Really Exquisite Corpses

Games where you pass and fold paper to make crazy poems and stories are favorites at Frog Hollow. One of the classics is Exquisite Corpse (we didn’t name it — the Surrealists did — but we like it a lot). Here are a couple recent results by the Friday class that we particularly enjoyed.oak-tree-and-sun

I think one reason they worked so well was that I emphasized the idea of continuity. Each line needed to belong with the line before, whether that meant it continued the story or just sounded right. I also encouraged people to write more than a word or two, which they mostly did — and you can see how weird it gets when they didn’t. Anyhow, here they are. Enjoy! Better yet, try this game yourself.

Because of the Oak

I feel good when I run to the park

I also feel good when I play video games

me moo!!!

moo me!!!

And I was mooed, oh I was mooed

I shook my hands and stomped my feet

You don’t know anything! she yelled

“Yes I do” he yelled back

and he kissed the bride

on Wednesday.

I fell

down, down.

Into the pit

of cold winter snakes

“I want to bite you”

he screamed with bared fangs

and ran away


The boom.


boom went the car

stereo so loud it shook the baby

“all the single ladies all the single ladies”

ugh he moaned I hate this song

but he played the song anyway

because he felt like it

he jumped

and he fell

who fell? a owl.

a cat?

No! A rocket ship made of pizza boxes

It’s Harry Potter


Silence is a Verb

I hate silence

he yelled with relish

he sang like a bird

yes, a crow

a crow with dark blue eyes

a cow with dark red eyes

Moo! Moo! Moo!

Ow! Ow! Ow! said the human

but the mountain only grumbled

and shoke and exploded

lava then ash then nothing

it burned on

the flames reaching up

for the sky

for the stars


Stop it!!!!!

no I won’t. no no no

I cried to the stars, but they did not believe me




Frog Hollow Poetry Exhibit

The Seattle classes have collaborated on a poetry exhibition in the hallway art gallery at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center. If you’re in Delridge, drop on by! We wrote and illustrated poems largely on the theme of wishes and dreams in honor of Martin Luther King Day. But we didn’t define that narrowly — there are poems ranging from serious poems about peace and justice all the way to one about how terrible guacamole is. There is also a poem in Korean (and English), because we had a guest student from Korea. Students worked hard on their poems and posters, and were thrilled to be able to share their work with the larger Youngstown community. We’ve been writing a lot of social justice focused things this winter, centered around MLK Day, and it has been exciting to see students express their compassion, hope, sense of justice, and wacky creativity, as well as explore the power writing has to grapple with things that make us angry and sad.

Below is a small selection from our exhibit. Enjoy!


7 Ways to Strengthen Democracy Through Language Arts

This political season has me thinking about the importance of teaching democratic skills to children. In fact, I’ve been thinking about it with the kind of starry-eyed civic hope that maybe only elementary school teachers can summon. It’s the kind of hope a person gets when they are in position to do something about something that matters. In this case, through language arts, I can teach my students the following essential civic skills:


1. Critical Thinking

One of the most important civic skills is simply not believing everything you hear. Critical thinking is the art of asking questions about information: Why does the author think this? What is their evidence? Do I trust their sources? What is the context? Do I agree with the author? What am I basing that opinion on? These are the kinds of questions lively citizens ask constantly. They are also the kinds of questions used to interrogate a text.

This skill can be practiced in formal academic discussions, but also in informal family conversation in the car or at the dinner table. Talk about what you read, view, hear, and experience. Dig deeper. Ask: Why? In what way?

2. Understanding the Difference Between Fact and Opinion

This is such a crucial skill that it is almost invisible, and so somehow has become a really puny civic muscle. When we can’t (or don’t deign to) differentiate between fact and opinion, our judgements cloud our vision of others and there is no steady ground on which to build bridges.

This skill seems to click for my students starting when they are eight or nine. We practice it by doing observational writing — writing down just what we notice, not what we think. Later, we practice having opinions and backing them up with observations. This skill can also be practiced through noticing when we are using opinion words (great, bad, important) instead of observational words (green, loud, broken), and beginning to untangle our judgements and our vision.

3. Developing Respectful, Fact-Based Argument

Once we can navigate the difference between agreed-on reality and personal opinion, then we can begin to talk about issues in useful ways, and the national blood pressure doesn’t blast up like a rocket during every presidential debate.

It is also the central skill of essay writing. I think essays should be a foundational part of high school level language arts, but their foundations can be practiced long before that. Essays are basically the assertion of an opinion about a topic there is disagreement about, backed up by convincing evidence with the opposing viewpoint in consideration. That sounds kind of complicated, but every kid knows how to do this. The challenge is in tackling complicated and abstract questions in a well-thought-out way. It’s tricky, but worth the work, since through doing this we learn clear writing skills, stronger critical thinking skills, and the ability to engage with differing opinions.

4. Strengthening Empathy

Fiction writers like to say they are in the empathy business. And it’s true. Through literature, we get to step into the shoes of all kinds of different people facing all kinds of dilemmas. We experience their humanity, even if on the surface it isn’t like our own. Is this a skill I wish for every child? Of course.

The prescription? Read good books. Read aloud. Listen to audiobooks. Watch good films. Read graphic novels. Tell stories. Listen to fairy tales. Read more good books. And then engage with them imaginatively. When I tell stories in class, I often have my students draw a picture from the story. This allows them to sink deeper into the story imaginatively without over-intellectualizing it. (And yes, this is kind of opposite of what I said about developing critical thinking. Different stories, different times, different tactics.)


5. Enquiring into Larger Human Questions

A healthy democracy isn’t just a bureaucratic structure, it’s a result of a vibrant social conversation about the big questions of being human: what is fair, what matters, how should we treat each other, etc. This is the stuff that makes literature tick.

Reading, thinking, and writing about big questions isn’t just intellectually satisfying, it gives us a chance to wrestle out nuanced opinions and to weigh opposing ideas in a respectful way. Sounds like practice in democracy to me.

6. Trusting Their Own Voice

Voting is an act of believing that your opinion matters, and as far as I can tell, believing that it won’t matter is a major reason people don’t vote. So it seems to me that it’s essential we encourage children to believe in their voices.

Writing is a great way for children to begin to articulate their own opinions and speak up. To encourage this, I have my students write both about things that matter to them, and in lots of silly and creative and free ways. For instance, we write tons of poetry, and most of the time, unless something doesn’t make sense, I can read their poem and be 100% positive about it (and then sit down with them to work on spelling and grammar). This is an experience in being able to say whatever they want to say without being told they are right or wrong — to write for themselves instead of for approval. We also do very friendly poetry readings, where students get to try sharing their work.

7. Engaging in Issues

When children can feel the power of their own voices, they get excited to use them to speak up about things they believe in. This is civic engagement writ bold.

We approach this head on through the Letters for Change project, but many of my students write about issues they care about in their poetry and other projects. Reading socially engaged poetry, doing research reports, dissecting current events, and academically observing things like Women’s History Month, Veteran’s Day, and Martin Luther King Day are all great ways to make language arts more socially active, and students more civically skilled.

Want to hear more about Frog Hollow’s language arts program for homeschoolers, and its educational philosophy? Come to the Open House.



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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