The Screeching Owl

Archive for November, 2010

Write of Way, or is it Weigh, or is it Whey

Posted by David Fisher on 17th November 2010

Ah, the power of the written word.  The craft of the writer.  The search for the perfect word.

These were common phrases used by my writing, English, and humanities teachers in high school.  To each teacher, these phrases, or just one of them, had a specific, almost magical, meaning.  Day in and day out the phrases were pounded into my head and the heads of my classmates for one specific purpose.  That purpose, simply stated, was to make us writers.

Then I met Mr. Duke Schirmer.  If his last name sounds familiar to any of you musicians out there, his family is the Schirmer music family.  You probably used one of several music education and instrument education score books as a child.  This Mr. Schirmer wasn’t from the music side of the family; rather, he was from the writing side of the family.

Let me paint a picture of Duke, as we were allowed to call him in tenth grade.  He wore chinos, as they were called back then, a white t-shirt, and work boots every day.  Thick black-framed glasses hung on his nose and he was either chugging coffee when we came into the classroom or airing it our from his in between class smoke break.  It was not uncommon to have all the windows open during class, even in the middle of winter.  Eclectic, eccentric, and sometimes downright weird was Duke, but we loved him anyway.

Duke taught one class at Mamaroneck High School, Creative Writing.  Every, and I mean every, student had to pass through his hallowed doorway to graduate.  Jocks next to nerds, cheerleaders next to actors, tough guys next to wimps, it didn’t matter the group you were a part of because for one semester you were part of his group.

Duke was really the one who taught me to write.  Yes, many other teachers taught the methodology, grammar, word selection, formatting, and all of that other mundane boring stuff.  But Duke really stretched us to our limits.  Paired up with someone who would be your polar opposite, Duke had us write free-form poetry on chart paper while sprawled all over the hallway outside of his classroom.  Express yourself, he told us.  Use any word you want, he told us.  Don’t be afraid to open up, he told us.

Then, after eight of the 16 weeks, write an essay that will assign yourself your grade and justify it using examples of your work as support, he told us.  Imagine that as a sophomore in high school, being given the opportunity to grade yourself and all I had to do was write an essay justifying why I deserved an ‘A’.  As I wasn’t the first to finish, I was able to take advantage of the first few students’ experiences with Duke and their justification essays, as they were known.  I wish I could write what was said, or at least paraphrase it, but the four-letter word count was so high that this blog would lose its family friendly status.  This was the lesson that Duke had planned all along.  We never knew it until that fateful day when grades had to be done.

The message, as I’m sure you’re wondering, was this: A writer’s job is to talk to his/her audience and make sure that the intended message is complete, clear, and free of, how shall I say this politely, manure.  The writer must, as Duke told us, create an environment in which the words can come alive.  The words are the actors, the writer their director.  The writer doesn’t make the writer, the words make the writer.  Use them the wrong way and the writer will never be forgiven.  A pretty strong message for a high school sophomore to manage.

I still think about Duke when I write.  I’d like to think that he’s still in that same smoke-filled, coffee smelling classroom, handing out sheets of chart paper to students and having them lie all over the hallway.  I know he’s not, though.

He lives on through all of the students he touched over the many years he taught at Mamaroneck.  He lives through me.

The perfect word, it may never come.  The perfect message through the perfect use of words, done.

Thanks, Duke!

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BITs and Pieces

Posted by David Fisher on 7th November 2010

Right now my students are BITs (Bloggers In Training), and they are working on their pieces.  Their pieces are blog posts written in the ‘old school’ manner of paper and pencil.  These pieces are then turned into me for review.  After I check them over, they are hung up on the walls and bulletin boards of the classroom.  Each student has a space, just as s/he would in cyberspace if the student had his/her own blog.  Attached to the pieces are post-it notes that represent comments, sometime threaded comments in the form of post-its attached to one another.  In a few short weeks, this training will pay off for the class when they receive their own blogs on  I wish that I could take credit for this training exercise, but all the credit for this goes to Mrs. Kolbert.  She told me about it, and like all good teachers, I stole it!

The really neat thing about this process came the other day when I was working with Patrick, my Down syndrome student.  I asked Patrick to write about his Halloween experience just as the rest of the class was working on theirs.  I had difficulty reading Patrick’s handwriting, so I turned to what I thought would help him out: the computer.

After opening Word for Patrick and having him show me that he could find his name on the keyboard, I asked him to write about his Halloween experience using Word.  Well, wouldn’t you know it!  In the span of about eight minutes, Patrick had a string of work done about Halloween.  The smile on his face said it all!  He became a blogger like the rest of the class.

My takeaway: Once again, never underestimate the power of technology.  I believe that Patrick now has a means to really show the world what he is truly capable of doing.

Watch out world; Patrick will be a force to reckon with!

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