds moisture and infuses bacteria and other microbes to hasten the chemical/biological process. If I’m feeling stingy about the amount of compost I’m using, I remind myself that I’ll be getting it back soon.

            Why layer in the first place if you’re only going to scramble and mix a compost pile shortly thereafter? Proportions. It’s important to get the right combination of brown/green/black and to let them ‘work’ for a while before you attack the ingredients like an energetic salad chef.

            How long does it take to get compost? I find that it takes around six weeks to get finished compost with my system. Sometimes I’ll harvest compost before it’s completely finished and rototill it into the garden. It can finish the job in place.

            Once the ground freezes solid in our Michigan winters, active composting seems to stop. Our family keeps a plastic gallon beverage container with a sealing lid next to the sink for kitchen scraps which are regularly dumped them into the bins where they promptly freeze. But then, come spring, the winter waste thaws and quickly breaks down. Some people we know feed kitchen waste to worms kept in their basement. Worm castings from vermicomposting make for very rich planting soil.    

Some random observations:     

            • Grass clippings need to be dried before going into the pit or at least layered no more than 3’’ deep to avoid swamp effect.     

            • If you ever get a chance to add horse, sheep or cow manure, do it. Be sure to give it a chance to work for a while so it isn’t too hot for plants in the garden. Manure, especially when fresh, is nitrogen rich. Color it green.

            • There’s the old saying: the bigger they are, the harder they fall. In composting, it seems, the larger the chunks, the longer they take to breakdown. So, my neighbor chops up left over zucchini, cucumbers, pumpkins and squash with a shovel before stirring   them into the microbial stew.

Building bins:

            Since the back end of our yard dropped about four feet at a 45 degree angle, I was able to build ground level bins from recycled redwood planks right into the front of the slope. I squared off the bottom of the pitch, snugged four posts up to the facing edge at four foot intervals. I nailed two planks at the top of the front wall. Then I took the dirt cut from the base of the incline and back filled the front planks. planted four more posts four feet back from the front posts. Then it was simply a matter of filling in the frame with boards. I left three inch gaps between the planks to allow for air circulation. As you can see by the design, three sides of the bins are exposed. But as I said above, aeration really comes with tossing and mixing. The topography of my yard suggested this structure. If your yard is flat, why not make standing bins with detachable front doors as one of my neighbors did after he caught onto composting? You could then use a sit-down mower or shredder to blow directly in and still have easy access for harvesting. People who use top loading, stand-up bins have to lift raw materials into their piles at the beginning of the process. My set-up makes dumping the fresh materials easier, but I have to climb in to aerate and lift-out to harvest. Sooner or later you have to lift.

            As old as the dirt itself is the story of nature’s transformation of green to brown to fertile soil. We have to learn the story. Then we have to recreate that process in a small space in our own backyard. We have to communicate with our neighbors. And especially, we have to communicate with our compost heap, the living organism that needs the food, air and water we bring to it.


The Secrets of Storytelling

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Secrets of a Storyteller

Work your student through this sequence at whatever pace feels comfortable to both of you.

 1. Ask your student to write down his favorite stories/movies and the ‘message’ or theme he remembers from them

 2. Then ask: Where do you think those stories came from?

  • Author’s own experience
  • All the books he/she ever read
  • Author’s imagination

 3. Let’s take each in turn starting with…Personal Experience

A. Recalling

  • Ask your student to tell about some exciting things that have happened
  • Ask him to add ordinary, everyday boring episodes
  • Remind him that he has to watch, notice and replay both the exciting and the ordinary happenings of everday life

B. Recording

  • Journalling is good way to do this…a form of Instant Replay to return to later in his own mind
  • Telling the story to someone else is also a good way to burn it in his memory. (These are the kind of stories we like to hear from grandparents – “Years ago, when I was your age…” )

 This is fun to do, all by itself. But it’s not really a story yet. It’s just a real life record.

 4. The next step…Recalling books/movies

A. Ask for other stories he may have read or seen. Ask him to think about what was exciting and kept his interest. (You probably know your son’s adventures into literature and film and can prompt responses.)

B. A similar question: What were your favorite books? What did you like about them?

 5. The biggest step…the author’s imagination

A. Remind your student that three headed dogs, wizards and monsters may be exciting, but the story teller’s secret is to remember personal experiences…what did it feel like, what was the place like, what were the smells, the tastes, the sounds.

B. Then, here’s where the imagination comes in:

  • Ask your student to think of a character…maybe someone he knows but with a different name. It could be that he really likes this person or can’t stand him or her. Describe what he/she looks like, how he/she acts.
  • Put this person in a place or situation your student recalls from personal experience.
  • Ask your writer to imagine what happens next based on his own experiences, imagination or from books or movies he has seen (Originality in plot is not imperative at this point, writing is.)  

Now he’s starting to storytell.

Essay Writing Process

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Good essay writing starts with a topic of interest. Picture a laser beam strapped to our forehead. When we walk down a street or enter a room where does our laser spot go? Do we notice people’s clothes, hair, shores, pets, eyes? Do we notice cars, buildings. flowers, trees? Once we pinpoint our starting point, the essay writing process flows from there.

Next you have to ask yourself, ‘what do I want to say about my favorite thing(s)?’ That will be your topic sentence. If you like dogs, and beagles are your favorite, you can think of the reasons you like them and write a topic sentence like this:

Beagles make the best family pet for four reasons: they are not too big, they are child friendly, they make good watch dogs inside or outside the house and they are good for hunting rabbits.

From there, the outline of a good essay is very simple.

1.You tell the reader what you are going to tell them (the four reasons)

2.You tell them

3.You tell them what you told them

So, this particular essay would look like this:

1.Introduction and Topic sentence: (tell the reader what you are going to tell them) Beagles make the best family pet for four reasons: they are not too big, they are child friendly, they make good watch dogs inside or outside the house and they are good for hunting rabbits. Let’s look at each of these reasons.

2.Body of the essay: Tell them each reason

 Beagles are not too big. (describe their average size, other larger dogs and problems big dogs can make)

  1. Beagles are child friendly. (They are good with babies, they like to snuggle and play with their owners)
  2. Beagles are good watch dogs. (Good hearing and smell allows them to hear intruders and they are protective of their owners)
  3. Beagles are good for hunting rabbits (they are small and fast like rabbits, have good noses and train easily to the sport)

3.Conclusion: Tell them what you told them

So, these are the four reasons beagles are the best pets: small, friendly, watch dog, hunters



When you can’t think of anything to write

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We’ve all been flumoxed with the demand of a blank page waiting for our words to flow. Inexperienced writers throw up their hands. Here are some prompts to help get the creative wheels turning. on a topic, subject or object:

  • Describe it: color, shape, age, dimensions, materials of construction, origin, parts.
  • Compare the subject to something else. What is it similar to or different from?
  • Associate the subject with other things: What else does it make you think of? What connections does   it have to anything else?
  • Analyze the subject. How is it made? Where did come from? Where is it going? How are its parts related?
  • Apply the subject. What can be done with it? What uses does it have?
  • Argue for or against the subject, or choose a position in relation to the subject and defend it.

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