This phrase takes me back to my first year as a teacher.
I shared my first year with a badass teacher support group. We were all new teachers–hired the same year, or recently enough to still be baby teachers. That first year felt like College+. We ran to each other’s classrooms between periods, often to help monitor kids or complain about our last period or laugh at something silly that happened. We went out to happy hours as soon as we got our paychecks. We ate lunch in one classroom, arranging the desks into a circle and sitting down to talk about our love lives or the latest viral video (Ready for a flashback? Our favorites included Rebecca Black’s Friday, Lonely Island’s Jack Sparrow song, and Gangnam Style).
I started off the 2017-2018 school year frustrated and motivated–a dangerously good place to be. I was frustrated because the current trend in language arts education seems to be moving away from literature. Nonfiction is more valuable in the real world, they say. It probably is, but I like fiction.
I was motivated, though, after attending a conference featuring the English teacher gods, Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. Gallagher, especially, was arguing for the value of fiction and literature. He proposed daily book talks and reading time to allow kids to build on their reading skills. Prepared for the usual teacher counterargument of “But we never have time,” Gallagher and Kittle even shared a daily time plan that outlined exactly how to make it work.
Gallagher and Kittle’s plan went something like this (sorry, I’m currently moving into a new home and my conference notes are packed away in a box somewhere):
Opening 2 minutes: Book Talk
10 minutes of Self-Selected Reading Time (Students read independently while the teacher has private reading conferences with individual students, coaching them through their texts)
Work on the current unit in 10-minute chunks of lecture, discussion, and independent work time
Final 2 minutes: Share a strong sentence or excerpt written by a student.
I felt vindicated because they vouched for poetry and fiction in a modern world. I felt empowered because they gave me a plan to make it work. So I tried it out for a year. I edited it a bit to make it work for me, and to build in one of my new hobbies: handlettering. Going into the 2017-2018 school year, my goal was to start each day with a handlettered quote to start a book talk, then go into at least 10 minutes of reading time a day. I wanted to expose the kids to as many books from different time periods, genres, and types of writers as possible. I wanted to encourage reading, and I wanted to show my administration that fiction does matter.
I logged my lettered quotes on Instagram for a while, using the hashtag #literarywhiteboardlettering. I also kept a log on this blog, as well. I wasn’t really consistent with how I formatted the Instagram log and blog entries… that wasn’t the point. If you missed my earlier blogs on my Literary Whiteboard Lettering project, here they are:
And here’s my final set of literary whiteboards for the 2017-2018 year. I tried to mix it up with canon texts, fun reads, and necessary books for modern readers in a global, political world. I gave a few more book talks than this (e.g., Ready Player One; The Hate U Give; Love, Hate, and Other Filters), but spring semester got hectic and I didn’t have time to letter it all in the morning before class started. For the sake of avoiding information overload, I’ll restrain from giving synopses here. Check out these awesome books if these quotes entice you!
Day 61: Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe)
Day 62: The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz)
Day 63: Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
Day 64: Rebecca (Daphne DuMaurier)
Day 65: Every Day (David Levithan)
Day 66: Stardust (Neil Gaiman)
Day 67: Author Feature – Rainbow Rowell
Day 68: Julius Caesar (William Shakespeare)
Day 69: A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens)
Day 70: The Tempest (William Shakespeare)
Day 71: Othello (William Shakespeare)
Day 72: Medea (Euripides)
Day 73: Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
Day 74: American Gods (Neil Gaiman)
Day 75: The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
Day 76: Animal Farm (George Orwell)
Day 77: All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque)
Day 78: Children of Blood and Bone (Tomi Adeyemi)
Day 79: Great Expectations (Charles Dickens)
Details: All of these were done on whiteboards, using Expo or some other whiteboard marker brand. Most of the lettering varied from 2-4 feet (0.6-1.2m) in length and width, with the exception being the Goldfinch quote. That one was on a ten foot whiteboard wall. I completed all of these in whatever time I had in the morning before class started. Sometimes that was 30 minutes; usually, it was only 10 minutes.
You’ll probably notice a bit of a trend as you go through the school year. My compositions got really intricate and experimental during periods when I didn’t have many assignments to grade or my administration decided not to have so many meetings… and then at the end of the year, things got pretty simplistic and I started relying on my regular handwriting. At first, I hated that I was “giving up” on my handlettering goal, but then I had to remind myself that that wasn’t the point. The point was to give my kids a chance to hear some cool stories, and inspire them to read. And I think it worked.
I saw ninth graders who challenged themselves with Jekyll and Hyde, Catcher in the Rye, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Pride and Prejudice, Sherlock Holmes, and The Great Gatsby. I saw kids who went out of their comfort zones, and others who were just trying to get at least one book read. I saw myself growing as a reader and a teacher. I wasn’t able to keep up with reading conferences this year, so instead, I decided to read with them and share my reading journey with them. I felt better as a teacher because, for at least 12 minutes a day, I was doing what made me want to become an English teacher in the first place: escaping into other worlds through the pages of a book… before I had to snap back into the reality of being an English teacher in Texas in 2018.
I have 180 school days in a year. I didn’t have a book talk every day. I didn’t have SSR (self-selected reading) every day. I only got 44% of my goal, maybe 47% if you give me a little grace for a few book talks without lettered quotes. But this is where math doesn’t really help me.
I’d rather look at it as 79 days I hit my goal. Seventy-nine days of reading and talking about books that I didn’t give myself before. Seventy-nine days when I got a little closer to the English teacher I wanted to be when I started teaching.
This next year’s going to be a bit more challenging for me. I’ll be teaching 10th and 11th grade, the years that mostly focus on nonfiction. I’m also starting at a new school… so I’ll be the new kid all over again. I’ve already told my team lead that I would like to continue my book talks and SSR time. I need it. It has helped me focus my classroom, and has even given me new energy to read for myself. I hope I’ll be able to keep it going during the nonfiction years. I think I can.
Bradley Cooper and I have one thing in common: we both threw A Farewell to Arms across the room when we finished it. OK, it was Cooper’s character from Silver Linings Playbook, but still.
I’ve tried to like Hemingway. I tried hard enough to finish A Farewell to Arms, even though with every turn of the page, I felt no connection to his simplistic writing style, his flat females, his bland trudging through the mud. I’ve attempted Hemingway since then, and I still don’t care for him.
Although I’m not a Hemingway fan, as an English teacher, I cannot avoid him. And even though I don’t want to sit through another one of his novels, I still bring him up in my classroom. I like Hemingway in abstraction. I like Hemingway the idea. Here are the only forms of Hemingway I can tolerate:
#1 The guy from Midnight in Paris
I love that he speaks in that monotone, trudging tone. Because that’s what it’s like reading Hemingway. And if that cutie sat in front of me and read out an entire Hemingway novel, I might be tempted to finish the whole thing.
#2 The six word story
Teachers love this story. It’s a great way to encourage kids to be choosy about their words, and to see the power in each little word. English teachers have been using it as a warm-up for years: Tell the story of Hemingway’s bet, then ask students to write their own six-word story. I recently heard of technology teachers using it to structure an autobiographical short movie assignment.
#3 The Hemingway App
Hemingway’s writing style is not my favorite. I prefer long, poetic sentences that flow into one another. However, his writing style is what my students need. Adolescent writers tend to ramble and try too hard to sound academic. I have had to tell so many of my bright students that it’s better to use simpler language than to sound like you used a thesaurus for every word of your essay. They don’t believe me. They tend to think I’m another stupid teacher who doesn’t understand Art. So I refer them to the Hemingway app as evidence that I’m right, and as a tool for them to clean up their writing. But I also want to empower them as writers, so I remind them that the final call for the style of their writing is theirs.
I would close with my favorite Hemingway quote: “Write drunk, edit sober.” But I just found out that there’s no real source attributing him to this quote. It’s one of those apocryphal quotes circulated by unknowing nerds and Google search engines. Go figure. Of course my favorite Hemingway quote wouldn’t actually be by Hemingway. So I guess I really don’t like him at all.
If you follow me on OneFifty, you know I’ve got a bit of a branding problem. Namely, it’s hard for me to commit to just one idea because I want to do it all! Any rational human being would say, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.” Oh, wait. That was Ron Swanson.
But branding can also be difficult when you’re still in the process of discovering yourself as an artist, or “a creative,” which may be a better term for me. I’ve always had a penchant for writing and for words—it was my first passion. Lettering, art, and crafting are things I do to unwind, and things I happen to do pretty well, too. But while I’m an experienced teacher in the world of words, I’m a kindergartener in the world of visual arts. And like a child, I want to do it all, learn it all, and be all of the things.
After nearly a year of being engaged in the Instagram lettering community and studying the crafts of lettering, calligraphy, and typography, I feel like I’m starting to get a focus. I had grand ideas of wedding signage and birthday chalkboards (I’ve actually gotten the chance to do the latter over the past year!), but I think my passion lies somewhere smaller.
I had to remind myself of why I started. I had to remember that I started a public lettering journey not just to reduce stress, but because the source of that stress angered me so much that I wanted to create a voice for myself.
I’m an English teacher in an education system that is shifting to becoming entirely career-centric. I was told that the books I wanted to teach were antiquated and had no more value in our modern world. I was nudged in the direction of more practical reading and writing that would be better suited for the workplace. And maybe that’s where education is now. Practical work-related tasks. But that’s not what drew me to being an English teacher. I believe in the power of reading, the value of beautiful words, the magic of those rare moments of connection that we find in the words of others. I believe that the arts and humanities do have a place in the modern workplace–especially now, when we are suffering from a lack of empathy and connection. It was that belief that brought me to lettering; it was that rage that drove me to find a creative outlet.
As I continue learning and practicing the craft of drawing stylized letters, I want to focus on my true passion: literature. Books are where I started, and books are what I want to highlight. I dropped off on my Literary Whiteboard Lettering project around February because school got hectic, but I’ll be moving forward along the same lines: handlettering lines from books and sharing their stories. These books will range from “the classics” to modern capital-L Literature to popular YA series. My goal is to encourage people to see the magic within stories and their ability to show the power of the human spirit. To me, this is far more valuable than any practical, work-related texts or writing that I would be told to teach at school.
My blog will finally have a focus: books and lettering. It will go hand-in-hand with my Instagram (@nerdladydraws), where I post my daily adventures in art and lettering. I already started a new series after refocusing: #alphalitbooks is a passion project in which I highlight different works by the alphabet. Currently, I’m working with the names of women writers. I’m also hoping to continue with #literarywhiteboardlettering once school calms down a bit (after our state test ends in two weeks). I hope that pairing my Instagram and blog–the former for all my artistic exploits, and the latter for my Lettering Literature project–will give me both the versatility and sense of purpose I need.
As always, thank you for following me on this journey. Creativity can light a burning desire in you, and it can be really scary to share it all and announce a purpose. It helps to have a supportive group of people when you’re trying out new things. I’m looking forward to exploring new books and styles as I delve into literary lettering! Leave a comment with any book recommendations! I’m always on the lookout for a new book.
We closed this semester with The Odyssey and world epics, then began transitioning into plays. And of course I had to throw in A Christmas Carol for the holidays! No read online links this time–I’ll provide them for my next round of whiteboards!
Day 40: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
What It’s About: A teenager searches for the truth behind his grandfather’s death, and finds out a secret about his family and a hidden community of children.
Day 41: The Odyssey
What It’s About: Following the Trojan War, Odysseus is lost at sea for 20 years. This epic poem from Ancient Greece tells of his adventures as well as the trials facing his wife and son at home.
Day 42: The Hobbit
What It’s About: The first story in Tolkien’s amazing Middle-Earth series, this book follows Bilbo Baggins and a group of dwarves who are out to reclaim a mountain from a dragon.
Day 43: The Epic of Gilgamesh
What It’s About: The original bromance, this ancient text is about Gilgamesh and his buddy Enkidu, and the lengths to which one would go to save his best friend.
Day 44: The Journey to the West // The Monkey and The Monk
What It’s About: If you’re interested in Chinese or Buddhist culture, you must read this story of Monkey and his journey to retrieve ancient Buddhist texts. Reading this gave me a much better understanding of Chinese stories, because it is such an essential part of their storytelling, much in the same way that the Bible is essential to Western storytelling. The original story is called The Journey to the West, but the translation I read in grad school is called The Monkey and The Monk. This translation is lauded as the most accessible translation-abridgment of the epic poem.
Day 45: The Epic of Sundiata
What It’s About: It seems that many epics are about good leaderships and societies. In this one, crown prince Sundiata is exiled from his homeland, learns about his subjects while he is in exile, then returns to take his rightful place as king.
Day 46: One Thousand and One Nights
What It’s About: This is a collection of short stories, and you will find different versions of this collection at every bookstore. Regardless, you will always find the same frame story: A sultan went mad after his wife’s infidelity and went on a vengeful killing spree against women by marrying a virgin every night, then killing her in the morning before she, too, could cheat on him. Scheherazade requested to be his wife, then set about a plan where she tells a story every night, then stops right in the middle of a cliffhanger at dawn. The sultan, hungry to hear the rest of the story, would extend her death sentence to the next night, when she would repeat the same thing. She continued this for 1001 nights, at the end of which the sultan’s mind was healed and he didn’t kill her after all! It’s an amazing tale of the power of stories!
Day 47: A Christmas Carol
What It’s About: This isn’t just a cheesy story about the meaning of Christmas. Charles Dickens was passionate about the welfare of the disadvantaged people of London, and incensed with the insensitivity he saw in the rich around him. Although set in Christmastime, this is more about caring for the needy in the coldest, starkest time of year.
Day 48: King Lear
What It’s About: An aging king attempts to divide up his kingdom amongst his three daughters, basing the lot sizes on who loves him the most. What follows is a tragic story of betrayal, madness, and aging as the daughters, sons, fathers, and siblings find each other as opponents.
Day 49: Oedipus Rex
What It’s About: Thebes is in trouble–the gods are punishing the people for an atrocious sin. Oedipus goes in search of the truth behind the sin, and finds out a terrible truth about himself.
Day 50: Antigone
What It’s About: The sequel to Oedipus Rex, this play is about his children. When his sons kill each other in the battlefield, his daughter wants to give them proper burial rites. However, the new king of Thebes denies one his rites because he died a traitor. Antigone and Creon go head to head in a philosophical battle over whose law is greater and deserves more deference: the law of the gods, or the law of man.
Day 51: Much Ado About Nothing
What It’s About: Claudio and Hero love each other, but their best friends hate each other. What better way to fix this than by ‘shipping them? This is a classic high school story of friends trying to set each other up, with one villain who’s trying his darndest to mess everything up.
Day 52: Twelfth Night
What It’s About: This story’s so confusing. Viola shipwrecks in a foreign land, and disguises herself as a boy to survive. When she is employed by the Duke of Orsino, he asks her to woo his crush for him. And his crush falls for Viola, because she’s dressed as a boy! Lots of confusion, lots of comedy. Watch She’s the Man to get a better idea of the story!
Day 53: Romeo and Juliet
What It’s About: I doubt this story needs explaining. However, if your understanding of this story is similar to Taylor Swift’s–THIS IS NOT AN IDEAL LOVE STORY. EVERYBODY DIES AND YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO NOT BE LIKE ROMEO AND JULIET!