Touchstone Texts

This is the time of the year that all of us are selecting the read-alouds for the first month of school.  We’re literally charting the course for the school year with the texts we select.  The books we read now with our students will become the Touchstone Texts for our year with them.  We’ll refer back to them again and again as the year moves along. We’ve all had the experience of choosing a book at this magical time of the year and then, sadly, discovering that it didn’t work well for us at all.  It didn’t serve our students or our teaching as the year progressed.  What a loss!  We invested all of that time, all of that student learning energy into a book that fell flat before the year was over.  It didn’t make it for the long haul.

Recently our minister, Brent Damrow, preached on Touchstone Texts in our church one Sunday.  (Okay, he didn’t intend to be preaching on Touchstone Texts the way you and I think of them.  He had a different type of text in mind.) He did an amazing job of explaining how Touchstone Texts operate and why they’re so important.  Frankly, he did a better job of explaining it than I have EVER done.  So, I asked him if he’d share with all of you.

Graciously, he said, “yes”.  Here’s his explanation:

What is your touchstone?  The idea of touchstone has always been associated with something precious as far back as ancient Greece, touchstones were used to measure precious metals. The touchstone was a piece of slate or flint, and when you rubbed a piece of gold or silver over that flint it left a mark that told you just how precious the metal was; Just how pure it was – whether or not you wanted to hold onto it.

In the 1880’s inspired by the character Touchstone from Shakespeare’s As You like It,that idea was extended by Matthew Arnold to apply to poetry.   Arnold was frustrated that the greatness of poetry was measured by its historicity or simply by who wrote it; rather than by its meaning or beauty.   And so Arnold suggested a few gems, like Hamlet’s dying words to Horatio, as touchstones against which the beauty and significance of poetry should be measured: A way of determining which pieces of poetry were worth committing to your heart.  

By the way,  I want to look at that term today is in the sense of something that you hold onto.  Something that in the midst of difficulty or stress points you straight to what its beautiful, true and worth holding onto.  Something whose touch calms you, grounds you, shows you peace or hope or love.  A touchstone is the rock you hold onto when the winds blow and the rains fall.  What is your touchstone?   Sometimes that touchstone is a memory or a song.  And sometimes it is something tangible that we carry with us.

So…. what will you choose as the touchstones for your classroom for this year?  What will you hold up to your students as beautiful, true, and worth holding on to?  This is our opportunity to choose for our students for this year… to create the anchors that will ground our work for the entire year.  Choose well. If you’d like to hear Brent (he’s really easy to listen to — engaging and animated — and as great as these words are printed here, they are incredibly powerful when Brent is speaking them) go here.

Real Life Revision: Tackle the Beginning Last

So here’s my final real-life revision strategy.  It wasn’t the last strategy that I tried, but it is the last strategy that I’m sharing.  Tackle the beginning last — seemed fitting as the last revision strategy of this series.

I can’t tell you how I struggled with the opening of this speech.  I simply could not get it to feel and sound right.  I finally gave up on it and wrote the other sections, revised them again and again, and generally ignored the fact that I needed a beginning.

Beginnings are hard.  I don’t care what kind of writing I’m doing — they’re just plain hard.  Maybe that’s why I love working in small moments so much.  Small moments don’t have a beginning, they just jump right in there.  Writing that needs a beginning is hard.  As an author, you have think about what do your readers need to know right up front.  You have to figure out how to give them that information without destroying the work that is yet to come — the body of the piece that you’ve crafted and revised.  And, despite the attempts by some young writer friends of mine, you can’t just say, “so before I tell you my story…”.  Beginnings are tricky things.  They require huge amounts of thinking, of skill as a writer, and of empathy for your reader/listener.

In my case, there was also the predicament of not knowing what would be said by other speakers in the hour or more before I spoke.  Ordination services have several speakers, each with a slightly different purpose, but still — whatever was said before me would shape how my listeners heard my words.  And going into this, I had absolutely no way of even guessing at what those other speakers might be saying.

So, I wrote my beginning last.  Literally LAST.  I wrote the beginning after I was relatively happy with the entire rest of the piece.  Then I went back through it and used some of my read-aloud revision strategies to make sure that the beginning sounded like it fit with the rest of the piece.  That version of the beginning was in the draft that I shared with my read-aloud buddy and with my feedback friends.

Finally, I printed out my speech the morning of the service.  I printed it in a huge, enormous font and double spaced it so that I wouldn’t worry about losing my place while I was reading it.  And I left some extra room at the top of the page, right before the beginning that I’d crafted.  I tucked a pencil in my purse and headed out to the service.  During the service, as each of the other speakers gave their thoughts,  I was able to make a few quick notes in the empty space to tighten up my introduction.  Writing my beginning was truly, truly the last thing I did before I stood to deliver the speech.  Write your beginning last — really.

Real Life Revision: Get Input

This one sounds like a no-brainer.  After all, we as teachers do this all the time — we GIVE input.  But I think that’s different than our students asking for input.  After I had done a massive amount of revision work and was nearly to the end of the process (meaning I had only a few short days before I needed to deliver this speech), I asked two friends to read it and give me feedback and input.

Here are the important bits about this:

1.  I was nearly done with the work.  I had already engaged in the revision strategies that I’ve shared previously.  I had already done some super hard work.  I was mostly happy with my result.  It wasn’t perfect.  It wasn’t “done”.  But it was in a really good place.  I think that when we give something to someone too soon, the feedback that we get isn’t as valuable.  There’s simply too much work there.  I’m pretty sure this is what happens in our classrooms when readers share rough draft material and get feedback.  There is so much that needs work that the feedback isn’t helpful.  It ends up either being too global to really help, or it involves prompting for Extreme Home Makeover type revision — and that frustrates the young writer.  By waiting until I was past those stages, there was less glaring awfulness for my friends to comment on.  I could find that kind of major work myself — that wasn’t what made my friends helpful.

2.  I chose my feedback partners wisely.  I chose people who know me well, but not too well.  They didn’t read it and immediately “get” what I wanted to say.  They were far enough away from me to be objective, yet close enough to me to feel safe.  Additionally, they were both friends who had some serious knowledge of what I was trying to do.  One was our minister and the other a retired seminary professor friend.  Both of them had insider knowledge of how ordination services go.  Both of them have done what I was attempting to do.  They could read my piece with expert eyes.  They caught things that I never would have caught.  Better yet, they could read my piece with the same mindset as most of the people who would be listening to it when I delivered the speech.  They provided a “trial” audience that resembled the audience that would be when I went live.

3.  My feedback partners knew how to give feedback.  I’m sure there was a lot more wrong with my piece than they alluded to.  I’m an amateur in this field — they are seasoned professionals.  There were probably hundreds of little things (and not-so-little things) that they saw and refrained from pointing out.  Instead, they gave me some positive feedback first.  They told me something BIG that was good about my work.  It was genuine and real.  It felt good.  It let me know that this thing wasn’t the disaster that I feared.  And, if I’m ever crazy enough to do something like this again, it was something I could do again in a new piece.  Then they gave me some specific things to think about.  They didn’t correct my grammar or my punctuation.  They didn’t tell me what to write or try to write it for me.  They make simple points and asked me to think about them.  They suggested places where I might clarify for the benefit of my listener.  And, best of all, nobody said “and then you’ll be done”.

Real Life Revision: Read it to Someone

After I had read my piece aloud a few times, I tried a different tack.  I read my piece aloud — to someone else.  Yep, I made someone sit and listen to me.  It wasn’t pretty.  Suddenly the whole awkwardness level was ramped up and things jumped out that hadn’t before.

Some of what happened was that I as a reader stumbled more with the pressure of a listener.  That helped me to identify more spots where my grammar and syntax were tricky and needed to be more clear.

But my listener provided instant feedback, even without commenting directly.  His face scrunched up, his eyebrows twitched, he grinned (at the appropriate place, thankfully!) I knew instantly whether or not I was being effective in what I wanted to communicate.  I penciled all over the text while I did this read aloud.  I starred the spots that had the desired effect.  I make exclamation marks in the margin for places that didn’t go over as strongly as I wanted them to.  I even noted a quick OMG in one spot that was disastrous during this particular read aloud.

After reading it to another person, I had a huge amount of revision that I was ready to do.  And that was before getting verbal feedback. All I had asked him to do was listen to  me.  And that’s all he did.  Wow, did I get feedback though.