Look and You’ll See: Observation as Writing and Social Practice

1280px-mexican_douglas_fir_pseudotsuga_lindleyana_branchWe began this year by doing observational writing. I took my classes to different places — a community garden, a meadow — and had them write down things they noticed. I asked them to only write down things they had observed, not their own opinions, and we talked about the difference. I see a green tree is an observation. I see a beautiful tree is an opinion. It seems to me that knowing the difference is a crucial interpersonal — and even civic — skill.

I urged them to be meticulous in their details. Is the tree really green? What about it’s bark? Maybe it’s really a tree whose needles are dark green on top and white on the bottom, whose cones are a warm brown and whose bark is several grays, and whose trunk also has minty-green lichen on it. Suddenly that’s a much clearer picture than green tree, and a much, much clearer picture than beautiful tree.

I also urge them to just describe what they know, not to make any guesses. If they know that this tree is a Douglas-fir, they can say that, but if they just think it’s some kind of pine, well, chances are they are wrong.

From here, we’ll continue to build on careful observation and attention to detail in our writing — observing and then developing opinions, writing detail from memory, writing about cliched things in new ways. This work will improve our creative writing, and will help build a foundation for developing arguments, since we will have practiced the difference between opinion and evidence. But this practice goes much further than this, especially for older students and adults.

This exercise gets particularly interesting when you start observing people. We want to say things like “the sad old man is walking with his granddaughter,” or “the beautiful Parisienne friends in skinny jeans are laughing outside the cafe.” These both sound like facts.

But how do we know these things? Are they observations or assumptions?

How do we know the man is sad and old? Maybe he has gray hair and a fragile gait. Maybe he is frowning or crying. If this is what we can see, this is what we should write. Because maybe he isn’t very old — maybe he’s just tired. Maybe he’s confused or angry or has onions in his eyes. The child might not be his granddaughter, or even a girl — all we can see is that they are young and of the same general coloring, and that the child has on a purple sweater.

And those beautiful Parisienne women? (Whom I should say I observed in Paris a few years ago.) What do I mean by beautiful? Looking closer, there is nothing remarkable about their faces. It is more that they carry themselves a certain way. And while at first glance they are all in skinny jeans, even that isn’t true. Also, I can hear they are speaking French, but I can’t really understand them, and I have no idea if they actually live in Paris or even France, or are truly friends. Yes, sometimes they are laughing, but sometimes they are talking intensely, and the one with the cigarette keeps waving her hand.

If I had just looked at that group outside the Parisian cafe and thought my own stale opinions about them, I doubt I would remember them. But because I slowed down and wrote what I could actually see rather than what I thought about what I saw, the whole street outside the cafe is burned in my mind. I can still see the honeybee investigating my coffee, the Coca-cola bottle at the next table, the thin street trees.

So not only is this exercise fun (especially when you’re killing time somewhere new), but it allows us to see more clearly. We see details. Individuals. We begin to question our assumed knowledge about other people. We allow things about them to surprise us. We stay in the unknown rather than jumping to faulty conclusions.

All of this is great writing practice, but it’s also great human practice. The more we let our observations rather than our prior prejudices inform us, and the more we know the difference between fact and opinion, the better off we’ll all be.

(This exercise grew out of one from an article about teaching for social justice, but I can’t remember the magazine or the author. I wish I could give them more credit — it was a great article.)

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The Disaster of the Cranky Crankie

ufo-1194320_960_720So Lady Gaga had just gotten back from space and was wearing a hotdog costume.

Hitler came up to her and said, “You look like a Wiener Schnitzel.”

She says to him, “This is a bad romance, Adolf.”

But I get ahead of myself.

It all started when Hitler, Mitt Romney, Obama, Hans Solo, a fried egg, and a boy named Mychal decided to make a crankie together. A crankie is a scrolling paper movie, but this was The Disaster of the Cranky Crankie. It was all going fine until Mychal decided to draw a tree.

“NO TREES!!!” cried Romney. “Money!” Then he and Hitler got in a big fight about it that went pretty much like this:

Hitler: “Nature!”

Romney: “Money!”

Hitler: “War!”

Romney: “Money!”

Hitler: “Art!”

Romney: “Money!”


Meanwhile aliens were landing.

“Help me, help me!” cried the fried egg, running straight towards the Tower of Mordor.

Obama and Hans Solo went to greet the alien, who turned out to be Lady Gaga in her hotdog suit.

“I’ve just come back from Uranus,” she said.

A giant slug slimed out of a tree and across the entire crankie. “Yuck, slug slime,” said Squinchy the dog. Then the giant slug climbed onto Lady Gaga’s head.

No one was working on the crankie. Hans Solo was playing holographic chess with Chewbacca and the politicians were still fighting about trees. Mychal decided he would have to finish the crankie by himself. Squinchy wondered when he would be done so they could go play frisbee.

Hitler, Romney, and Obama finally came to an agreement: there would be no trees. Obama was sad about the compromise and nobody saw anything of him after that.

“Hey guys,” said Mychal, “I finished the crankie, and I added a bunch more trees.”



Their heads were enormous, their eyes bloodshot, and they were suddenly missing most of their teeth.

And off flew the giant slug on Lady Gaga’s spaceship.

“Now can we play frisbee?” asked Squinch.

That’s the plot summary of the crankie some kids I was working with a while back made. Can you see why I like my job?

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Chinook Jargon

Continuing in our explorations of translation, my class has been playing around with Chinook Jargon. Chinook Jargon is the trade language of the Northwest, a pidgin of English, French, and several Salish languages. It was widely spoken through the 1800’s, and gave the English language words including “muckamuck” and “salt-chuck.”


It has about 500 core words: enough to say a lot of kinds of things, but little enough you can get a sense of it quickly. Some of the words are clearly English — stick, sun, cole (for cold), waum (for warm). Some clearly came from French — mausie (from merci for thank you). Some are very much not English and French (Salish being from a totally different language family) — illahee for place/ground etc. Lots of ideas are made up of stacks of words, such as cole illahee, which means winter. There are also lots of great onomatopoeia, like piu-piu for stinky, and wau-wau for talk and skwis-kwis for squirrel.

You can see I think Chinook Jargon is fascinating.

I introduced my class to the premise and some of the vocabulary, as well as the idea of a pidgin language, and a little of the story of how and why Chinook Jargon came to be. Then I  set them loose with a Chinook Jargon dictionary The idea was they would either write something directly in Chinook and then write an English translation, or vice versa.

Each way had its interesting puzzles. There are very few synonyms in Chinook Jargon, which means that something written with subtle variation in English is going to have sonorous repetition in translation. There is no way to do direct translations, since the grammar is toddler-simple. Often, we couldn’t find a desired word in our dictionary, so we had to figure out how else to say it. No hello? How about good day! No grass? No leaf? No grow? How about green fingers! Things got poetic quickly. Things that sounded too simple in English were often beautiful in Chinook Jargon, and things that were elegant in English had to be rendered with frustrating simplicity in Chinook. It was also interesting to see what things were easy to write about and what were difficult. The boy who wrote about his sick, crazy cat had almost every word he wanted. The boy who wrote about outer space, not so much.

We learned a lot about translation and how languages work, the poetry and metaphor of everyday words, and the history of our region. Plus, we may have contributed significantly to the sheer volume of poetry written in a language meant for simple transactions.

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Translation with Nine Year Olds


William Steward Macgeorge “The Goldfish Bowl”

I’ve been doing poems using words in Spanish or French with my students for several years, and have been trying to figure out a way to do our own translations. They love working with words in other languages, but it’s always felt a little daunting to do a whole translation, given that I have rusty college Spanish and traveler’s French and many of my students are monolingual.

But this year I gave it a shot, and it was an amazing project. I started with poem in Spanish: “Con Tal Que Duermas,” by Gabriela Mistral. It’s a list of fantastical things a child will get if they only fall asleep, but I didn’t tell my class that.* I just gave them the poem in Spanish, with a key where each word in the poem was translated in alphabetical order. The first step, after hearing the poem in Spanish, was to do the code-breaking work of translating the poem literally, word for word.** This gave us incomprehensible lines like “With such that sweet dreams,” and “the fish of the flask that ago burns.”

Then I asked them to translate that garbled English into poetry. I told them they could be as free as they liked or as close to literal as made sense. Often it took students a couple of layers of translation to get things that sounded like graceful English lines. I’d ask them “what do you mean by that?” of “how would you say that idea in your own words?” and the lines would clarify.

We ended up with beautiful (if not necessarily accurate) translations. They are very different from each other, and the students felt excited about them. For example, the line about “the fish of the flask that ago burns” (which I presume is about a goldfish and goes “y el pez de la redoma/que hace arder” in Spanish) got translated into such varied and poetic lines as:

“Where is the fish by the flask?/what time did it burn?” (Cadence)

“The fish and the flask that burned long ago.” (Rowan)

“The clown fish named Ago died in the fire.” (Owen)

“The fish in the flask that burns.” (Kyler)

“And the fish we saw in the flask/with eyes that burned long ago.” (Sylvia)

The premise of the poem as a whole got lost in translation more than I was hoping, mostly because the title is idiomatic, and the meaning of “whatever it takes if you’d only go to sleep” is hard to grasp out of “with such that sweet dreams” — the problem with word-for-word translation. In retrospect, I could have helped them with that in my key. Next time, I think I might include some phrases in the key so that meanings that are formed out of groups of words would be more clear.

Even still, the class got right into the core questions of translation — how to translate things that don’t directly transfer, how to make a poem that has both the right feeling and some meaning, the idea that languages aren’t just different words for all the same exact things — and  I’m really happy with that.

*I picked this poem because it had simple grammar and interesting images, so it would be relatively easy to translate but wouldn’t be too literal.

** I encouraged students to work together, and let the younger kids translate a stanza instead of the whole poem.

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