Monthly Archives: December 2014

A story is a picture in words

It’s the end of the year and a few of my classes have finished their books and won’t start anything new until January. So I’ve had a few lessons to play with and I decided to share one of my favorite short stories with my students.

This is a story by Kevin Stein that is titled “For One Picture.” It is the story of a girl who, in spite of her mother’s misgivings, sets off on a motorcycle with her camera promising to come back when has has found a perfect picture. Throughout the story, the girl sends her mother pictures she has taken and her mother begins to understand her daughter’s vocation, hoping, in the end, that the world really is full of beauty and feeling amazed that her own daughter is a person who can find it and capture it.

I hope you will read the story yourself because, even though I’ve already summarized it, the beauty really is in the way it is told.

I wanted to share a few things I have done with this story this week.

For my 13 year olds, I read the story to them. While they listened, they drew pictures that illustrated the story.

by Emily

by Emily


I read it again for them to fill in the gaps. They took their pictures home and rewrote the story based on their pictures.

by Lorraine

by Lorraine

A few of them chose to retell the story orally, and actually those were the most complete tellings. They ended by writing letters to the author. (And so that the author need not panic, I will say now that I have told them not to expect answers.)

2014-12-31 11.05.00

For my 15 year olds, I gave them the story first and let them read on their own. They were most interested in the photographs described in the story and we discussed the beauty that can be found in unexpected places. They took the paper home and chose a picture to write about. They invented short scenarios about the picture they chose. These led to further interesting discussions, especially where they told different stories about the same pictures.

by Alfred

by Alfred

by Chris

by Chris

by George

by George

by Nina

by Nina

by Dian

by Dian

All work shown here is shared with the permission of the respective students. 

Playful writing 8: I’m thinking about… (revisited)

Instead of moving on to a new topic this week, I had the feeling that I should revisit this one. It turned out to be a good decision because my middle school students had a lot on their minds. Normally they just write about food and sleep. Today, they wrote about hopes, dreams, expectations, worries, fears, and the future.

And since I’m thinking about them right now, I thought I’d write it down too.

I’m thinking about my students. I have a class of middle school third graders. They have been my students for two years. They are graduating this winter and going to high school. There are about 20 students in total. They always seem to be hungry (for fried chicken, specifically) and the boys love playing games. One of the boys is a pianist who hopes to play music for the rest of his life. You’d never know just by looking at him, but he has a passionate soul. Another one loves video and computer games and pays attention to how popular they are because he loves playing and interacting with people from around the world. He says he uses English for this purpose. One of the boys wants to make the most of his last vacation before high school and before he leaves the city for his new private school. One of the girls is also looking forward to boarding school with fear and excitement. She wants to make a lot of friends. They share their joys and sorrows, fears and frustrations every week with me.

I’m thinking about Sarah, my oldest student. She is finishing second grade of high school and doesn’t have a lot of time to study with me, but her mother insists she make time. I have never really known why – there’s not a lot that I can teach her with the time she has, but I suspect her mother wants to make sure high school doesn’t cause her to hate English and find it useless. I don’t think that could ever happen. She dreams of traveling and meeting people – thinks of the excitements and frustrations in her future, and shares all this. She is bad at logic puzzles, good at solving mysteries and asking questions, and excellent at talking about movies and music. She is highly empathic and says she needs to study harder. But she seems to sleep enough. I am thinking that she would like to watch the Dear Korea video that came out recently. I wonder how I can turn that into a lesson. I would like her to do more story-telling as well. She will need speaking skills for TOEIC and TOEFL when she travels. I hope she can go to college abroad. I will write her a recommendation. Maybe that’s why her mother is keeping the lesson.

I am thinking about Jim. He’s 10 and he’s tiny. On Tuesday he came to class with a sore arm. He couldn’t take his bag all the way off. He just let it drop to the floor. It fell with a thud. It was the thud that drew my attention. I came over to help him. I pulled out his books and notebook and pencil case, put his bag on his chair for him. It must have weighed 15 kilos. There were all his hagwon books inside. He is one of those little kids who attends hagwons for more hours than he attends school. He never does his homework for my class and he used to cut class so that he could play in the park. Now he comes (unprepared) and enjoys competition, games, speaking, but not writing or reading (unless it’s part of a game). At the end of the class, I helped him put his books back in his bag and put the bag back on his shoulders. Inside my heart was breaking for him.


I have noticed that my students’ confidence in writing is improving. When I assign them other types of writing work, they don’t complain or worry about how to do it – they just get down to it. Maybe it’s because they know that the words will come. Or maybe it’s because they fear mistakes less. I have also noticed that the higher the level of  the students, the less they write during free-writing. At first I thought they were tired, lazy, or just didn’t have as many ideas, but I’m beginning to notice that their writing quality is better and perhaps they are spending more time focusing on good writing. The project is nearly at an end – just a couple more weeks. I am not sure I will finish all ten of Chuck Sandy’s playful writing topics with them, but I will probably do them myself because sometimes, I just need a writing break.

Playful Writing 7: Something I can’t forgive

The latest in the Playful Writing series inspired by Chuck Sandy’s iTDi blog post here. Chuck Sandy created a list of suggestions for writing playfully. I have been using them with my students for free writing topics. The rules my students follow are: write continuously until the timer rings; don’t erase or cross out; don’t worry about spelling or words you don’t know; don’t talk to each other. I have been slowly increasing their writing time over the weeks and I have also been monitoring for repeated mistakes or errors. My students have been excited to compete against themselves for their word counts and I am quite happy to see that even the ones who don’t have a lot to say during class have plenty to write about.


This particular topic was quite broad. “Write about a song you can’t get out of your head, something you can’t forgive, a scar you have, a difficult student, something you can’t give up, somewhere you always wanted to go but didn’t.”


Today I chose to write about something I can’t forgive. It’s a serious topic and I confess before I even begin that I didn’t follow my own rules. I rearranged the order after my timer went off, and I removed names. The story is, sadly, true, and forgiveness has no part in it. Please skip to the bottom.


Something I can’t forgive.

I learned to move on with my life. I hope we never meet.

I learned to move on with my life. I hope we never meet.

This is going to be serious rather than playful. It may have been ten years ago, I got a phone call. It was from a friend of a friend. “Sit down.” he said. “Are you sitting down?” His voice had no hint of surprise, smile, laughter. Something was wrong. “Yes, I’m sitting down. What is it? What’s wrong?” I asked. “T– died today.” “No.” I said.

T– was a lover and a fighter. His spirit burned with a bright fire. He drove a bright red motorcycle and played as whole-heartedly with the little kids we taught as he did with the adult women he loved. He drew his own Christmas cards for the holidays and made his own jewelery. If someone tried to touch his motorcycle, even out of curiosity, he would rush outside and threaten them. He gave me a spare helmet once to keep in my place so he wouldn’t always have to pack it with him. We rode together all over town. Life was fun. He drank two pots of coffee a day and did 1,000 situps and pushups every morning. He was an exercise fiend, former body-builder (2nd place for Mr. Canada). He lived a fast-paced life and never backed down.

The details came out later. He had been at home with his girlfriend. He hadn’t been feeling well. He was diabetic. He took insulin shots. He should have seen a doctor. When his seisure started, his girlfriend laid him down in bed. She didn’t call anyone. She watched as his whole body tensed up and he finally died. Then she left. Then she called his friend.

You see, she was a married woman. She was committing adultery with him. And that’s illegal. She wasn’t looking for trouble. She was just looking for a bit on the side. So she sat there and watched him die. And never once called an ambulance. Never once tried to take him to the hospital. Not even after did she call the police.

T–‘s sister called me weeks later to find out why. She wanted to know how to get in touch with the girlfriend. She gave me the latest details. I directed her to someone I knew had the information she needed. I shared her pain. If I ever meet the woman who watched my friend die and did nothing, I will have strong words to say.


After I wrote this, my first thought was, “I can’t publish this.” But here it is and here you are reading it. Why? Because my students in class today asked me what I had written about. They were struggling with all the topic choices and needed ideas. I told them I had used the topic “Something I can’t forgive” and they asked what it is so I gave them the abridged version. If I can share with them, why not with you?

Some of the issues with this particular topic that came up in class today (and will probably come up with both groups tomorrow) are too many choices. The students needed a lot of time to think and choose what they would write about. Time was another issue. I gave them an extra minute and one of them ran out of words and got frustrated (and wrote about it!). I don’t think I’ll change the variety of topics for tomorrow’s groups, because students really did write on nearly all of them.  I will give them more time for thinking and asking questions instead. Tomorrow’s group are also older and less likely to run out of words, so I don’t think this issue will affect them. In the future, for the group who wrote today, I think I will keep the extra minute and let them know they can write their feelings and thoughts in the moment if they run out of words on the topic.

If you’re still here, thanks for reading.


Playful writing 6: I can’t live without…

This is the latest in a series of posts inspired by Chuck Sandy’s iTDi blog post: Learning To Play: A Writing Lesson Learned Late. I have been using his playful writing prompts as free writing prompts for my students. And I have been writing them myself so that I don’t have to ask my students to do something without knowing what it might be like for them. So far this project has been quite interesting in a few ways – they’re writing a lot more in the time I give them and some of them are really going deep. It has been a pleasure for me to get to know my students in this way, and a slightly scary pleasure to share myself with my colleagues in the same way.

Regular readers might notice that I missed a topic. Playful writing 5 was “when was the last time you were (feeling).”  I stared at the blank piece of paper-shaped screen for hours, day after day, with nothing to say, knowing that I was going to have to ask my students to do something I currently couldn’t. And my students wrote it last week. They wrote brilliantly, beautifully, and openly. And they inspired me to try again and so later this week I will.

Today, however, the prompt reads:

Write about coffee, ice cream, peanut butter, cheese, or oranges. Feel free to start with “I’m thinking about” or “I remember” but if you’re tired of those prompts try “I’ll never forget …” or “I can’t live without …

I can’t live without… actually, I can live without all of those things. I don’t like ice cream, peanut butter is crazy expensive, I only sort of like cheese, and oranges are a pain to prepare. Coffee is a vice, I admit, but at least once a year I phase it out just to prove I can still do it. To prove I’m not addicted. Coffee headaches are awful, and I really think I feel better when I drink coffee than when I do n’t. But I don’t like the idea of being dependant on anyhting. Maybe this says more about me than if there is a thing.

I know what you’re thinking: “Did she just sway she doesn’t like ice cream?” Yes, I don’t like ice cream. Sometimes I’ll have mint chocolate chip ice cream in a cone and somtimes I throw most of it away. Sometimes I can’t get away with not having ice cream and I have to. But I would rather not if I have the choice. Not because of health, buty just because it’s not very yummy to me.

I don’t think there’s any food or drink that I can’t live without, emotionally. I like variety and  choice and independence from the sorts of claws that addictions can hold. I can give up anything I feel like I might be getting addicted to and I regularly do that . That was what my ramen ban this year was about. I was eating it way too often (according to me!) and needed to make sure I could take it out of my diet. I did it, for a year (except two cheats that I forgave myself for) and I’ll put it back again.

Coffee, let’s explore that. I can live without coffee, but i’d prefer not to. I am nicer, friendlier, and in a  better mood when I’ve had coffee. I smile more, have more energy, and fewer headaches. That’s true even after I’ve given it up for months. One coffee shows me why I should have just kept drinking it. I have a theory about coffee – it is that people who put cream, sugar, chocolate syrup, caramel, and all sorts of other gunk in it don’t actually like coffee. I can’t imagine why they’d spoil the taste of it otherwise.

I am running out of things to say on this topic. That doesn’t happen to me very often but it’s after 1am and I’m tired. I guess I can’t live without sleep (at least not for very long) and I can’t live without my nice warm heater on this cold cold December day. Well, I probably could if I had to.

i do miss things whenI go without them. But I have to prove to myself that  Ican doit. Life is weird and changeable and you never know  when something you couldn’t live without is suddenly six times the price you’re willing to pay for it. Or not available at all.

Free stock photo from

Free stock photo from


Okay, that sucked. Sorry for it, if you managed to read it all. Some notes to myself – I’ve gotta change the products for my students. Probably fried chicken, chocolate, rice, ice cream, and ? (for them to add their own idea). I have to tell them that I couldn’t think of anything I couldn’t live without so that they don’t feel bad if they draw a blank. I might even give them the option of writing about something they would like to give up instead.

Thanks for sticking with me so far.

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