CJ's Writing Room

For the Classroom

Ghosts in Madagascar by Lee Atkins

Ghosts in Madagascar

After the grueling sixteen hour flight from JFK airport to Johannesburg, South Africa (I did not sleep), and after the subsequent five hour flight from J-burg to Antananarivo (capital of Madagascar… again, I did not sleep), AND after the third and final two hour flight from Tana’ to Fort Dauphin, in southern Madagascar- I had finally arrived.

We spent the first five days in Fort Dauphin gathering supplies, learning cultural taboos, and drinking a fair amount of the local beer. From this impoverished port city we trekked fifteen miles to the remote village of Mahatalaki, where we would be spending the next thirty days working on the construction of a secondary school building, eating rice & beans, hiking, eating rice & beans, reading, eating rice & beans, drinking local beer, and eating rice & beans (I have seldom eaten rice & beans since, but I still long for the beer).

The human ability to adapt to one’s environment is astounding- two weeks in such a beautiful place, with the rich desert landscape (deforestation has destroyed 80% of Madagascar’s famous rainforests), green and red mountains, indescribable beaches, and I was more physically and spiritually content than any other time in my life (I was also 40lbs under weight, and hallucinating about cheeseburgers and pizza). The one aspect of Malagasy life that I could not get used to was the ghosts.

One does not need to visit Madagascar; one may simply search any academic archive, and discover that the Malagasy people are innately superstitious. From the most uneducated farmer, to Politicians in Tana’- Malagasy people whole heartedly believe in the undead. Of course skeptical does not even begin to describe my initial reaction to many of the stories I heard from local villagers, but like the inevitable rice & beans, I became used to the concept.

I became used to a great many things: sleeping on the ground, sleeping on the wet ground, sleeping in full rain gear, warm beer, even rice & beans (the rice & beans, and I had a very tumultuous relationship), but the one thing I could never get used to was the damn ghosts.

Imagine: you wake up in the middle of the night with that quite familiar sharp discomfort in your pelvis- you have to pee, now! You rummage through your sack for your head torch and sandals, and exit your tent in the direction you hope the long-drop (common third-world out house) is in- it can become quite dark at night, in Africa, in the middle of nowhere. As you stumble over rocks and sandy roots, your spine is greeted by a terrifying, and very real chill- an odd sound is rapidly approaching from behind, as if someone has thrown a boomerang in your direction (no one has ever thrown a boomerang in my direction, but I cannot describe the airy doppler-effect sound any other way), and as the sound appears to reach your exact position it abruptly stops. No trailing off, just stops, terminates, ceases to be as if it never was.

With your head torch on, you spin around wildly (probably hilariously- a half petrified white man with a flashlight strapped to his head, flailing about in the middle of the night), searching for the source: a bird, some strange insect… a boomerang. Nothing.

For the countless times I, and all the other visitors and villagers experienced this phenomenon, none could offer an explanation.

I truly miss Madagascar with all my heart; I even miss the rice & beans. But, I do not miss the ghosts.


The Times They Are A-Changing

Discuss the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing.” What is Dylan’s message in the song? How has this song been used since it was written? What is it about Dylan’s writing that makes his songs still relevant 40 years later? Use this as a prompt to get students to write either prose or poetry on a relevant media topic of their choice.

“The Times They Are A-Changing” by Bob Dylan

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

Writing Prompts

Below is a collection of writing prompts provided by classmates throughout the semester.

Humor Writing Mentor Texts and Prompts

Flash Fiction Mentor Texts and Prompt

Flash Fiction Mentor Texts

Haiku Mentor Texts and Writing Prompt

Poetry Mentor Texts

Travel Writing Mentor Texts and Prompts

Stranger Than Fiction

Use this clip from the opening of the film Stranger Than Fiction to prompt discussion of writing characters and how to bring your characters to life.

Giddy With Glee by Sarah Clark

Giddy with Glee

My third grade classroom was all a buzz as the day was a special day, a different day. Today, our parents came in to talk about their jobs. For most kids, today was exciting simply because we didn’t have to do the regular handwriting drills or math equations. For today, our seed experiments sat on the window sill, unexamined. For the select few students that had their parents coming in, today was their day to shine. For once, I was one of these students! My dad rarely came to parent-teacher nights, so I was more excited that he got to finally see my desk and how organized it was, rather than listen to him tell all of us what he did for a living and how it financially supports my sister and me. When I saw him approach the entrance to our classroom, I was giddy with glee. It was as though seeing my father in this setting allowed our relationship to focus on me for once. We made eye contact, and he gave me a wink. I couldn’t focus or listen to the other parent talk about his job because I was so excited to see my dad in MY classroom. This never happened to me! It was finally my turn. I snap out of my cloud when I hear the applause from my classmates, signaling the end of Amy’s firefighter dad’s presentation. I look back to the doorway, and I see my dad slowly begin his entrance into the classroom.

The Storymatic Box



       The Storymatic can be an excellent tool in the classroom, providing an almost limitless supply of writing prompts for students. It will help them step out of their boxes and write about things they may never have even thought about previously. I know from experience cards from this box that seem to have nothing to do with each other – and which you may think you know nothing about – could turn into complete stories.

House of the Rising Sun (The Animals)

Have the students read over these lyrics. What is happening in this song? How many interpretations do they come up with? How does the songwriter use words to create the story in this song?

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I’m one

My mother was a tailor
She sewed my new blue jeans
My father was a gamblin’ man
Down in New Orleans

Now the only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and trunk
And the only time he’s satisfied
Is when he’s on a drunk

Oh mother tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun

Well, I got one foot on the platform
The other foot on the train
I’m goin’ back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain

Well, there is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I’m one

After discussing the lyrics on paper, watch the video below. Does your interpretation of the lyrics change? How does hearing the words differ from reading them?

Books for the Classroom

Below are links to several of the book abstracts submitted by my classmates this semester. Each of these are books that I thought would be interesting to read for my own writing benefit and to consider for use in the classroom.

Crafting Authentic Voice by Tom Romano

Does the Writing Workshop Still Work? Edited by Dianne Donnelly.

Reading in the Dark: Using Film as a Tool in the English Classroom by John Golden

Write beside them, risk, voice, and clarity in high school writing by Penny Kittle

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway

Writing to explore: Discovering adventure in the research paper, 3-8 by D. Somoza & P. Lourie

The Lord’s Prayer by John Paul

In the twilight of an early morning, he stirs his feeble flesh awake.  The sun hasn’t yet crept toward the horizon, the night sky still holding strong in this early hour.  To the old man, it doesn’t matter.  His eyes betrayed him some months ago, and his sight has been rapidly degrading since.  He blindly paws his night stand, seeking useless glasses that comfortably sit in the deep grooves above his ears.  His skin is milk-pale and drawn tight against a thin, angular frame.  He groans and runs corded hands over his scruffy face and bald head.  The last vestiges of sleep slowly drip off of him as the first rays of light, rays he will not see, peek from behind the barn he’d erected with the aid of his parishioners some forty odd years ago.  His wife stirs slightly without awakening.  He is glad for it.  This must be done alone – his daily ritual that had become habit in the days since his sight had been stricken.

He rubs callused palms together and bows his head.  There was a time when this process brought a feeling akin to love, a sort of spiritual refreshment.  It is now a mechanical, chugging thing that he knows will prove fruitless and false, but he will try today and tomorrow and each day after.  It was his life for the first sixty nine years, and it is not so easily changed.

“Our Father,” he starts in a thick, Dutch accent, “who art in heaven…”

His voice wavers, and a hot pain burns in his over-tight jaw.

“Our Father, who art in heaven,” he tries again, “hallowed be thy…”

His sharp, thin shoulders bounce as the sobs wash through him.  He cries.  He will finish before she awakens to see him like this – the sad, broken pastor whose eyes don’t work.

“Say the words.  Say them!  He took your eyes, not your prayers, damn it.”

He sits there a while longer letting the tears dry, hands held just before his face as the sun detaches from the horizon.  The warmth of its light fills his room, but he doesn’t see the change from dawn to morning.  He thinks of a time when these hands had moved so emphatically towards God’s purpose.

The true tragedy is not in the loss of sight, but in the inability to accurately recall what he’d looked upon for so many years.  The pastor will never again see his wife’s face for what it truly is, but rather a sad menagerie of cobbled together memories.  The contours and lines of his bent, old home have become a labyrinthine prison.  He contemplates this a moment longer until Ruth at last awakens.  She smiles warmly at her oblivious husband at the edge of the bed.  She takes up his frail hand in her soft, warm fingers and runs her other hand over his back.  She loves him.  Really and truly.  As much as she had before he’d lost his vision, his prayer, and his hope.  As much as one can after fifty years.

“Shall we pray?” she whispers.

The pastor nods his head.  With her lead, he intones the Lord’s Prayer, his words hollow and flimsy in the searing morning sunlight.

Writing Through Your Fear

Keyes, Ralph. The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear. New York: Henry Holt and Company. 1995. Print.


In The Courage to Write, Keyes tackles the fears many writers – both new and experienced – face during the process of writing. He opens his book by discussing the many anxieties of children’s author E.B. White, and how White used many of his larger fears to create his beloved novels. Keyes addresses many of the common fears experienced by authors – such as inadequacy – which can sometimes lead to writers’ block or may prevent someone from writing altogether. More than just discussing the fears though, Keyes shares stories from authors who have experienced these fears and their methods of working through them.

In the second half of his book he begins discussing ways to actually use that fear to improve your writing. “Anxiety is not only an inevitable part of the writing process but a necessary part. If you’re not scared, you’re not writing,” writes Keyes (emphasis in the original). In an interesting chapter titled, “Should you write in the nude?” Keyes discusses many of the superstitions and routines authors employ to help with their writing process from handwriting vs. free-writing, to writing standing up, sitting down, or lying in bed, to what one wears while writing (according to Keyes, novelist John McPhee wore a bathrobe and tied the sashes to the arms of his chair to keep himself in it until he reached his writing goal for the day). Near the end of the book Keyes covers the possible benefits of the Writers’ Workshop and concludes the book by discussing the rewards of writing and suggesting that the most successful writers are not necessarily the best writers, but the ones who had the determination to work through their fear.

Critical Analysis:

                Keyes’ book is written specifically for the timid writer, with a writing style that is very open and personable; the book was reminiscent of the first few chapters of Miller’s Write to Learn. Like Miller, Keyes has a way of writing as though he’s speaking directly to the reader. Keyes addresses the fears writers feel honestly, with a wide variety of examples from successful authors. The main goal of Keyes’ book is not necessarily to make the reader into a better writer, but to encourage the reader to not give up on their writing. Keyes doesn’t draw any specific conclusions within the book; however he offers many tips and pieces of advice for writers to conquer these fears. He also makes it clear that no matter what your fear is, you’re not alone – all writers experience these fears during their career. The use of examples from a range of successful authors helps the reader to understand what they’re feeling is normal, not a sign of any personal inadequacy as a writer. While this book isn’t designed to be read as a textbook, it would most likely be useful in a higher level composition course or a creative writing course to help students reconcile their anxiety and get a glimpse of how professional authors handle their anxieties.

Relevant Quotes:

On Writing:
“The more I read, and write, the more convinced I am that good writing has less to do with acquired technique than with inner conviction. The assurance that you have something to say that the world needs to hear counts for more than literary skill. Those writers who hold their readers’ attention are the ones who grab them by the lapel and say, “You’ve got to listen to what I’m about to tell you.” (112)

On Teaching Writing:
“Course taking and conference attending are regarded with deep suspicion by many working writers. ‘How can you teach writing?’ they ask. Probably you can’t. Writing techniques can be taught. But that’s only one purpose served by writing classes and not necessarily the most important one. Their more important lessons are conveyed in the realm of spirit.” (171)

“The best thing writing courses can do is help participants develop the will to write. They provide a setting where aspiring writers can look inside their hearts and find the courage to tell us what they see. That lesson is infinitely more valuable than any about story structure, use of dialogue or time-shifting techniques.” (171)