Posted in Story Telling, Themes

…the edge of the great forest

This all happened a long time ago, in your grandmother’s time, or in her grandfather’s. A long time ago. Back then, we all lived on the edge of the great forest.

Hansel and Gretel, Neil Gaiman

For the first time in two years, I feel like I am finally back to my authentic self as a teacher, and am cautiously celebrating how wonderful this feels. Over two years ago, we (the PLC I was in at the time) used the text of Hansel & Gretel to do mood/tone, along with Stopping by Woods on A Snowy Evening by Robert Frost (saving for December this year). I love using fables and fairy tales to explore simple stories with much deeper themes.

But I thought to bring out Hansel and Gretel again, and do a seed idea/theory of theme work, along with levels of questions, etc. about this gruesome little fable. And as we worked through it, I steadied my nervousness about doing a read aloud of a picture book with high school students, and quieted myself and read the story. And they were fine, and listened, and were calm. (Contrasting to last year’s 8th grade students who had been through years of color-coded book levels and told me a picture book was a “baby book.”) Ah, children…oh no. These stories go into our core.

Why do parents continue to tell children of the story of Hansel & Gretel? Is it to show that they’re not such horrible parents after all? And though I know the story inside and out, something else emerged while we talked about it–yes, Hansel is very clever to pick up tiny white pebbles, and Gretel is brave and smart to ‘play dumb’ in order to trick the witch, and the children are intelligent, sweet, strong and kind, to be sure: but a witch is burned alive and a boy is about to be cannibalized. Gruesome stuff. So why do parents tell this story? Because they’re giving permission to their children that they may have to sin in order to survive. They must do whatever it takes to save themselves, including murder, trickery, cunning and deception. And this includes one’s own parents.

The rules are different for many of our students, the rules of survival. It’s being told you’re $9 short for your ‘free’ lunches and must remedy the debt before the next day. It’s some buildings where if they take your phone they charge you $5 to get it back. It’s knowing that there are street rules and school rules. For my students this year, just making it to school is an ordeal. They must go to their home comprehensive school, wait about 30-45 minutes for a bus, and that bus brings them to ours. No accommodations for waiting in a warm foyer are made. And about once a week a bus will be late. They bring tales of fighting in other schools, and since I’ve worked in “those other schools” I know what they’re saying is not only true, but sanctioned by their parents.

Survive. And if you can get through school, find a way to thrive.

Posted in Writing

1 of 3: Write: author’s advice

Neil Gaiman spoke at Benaroya Hall on Sunday, November 18–my dear friend Wendy bought us tickets, treated me to dinner, and a lovely book. I can’t say I haven’t been spoiled like that in ages because my sweet friend Sharon put up with my rantings and insanity of two very bad, dark and confusing years.

Going out on a Sunday night in late fall is hazardous for a teacher, especially this teacher who is prone to insomnia and falls blissfully to sleep but wakes early in the wee hours. This is my third time hearing Gaiman speak, and he did not disappoint, and I’m sure he will forgive me if he knew I drifted off during some of his readings. In my defense, I had a bellyful of sourdough paste bolognese and it was warm and dark–and his voice. Oh, that voice of his–the cadence of an English garden–kind, colorful, but untamed and slightly dangerous. Fortunately, my inner writer homunculus took the watch and alerted me whenever he answered a question from the audience or discussed context. Many of the questions were about writing–and he said what I’ve been telling students for many years.


(Now if I can only tell myself. I don’t have writer’s block as much as writer’s sludge.)


But here are the big ones:

  1. Write
  2. Editing/Revising: read your work out loud to yourself. Read it with fresh ears/eyes. You will hear what needs to change.
  3. Characters: describe and discover what each character wants. Therein lies the conflicts, and the story.

Use these three for reading, too:

  1. Read
  2. Read out loud and hear the voice of the writer
  3. Characters: what does each character want? How do their desires and needs create conflict?
Posted in Being a better teacher, Best Practices, book recommendations, Notice & Note, Reading, Story Telling, Wish I Had Written That

Chivalry isn't dead.


Here is my attempt to help students using the Notice and Note strategies for one of my favorite short stories, ‘Chivalry‘ by Neil Gaiman.




n and n pinterest

Wait, you know what? I think you might enjoy doing this yourself. I don’t want to spoil the story for you.

I believe there is an example of every signpost in this story. Read it out loud to your students in your best English accent (if you don’t have one already). Enjoy.

This book of short stories is well worth it:


Posted in New News

WIHWT: Where can I get one of those?

“This,” said Galaad, “is the sword of Balmung, forged by Wayland Smith in the dawn times. Its twin is Flamberge. Who wears it is unconquerable in war, and invincible in battle. Who wears it is incapable of a cowardly act or an ignoble one. Set in its pommel is the sardonyx Bircone, which protects its possessor from poison slipped in wine or ale, and from the treachery of friends.”

“Chivalry” by Neil Gaiman

Posted in Media and Mischief, New News, Writing, writing prompts

Writers Reading Writing Week.

No, I do not have hero-worship of Neil Gaiman. (Liar.)

Ever have one of those units of study that just globs along in the back of your mind? Well, after reading aloud this week* this thought inspired me: Why not create a mini-unit of writers reading their reading? I am constantly stressing to my students that writing is talking: and they can all do that. We are just beginning to really dig into the writer’s workshop protocols. I was asked two days’ ago what “writer’s workshop” model I use – I didn’t have a prescribed answer. I use the one from the Puget Sound Writing Project, part of the National Writing Project. It’s designed to create, first and foremost, a safe place for writers. I am so comfortable with it, I supposed, because of my fine art’s background. Throwing a painting in progress or sketch up on the wall for your peers to see is risky: I developed my diplomatic critiquing style from these days.

So: I need to throw this idea up on the wall and see if it sticks: Each day for two weeks (yes, there’s an assembly on Friday, earthquake drill, [not taken lightly – we do live in a dangerous geographical area] I will continue to read out loud, and have students listen to other writers reading out loud. We will continue to work on annotating text, and the text will be in conjunction with author’s voices. How would you approach this? Would you have them read the text cold, as a pre-assessment of comprehension, and check for their understanding after they hear the writer? I’m thinking Neil Gaiman reading Instructions would be especially good. (Wonder if I can find a version of him reading Chivalry, one of my favorite short stories? Or should I just put on black T-shirt and speak in a British accent?)

Ultimately, I want them to find their own voices. And since that is the big questions: “What are you trying to say, in your own words?”, they will write and then — speak.

Not quite sure what that rubric should matrix*, though.

What we say and feel doesn’t always fit in a box.

*Comments from students the past few weeks: This class is easy, it’s fun, do we have to go to our next class? I’m not trying to cause divisiveness; I just love reading and writing–dang, I love my job.

*Did I just make matrix into a verb? I am so confused.

Posted in book recommendations

WIHWT: the beginning of The Graveyard Book

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.

The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.

The Graveyard Book  by Neil Gaiman Copyright 2008

Posted in Mighty Myth Month! (Mmmmm...that's good writing!)

Mighty Myth Month: Instructions.

 Look for the video on our Moodle Pages.

By Neil Gaiman

Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never saw before.
Say “please” before you open the latch,
go through,
walk down the path.
A red metal imp hangs from the green-painted front door,
as a knocker,
do not touch it; it will bite your fingers.
Walk through the house. Take nothing. Eat nothing.
if any creature tells you that it hungers,
feed it.
If it tells you that it is dirty,
clean it.
If it cries to you that it hurts,
if you can,
ease its pain.

From the back garden you will be able to see the wild wood.
The deep well you walk past leads to winter’s realm;
there is another land at the bottom of it.
If you turn around here,
you can walk back safely;
you will lose no face. I will think no less of you.

Once through the garden you will be in the wood.
The trees are old. Eyes peer from the undergrowth.
Beneath a twisted oak sits an old woman. She may ask for something;
give it to her. She
will point the way to the castle.
Inside it are three princesses.
Do not trust the youngest. Walk on.
In the clearing beyond the caste the twelve months sit about a fire,
warming their feet, exchanging tales.
They may do favors for you, if you are polite.
You may pick strawberries in December’s frost.
Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where you are going.
The river can be crossed by the ferry. The ferry-man will take you.
(The answer to his question is this:
If he hands the oar to his passenger, he will be free to leave the boat.
Only tell him this from a safe distance.)

If an eagle gives you a feather, keep it safe.
Remember: that giants sleep too soundly; that
witches are often betrayed by their appetites;
dragons have one soft spot, somewhere, always;
hearts can be well-hidden,
and you betray them with your tongue.

Do not be jealous of your sister.
Know that diamonds and roses
are as uncomfortable when they tumble from one’s lips as toads and frogs:
colder, too, and sharper, and they cut.

Remember your name.
Do not lose hope—what you seek will be found.
Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped to help you in their turn.
Trust dreams.
Trust your heart, and trust your story.
When you come back, return the way you came.
Favors will be returned, debts be repaid.
Do not forget your manners.
Do not look back.
Ride the wise eagle (you shall not fall)
Ride the silver fish (you will not drown)
Ride the gray wolf (hold tightly to his fur).

There is a worm at the heart of the tower; that is why it will not stand.

When you reach the little house, the place your journey started,
you will recognize it, although it will seem much smaller than you remember.
Walk up the path, and through the garden gate you never saw but once.
And then go home. Or make a home.

Or rest.

Oh, I wish I had written that.

Neil Gaiman reading his poem, Instructions
Neil Gaiman reading his poem, Instructions

Posted in Mighty Myth Month! (Mmmmm...that's good writing!)

Mighty Myth Month: Eeek! A spider!

Here's looking at you, Anansi!
Here’s looking at you, Anansi!

Anansi, you old trickster! From the West African area, the Ashanti tribe originated the tales of the most famous spider-god of all, Anansi. Similar to the Coyote in Native American/Central American tales, Anansi is a trickster, a clever fellow who usually gets the best of his foes. (Usually, but not always.)



by Micha F. Lindemans
The Ashanti trickster/culture hero, also called ‘the Spider’. He is the intermediary of the sky god Nyame, his father, on whose command Anansi brings rain to quench the forest fires and determines the borders of oceans and rivers during floods. Later Anansi’s place as representative was usurped by the chameleon. His mother is Asase Ya. Anansi is sometimes regarded as the creator of the sun and the moon and the stars, as well as the one who instituted the succession of day and night. It is also believed that he created the first man, into which Nyame breathed life. A typical trickster, he is crafty, sly, villainous, but he also taught mankind how to sow grain and how to use the shovel on the fields. He set himself up as the first king of the human beings and even managed to marry Nyame’s daughter. He was beaten only in his encounter with the wax girl, to whom he stuck fast, having struck her with his legs when she refused to talk to him. The people then rushed forwards and beat the tricky Anansi.

Anansi is one of the most popular characters in West African mythology.

“Anansi.” Encyclopedia Mythicafrom Encyclopedia Mythica Online.
[Accessed January 23, 2010].

From Anansi’s stories and tales, developed the stories of B’rer Rabbit in the South:

B’rer Rabbit’s tales are an important part of African-American tradition.

These tales are immigrants to the new world, but have taken a character all their own. America has been a land where humor abounds and champions the underdog who often triumphs by his wits and ingenuity.Similar tales of the Trickster Rabbit and Anansi (Spider) are found in African folklore and travelled to the Caribbean and North America along with the slave trade. There have been numerous collection and versions of the B’rer Rabbit tales. They formed the basis of the Gullah – Nancy Tales in the West Indies …(

And I’m guessing Bugs Bunny came from those stories, too. But I’m just guessing.

Bugs Bunny

 I do know that one of my favorite writers, (even though in my opinion spends ways too much time Twittering about his hot,young girlfriend and all the awards he’s given, but hey, he earned them, so tweet on, Mr. Gaiman, tweet on) Neil Gaiman, uses Anansi in both his novels, American Gods and Anansi’s Boys.

 So, everywhere we go, we take our stories with us. It may seem unlikely that a spider-deity can transform into a funny-bunny, but when cultural diffusion, assimilation, and acquisition is at play, anything is possible. Right, Neil? In other words, “What’s up, Doc?”

 Spider Photograph ©2009 Thomas Shahan

For more information about Thomas Shahan’s incredible photography, check this out: