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Developing Writers: A Workshop for High School Teachers

A Writer’s Notebook

“Writing is very difficult. What I like best is having written.”
– Judith Ortiz Cofer

No one knows the anguish and joy of writing better than a writer. That’s why numbers of educational organizations believe those who teach writing should be writers themselves.

That doesn’t mean that you have to be a great elegist or a world-renowned novelist. But understanding the processes of trying to express yourself is invaluable when you are teaching writing.

In this set of workshops, you will have a chance to write along with the teachers featured in this workshop—under the direction of celebrated author Judith Ortiz Cofer.

About A Writer's Notebook

In preparation for this project, four teachers came together in Baltimore to talk about writing. All of the teachers are currently working with high school writers in classrooms around the country. They include:

  • Charles Ellenbogen
  • Susie Lebryk-Chao
  • Lori Mayo
  • Kelly Quintero

During their stay, renowned Latina author Judith Ortiz Cofer stopped by to conduct a writing workshop. She led the group through eight exercises. Along the way, she shared many thoughts from her perspective as a writer and a teacher of writing.

We hope you will use this space just as the teachers in this workshop did — as an inspiration to write and think about writing. There are no rules on what you chose to write for this activity. You can jot down a few ideas on the topic or list important words in your life. Or you can start your first novel. It’s all up to you — the individual activities the writers completed were themed to relate to the topic of each workshop.

We hope you will use this space just as the teachers in this workshop did — as an inspiration to write and think about writing. There are no rules on what you choose to write. You can jot down a few ideas on the topic or list important words in your life. Or you can start your first novel. It’s all up to you.

Workshop 1: First Steps - Reflecting on a Single Important Word

You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she introduces the activity.

“A question that people who don’t practice writing every day ask me often is, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ It’s a funny question to me because I have many more ideas than I have years to live or time to write, you know. There’s always something to write about, but the getting started in writing requires something, a little push, you know. It’s like the little plunge into the swimming pool, you know. When you don’t know how to swim, you’re a little scared of that sort of thing.

“And I talk to my students about the trigger, you know, something that will bring on the need or the interest or the curiosity. And for me that works more with words than even visual images. People are always saying, ‘isn’t that a beautiful sunset. Don’t you want to write a poem about it?’ And I said, ‘No, I think Shakespeare already did that.’ Shakespeare wrote a poem about everything, you know. There’s hardly anything left to write about, but there is because the point is to look at the ordinary with new eyes and to make it new.

“And I’m going to relate just a little anecdote about how I came about to write a poem that’s at the end of a book on writing, a book called Woman In Front of the Sun: On Becoming A Writer. It was a few years ago, about three years ago the vice president of my university said to me at the University of Georgia, ‘We have the most diverse class of freshmen coming in and we want you to be our convocation speaker.’ That was frightening enough, but she said, ‘I’d like for you to compose a poem for the occasion.’

“And of course I went into total writer’s block, which I don’t usually do, but then nobody ever tells me to write a poem. I just write poems. And so to make this not a Puerto Rican story-which would require about a full day to tell-in the summer my vice president said I had until September to do it. I went to visit my mother and she couldn’t stand me sitting at her table groaning about this poem. ‘I have to write a poem, you know, for the students.’ And she says, ‘Let’s go for a ride.’ And she took me to the mountain on the island where she could-I could see the ocean and the sky and it was a glorious, a glorious blue.

“And I said, ‘El Azul . . . blue.’ And she said, ‘Mi cielo, mi mar.’ She always claims that the island and the sky and everything about Puerto Rico belongs to her to try to convince me to move there. She says, ‘How can you find anything more beautiful than this?’ And so I started thinking about this and it gave me the idea that what I needed to do for those students was to show them that the way to bridge differences is to come upon a way to see the beauty in both worlds. And I’ll read you the poem, but the point of it is that it was my mother’s words that triggered this idea that beauty may be different to each beholder, but that, in this world, at this point in our history, we need to find a way to see beauty in both, on both sides of the bridge.”

To Understand El Azul
You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she reads this work.

We dream in a language we all understand,
in the tongue that preceded alphabet and word.
Each time we claim beauty from the world,
we approximate its secret grammar, its silent
syntax; draw nearer to the Rosetta stone
for dismantling Babel.

If I say el azul, you may not see the color
of mi cielo, mi mar. Look once upon my sky,
my sea, and you will know precisely
what el azul means to me.

Begin with this: the cool kiss
of a September morning in Georgia, the bell-shaped
currents of air changing in the sky, the sad ghosts
of smoke clinging to a cleared field, and the way
days will taste different in your mouth each week
of the season. Sabado: Saturday
is strawberry. Martes: Tuesday
is bitter chocolate to me.

Do you know what I mean?

Still, everything we dream circles back.
Imagine the bird who returns home every night
with news of a miraculous world just beyond
your private horizon. To understand its message
first you must decipher its dialect of distance,
its idiom of dance. Look for clues
in its arching descent; in the way it resists
gravity. Above all you have to learn why
it aims each day

toward the boundless azul.

From Woman in Front of The Sun: On Becoming a Writer by Judith Ortiz Cofer
Copyright 2000 by Judith Ortiz Cofer
Used with permission of The University of Georgia Press

The Assignment
You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she gives the assignment.

“First of all, you’re going to do an activity which is a riff on a word or words in the language of your upbringing, in the language of your dreams, in the language of love, or in the language of the teaching of everyday life. What is something that calls you to language? And with the kids, it will be a completely different language, in many cases. But the idea that they can model it on a poem where poets take a word and they go with it. It can be like John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn. It can be a bull that makes you want to write a poem, or it can be the sound of a word.

“And so what I would like for you to do is to take ten minutes and give us a new way to see a word or words by riffing on it, by just letting it go and seeing what connotations it brings to your mind.”

Teachers’ Examples of Writing on This Topic
Kelly Quintero

My friends had special aunts, but I had a life full of titis. In my world, where Spanish-speaking grandparents gave way to “English-only” speaking grandchildren, titi persisted. An aunt was the sister of your mom or dad, but a titi is the woman in your life who represents you. You are related by blood or by love. They cherish you, pamper you, spoil you, chide you. I have Titi Iva, Titi Virginia, Titi Millie, Titi Rae. All of them earned that title, the title that connects me to my heritage. Later, she revisited this piece.

Charles Ellenbogen

The news. Bomb. A long pass in football. Bombe with an “e.” I think it’s a kind of dessert. Bombed. Bourbon Street, too many hurricanes. Bomb. A disaster like the new Ben Affleck movie. Bomb. Someone drives a truck, stops, gets out, walks away. Want to think that I can understand that moment. Bomb. Someone becomes a bomb wrapped in explosives trying to become wrapped in glory, the twisted wreckage and the numbing numbers. This time five of them were children. If you repeat a word often enough, its meaning seems to drain out of it like chewing gum after the first few minutes. But “bomb,” I think, echoes forever.

Susie Lebryk-Chao

Cloud Girl, anchored to the house, to the family, to my duties. Obey, listen, attend were the barbs I heard, but then another voice. “Cloud Girl, Cloud Girl,” my godmother calls, and then I’m more than daughter number one, more than Susie, mispronounced “Soosie,” more even than Snow Cloud, my Chinese name. Cloud Girl, before school, before work, before earth.

Lori Mayo

I have lived in houses that were not home. It makes me think about what home is. Where is home? When am I at home? I am at home on the beach when I hear the waves hit the shore. I am at home in my classroom when I hear pens scratching paper. I am at home in my garden when I see butterflies weave in and out of the flowers that I planted, my flowers and hear my wind chimes making music in the breeze. I am at home with the people that I love and I am at home alone with just me and my thoughts and my feelings, at home with myself.

Into the Classroom:
Judith: “You are sophisticated [writers] and can think in terms of the whole abstraction of home and make it lyrical and beautiful. I find that the younger students start getting mushy, that they start getting abstract, you know. And so what I have them do is to define home according to . . . like the first visual memory that they have of home, their favorite piece of furniture in the home, their favorite room, their least favorite room, their most annoying aspect of home, and so make it like a series of assignments.

And when they finish, they have constructed home. Sometimes I do it by the senses-how does home sound? How does it smell? How does it feel? If you were to go through a room in the dark and make it, you know, that’s a way to teach them sensory details, okay? What are your thoughts on this assignment? What are some variations that you would use?”

Kelly: “To connect this to literature, you could have students pick up one word that they find is used by the author that represents the theme or, as a class, they can generate a list of words and then they can write based on that.”

Workshop 2: A Shared Path - Hiding and Revealing with Language

You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she introduces the activity.

“One of the things that I deal with in my creative writing classes — because they’re unfortunately called creative writing, people assume that it has to do with exaggeration and it has to do with fantasy, and it’s not. The seriousness of the writing is always in question, especially with very young students. And so, at some point in the semester, I always take time to talk about factual truth versus poetic truth.

“And one of the exercises that I give them is this truth and lie exercise, which is [that] there are definite lines between telling the truth and not telling the truth. However, when you’re studying literature, if you read a poem and it moves you and it has to do with experiencing the death of a parent, very few people would say, you know, yeah, that-was this true that the poet really loses a parent? If the poem moved them and it was honest, then the poem stands as literature because it’s . . . the goal of literature is to move people and to change them, not necessarily to tell the factual truth.

“Now the goal of newspapers and the goals of Time Magazine and Newsweek and whatever is to tell the factual truth, and so those things have to be dealt with. And in dealing with the factual truth versus the poetic truth, there’s also another aspect of writing that I’d like to bring up and that is that, yes, fiction involves telling a lot of untruths if not lies and you’d better be really good at it, you know, because in reading a book the last [thing] that you want in reading a story is to have the reader pull back and say, “Wait a minute. I don’t think so. I don’t believe this.”

“And so in training them to write specifically and with sensory details, one of the things that I have them do is to practice making the lies that they tell, (and I tried not to use the word “lies” but rather the imaginative things that they come up with, the creative elaborations that they come up with) as detailed as possible so that the reader is not always questioning.

“The third thing I would like to cover is the contract with the reader. If the reader doesn’t know that what he or she is reading is supposed to be fictional, that’s a violation, and so one of the things that I make clear to the students is that, even though I go from genre to genre, creative nonfiction, fiction or poetry — -at some point in the writing there has to be a clue that indicates that imagination is at work. We don’t have time to go into all that now, but I wanted to clarify that these are matters that are important to make clear in beginning a creative writing class, mainly because other students in the class will feel betrayed, you know, if they think that what they’re reading is a factual account and it turns out to be a total fabrication.

“And so, I usually begin with a little exercise, which . . . the two truths and one lie. .that will bring up these questions and allow us to discuss them. And what I would like to do right now is to tell you two truths and a lie about myself and ask you to guess which one is the lie. Okay?

“The first is I’m a passionate cook. I particularly love cooking Puerto Rican dishes, and I have my relatives mailing me condiments from the island all the time so that I can make pasteles and Arroz y habichuelas and asopao that I love to eat and to cook for my family.

“Two, I’m going to be joining President and Mrs. Bush for dinner at the White House on October 2nd and it has to be at six o’clock because President Bush likes to go to bed early.

“And three, when I’m on my regular teaching and writing schedule, I get up at five o’clock in the morning every day to write, and I have done this for about twenty-three years.

“So, Charles, you seem very self-confident. Which one is the lie?”

Charles: You don’t seem like a morning person. I’m not buying number three.

Judith: Okay.

Kelly: With number one, I think that you do enjoy cooking, but I think you could probably get all those ingredients in your hometown.

Judith: Athens, Georgia? Yes. Okay.

Lori: I have to say number two.

Judith: That that’s the lie?

Lori: Yeah.

Judith: Okay.

Susie: That’s the one I would go with also because I was wondering why you were having dinner with the President. I mean, I can see you having dinner with the President, but I was thinking you would say also that it was because the Ambassador was in town or there was a reason why he was…(people talking over each other)…a state dinner or private dinner.

Judith: Well, I am shocked. I’m so surprised. You don’t think the President would…I’m joking.

Lori: Yeah, I think he would want you to come.

Judith: No. Actually the lie is the cooking part. Anyone who hears this will roll on the floor who knows me because I am such a non-cook, such a total non-cook that my family worries about me. My daughter actually calls me and says, “What’s in your refrigerator?” and she makes me tell her, and I usually say, well, two Lean Cuisines™, you know, and…

Susie: I mean, we’re excited about scrambled eggs. [the group had just eaten breakfast]

Judith: Yeah. Well, yeah, I was. And so that’s the lie. I’m actually going to have dinner with the President and Mrs. Bush on October 2nd and it has to be early, because he does go to bed.

But I am, actually, and it’s only because I have a book coming out and the First Lady is inviting a few writers to celebrate the National Book Festival, and so. . . and I do get up at five o’clock in the morning to write. Charles, I don’t know what you were thinking. I’m usually in bed by nine o’clock and I get up at five o’clock to write and that’s because I’m a mother and a teacher and everything else. That’s the only time I have to write.

. . . “The purpose of this exercise is multi-fold. You can teach, you know, the idea of being specific, like the fact that I added the condiments, you know, or that the President goes to bed early, and that sort of thing, but also it reveals something about people – – that although they want to reveal actually. So it’s a great community-building exercise because they get to choose what they reveal about themselves. There might be somebody who doesn’t look anything like a musician in the classroom. Just like I don’t look like a morning person, and I’m not. It takes two alarm clocks. But they might wish the class to know that, and it might give them a reason to pursue it as a writing exercise, you know, so it is a great community-building exercise.”

Beans: An Apologia for Not Loving to Cook  – A Poem for Tanya
You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she reads this work.

I would like to read a poem that I wrote called, ‘Beans, An Apologia for Not Loving to Cook’ for my daughter, and the reason I wrote it was because she says that the reason I don’t cook is because I’m an old ’70s feminist and I’m making a statement, and actually I just don’t like to cook, but I thought I had real philosophical reasons for not wanting to cook and that they were about oppression of women at the stove in Puerto Rico and watching the women in my family getting up early in the morning to cook for others.”

For me, memory turns on the cloying smell of boiling beans
in a house of women waiting, waiting for wars, affairs, periods
of grieving, the rains, el mal tiempo, to end, the phrase
used both for inclement weather and to abbreviate the aftermath
of personal tragedies. And they waited for beans to boil.
My grandmother would put a pot on the slow fire
at dawn, and all day long, the stones she had dropped in, hard
and dry as a betrayed woman’s eyes, slowly softened, scenting
the house with the essence of waiting. Beans.
I grew to hate them.
Red kidney beans whose name echoes of blood, and are shaped
like inner organs, I hated them in their jaw-breaking rawness
and I hated them as they yielded to the fire. The women waited in turns by the stove
rapt by the alchemy of unmaking. The mothers turned hard
at the stove, resisting our calls with the ultimate threat
of burned beans. The vigil made them statues, rivulets
of sweat coursing down their faces, pooling at their collarbones.
They turned hard away from our demands for attention and love,
their eyes and hands making sure beans would not burn
and rice would not stick, unaware of our longing
for our mothers’ spirits to return back to the soft sac
that once held us, safely tucked among their inner organs,
smelling the beans they cooked for others,
through their pores. The beans took half a child’s lifetime to cook
And when they were ready
to bring to table in soup bowls, the women called the men first
in high voices like whistles pitched above our range,
food offered like sacred, steaming sacrifice to los hombres.
El hambre entered the room with them, hunger
as a spectral presence, called forth from whatever other realm
the women visited when they cooked, their bodies
remaining on earth to watch the beans
while they flew away from us for hours. As others fed, I watched the dog
at the screen door, legs trembling, who whimpered
and waited for the scrap. I hated the growling of pleasure when at last
it got its gory bone. I resisted the lessons of the kitchen then, fearing
the Faustian exchanges of adults, the shape-shifting nature
of women by the fire. Now it is my daughter, who keeps a voluntary vigil by the stove,
She loves the idea of cooking as chemistry, and the Tao
of making food. Her waiting for the beans to boil is a meditation
on the transformative properties of matter; a gift of memory food
from my island. And I come out of my poem to partake, to share
her delight in the art of feeding, like a recently freed captive
of a long-ago war, capable at last of a peaceful surrender
to my old nemesis, el hambre.

From A Love Story Beginning in Spanish: Poems by Judith Ortiz Cofer
Used with the permission of the author
Judith added:
“Of course, that poem took me an entire semester to write, but it was a lie. I had allowed my daughter to believe that my not cooking was a political statement and the poem showed me that it was basically — the women were doing what they wanted to do, so was my daughter.”

The Assignment
You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she gives the assignment.

“I ask you to write a little beginning of something, a poem, an essay, or a story that includes a lie, but it has to be passionate enough or believable enough so that the truth in it and the lie blend. Take 10 minutes to write.”

Other Teachers’ Writing on This Topic

Susie Lebryk-Chao

Outside the most torrents of rain and hurricane wind beating on the small Chevrolet rental. I cannot believe I am where I am, I thought to myself. In the driver’s seat sat a man, a stranger, someone I met at the Hertz counter. I tried to unclench my hands, drop my shoulders, breathe. I need to breathe. Surely, I had in tougher situations arriving at Hunan Province two years ago with only a crash course in Mandarin under my belt. I’d made my way then. I’d get out of this night, this car, alive, but somehow in China I’d been able to talk, to maneuver, while here in the swamps of Louisiana I did not know what to do.

(Susie later explained: the truth is I was in this rental car with a stranger driving me across Louisiana during a hurricane because I couldn’t fly. The planes were canceled. The part that’s not true is I’ve never been to China.)

Lori Mayo

I started my morning on September 11th the same way that I started every morning with an early morning run. I set my alarm clock and got into my running clothes and ran for five miles before going home to get ready for work. It was my routine to run, to shower, to drive to work. I was working in the Superintendent’s office at that time in Flushing, Queens, and the office had spectacular views of the old World’s Fair and Shea Stadium. It also had windows that looked out over the city skyline. As I watched those towers collapse, all I could think about was getting home to my children. It seemed like an eternity with everyone trying to get out of the city. Eventually, I got home. I never wanted to relive that day. I never ran again.

(Lori later explained: Well, you know I get up and I check my e-mail and I have my coffee, so I don’t run, but you know, we do have spectacular views.)

Kelly Quintero

My quinceañera was special. My white dress looked like wedding cake frosting and my frozen smile looked like a freakish doll in a horror movie.

(Kelly later explained: I had a Sweet Sixteen [party], but because I did come from a Puerto Rican family, I always wished that I had the 15-year one. The dress and the freakish smile, unfortunately, were true.)

Into the Classroom:
Susie: “I think [this exercise] would help my students to think about the different truths. I have some students who are scared to write fiction and they also think, you know . . . they’ll say, ‘I know I should write what I know, but my life isn’t that interesting.’ And I think if they started with something in their life, a story, and then to try to give themselves the freedom to depart from that.”

Workshop 3: Different Audiences - Writing for a Specific Audience

You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she introduces the activity.

“One of the concepts that we have to talk about with our students is the concept of audience. They already know what the audience is, believe me, because I hear my students, even at the college level, talking among themselves. And then I hear them in my classroom. And I hear them in the athletic field and they are talking about different types of English. They know the audience. They know how to talk to me usually. They know how to talk to each other and it has to do with tone. It has to do with style. It has to do with many things that they don’t want to hear about.

“But basically, the audience is what you internalize before you begin writing and then forget about it. That’s the way I do it. I mainly don’t write for a specific audience when I am writing work that is generated by my own need to tell a story or write a poem. I get up in the morning and I’m not, . . . and I don’t say, “I think I’ll write this for my mother.” Or, “I’m going to write this as a love poem,” and that sort of thing.

“But occasionally I have to think in terms of audience. But I find that, for me, the best thing to do is to get a general idea of whom I will be trying to convince and then not to think about it again because the audience can also be inhibiting.

“What I would like to do is to tell you about a little piece, an essay that I wrote, non-fiction, not creative, non-fiction, non-fiction. Glamour Magazine asked me to write an article for their journal, for their magazine, which is read (according to the advertisements) by women ages 18 to 34 interested in fashion, weight loss and a few other things. And they also have serious articles. And so they wanted me to write about how Latinas feel like part of the mainstream culture in terms of, you know, clothing, body image and that sort of thing. So I wrote this piece called ‘The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met A Girl Named Maria.’ And I’ll just read you the first paragraph of that.”

The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria
You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she reads this work.

I remember Career Day in our high school when teachers told us to come dressed as if for a job interview. It quickly became obvious that to the barrio girls, “dressing up” sometimes meant wearing ornate jewelry and clothing that would be more appropriate (by mainstream standards) for the company Christmas party than as daily office attire.

That morning I had agonized in front of my closet, trying to figure out what a “career girl” would wear because, essentially, except for Marlo Thomas on TV, I have no models on which to base my decision. I knew how to dress for school: at the Catholic school, I attended we all wore uniforms. I knew how to dress for Sunday mass, and I knew what dresses to wear for parties at my relatives’ homes. Though I do not recall the precise details of my Career Day outfit, it must have been a composite of the above choices. But I remember a comment my friend (an Italian American) made in later years that coalesced with my impressions of that day. She said that of the business school she was attending that Puerto Rican girls always stood out for wearing “everything at once.” She meant, of course, too much jewelry, too many accessories. On that day at school, we were simply made the negative models by the nuns, who were themselves not credible fashion experts to any of us. But it was painfully obvious to me that to the others, in their tailored skirts and silk blouses, we must have seemed “hopeless” and “vulgar.” Though I now know that most adolescents feel out of step much of the time, I also know that for the Puerto Rican girls of my generation that sense was intensified. . . .

Mixed cultural signals have perpetuated certain stereotypes about Latinos-for example, that of the Hispanic woman as the “Hot Tamale” or sexual firebrand. It is a one-dimensional view that the media have found easy to promote. In their special vocabulary, advertisers have designated “sizzling” and “smoldering” as the adjectives of choice for describing not only the foods but also the women of Latin America.

From The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry by Judith Ortiz Cofer
Copyright 1993 by Judith Ortiz Cofer
Used with permission of The University of Georgia Press

The Assignment
You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she gives the assignment.

“What I would like to ask you is: If you were going to write an article for a particular magazine, all on the same subject, like an interview of me as a teacher and a writer, whatever, how would you write the introduction to that article?

“And what I would like to do is to ask me a question or two and, then, based on the information that you get, that you choose a magazine or if you have chosen one already I’d like to know what it is so that we can discuss the idea of how the same material can be presented in different ways, okay?

“So who would like to ask me a question?” Lori: I was thinking in terms of an alumni high school magazine. So I guess the question would be how did your education influence your career choice?

Judith: My early education?

Lori: Well, your high school education.

Judith: Okay. Well, I feel that my most interesting teachers were English and literature teachers. And as a sort of lonely girl — I was the daughter of a Navy man or was the new kid on the block — that reading became crucial to me. And so I wanted to have books in my life and so I knew that I would be a teacher. Later I discovered that I could write and writing, being a teacher, and being a writer has become my dual vocation.

Charles: Uh, what CDs would I find in your car?

Judith: Oh, my God . . . the Buena Vista Social Club, Bruce Springsteen, the Best of the Eagles and I’m dating myself. And all the CDs that my mother sends me from Puerto Rico of salsa music. And I have to tell you this, Santana, you know. Supernatural is worn out.

Susie: Okay, I’m thinking about Seventeen Magazine and me. . . where’d you hang out as a teenager? Did you date? Or were you friends with boys?

Judith: Well, I wanted to be friends with boys. My father was a very strict, traditional Catholic man and so dating was out of the question. And I went out in groups and when I was in Paterson I went to dances with the nuns, you know, with the chaperones. And later, I went to Teen Town on bases, military bases. And usually, my brother was somewhere in the background. It was, you know, how I traveled, how I went around. And so it was mainly family, family parties, a lot of family parties and school-sponsored activities.

Kelly: Who were your idols growing up?

Judith: Who were my idols? I remember Audrey Hepburn, because she was extremely skinny and flat-chested and so was I — you know, it couldn’t be Sophia Loren. So her as a movie star, and I remember that I discovered at Out Of Africa that I didn’t even know how to pronounce her name, Isak Dinesen, you know. I wanted to write as she did. And Jackie Kennedy.

Okay, so now you have your writing time and it will be the introductory paragraph or a few sentences to the article for the magazine that you have chosen.

Other Teachers’ Writing on This Topic
Susie Lebryk-Chao

(In the style of articles in Seventeen.)
When Professor Judith Ortiz Cofer, wearing a bold red sweater and a swishy black skirt drive up, I could hear Santana’s latest blasting out of her car as she bounced in time to the beat. But she did not always dance so openly. In her high school years, Judith hung out at home with her family. “Dating was out of the question,” she recalled as she spoke of her father, a Navy man. “I wanted to be friends with boys, but there was always someone hovering, a brother or a nun.”

Lori Mayo

(In the style of the alumni high school magazine.)

The empty classroom echoed as I sat down to talk to Judith Ortiz Cofer about how her high school experience influenced her career choice to become a writer and teacher. High school classrooms may seem like unlikely places in which students are inspired to make career decisions. Cofer was one of the lucky ones. Deciding that her most interesting teachers were her English teachers, Cofer decided to become one herself. Later in life, she realized that she could write and thus became a writer. Growing up with a father in the military, Cofer found comfort in books, always wanted to be surrounded by them, and now provides treasures of her own for other lovers of story and written work.

Kelly Quintero

(I chose Teen Magazine. I know that that wasn’t one of the choices, but it’s one my students read. It’s called “Idol.”)

Well, I just spotted my idol, the famous poet and author Judith Ortiz Cofer in the ladies’ room at a hotel in Baltimore. She was glorious and glitzy and gorgeous, adjusting her silky hair in front of the mirror. I thought, “Oh, if I could be that poised.” But imagine my surprise when I hear that Ortiz Cofer was not always so confident in front of the mirror. She idolized Audrey Hepburn as a teen, merely because of the actress’s skinny frame and flat-chestedness. Cofer, it appears, chose her teen idol to deflect her own imperfections.

Charles Ellenbogen

(In the style of Rolling Stone.)
Dressed in Johnny-Cash black, Judith Ortiz Cofer, a self-described lonely girl, flips past the salsa CDs her mother persistently sends her from Puerto Rico, lovingly fingers Santana’s Supernatural and family friends which she’s looking for. The anthemic chords of Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA(both talking-laughter), she turns with a kind of Hepburnness, Aud uh, Audrey (laughter-unclear) captured and begins describing her strict Catholic upbringing and her family parties and how these sticking together with their fascinating literature and writing teachers turned into the writer and teacher she is today. “It was Isak Dinesen, I think. I wanted to write like her. I remember the first time I read “Out Of Africa.” It changed my life.”

Into the Classroom:
Judith: The reason that I think that this would be welcomed by the students is that it does allow you to get into a persona. Like you may have noticed how Charles, you know, changed into the reporter for the Rolling Stone. Did you notice? I’m joking, of course, but one way to trick students into loving writing is to allow them to play roles. And so if you tell them, “Write an article about an author,” that’s like, “Oh, God, you know, I have to write an article about an author.”

But if you tell them, “Okay. You’re the roving reporter for Rolling Stone, you know. Go to the library, you know, look up articles and interviews by reporters and imitate that style, you know.” You are likelier to get a piece like Charles wrote and the same way for Glamour. I imagine fifteen-year-old girls of a certain type, you know, would love being the Cosmopolitan, reporter. And giving them the chance to play roles and to try on a different persona and to try on different voices and styles. How would you implement this in the classroom?

Charles: It kind of reminds me of-you’ve spoken about a column’s activity sometimes at a key point in literature-we have a press conference and all the characters, you know, seven or eight students would volunteer to play characters. And I’ll say to the students, you know, “Take ten minutes and write the questions and you get to decide summarily, you know, what kind of newspaper or magazine you’re writing for.” And it gives . . . surprisingly people become very active.

Kelly: Maybe when writing about literature, you could have students adopt the persona of different characters and, you know, write about the same scene. Or be the same character, but write about the same scene for a different audience . . . for the mother instead of the father, or the brother who was angry as opposed to the sister who was happy.

Workshop 4: Different Purposes - Choosing a Form to Reflect a Purpose

You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she introduces the activity.

“One of the things that I’m often asked is, ‘Why don’t I specialize?’ In America almost everybody has a little area that they work on and I’ve been to writing programs where the poets don’t attend the fiction writer’s readings and vice versa and I don’t approve of that. I’m on a campaign to get people to just think of good writing as the thing to pursue.

“And I think, I, as I mentioned earlier, all of my writers, even when it’s advertised as a fiction seminar, have to write a poem and it’s gotten around school. So people who are truly afraid of poetry don’t take my seminars. But I really feel that the study of poetry, if not the writing of it, is an absolute necessity because it is the microscope for language. I think fiction novel writing is the telescope and poetry writing is the microscope and in order to see the meaning in the larger picture, I think you have to learn to examine and see the, you know, the miniscule, you know, the world in a grain of sand.

“And so, this next example and activity has to do with two things. First of all, I write on the same subject or about the same theme in many forms for a couple of reasons: one, I do not lead an exotic and glamorous life. I don’t go elephant hunting and I’m, you know, don’t have a finca in the Caribbean. I have one in Georgia but it’s not as exciting as Hemingway’s and so my life has to provide me with the material for my work.

“That’s not the only reason. It’s not because it’s you know, I’m poor and experienced but also because I believe like Emily Dickinson said, ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’ and I believe that what she meant is that she would look at something and look at it again and look at it in a different slant of light until she had gotten the truth of it. That’s why I like to say that I belong to the Emily Dickinson travel club. You stay in your room and see the world.

“And so, what I’d like to do is to talk about using genres to explore a theme or subject. Most students end up padding, you know, adding things because they don’t have enough to say. What if they were, you know, asked to write on a subject and to go from poetry to prose to examine it from, . . . as non-fiction reporting on themselves, to examine it as fiction and to write poems about it.

“And, I’d like to just share one paragraph from an essay about my early years in Paterson, New Jersey, during the sixties when my father was in the Navy and he disappeared for about six months because he was in this . . . in the embargo. We had no news from him, and I have felt the need to write about this incident as reportage, as fiction, and as poetry. So, here it is in prose.

“We lived in Paterson during the Cuban Missile Crisis somewhere on a ship in the Caribbean. My father was not allowed to communicate with us for several months. It was a very difficult time for my mother, who was used to receiving directions from him by mail. During his long absences he sent us back to Puerto Rico to stay with her mother. Our lives thus followed a certain erratic pattern decided by his travels but this time there was radio silence for so long. We were on our own.”

“This is a poem from my new book in which I use . . . my daughter just received a . . . she was awarded a Ph.D. in mathematics, a very abstract field of mathematics and for six years I’ve been asking her, ‘Now what is it that you do?’ And I still don’t understand it and I send her poems by fax or e-mail and she sends me articles that she thinks I ought to be able to understand.

“This poem came out of a fax that she sent me on the Butterfly Effect, Chaos Theory. A few small incidents can cause gale winds in Iceland. A million butterflies flapping their wings over the Gulf of Mexico can cause El Niño and, of course, I understood it enough to write a poem that has nothing to do with Chaos Theory. So it’s called ‘A Theory of Chaos: October 1962,’ and the phenomenon is my learning English because I needed to.”

A Theory of Chaos: October 1962
You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she reads this work.

Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years. The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every moment is a window on all time. 
–Thomas Wolfe

I was just ten, and far away
from all I had known, when I was sent
to find help for my sick mother.
Ships and warplanes
were gathering around Cuba
and my father was in one of them,
silenced by national security,
dead or alive, we did not know.
I could not speak English
and so was totally alone.
Words in the new language
were simmering in my head
like bees trying to communicate
salvation through dance.
My life was chaos
shaped by chance, biology,
and either el destino
or circumstance. I did not know
or care then
that I carried the coded message
to make language from pure need.

But then,
as I entered the too-bright drugstore
alien as a space ship, sudden
as Ezekiel’s wheel,
mysterious as the Annunciation—
I could understand the speech of people,
I could read the labels,
and raised my head up
to hear the voice
over the loudspeaker.
All was clear,
and fell into place,
even the blinding light.

It had taken ten minutes
of absolute dread, of nearly drowning
in my own chemicals,

and maybe of synapses folding
into dams and bridges: a million butterflies
lifting their minuscule wings as one,
gale winds over Iceland.
And the strange attractor this time
dressed in aqua and pink robes,
and feathers, called down by my mother
from fevered dreams of Guardian Angels
to aid me.

Given the gift of tongues,
my heart and brain
synchronized their wing-beats,
or cranked a secret engine
just long enough to allow
one small, frightened girl to fly
a little, to hover low over the chaos,
and just above where meaning begins.

From A Love Story Beginning in Spanish: Poems by Judith Ortiz Cofer
Originally published in The Watershed Anthology II (LaCrosse: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999)
Used with permission from the author.

Judith added:
“And so, of course, my daughter says, ‘That’s really nice, mother, but it has nothing to do with Chaos Theory.'”

The Assignment
You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she gives the assignment.

“The exercise that I would like for you to consider is: given an incident in your lives or an event that you find unforgettable-for me, it was the six months when we didn’t know whether my father was alive or dead and I had to learn English for the survival of my family, and I’ve written about it and written about it again.

Given an incident, I would like for you to do a little paragraph or the beginning of a poem or a cast of characters and tell me why you would choose to write in the genre that you chose or whether you would choose to mingle it. For example, you can choose to do it as a news flash or you can choose to start it lyrically or you can choose to do like the . . . describe an incident, like a surgery, in lyrical terms. But what I would like is for you to be able to tell me why the subject seemed to demand that form and how you would ask your students to switch genres or to feel free to let the theme call forth the genre needed.”

Other Teachers’ Writing on This Topic
Kelly Quintero

(I remembered a time I was nine years old in the hospital and I imagined, you know, writing a paragraph about it. But, when I was nine years old in the hospital, I didn’t think in terms of paragraphs. So, to tell the story it would be this old lady telling the story of a nine-year-old in the hospital. So I chose a poem to capture those feelings.)

Click, tap, click, my mother’s heels on the hospital tile. Ready for the day? Eating eggs for breakfast. Latex gloves against my skin, piercing needles sucking blood. Eating lettuce with French dressing for lunch. Cold hands on my chest, cold feet on the scale. Smooth pills in my mouth. Brown eyes, blue eyes staring down at the bed. Eating meatloaf for dinner. Click, tap, click, my mother’s heels on the hospital tile.

Charles Ellenbogen

One: A Scene. A phone rings. Hello. Hello, Charles, Kerry. Are you okay, Carey? You don’t sound good. I called because I just got a call from Annie. George died last night. My God, what happened? They don’t know. How’s Annie? She’s on her way there now. She’s visiting her parents. When are the? I don’t know. I’ll call you back when I know.

Two: An Obituary. George Valentine was found dead last night at his home. Valentine, a financial consultant, was 34. The cause of his death is still being investigated. He is survived by his wife, Annie.

Three: An Elegy. George, there’s an order of things and you’ve broken it, pal but then you always were a rebel. Thirty-four, people don’t die at 34, at least not people I know.

Later, he revisited this piece. Here is his updated version:
I   A Scene

phone rings

C: Hello?
K: Hello, Charles. It’s Kerry.
C: Are you okay, Kerry? You don’t sound too good.
K: I just called. I just got a call from Annie. George died last night.
C: My God. What happened?
K: They don’t know.
C: How’s Annie?
K: She’s on her way there now. She was home visiting her parents.
C: When are the –
K: I don’t know. I’ll call you back when I know.

II   An Obituary
George Valentine was found dead last night at his home. Valentine, 34, was a financial consultant. The cause of his death is still being investigated. He is survived by his wife, Annie.

III   An Elegy

George – There’s an order to things and
you’ve broken it, pal, but then, you
always were a rebel.
Thirty-four. People don’t die at
thirty-four. At least not
people I know.

Lori Mayo

(I actually always wanted to write a poem about when my father died and I never did it, so, I couldn’t do it right here in this little bit of time so I kind of wrote it out as just a couple of paragraphs feeling that maybe I could go back and change it into a poem.)

When I tell people now about my father’s death, they react as if it were some kind of miracle that I survived the experience. It was two months after my Sweet Sixteen. He was training for the New York City Marathon, running about 15 miles each day. I called my mother from a friend’s house after school to say I’d be home for dinner. “Okay” she said, “I’ll see you then.” When I got home two or three hours later, the house was empty. There was no smell of dinner on the stove, no sounds of lids being placed on pots. No note. I knew that something had happened but wouldn’t allow myself to think about what that something might be. I just waited. When she finally got home and told me what had happened, that my father, whom I had adored, had suffered a heart attack while running on the boardwalk at Long Beach, I wondered how we would pick up the pieces and move on? We did and it didn’t seem like a miracle at the time. It seems like what we had to do. Years later it still seems like a miracle.

Susie Lebryk-Chao

(What I wanted to remember was my son’s first day of school which was, you know, for me a pretty emotional experience, so I did it from his point of view to see if I . . . I didn’t want to be mushy about it.)

My mom put out clothes for me today and made me a lunch. I had breakfast, a waffle and juice then we went to the porch. I had a school bag, a backpack to put on. Then we were lined up and my dad took pictures. Next, we walked down to the street. My mom kept looking down the street and touching my hair. Then the yellow bus — it was big — pulled up and I climbed on. I sat by the window and remembered to wave. Why was my mom crying?

Later, she revisited the piece. Here’s what it looks like now:
DRAFT 9/16/03

Sam, September 2000
My mom put out my clothes
and made me a lunch.
But first I had breakfast,
a waffle and juice.
Then we went to the porch,
me with my new blue schoolbag
Then we lined up
and my dad took pictures.
Next we walked to the street.
My mom kept looking down the street
and touching my hair.
The big yellow bus pulled up,
and I climbed on.
I sat by the window
and I remembered to wave.
Why was my mom crying?”

And cry I did. But why? What exactly moved me? Was it my firstborn taking a step away from me? No one had ever been in my presence so constantly. Or was I relieved to finally be out of the diaper, wipes, Gerber baby food stage of our lives? What after all was there to be sad or proud about?

Honestly, I’ve had lots of first days of school, over 30 of them, and none of them are clear in my mind. I know I entered P.S. 107 as a non-English speaking child but I couldn’t tell you what I wore or whether I bought or brought lunch or whom I sat next to. I could tell you that my teacher Mrs. Thelma Sachs was nice, that she made me feel comfortable holding a pencil.

First days of school perhaps are better defined by the nights before, when I sleep fitfully. I wake on the hour, and eyes half-closed, swiftly calculate the time left before the alarm (which has been off all summer), then I beat the alarm anyway, the morning air suddenly too cool.

September 2000. I picked out green cargo shorts and a striped polo for Sam. For his lunch, I made sure the juice box had a straw and I pre-opened the snack bag for easy access. Sam came home the first day and said that he had met a boy who also liked Power Rangers. In contrast, my dominant impression of that day is the horror story of a five-year-old boy dropped off in front of 7-11 in the middle of Seven Corners instead of at his after school daycare. But here’s Sam’s version of his first day, in his words, as opposed to my made-up poem: “I remember being scared, then doing all these activities, and coming home being happy.”

Parents invest so much in the stages of their children’s lives – we have that luxury these days – but maybe it’s not that big a deal for the kid. For Sam, an experienced third grader now, back to school means meeting new kids and recess every day. He reports that his teacher Mrs. Felderman is a good teacher because she’s nice and teaches good things about crickets and caves.

Sometimes I am consumed by all the differences between going to public school in the seventies in New York City and going to school today in the suburbs of northern Virginia. But maybe I should brush all comparisons of lunch cards, backpacks, technology, Kiss N Ride away, and remember that school, once first days are done, brings a rhythm that is comforting and fresh for both of us.

Into the Classroom:
Susie: I think that have, my students don’t have a lot of experience writing personal essays and I would like to have them try topics from different angles, seeing it from somebody else. How does somebody see you?

Judith: What kind of assignment would you make that would result in a mixed genre?

Lori: I think maybe giving the kids a choice of the genres that they’ve experienced throughout the course of this semester and just asking them to stick to one theme or one point in their life or something that they’re exploring and, you know, maybe offer them the opportunity to do pick writing it in two or three genres.

Workshop 5: Usage and Mechanics - Storytelling and Grammar

You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she introduces the activity.

“One of the hardest things to do in a creative writing classroom, I think, is to talk grammar because people always want to be allowed to be creative in that area. ‘I don’t feel like punctuating today. I’m a poet.’ And so it’s, for me, particularly important in my undergraduate classrooms to incorporate the rules or strong suggestions about usage and grammar into the idea that good writing is paying attention to usage and that they will have license to use fragments as soon as they win the Nobel Prize in literature and then they can stop capitalizing if they wish you know, and they can be e. e. cummings or Hemingway. In the meantime, they can use language creatively but it has to have sentence sense.

“And so one of the things that I am doing now is I am writing a book for Scholastic, a novel and I have asked them to let me use my poetry to construct it as a series of scenes, one or two-page scenes. So, the novel is at this point, the working title is My Life in 100 Scenes and it’s a story of a girl who calls herself Maria Alegre when she’s feeling good and Maria Triste when she’s not. And she lives in a basement apartment in Paterson, New Jersey where I grew up and she’s very creative but she has a thick Puerto Rican accent, so they’ve put her in ESL and, in order to keep herself interested and not be bored, what Maria does is she takes every grammar lesson and makes it into something about herself, something in her journal. And so, Mister Golden is her ESL teacher. He’s a forbearing, a patient man, you know, who is trying to teach this United Nations of America, you know, the English language.

“And so, I’m just going to read like three scenes from My Life in 100 Scenes. And the first one is the basic lesson, an interrogative sentence and he says “An interrogative sentence asks a question. It begins with a capital letter and ends with a question mark. These are interrogative sentences.”

“And so, Maria does it in the form of a dialogue. She reconstructs the class.”

Three Readings
You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she reads this work.

ESL: Why am I here?
An interrogative sentence asks a question. It begins with a capital letter and ends with a question mark.

These are interrogative sentences:
Mr. Golden: I will give you examples then you will turn to the person on your right and ask them a question:
Mr. Golden: May I have your complete attention?
Classmate: Are you stupid?
Mr. Golden: What do they eat in your country?
Classmate: Is your family on welfare?
Mr. Golden: Do you speak English?
Will you speak up?
Will you shut up?
Why do I bother?
Let us try again: Are you an American?
Class: Will this be on the test?

Make interrogative sentences from these words:
your excuse
in school
at home
a friend of yours
a friend of mine
good teacher
angry man
your language
about my country
work for our money
an American

Judith added:
“And so that’s one of the ESL lessons. The other one is that she shows Mister Golden one of her poems that is a bilingual poem. And he says, ‘You’re a poet.’ And so this one is on the exclamatory sentence.”

ESL: I am a poet!
An exclamatory sentence is a strong emotion expressed in words. It begins with a capital letter and ends with an exclamation mark.

These are exclamatory sentences:
Mr. Golden is a musician!
Mrs. Golden is a singer!
He thinks I am a good writer!
I wrote a poem!
He wrote music for my words!
She wants to record it as a song!

Use these words in exclamatory sentences:
the poetry contest
laughing at me
happy in English
happy in Spanish
end of the year assembly

And the last lesson is the subject of a sentence. It’s called “I Am a Poet”:
ESL: I am a poet.
Subject of a Sentence
The subject of a sentence is the part talked about.

The subjects of these sentences are underlined:
The girl thinks she is an American.
María thinks she is good in English.
The girl can write.
María speaks with an accent.
The poem has an accent just likeMaría’s.
The poem is bilingual.
The teacher likes María.
He said to the class, why can’t you be more like María Alegre?
He said to the class, why must you always act like fools?
The class laughed at María.

Find the subject in these sentences:
Their laughter is what María Alegre feared.
Their mockery of her accent, their teasing about her poetry
turned her into María Triste.
Poets are often unhappy, Mr. Golden said and almost always poor.

From Call Me Maria: My Life in 100 Scenes by Judith Ortiz Cofer
Used with permission from Orchard Books/Scholastic

The Assignment
You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she gives the assignment.

“My challenge to you is to do what Maria Alegre, sometimes Maria Triste, did and to find a way to use and teach the English language by writing a few sentences that are declarative sentences, interrogative sentences, exclamatory sentences. In making the list of sentences, say something, tell a story or be an anecdote.”

Other Teachers’ Writing on This Topic
Susie Lebryk-Chao

(This is titled “Summertime.”)
The air conditioning goes out. I’m going crazy. Why don’t you call the repairman and the doctor and the dentist? A tree falls on our fence. Get me out of here. Why don’t you call and get several quotes then go to Home Depot? I drive to the grocery store, to camp, to the library, to the video store. Give me a break! What do you do all day, anyway?

Lori Mayo

“You have a lot of nerve to be unhappy,” my ex-husband shouted to me across the terrace. “Do you know how many women would love to live your life?” “No,” I wondered, “how many?” All I knew and all I cared about was that I was not happy, but how could I do this to my children? “It’s better to come from a broken home than to live in one,” my best friend told me. I hate clichés. There is no black and white, no easy answer. It was not easy. “Nobody said it would be easy,” my mother quipped.” It was not easy but I did it. I am free. I am happy, most of the time.

Lori later revisited this piece. Here’s how she expanded it:
Emergency Mask
“You have a lot of nerve to be unhappy,”
he says, as i stare at a jar of
Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion
that sits on my dressing table
and wonder, do I?
And is it?

“Do you know how many women would love
to live your life?,”

He asks, as I think

Maybe I should try the
Turnaround Creme or the
Deep Cleansing Emergency Mask.

He delivers a soliloquy on
how lucky I am and
I hear him but it must be a foreign language, he speaks,
and I can’t make sense
of a

When I look in the mirror, I realize
that the lines of this play are not mine
and I can’t find my voice, and the words
can no more be erased than the lines on my face and
I wonder
if they make a disappearing cream.

Charles Ellenbogen

(This is called “Grammar, A Love Poem”.)
I wanted to be the subject of my sentence. I wanted to be the verb in my life. I wanted to be the adjective in my headline. I am one. You are two. One and two makes we. What will be in our lives? When will we become three? What will the rest of our story say?

Kelly Quintero

(It’s hard to go last because everyone here, you know, I feel, is a poet or has access to poetry but what was interesting for me is that’s not my talent and yet having to use certain grammatical forms, certain kinds of sentences, helped me actually to write a poem without fretting so much. So here it goes. I don’t have a title.)
There is a glass cup on the table. There is a lemon wedge on the rim of the glass cup on the table. Why do I feel like that lemon wedge, teetering on the rim, about to fall into the cup, when I am nervous? I’d like to feel like the lemon wedge swimming contentedly in a pool of ice water instead. Imagine being a lemon.

Into the Classroom:
What are some of the ways you integrate grammar and mechanics instruction into your curricula?

Workshop 6. Providing Feedback on Student Writing - Using Sensory Description

You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she introduces the activity.

“How does peer editing work with creative writing? The way I run my workshops is that everyone has to learn to be an editor. They have to agree to this even before they take the workshop. Everyone is required to produce their manuscripts one . . . at least one week ahead of their scheduled workshop and then they put them. . . a copy in everyone else’s files and everyone reads the manuscript and critiques it in writing. And then, on the day of the workshop, the author reads the manuscript and the rest of the class critiques orally also.

“And so the rules of the workshop is that they have to learn the vocabulary of the editor and they have to become familiar enough so that the comments are not general or destructive, like ‘This doesn’t work,’ ‘It really stinks,’ or whatever, none of that. It has to be. ‘This sentence doesn’t quite work for me.’ ‘I believe that we should examine the syntax.’ Of course, I’m not going to get them to talk like that, but something close, and to offer positive suggestions.

“The other way that it works is really valuable, and I tell them that it’s a privilege to have a board of editors that are looking at your manuscript. You not only get fifteen other, you know, responses to their work but a lot of inaccuracies-historical, geographical, and otherwise-come up. And young writers will sometimes think that it doesn’t matter. ‘I’m writing fiction. I can just invent, you know, a season for this fruit, or I can just, you know, put a building in Baltimore that, you know, doesn’t belong there,’ And I have to go with . . . into the explanation of that part of suspending your disbelief and reading is being able to trust the writer not to be fooling you.

“And so, yes, you can put a building that doesn’t exist in Baltimore, but there have to be many other buildings that do exist so that you do believe it, so you still have to learn Baltimore. If you’re setting a story or poem on the day that President Kennedy was killed, you can’t invent the historical events that were happening. What can you invent if you’re setting a poem or a story on any historical day? Well, the emotions, you can invent the characters’ emotions. You can create a character very unlike yourself and have him go through the motions on that day.

“I have a story um, called ‘American History’ that’s often anthologized and most people think that I’m the character in it. It’s a girl who happens to have a crush on . . . a Puerto Rican girl who has a crush on an American boy, and the President gets shot but she’s not thinking about that. She’s in love. And so, the point of the story is that even great tragedies are in the background of human events, and I wanted it to be believable. But I was only ten that year and the girl is fifteen. That doesn’t matter. I still have to research it. And I thought I had done a good job. And I am going to read you just the last paragraph where the girl has been through a terrible day, a broken-hearted … and she is about to call it a day.”

American History
You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she reads this work.

That night, I lay in my bed, trying to feel the right thing for our dead president. But the tears that came up from a deep source inside me were strictly for me. When my mother came to the door, I pretended to be sleeping. Sometime during the night, I saw from my bed the streetlight come on. It had a pink halo around it. I went to my window and pressed my face to the cool glass. Looking up at the light I could see the white snow falling like a lace veil over its face. I did not look down to see it turning gray as it touched the ground below.”

From The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry by Judith Ortiz Cofer 
Copyright 1993 by Judith Ortiz Cofer
Used with permission from The University of Georgia Press

Judith added:
“I felt so good when I wrote that ending. I thought it’s lyrical. It brings to closure, you know, it has the right tone and that sort of thing. I had looked at newspapers of the day that the president was shot. It said, very cold in Paterson with some precipitation. I interpreted precipitation to mean snow. It was November after all.

“I read that story in Paterson a few years ago and an older gentleman in the audience came up and said, ‘Young lady, that story’s not accurate.’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s fiction.’ He said, ‘No, I mean historically accurate.’ He said it wasn’t snowing that day. It was raining. He remembered it. He had been delivering papers. He had a right to remember. He had been out in the weather, and I felt really bad. I didn’t change my ending. You know, I felt, okay, a little snow. I’m allowed a little snow. But, basically, ‘Somewhere the rain must have turned to snow,’ I said to myself, and . . .

“But the point of this is that when you set something in a particular locale on a particular day, you owe it to the reader to be accurate or they will feel betrayed. That’s the contract.

“The other thing is close observation, you know. If you are talking about a particular day and the day is important, then go to the trouble to look it up and now, with the Internet, it’s become so easy.”

The Assignment
You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she gives the assignment.

“Your assignment is to describe in as much sensory detail in a paragraph or a scene the day that you . . . arrived in Baltimore for this project. And then the peer review will be that your colleagues will see if they remember the day similarly. And the point is that the impressionistic details will be yours, you know, but the historical and geographical details belong to everyone.”

Other Teachers’ Writing on This Topic
Lori Mayo

“Kelly Quintero, please pick up on the airport phone and dial zero.” I held the sign up with Kelly’s name as the driver had her paged. Being one of the last people off the plane, I had a hunch that Kelly was not on the same flight as I was. The driver and I waited for ten or fifteen minutes and decided to head out to the hotel. Carol used the word “sultry” in her letter describing the weather in Baltimore during the summer. I call it oppressive. The cool air conditioning in the hotel lobby felt wonderful on my already damp skin. I went to check in but my room was not ready. Carol, her husband, and their son met me in the lobby and brought me upstairs to the room where we would be shooting and I met Ann and Dale. We chatted for a bit until my room was ready. I met Susie but she had . . . was here with her family. I had been briefly introduced to Charles, who asked if I wanted to have dinner, but I wanted the luxury of spending time alone. I walked around the harbor enjoying the now cool night air and enjoyed dinner outdoors at one of the pier restaurants. The area was lovely, and I enjoyed looking out over the water. I was looking forward to more of that over the next few days and I hope to meet Kelly.

Kelly Quintero

(My story starts after your paragraph, your first paragraph ended.)
A man was standing in a crowd holding a card with my name on it just like in the movies. I regretted not having a sleek pair of sunglasses to complete the aura of real Hollywood debut. Quickly, the star luster wore off as I couldn’t find my small black suitcase on the baggage carousel. As I drove away from the airport without my world, I could barely pay attention to the driver as he attempted to point out the sites. He described various neighborhoods and restaurants, but I was still caught up in the realization I would have not clothes to wear to these restaurants and neighborhoods. Having pity on me, the driver offered to bring me to a store to buy some toiletries. We ended up at a 7-11. The driver purchased coffee and I purchased the entire store.

Susie Lebryk-Chao

I began Monday, August Eighteenth in Freemont, Ohio. Nine hours later I was on the outer loop of [Rte] 695, heading into Baltimore, I-95, then exiting on Conway Street which turned into Pratt and then the street the hotel was one. I couldn’t remember the name. Stepping out of my car I was reminded of the humidity I had left behind for a week. The Pier Five was purple grape dark. The late afternoon seemed only to grow warmer as I crossed the footbridge to the black and white aquarium building. Some dance music was coming from the Hard Rock….

Charles Ellenbogen

The cab was supposed to come at three but when I opened door to bring in the mail at two forty-five, Tomar, as he would later introduce himself, was already there. My wife would have been unfazed. “He’s early,” she would have said. “Take your time.” But my wife was not there, so I zipped my bag, checked my pockets and settled into the cab. As soon as he pulled away, a nagging question emerged. Did I lock the door?

Nine dollars and 10 minutes later we arrived at the hotel and more nagging questions stepped out of the cab with me. Is this the right hotel? Were there more hotels in this chain? Where was my welcoming committee? I checked in and, to my relief, the front desk I had my name. I was given a tote bag and directed to the Harbor Club. When I entered, I was amazed. I couldn’t believe how much equipment filled the room. But I was grateful to find out that we were filming at the hotel, but it was mildly disconcerting to be recognized having only corresponded with any of these people on the phone and via email. Also, I had been promised that two of the other teachers would already be there. Another question. In the absence of chalk dust, how do you recognize a teacher in the crowd?

Into the Classroom:
How would you use an assignment like this with your class? How might you extend or amend the activity?

Workshop 7: Learning From Professional Writers - Writing a Picture of Me

You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she introduces the activity.

“One of the things that people always ask a writer is how do you motivate yourself to write when you don’t have a teacher saying, ‘Your assignment is due in a week.’ How do you make yourself write things like poetry? I’m not talking about articles where some editor might be saying, you know, ‘Well, there’s a check waiting for you,’ but actually the kind of works that I do which is self-fulfilling work, work that I need to do, that I want to do, and yet, it’s not something I get up in the morning and say, ‘I think I’ll write a poem. It’s so much fun.’ Actually, it’s the opposite. Writing is very difficult. What I like is having written and most people won’t admit that, but I have been doing it for long enough to admit the fact that I have an idea in my head and I wish that it would just put itself on the page without me.

“And so one of the things I want to start discussing is how to get through this, especially the younger students to understand that there is fulfillment in writing, but it only comes after the discipline and the work of the writing.

“The first thing in sort of writing is to cancel that internal sensor, the voice of your mother or your third-grade teacher or whoever saying, ‘You can’t write.’ You know, ‘You better learn your grammar first,’ you know. ‘Who do you think you are?’ and that sort of thing. It is very important to cancel that voice. It doesn’t mean that you suspend the rules. It just means that you don’t have that nagging voice in your head.

“What I want to talk about is, first of all, the idea that writing, like yoga, requires, you know, a sort of relaxation into it. You have to believe that you can do it. And secondly, that no one starts by thinking, ‘I am going to write a three hundred-page novel.’ We start by thinking, ‘I think I will write one page today and then another one tomorrow and then another one the next day.’ And actually, I have a novel coming out that’s under two hundred pages and it took me five years, and it doesn’t take a mathematician to figure that if I had written one page a day for five years, it would be a little longer than two hundred pages. And so, there’s also the concept of you have to learn to throw away and to revise.

“The way that I have found to do that is to think small. There’s a wonderful poet named Richard Hugo who has a little book called The Triggering Town and my favorite quotation in the book is ‘Think small. If you have a large mind, it will show itself.’

“And so the exercise that I would like to discuss with you . . . I’d like to illustrate is the idea of segmenting the work so that instead of presenting a huge assignment to the students, it’s [smaller] subjects uh, such as we are going to do the autobiography of my body. Take a body part instead, a body part per week. And the reason that I chose that subject is that I was involved in such an assignment myself. I was asked to contribute on a book on body images, and I had one month to write the essay so I gave myself the assignment of writing about some aspect of my body image, a little bit, one paragraph a day or a mini-essay. And so I usually start even my prose assignments by thinking about them as poems, because to me a poem is concentrated language. It gets everything you want to say in an economical package as possible, and a lot of my poems have come from my own need to think about a subject in a very concentrated way. So even before I read to you my example of the body part assignment, I’d like to read a little poem that . . . I assigned this poem. . . the subject of the poem to all of my classes, and, of course, everyone is afraid of poetry especially when they take a class called Fiction Writing from me, and I’ll say, well, we’re starting the class off with a poem, but I tell them that it doesn’t matter how bad the poem is. The point is to concentrate a memory, to concentrate it, to take a snapshot, and so because I want them to take a snapshot, the title of the poem is always, ‘Here is a Picture of Me.’

“And so I wrote this poem about myself as a young teenager in Paterson, New Jersey, and my memory was of . . . one of our neighbors had one of the first Polaroid cameras. That’s how old I am, you know, and everyone was amazed by the fact that you could get a picture out immediately, and so of course, this was me posing. It’s called, ‘Here is a Picture of Me.'”

Here is a Picture of Me
You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she reads this work.

Balancing myself, hands on hips,
feet lined one after the other
on a cement wall between city buildings,
in the background a broken fire-escape
I used as a swing, as a trapeze.
I am skinny and brash, thirteen or fourteen,
aware of my bones, of the angles and curves
reforming my skin. I am challenging gravity
in my tight checked Capri pants
and man’s shirt tied at the waist, pulled taut
over the one-eighth of an inch padded points
waiting to fulfill their promise.
What was I thinking while I posed
for my neighbor’s new Polaroid camera?
My parents are outside the frame, waiting
to see if the present moment can really
be captured on film. In seconds,
my mother will exclaim ¡Oye!
and ¡Mira! as I emerge from a milky bluish sea
spilling into the black square she holds
open-palmed, taller and older
than she remembers me only sixty seconds ago.
Father will look away as if he has suddenly heard
something in the distance,
perhaps a fire alarm.

From A Love Story Beginning in Spanish: Poems by Judith Ortiz Cofer

The Assignment
You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she gives the assignment.

“What I would like to ask you to do is to take a body part, any body part or an element of yourself, physical selves and write a few sentences — as sensory as possible, as detailed as possible — as the beginning of either a poem, an essay or a story called ‘The Story of My Body’ or ‘Here is a Picture of Me.'”

Other Teachers’ Writing on This Topic
Kelly Quintero

(I was thinking of focusing on my hand, but I had a little mole that probably no one can see but I can see and it’s been a really big issue, so I focused on that.)

A brown, small mole. A beauty mark, my mother said. A way to know your right from your left, my mother said. A mole. An ugly, dirty mole. The boy in Mrs. Nussbaum’s first-grade class said, . . .

(and I go on to talk about the feelings that I had.)

Lori Mayo

(I just called it “The Story of My Body” or “Here is the Picture of Me,” the same way that you did, and I started it out with a quote. It was a conversation that I had with my mother, so it starts out by…)

How did you let me go out like that, I asked my mother when I look at pictures of my early childhood days? Her reply is always the same. You were beautiful. This, I know is not true. Maybe in her eyes. Certainly not in mine. It was my hair, wiry, brillo, a white girl with nappy hair. I so wanted it to be straight, but I can still remember the smell of it sizzling under my mother’s iron. It was the early Seventies and all the other girls had long, silky straight hair and oh, how I wanted that hair. I thought of shaving my head and starting over to see if it would grow in straight if it was given a second chance. Finally, I gave up and gave in and let it grow and let it curl and let it be, and now people tell me I have beautiful hair, and I smile and remember how my mother made me feel like I was beautiful, even when it wasn’t true.

Charles Ellenbogen

(For some reason, but I do know, I did start with my hands.)

These hands that write these words can do little else. They cannot build and they cannot sculpt, they cannot play. But I’ve come to a point at the end of my fingers when I’ve realized that they can do all that and sometimes more with just one instrument. I build with words, I sculpt with words and the words of others and in the minute, moments can make music and I realize that these hands can hold all that is tragic and true, cryptic and crucial, lonely and loved, and I know that it’s that trying to hold a snowflake in my hands.

Susie Lebryk-Chao

For much of my life, I did not know I was short. Although today I recognize that I could not reach the shelves in the grocery store and though I can buy clothes in the children’s section, for many years I thought I was tall. Then I went to college, and beyond the wide spaces and old buildings and lawns, I was most startled that I had to look up at the other students in the dorm. I had to tilt my head at a forty-five-degree angle to meet John from Texas or Mike from Pennsylvania. I’d see the sun and have to squint. This new awareness had the effect of making me feel small.

Into the Classroom:
How would you use this assignment with your students? What are some of the challenges this might present to young writers?

Workshop 8: Writing in the 21st Century - Writing About Technology

You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she introduces the activity.

“One of the interesting things about teaching is how ancient your students believe you are. If I mention that I lived through the Sixties, they immediately start asking me how the Great Depression, you know, affected me than the one I’m going through now.

“But one of the things that has changed dramatically and within my lifetime is how one writes and communicates. When I first decided that I wanted to write for publication, I faced a dilemma. I had just gotten out of graduate school, so all we had was a very ancient portable typewriter that the keys got stuck, and two, I had never learned to type. And so, all of my work . . . my husband had to type for me because he went to a school that taught him, you know, practical skills, and so that put a strain on many aspects of my life.

And I remember that one of the first things that happened when we found out that there were personal computers available-and at that time they were still monstrously large and expensive-is that we went into debt and bought one because we could not deal with this [practice] of my husband coming home from work and my needing to get a manuscript in the mail and I was making one mistake per word and that sort of thing. It could have literally made me decide not to go on, as silly as that is. Some thought I could afford a typist. But even at that primitive stage, with the, you know, floppy disk being about this big and getting stuck in there occasionally, it still changed my life. It changed my life completely. I became a mater of my own writing process, you know, and it allowed me to make revisions quickly that would take me forever and now, to me, is still extraordinary.

“Just this past week I picked up a new skill. I now . . . I learned how to make my Microsoft Word program automatically outline my book of poems and it was magic to me.

“And so I say this as an introduction because when I first started teaching, about 23 or 24 years ago, it was completely different than what it is now. I have students who will bring their portable printers with them to school and borrow somebody’s outlet, and they’ll be printing a story right before, you know, we come into the classroom. It’s instant.”

Hispanic Barbie With Accessories
The tiny brown girl in Toys. The dirty pink sneakers she wears. The boxed brown Barbie she holds. The angry woman rushing up center aisle screaming “No!” The frown she wears, forehead split, the hatchet-halves of fury. The clerk walking through the mirrored wall. The angry woman yelling “No!” The clerk, “Hey, you. Stop!” The tiny brown girl grasping boxed doll, face frozen into mask of wild resolve, tearing at plastic bubble. Hispanic Barbie smiling and smiling within, stunning in hot pink, off-the-shoulder Mexican peasant blouse and frilly rickrack trimmed black skirt, matching black and fuchsia shoes and purse.

Little brown girl in dirty pink sneakers attacking impenetrable package, using fingers and nails, mouth and teeth. Now a wild thing. Tiny brown girl quivering, mouth shaping without sound syllables we all know. Ma-ma, she mouths. We, standing near the end of Toys. The woman-in-a-rage cutting through, screaming “No!” Clerk in executioner stance, arm-slicing air. Pointing. “Hey. You. Stop!” Tiny brown girl letting Hispanic Barbie with accessories in her clear, plastic bubble, go. Little brown girl begins letting go. Letting go. Letting go. Mouth opening in anguish, in loss, a cry to stop time. We, bored bargain-hunters, late-in-the-season-shoppers, it stops time for us. Hispanic Barbie falling on the shiny tile floor.

We at Toys stare. Girl going limp as if bones had dissolved, sinking into shame. Letting go. Pool of shame at her feet. Hispanic Barbie, in an impermeable plastic dome, middle of it all, safe from the storm, smiling and smiling, dressed to kill in hot-pink, off-the-shoulder top, frilly rickrack trimmed black skirt, matching accessories. Clerk, pointing, arm a sword. Woman wearing anger, body plunged through shattered windshield, cutting through silent crowd. Grabbing child. Pool of shame. Dirty, wet, broken doll. Doll-mouth now open, now closed in consonant and one round vowel, consonant and one round vowel: Ma-ma. Sounds beginning and ending the world. Little brown girl screaming, again and again.

We near the end of Toys. We look away: packaged choices in racks, long checkout lines, shiny black and white tiles. Hispanic Barbie safe in impermeable bubble. Puddle of shame. We, standing in Toys. Little brown girl carried away in terrible embrace.

From A Love Story Beginning in Spanish: Poems by Judith Ortiz Cofer 
Originally published in The Vestal Review (Volume 14, July 2000)
Used with permission from the author.

The Assignment
You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she gives the assignment.

“I’m sure all of you have been asked by your schools to learn a new technological skill every year and to implement it in the classroom. This can both be a great benefit and a hardship for teachers who are, you know, burdened with a lot of material to cover anyway. I was wondering if you could share with us some . . . what have been, you know, the uses of technology and what do you project for the future, you know, . . . what do you see happening in your classrooms with technology?”

Other Teachers’ Writing on This Topic
Charles Ellenbogen

Periodically I get asked if one day books will disappear, that everything will just be read online. I don’t think it’ll happen. I believe reading is not just a visual activity but also a tactile one. Still, the question itself suggests how much has changed since my days as a middle schooler when teachers were still using carbon paper and there was big excitement when the TRS 80 computers were delivered. Despite the presence, I never got or sought much technical training. And so I’ve arrived in the 21st Century as a teacher having recognized the need to incorporate technology into the classroom but without the confidence or the aptitude to proceed in a consistent manner. I have tried things beyond word processing like Web Quest and PowerPoint Presentations with mixed success. It requires a new kind of teaching and a new kind of writing, and now that I have sought more training I do have more confidence and competence with technology.

Kelly Quintero

My mother typed all of our papers on a blue typewriter that took up a place of honor, the floor of the living room behind the large plant. My brothers carried it out for her whenever one of us (and there were four) announced we had a paper due usually the night before. She’d type away until the morning. When we’d wake up, there’d be a flawless manuscript awaiting us, marred only by the heavy blotches of White-out next to a plate of pancakes or Cream of Wheat. By the time I entered college, my mother gave up her job as a personal secretary. My parents purchased a computer outfitted with a word processing program and a printer.

Lori Mayo

There’s never enough technology support in public schools and learning to use technology effectively is time-consuming. That said, if we think about schools as places for kids, we really need to provide them with opportunities to use technology that they’re comfortable with and to learn with them about up-and-coming technology.

Susie Lebryk-Chao

With a certain audience, those born in the ’60s or earlier, the loose-leaf paper and manual typewriter, electric typewriter, word processor progression elicit smiles of recognition. Revision became easier and more inviting. I loved making the move between paper and pen and computer. However, I worry some whether they’re those born in the ’90s feel the same opportunity for revision. Isn’t it ironic that the technology that makes revision more manageable also makes it appear less necessary? Writing may look finished but is it really more polished and thoughtful?

Into the Classroom:
How have you and your students responded to new technologies available for writers?