Teachers Write 7.12.16 Tuesday Quick-Write with Megan Frazer Blakemore

Good morning! Today’s Tuesday Quick-Write is courtesy of guest author Megan Frazer Blakemore, who writes great middle grade novels like THE WATER CASTLE, THE FRIENDSHIP RIDDLE, THE SPY CATCHERS OF MAPLE HILL, and (new this summer!) THE FIREFLY CODE as well as YA novels like VERY IN PIECES. Megan joins us today with a writing challenge to “feel back” into our younger years. 

I used to work in a small, independent high school where the faculty and students ate together. On the first day of each school year, I would watch the ninth graders step into the dining room and freeze.

These kids came from all over greater Boston, and many did not know any other students. They certainly did not know if there was any sort of protocol about who sat where, and none of them wanted to make a mistake. As I watched, my own stomach twisted and I ached for them.

One of my favorite quotes about writing for children comes from author Charlotte Zolotow who wrote in The Horn Book Magazine: “Many fine writers can write about children but are unable to write for them.… The writers writing about children are looking back. The writers writing for children are feeling back into childhood.” As I sat in that dining room, I was feeling back into childhood, to that social uncertainty.

With that in mind, I invite you to feel back into childhood and revisit the school cafeteria. Write a scene that takes place during lunch. This can be autobiographical, of course, but it need not be. Likewise, the example I provided reveals social awkwardness, but maybe your character is quite confident in this space. Working on a fantasy or science fiction? What does lunch look like in this world? Essentially, please feel free to adapt this prompt to your needs, and share a little of what you wrote in the comments if you’d like. I look forward to reading! 

60 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.12.16 Tuesday Quick-Write with Megan Frazer Blakemore

  1. Good Morning, Megan.
    I started Very in Pieces a few months back, and really like it. I usually have several books going at once, so I know I’ll finish it eventually! 🙂

    Thank you for this lesson today. It’s actually perfect for my WIP, because I have a scene where my MC enters a dining hall for the first time, in the orphanage where she’s just been placed by her mother. The paragraph I’m sharing still needs some work…I’m trying to capture a moment where Lily gets an introduction to life in an orphanage.


    As we enter the dining hall, I understand all that Sister Mary Rose was telling me. Ten or more tables run the length of the large room. Crammed around these tables are girls and boys, all around my age and older, eating quietly. I catch my breath. There are so many of them. And they’re all orphans. Or maybe they’re half-orphans, like me. My body tenses, cold creeps up from my toes, forming into a column through my torso, and spreading out to my arms. I don’t realize I’m crying until tears warm my cheeks. How can I feel so alone around all these other children?


    1. I like how you describe her frozen stance, ending with warm tears on her cheeks. I can see the “column” as she stands and the contrast between the cold creeping from the toes with the warm tears caught my attention. I also like how you slipped a detail about being a half-orphan. Makes me want to read more!

    2. A half-orphan? What an incredible image. And feeling so alone amongst so many people, this would work for adults too I believe. Nice work.

    3. I think using present tense really works for this scene and brings the reader right into it. Also, the contrast between feeling frozen and her warm tears was really well done. Thanks for sharing!

    4. This is really lovely. I especially like the way you describe the feeling of cold overcoming her. I would push you to use all of your senses. What does it smell like in there? Is it loud or quiet? Use those details to further capture her feeling of loneliness. Nice work!

  2. Hi Megan.
    Thank you for taking the time to participate in Teachers Write and for providing this exercise. I got up early today to write and hit a wall where I needed a major plot detail resolved before I could move on. Nothing was coming to me that didn’t feel forced so I decided to step away and do this exercise. I used my main character in your exercise and while it won’t be obvious from what I post here, I figured out what I was looking for! I hope this is encouragement to any other campers that hit a wall. I never thought my missing piece would be from exploring what my character would do at lunch time, but it did. Thank you.
    “Hey Mike!” “Hey guys.” “See you at lunch? Mini tacos!” “Cool. Uh, actually I won’t be there today.” “What do you mean, where else do you have to be at lunch?” “Oh, well, Mr. Scanlon said I bombed the math test and he’s making me do some extra practice with him.” “That sucks. He’s not even going to let you eat?” “No, I mean, yeah, I had to pack a lunch and bring it to him.” “Alright, good luck with Mr. Scallion!” “Yeah, thanks. See ya.”

    Mike walked quickly to his locker, grabbed his Math books for third period and then looked around before he knelt down and dug through a pile of books, papers and candy wrappers at the bottom of his locker. He reached in the back and pulled out a half-sized brown notebook and quickly stashed it inside his math binder. He looked around again before closing his locker and rushing off to class.

    1. Hey, Rob, I think it’s great this exercise helped you figure things out. You encouraged me to try the same thing for a sticky point I”m at in my WIP. And I like how you gave the one character the name Scallion.

    2. Rob–You’ve got me intrigued and wondering what’s going on in your story. I struggle with dialogue but you did such a nice job here. It felt very natural. In the final paragraph your description and word choice built a nice furtive tone. Great job!

    3. Mini tacos! What perfect dialogue (for me, the exciting lunch was always French Toast Sticks)!

      You’ve done a great job with this quick moment. I’m totally intrigued by the notebook.

      You could mine the locker for more details. For example, the papers at the bottom of the locker, are they unfinished or have they been returned with a perfect score than forgotten in his locker? Or what kind of candy wrappers? Whatever you choose, try to push to just one more level of specificity.

  3. Good Morning,
    It was September and I was new to Woodley Hills Elementary School. I had a few girlfriends which came in handy. There was this boy in 6th grade who made me a bit uncomfortable because he would stare at me when I passed him in the hallway. He never said anything to me. He just stared.

    Lunch time in the cafeteria was the worst. He would position himself so that he could stare at me as he ate his lunch with his buddies. It didn’t take me too long to gather my girlfriends to sit across from me and block my view of him. I am short so that worked in my favor. It was creepy. Over time I developed a strategy to straggle into the cafeteria after he had positioned himself and I would search for a spot where my back was to him.

    Throughout the year he never talked to me, but he showed up at my house with a friend, and knocked on the door, but I did not answer the door.

    1. This is very compelling. I’m really curious about the boy: is he menacing or misunderstood? You could give some hints about this through your details. What’s he wearing? What’s he eating? What is your character eating? How you describe these will help to set the mood even more strongly. Nice work!

  4. Malachi walked into the cafeteria and looked around. There she was, sitting at the same table with a book in her hands. He knew if he asked why she wasn’t eating she’d just say she wasn’t hungry. He’d heard about her family’s hardship yet she never complained. She was shy and didn’t talk much, but was always there to help someone else. Now it was his turn. He stepped into line and picked up two trays. He paid for the lunch and walked to the table.
    “Hey Sarah, I wanted to thank you for typing my paper for me. I bought you lunch as a thank you. Now, close your mouth. Before you tell me you aren’t hungry I want you to know that I’d feel uncomfortable sitting here talking to you while I ate and you didn’t. Besides you’re getting too skinny. Can’t have your fingers getting so skinny you can’t type more papers for me.” He sat and nudged her. “Eat up.”
    Sarah smiled at him. “Well if you insist. Can’t have you feeling uncomfortable.” She picked up her fork. Her stomach rumbled from lack of food. This was the third day someone from the basketball team had bought her lunch with the excuse it was payback for typing papers for them. Did they know she was hungry? She swallowed the lump in her throat along with the food. Malachi just kept talking to her like they did this every day. She really did have great friends.

    1. What a touching scene. I find Malachi to be an especially compelling character: kind, well-spoken, and confident. I’d love to get a few more details. What did he buy her for lunch? How does it taste?

      This is a strong start!

  5. Your words brought me right back to the hallways of junior high, oftentimes worse than the cafeteria! I was inspired to revise a scene I had previously written about navigating junior high. “Feeling back into childhood” helped me get into the character’s head more readily. Thank you Megan!

    As Jessica continued up the stairs, hoping she was headed in the right direction, she spied a girl with long, shiny brown hair. Her hair was feathered perfectly; Jessica guessed it took her hours. The girl was surrounded by boys, much older looking than the boys she hung out with. She assumed the girl was in 9th grade. Oh god…was she in a ninth grade hallway? How would she ever learn her way around this huge school? And where were any of her friends? She suddenly felt more alone and conspicuous than she ever had before. Praying to blend in with the walls, she moved quickly past, looking down to avoid eye-contact.

    1. I love the details about the feathered hair. I was in elementary school in the 80s and always wanted my hair to do that, but it wouldn’t. Now it seems to do it on its own, totally unbidden!

      You’ve done such a good job with details, I think you can let them do the work and cut out some of Jessica’s thoughts. For example, I’d cut “She suddenly felt more alone and conspicuous than she ever had before.” You’ve shown us that with your strong writing, so you don’t need to tell us, too. Nice work!

  6. Good morning Megan,
    Thank you for sharing your time and experience with us. I love how doing a simple exercise can open up your mind to so many new thoughts. Here’s a snippet from a YA novel I’ve written.

    I sit in the school bathroom stall eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I keep the door locked and my feet up. It’s not comfortable but I’m hidden. When the bell rings and the restroom floods with students, I come out of my stall, wash my hands, leave. After three minutes when the bell rings again, I come back into the restroom. I’m seen but not. Tomorrow I will do the same. Except I will pack a ham sandwich.

  7. Good morning, Megan. After attending your session at ILA16, I was so excited to see that you were featured on TW today. (I was simultaneously amazed at your productivity! Wow!) At any rate, I so enjoyed your presentation at ILA and also this exercise. Thanks for both! Here’s my effort—

    Jen stood in the hallway and looked into the sunlit cafeteria through the floor to ceiling windows. Groups of kids sat around large tables, eating and laughing. Occasionally someone opened a nearby door to enter or exit and lunchtime sounds spilled out –the clinks and clacks of trays and utensils, bursts of laughter, and a general roar of conversation. Then, as the door slowly closed, the scene muted again.A group of girls brushed by her, bubbling with conversation, as they opened the door. “Oh,” said one of them casually as they passed her, “Hey, Jen.” Then the girl turned back to her group and they entered the cafeteria.

    “Hi,” Jen whispered to the closing door.

    Her stomach growled and she wrapped her arms about her waist. The straps of her bag dug into her thin shoulder. Come on, Jen, she told herself, just go in and sit down. There’s plenty of room. She eyed a table that held a mix of kids from her Lit class. There were a few seats there. She took a deep breath and stepped toward the door, her hand reaching out toward its handle. Inside the cafeteria the group of girls bee-lined toward the table she’d been eying, quickly filling the empty spaces. Jen’s hand fell.

    She shrugged her bag further up onto her shoulder, feeling the sting of the groove worn by its weight. Turning quickly, she stepped away from the cafeteria and headed toward her favorite carrell in the library. I wanted to read anyway, she thought, ignoring the empty pit in her stomach and angrily blinking her eyes against the prickle of tears.

    1. Thank you for coming to our session at ILA. I had a lot of fun!

      You have a lot of wonderful details in here. The specific details are working really well, like the floor to ceiling windows and “he clinks and clacks of trays and utensils.” I’d encourage you to push more of your details to be that specific rather than general. For example, instead of “occasionally someone”, why not have a specific person and capture that moment?

      Keep up the good work!

  8. Hi Megan – first of all, I loved The Firefly Code, the unexpected dis topics, the friendships, the adventure and the ecological perspective. A thrilling read that my students will love.

    Thanks for taking the time to provide this prompt that lead to a blast from the past. I went to middle school in Asia and it was fun to revisit the cafeteria this morning.

    I am surprised by the unexpected smell of soy sauce that went up my nose. I’d smelled a lot of spicy smells during my first week here in Bangkok, but here in the American School I expected the familiar aroma of French fries, ketchup or maybe even an apple turnover.

    “Don’t be tempted by the hamburger,” my new buddy Sarah said as we slid our trays down the line, “It looks like the real deal but it tastes like over cooked Peking Duck.”
    I’ve never tasted any kind of duck before, but I took Sarah’s advice and grabbed the dish of plain chicken and rice.

    I trailed Sarah through the the maze of long tables while trying to take in everything that was going on; a cluster of boys eating while punching each other and guffawing, a sprinkling of girls reading Tiger Eyes, turning the pages with one hand while eating with the other, a slide rule being passed from one boy or girl to another while challenging each other with problems, and a musical table of singers bursting out in the chorus of Oklahoma.

    Sarah looked over her shoulder and said something, but I didn’t catch her words. It was loud. Really loud, just like in the cafeteria back home.
    I sank into the seat that Sarah saved for me, hoping that no one would talk to me. I needed a minute to figure it all out.

    “Don’t worry,” Sarah said just to me, “I know it’s not easy being new. It’s like a carousel here; new kids climb on and other kids get off. Everyone in this whole school has been through the whole ‘being new’ thing.

    Now that was something completely new – I’ve never had anyone read my mind

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed The Firefly Code. I’m working on the sequel now.

      I really liked the way you incorporated details here through both dialogue and contrast. By comparing the food, you capture how unsettled she is. But I also like how she never seems judgmental. Nice job!

  9. Thank you, Megan. I love that quote about the difference between looking back and feeling back. This was fun to think back to my first grade self.

    “I don’t have a sandwich,” she said, with furrowed eyebrows, staring deeply across the table. That sycophantic six-year-old boy always tried to ruin her life.

    “No, teacher. I saw her sandwich, and then it was gone. She didn’t eat it. I know she didn’t,” he said with a smug smile.

    Jo held the bread and butter under the table with both hands, willing it to compress into a smaller space. It’s NOT a sandwich, she thought to herself. She stared directly at the teacher.

    “OK, children. Don’t fight. Your mom packed it for you, so eat all your lunch,” the teacher said, distractedly, as she hurried to the next table to deal with spilled milk.

    Jo’s shoulders relaxed, and she loosened her vice grip on the bread and butter “sandwich.” She stealthily moved her brown paper lunch bag under the table. Then Jo stuffed the squished plastic-wrapped remains into the bag with her other lunch waste. Bread and butter is not supposed to be folded. Bread and butter is what you eat at home, not at school, she brooded.

    1. The fear of being different or breaking some sort of cultural norm is really powerfully conveyed here. Is she trying to make her bread and butter look like a sandwich? That’s another great theme to explore: trying to fit in. You have a number of possibilities started right in this short little piece (tension with another student, home vs. school, etc.), and I’m excited for you to follow them. Good luck!

  10. Good Morning Everyone! Thank you so much for this exercise, Megan.

    I looked around and saw no one I knew. I had kind of said hello to a few kids this morning in some of my classes, but I could not see any friendly faces among the sea of faces here. This is when the “new kid” status sucks, I thought to myself. The problem was compounded by the fact that everyone in seventh grade was new here, but most of them had friends from elementary school that they could find to sit with at lunch. It was less obvious that I was the new kid since not everyone knew each other. This made it harder, because the kids who would normally reach out didn’t know I needed them to do that.

    I stood there with my tray, frozen in place and praying for the floor to open up and swallow me whole. I looked at the tables. Kids sat in small groups, some were loud, some quiet, but no one was sitting alone. There were a few tables with a big space for people to sit. I headed there. As I sat down, it felt like there were hundreds of eyes on me, all judging. They would be thinking, “What a loser!” I focused on my food. A mound of sticky mac and cheese looked up at me from the tray. I chanced a look around and in that moment I realized that it was worse than I feared. I was not being judged by the other kids, I was not being mocked, I was not being laughed at. At this moment in the cafeteria, I was utterly and completely alone. No one was looking. Everyone was too involved in their own lunchtime antics. I pushed the food around on my tray for a while, but by the time the bell rang I had not eaten much. I swallowed back the lump in my throat and started moving toward the trash bin, on the way to an afternoon of being invisible.

    1. What a unique take on the new kid scenario! The mac and cheese detail is fantastic. I can see it and feel it in my mouth and that captures the mood of the scene so well. Push yourself to add a couple more details like that and this will really sing!

  11. As usual, the pretty people were clustered in the corner. I smiled at them, as usual, and they looked right through me. That was always the way it was, until someone needed help with chemistry or math. Sitting alone for a few minutes would be fine. Someone would need something sooner or later.

    1. This is a very powerful and tight paragraph. In revision, I’d like to get a better picture of the pretty people and of what the narrator sees in her isolated space. I really like the repetition of “as usual”: it carries the weight of this cycle the narrator can’t escape. Nice work!

  12. Thanks for being here everyone! I’ll do my best to keep up with all the work you share.

    Overall these are really strong. The one thing I would encourage everyone to remember is smell and taste. These are both key parts of the lunch time experience, and can add a lot to your work. Have fun!

  13. Feeling back… 1980

    Why doesn’t she ever get a lunch tray? She always picks up two pieces of white bread from the tray at the end of the serving line. Mustard sandwiches. Doesn’t she ever get tired of mustard sandwiches. When her mustard sandwich is finished, she moves toward people whose trays are half finished. She asks, “Are you going to eat those pork n beans?”

    1. What a curious character! I could picture the hands grabbing the bread without a tray. I imagined yellow mustard on the white bread. I think it might be even stronger if you swapped the first two sentences (start with the statement, then the question) because the second sentence really grounds the scene. Nice work!

  14. Thank you Megan for the prompt today to feel back into childhood. I believe this exercise can also work for our students. They can feel back into an earlier grade and tap into their memories.

    In my job I have to monitor the cafeteria every day. The following is based on some observations this year.

    Ugh! I forgot to pick up a packet of Ranch dressing again. How am I supposed to eat a salad without dressing? Yuck! I don’t understand why I can’t go back and get it but the rule is, once you come out of the lunch line you can’t go back. I think it has something to do with the free lunch program or whatever. I hate rules. Why can’t they have a little more compassion?

    1. Oh, yes, the rules of the lunchroom! They always seem so arbitrary. Good job tapping into this. I also like the subtlety of the narrator being dismissive of the free lunch program while asking for compassion. I would love to see this character describe the salad — I feel like you could really mine that for humor.

      1. Thanks for the feedback. I don’t consider myself a writer but I’m thinking I can do that. I’m participating this summer to push me out of my comfort zone and try something new.

  15. Thanks, Megan.

    I had a blast with this writing prompt, and I’m going to fit it into my chapter book manuscript that I am working on (although, I’ve already tweaked it a couple of times to make it work). The cafeteria is such an interesting part of a school building (I am a lunch duty monitor at the middle school where I teach), and I can’t believe that I didn’t already incorporate it into my story.

    Thank you for the lesson and the prompt.
    Happy writing!

    Here’s my excerpt:
    Ding. Ding. Ding. The bell rings, time for lunch. My favorite class of the day is lunch. Well, actually, my favorite class of the day is gym, but lunch is close second.

    As I make my way over to my cubby for my lunch, I notice that Christy is already gone.

    Ugh! I forgot how hard lunch is going to be now that Christy is mad at me. I’ve been sitting with her since first grade. She hasn’t talked to me all day.

    I walk through the double doors and my stomach is already churning, and it’s not from hunger. Where am I going to sit? All of the guys from the team sit with Christy and they’re already here. What am I going to do?

    I’ll just sit with Fiona and Matt. They’ll let me sit with them. I walk over to their table.

    “No room, Sammy. Sorry.” Fiona says and slides her lunch bag to the open spot. Obviously, she doesn’t want me sitting with them.

    What am I going to do? My eyes start to twitch and get watery. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. My throat tightens and I feel like I have throw up in my mouth.

    Wait. I’ll go eat lunch with Ms. Dean. She’s always saying that I should eat lunch in her room and get extra help. I’ll have to do math, but it’ll be worth it.

    1. Nice job tapping into the stress of losing a usual seat. When a friendship fractures it impacts ever aspect of a kids’ day, right? I’d encourage you to really use details to help capture this character’s feelings. Maybe it’s his or her favorite lunch, but today it smells gross. Or maybe the noise is overwhelming — or maybe it’s quiet and s/he feels like everyone is staring. When you revise, you can flesh out these details. (By the way, my first drafts are always really spare, and then I go back and build in the details.) Good work!

      1. Thank you, Megan, for the thorough feedback. All four kids are in bed, so I am back to writing and adding details. I am taking your advice with the smells (french toast on a stick smells so good, but does not taste so good – right?) and noise. I really like Christy’s table (and his friends) staring at him, even though they aren’t.:) Thank you again!

  16. Sorry I’m so late. I definitely could relate to this prompt since lunch time in the cafeteria is when all the craziness and issues occur for my fifth graders. Sorry I’m so late with my entry:
    Jamie ran to the lunch line instead of walking and pushed himself in line earlier than his turn. His classmates didn’t react because this is what they have come to expect of him. Of course it was pizza day and the tomato sauce smelled like it had been made from the sweetest tomatoes and the aroma of the three cheeses was irresistible as well as quite a distraction.
    Mrs. White, one of the lunch aides stared at Jamie, hoping that t.he lightbulb would go off in his head, triggering his conscience to take control. “H..H,,hhmmm…,” she said clearing her throat as a verbal prompt. Still no reaction.
    “So what do you think about that move I made on Mindcraft?” He boasted to Henry, who he considered a friend.
    “That didn’t prove anything, except that you were able to make that move because of pure luck,” Henry retorted as he folded his arms confidently.
    “Oh what do you know, I’ve been playing with my older cousins and they taught me all the tricks. Just forget it my stomach is rumbling. All I’ve had to eat was the soda I took from the fridge this morning and the package of M&M’s I had at snack.
    As the boys carried their trays to their table, Jamie inevitably squeezed in between Henry and Asher.

    1. What a great character you are developing with Jamie. You do a great job with his physicality — pushing and squeezing himself into places. Those word choices reveal a lot of tension: even though everyone just sort of goes along with his actions, there is quiet resistance. Nice work!

  17. It seemed as though the seating arrangements remained permanent from the moment we sat down to lunch on the first day of school. I sat in the middle of a long table of girls, but only really conversed with the other three corners of the square around me. Throughout the year, we had become social with the boys’ table three tables across the cafeteria. We never changed seats or sat nearer to them, yet tried to communicate with each other all the time. Perhaps it was a comfort thing – we were shielded from the hurtful comments and could easily gush over crushes and ex boyfriends without being noticed. This is what I hoped to discuss with my best friend today. I took a sip of my grape juice box to wet my dry mouth and said, “I need to tell you something. ”
    She held up a can of fruit and mouthed the word “peaches” to the boys across the room. Her goofy, toothy smile honked out a laugh as she saw the embarrassed reaction from the boys she craved attention from.
    “Are you listing to me?” I asked, unable to hide my annoyance.
    “Uh huh” she replied vacantly.
    I inhaled deeply and as the air in my lungs expelled I blurted, I don’t think I’m over him.”
    I felt relieved to finally tell someone even though my fingers tingles and my ears were burning. My PB and J sandwich chimed in my stomache as I waited for a reply.
    She stared recently for a moment, then began nodding vigorously and pointing down the table. She hafnt heard a word I said.
    My blood boiled. I stood up, three my brown paper bag into one of the many garbage receptacles and walked out of the cafeteria unnoticed.

    *typed from my phone…sorry for any errors

    1. Great details about what they are eating. Their food seems so young, but they are entering the world of romance: what a nice juxtaposition! If you revise, I think you can cut down on the the intro. Once you get into the actual meat of the scene — the interaction — it’s so strong and your description conveys your meaning.

  18. Walking in from the green hallway with my Nutrigrain bar, Gatorade, and my sandwich (today Dad surprised me with peanut butter and marmalade, ugh). I look around as I cross into chaos.
    Who will let me sit with them today?
    There are the cool kids, laughing at everyone, because they are so superior and awesome and funny. I don’t know why, but everyone wants to sit with them even if they are mean just to be close to their “greatness.” Beth looked my way and caught my eye. She quickly turned away leaning over the long table to whisper with her tablemates and laugh. She’s just trying to solidify her place in the cool group. Dumb. Nope. I’m NOT dealing with that crap today.
    There, by the lockers, are some of my teammates. Ugh! What is John eating? Ew! I’m afraid to find out. They are all OK, but I’m on the outs with them ‘cause I didn’t dye my hair red last week at the pasta dinner like everyone else. Red hair does not a team make. If I sit with them they might try to get me to eat whatever that is that John’s eating to make up for not being a team player. Nope, I’ll pass.
    There’s some underclassman I know, maybe I’ll sit with them. What time is it? Nope. I have to eat quickly today, and I sat with them yesterday. I don’t want them to think I’m needy or something by sitting with the younger group.
    Wait a minute. There. Walking through the lunchroom doors back out into the hallway are Joth and Jayme. The Goth group aka my newspaper friends. I’ll sit with them a while. I can leave when I need to and I can just sit quiet without having to play pretend. I know half of them are druggies, well, that’s the rumor anyway. The other half just talk like they are, but I know they aren’t. They will let me be, no being mean, no guilt trip, no desperation, just me.
    Let’s eat.

    1. I like seeing a character who crosses groups. I think that happens much more often than people realize. The details about the hair dying are also really authentic. I remember a boy on our high school soccer team didn’t shave his head and everyone thought he was a narc. So, definitely high marks for authenticity! If you want to push this further, I would just add a little more physical detail to ground the scene.

  19. Thanks, Megan, for this great prompt. I did a freewrite about a high school experience when I was the one who told another student that he couldn’t sit at our table. I remember feeling both power and shame. The social capital of the high school cafeteria is very real. And I was far from a queen bee in the social structure of my school. What came of that freewrite is this (rather tongue-in-cheek) poem:

    I, too, sing Suburbia
    (with apologies to Langston Hughes)

    I am the nerdy kid.
    They send me away from the cool table
    when the queen bee comes,
    but I laugh,
    and eat well,
    and grow strong.

    I’ll be at the cool table
    when the PTO moms come.
    Nobody’ll dare say to me,
    “That seat is taken,”

    Besides, they’ll see how beautiful
    my lesson plans are
    and be ashamed –

    I, too, am Suburbia.

    1. One thing I like to do with students as an introduction writing poetry is to share a poem and then provide the students with a “skeleton” which uses the framework of the original poem and leaves space for students to literally fill-in-the-blanks with words and ideas that make the poem their own. That’s basically what I did with this poem using Langston Hughes’ “I, too, sing America”, a poem which brings the social capital of who sits where — both literally and metaphorically — to a whole other level.

    2. This is absolutely fantastic. Am I reading it wrong that it’s actually about the adults in the school? I’ve been in buildings like that! I agree that this is a great model for students, and I like how you did both the free write and then the poem. That’s a great strategy.

      1. Thanks for the encouragement and kind words, Megan. You’re reading it right. The first stanza is meant to be set in middle school/ high school, and then the “Tomorrow” [read: “In the future”] jumps ahead to adult interactions in a school setting. Not strictly autobiographical, but as a parent in the district where I teach, it’s always interesting to watch the social interplay from both sides of the fence, so to speak.

  20. Seafood patties, the menu said. . . .living near the coast, she loved seafood — shrimp, oysters, fish — but she wasn’t sure where the seafood was in this patty. . . it was round and brown and flat — and tasteless…well at least lacking any particularly good taste.

    She wished, again, that she could bring her lunch from home like the cool kids. Their cool, spiffy lunchboxes with color and characters from all the favorite shows fascinated her. She looked around and saw the ones with chevron and monogrammed initials. Nah, that wasn’t really her style, but the bright cheery colors or the Superheroes? She could totally be lovin’ that!

    What would she bring in her lunchbox? She and her mom didn’t always get along great, but she thought her mom was a good cook…What she wouldn’t give for some of Mama’s spaghetti or vegetable beef soup. Or maybe a leftover meatloaf sandwich….

    Well, no use dreamin’. No money to be like the cool kids. Seafood patties with yucky mac and cheese and fruit cocktail from a can was better than nothing she supposed.

    As she took a bite of the seafood patty, she thought of her friend, Sarah, who swore she ate dog food — sometimes with mustard. She couldn’t really see much difference in that and her lunch for the day. In fact, she thought mustard might improve the flavor.

  21. Megan, I loved this post as you express one of my biggest peeves in kids\’ books that fall short. There were 2 books out recently ostensibly about connecting with a child on the autism spectrum, and side by side the distinct difference was that one wrote down to readers.

    I\’m going to stash this activity for when I am working on a scene with a young character, within a cast of adult characters in my adult ms. But I did want to say that you shared a word activity last summer that I\’ve used several times in the past year, both with students and in working on wordchoice in my own writing. Thank you so much for the time you take to share with Teachers Write!

  22. As I walk to pick up my classroom in the morning in the cafeteria, I think about how this is the least favorite part of my day. Seeing the total chaos that is the lunch room at Bronx Prep is not my idea of a great way to start off the day. Spilled milk, crumbs, garbage, wrappers, pieces of food, everywhere.
    The morning monitor clearly does not care about her job if she lets the kids leave the tables the way they are, as if they are a garbage can.
    Am I supposed to tell them to throw away their garbage? I do, of course, but that is not the point. Walking past the garage thrown floor, to the windows where we can look outside and see the metal bars on the gates, keeping us safe from the streets of the South Bronx and all of the traffic that haunts the street.
    You can just tell which student is having a bad day just from walking by. Head on the table, sitting by themselves, listening to music, hoodie on their head. Those are the ones that are going to give me hell today.
    The other teacher already gabbing in my ear that the girls are fighting with each other again. The classroom talker taps me as I walk by and tells me that Abdul smells and Alyssa took his muffin.
    Just a day in the life of a student in a charter school in the Bronx. Just another Tuesday.

  23. Desperately scanning the faces while looking like I wasn’t desperately scanning the faces took some effort. I understood the subtleties of looking cool in high school. Rule Number 1: Don’t be a loner. I had just come out of class — a class with none of my people. I say people because I didn’t really have friends. Not in the true sense of the word. My people functioned more as a mutual benefit between them and me. I had a car; I could drive them to lunch. Rule Number 2: It’s not cool to stay on campus for lunch. So as I walked toward the quad, a huge, lowered cement area in the middle of campus, I calmly glanced at every single pair of eyes to see which ones might be at all concerned with mine.