By Adrin Fisher
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” So begins Moby Dick.
Now, I have never felt the urge to take to sea—probably owing to my landlocked upbringing in the Mountain State, and to the fact that lots of big, deadly things live in the sea—but I can still identify with Melville’s sentiments about escape.
October is the month of glory: the trees are bright, the sky is blue, and the air is crisp.
But November heralds the dark, wet death of the year. The leaves blow down and gather in sloppy wet piles against walls. That large murder of crows returning to their roost down by the river becomes ominous. And spring—and the sweetness of high school graduation—seems impossibly distant.
Truly, the November of the soul is upon us, teacher friend. Between the NAEP results showing that our students are not, in fact, number one, the flurry of end-of-quarter parent emails, and strikes and rumors of strikes, the stresses of teaching can feel overwhelming.
So how can you combat the cold, November rain?
One way is to inject a little bit of novelty into your long work days. To head to sea, if you will.
Blast into the Past!
When my school underwent an extensive renovation a few years ago, the library decided to part with its delightful collection of bound periodicals. As one who came-of-age in the 1990s, I have fond memories of searching the stacks of my local university looking for a particular magazine article for my research paper. Well, I’m not sure how fond those memories are, but I am fond of realizing how much easier research has gotten since my high school days.
Anyway, I saved ten bound volumes of Life magazine from World War II years. Once a year, I pull them out and let the sophomores flip through them in order to get a sense of the setting of A Separate Peace. While they’re at it, they choose a “current event” and analyze an accompanying photo using a worksheet created at the National Archives. It always surprises me how much my students love this—who knew paging through a giant, dusty book of old magazines could be so fun? My favorite comments include “They could advertise that?” and “Are those actual dead bodies?”
I would imagine that, with a little effort, you too can scrape up some bound periodicals. Or, with some digging, you can access period advertisements or photos online.
Understanding historical context is a powerful analytical lens. And, as we know, we need to help students become critical consumers of media, so this activity pulls double duty. Novelty for the win!
NaNoWriMo Strikes Again!
Though the times change, there are some things we can count on. One of these is National Novel Writing Month. According to its website, “The challenge: draft an entire novel in just one month. For 30 wild, exciting, surprising days, you get to lock away your inner editor, let your imagination take over, and just create!”
There are many resources available to intrepid teachers who want to guide their students through writing their own novels, including everything from lesson plans to student workbooks to classroom kits. The program is totally free and it maintains a large social media presence, including real-time challenges on Twitter, Pep Talk videos and emails, and a whole host of supports.
But for you—teacher friend—for you, there’s also the concept of you devoting yourself to something for you. If writing a set number of words in 30 days is too daunting (50,000 is a big number), you can try my modified version: writing for a set amount of time per day (20 minutes). That’s workable. And rewarding!
Whether you choose to take your students on this ride or do this one solo, NaNoWriMo is definitely a novel approach.
Pressure Makes Perfect!
My final tested and true idea to inject some novelty into this month comes in the form of a contest format. For the past couple of years, I’ve tried my hand at the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction contest.
It starts out in July with a few thousand writers who are divided into heats for each round of the competition. With the entry fee, you are guaranteed to write the first two stories; the top five in each group move on to the third round, and then the top three in your new group move on to the final.
The trick here—and the fun!—is that each round of the contest runs for precisely 48 hours. You’re assigned a genre, a location, and an object. And it’s totally random, as you can see below. I was assigned to write a 1,000-word historical fiction story that took place in a cement plant and featured a massage table. This weekend’s story was quite a challenge!
For me, the NYC Midnight contest has been a game-changer. I respond to the pressure, setting aside all the other things crowding my plate (including the 80 essays I could have marked this weekend…) and working those 1,000 words. The contest has pushed me creatively: I’ve written a romantic comedy, a mystery, a couple of horror stories—all genres I never would have attempted. In addition, all writers get quality feedback from three judges for each story—whipped cream on the pumpkin pie.
Now, of course, you can’t expect your students to pay to enter a writing contest. And maybe you’re not interested in it either. However, you can replicate the idea. In fact, after reading some thrillers to celebrate Halloween (like the disturbing “Hop-Frog” by Edgar Allan Poe), my sophomores drew a location, a murder weapon, and an additional object to incorporate into their original horror stories. To replicate the pressure, they had a time limit and a word limit. After we finished writing and shared our horror stories, the kids unanimously voted to try this high-pressure writing again. A novel approach yields results, every time.
Head to Sea
So teacher-friend, escape the drab November of the soul by injecting novelty into your days: lean into life and take a chance.
As naturalist Edwin Way Teale wrote, “How sad would be November if we had no knowledge of the spring!”
We know what’s coming—both in terms of the weather and in terms of the flowering of all these students in our care—and it’s going to be beautiful.
WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. What new ideas get you through the dark days of teaching? Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you novelty and peace. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher smack in the middle of her twenty-second year of teaching and currently working with seniors in co-teaches and dual-credit classes, and honors-level sophomores. When she’s not surrounded with her prep calendars and a pile of books, encouraging and supporting her colleagues, or conferencing with budding writers, you can find her reading with her kids, tree bathing in the park, or dreaming about life and readings in her current composition book. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin