Explore with Curiosity. Create with Love

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Excuse me, teacher, does this count as Professional Development?

As teachers, we sometimes need reminders that there are others out there that are doing what we are doing, either a little bit different, or a little bit better. It’s our job to be reflective of our practice and to use our experiences with our students and our material to conjure up ways to improve the craft of our teaching. All good teaching, inevitably, is about building great culture around learning. Like the students sometimes ask in the beginning of a class, “Does count toward our grade?” I myself ask, “Does this count as professional development?”

Of course, the answer is…

Recently Dan Coyle63972 came and spoke with our students at YSC Academy. He spoke about his most recent book The Culture Code, a novel which explores three main questions:

  • Where does great culture come from?
  • How do you build and sustain great culture in your group?
  • How do you strengthen a culture that needs fixing?

Take a moment to think about the people that helped you learn what makes great culture and the values they are built on. … 3…. 2…. 1….

I know that my parents and my school helped shape my understanding of culture. There was an element of trust which held our community together. As the youngest brother of three, I gathered that culture was a mixture of what my parents said and did compared and contrasted with what my brothers said and did in response. Crossing boundaries and setting them up again, and, most importantly, maintaining a space for there to be learning about why those little moments of infractions or rebellion or togetherness were important. They were also essential to my upbringing.

Discipline can be such an ugly word sometimes; we see it most often as the consequence after a wrongdoing. But more importantly than discussing the semantics of discipline is establishing what Self-discipline means to an individual. I invite you to think about your own definition, as a parent, student, teacher. My definition is “unapologetically asserting my values in the choices I make every day.” I don’t feel in trouble when I say it that; in fact, sharing it helps others understand more clearly the decisions I make.

Great culture comes from clearly articulating your definition of Self-Discipline.

As for school, I was always a good student, but not the best student; however, I used what I didn’t know and how my grades compared to others as motivation to succeed and get better. That only took me so far; as I got older, I needed to learn that in order for me to appreciate learning, I needed to get better for my own sake. English classes became an opportunity for me to learn that better than other disciplines because in English class, there was nuance, there were words that permit me to say what I wanted to say as best as possible. Finally, when I came to Creative Writing, and especially poetry, the experimentation with sound, imagery, and format granted a passport into a world of design. The English-speaking and English-writing worlds combined to give me passport into shades of meaning. I found that I favored implicitness over explicitness any way possible.

This brings me back to Dan Coyle’s talk. Through a Power Point and sporty storytelling, Dan Coyle weaved together a palace that answers the three questions above. The pillars that hold this palace together are:

  • Safety
  • Vulnerability
  • Purpose

Again, the question is how do enterprises, organizations, and/or teams use these three pillars to build culture?

What struck me the most about his talk was that most of it dealt with adults, for adults. As we left the talk, we had to think about how we apply his doctrines to our own practices. My biggest take-away from the talk is how we generate and follow through with Professional Development for our teachers.

Don’t get me wrong. The talk was informative and inspiring. His video of the starlings and Game 7 of the Chicago Cubs vs. Cleveland Indians World Series demonstrated two remarkable moments about ideals and the pinnacles of great culture, respectively. However, what I am left wanting is a way in to get my hands dirty with the culture stuff.I am consistently looking for initiatives in my culture of teaching and learning to make myself matter; I am consistently redefining my role.

Maybe, that’s all it is. Culture is a constant ebb and flow between the cacophony of collaboration and the silence of self-reflection. As teachers, we are here to remind our classrooms full of impulsive teenagers that our spaces are safe, where your learning happens gradually on emotional and cognitive levels, and where the purpose is just one or two goals: to get us together to places we dream of, and to overcome challenges to develop our growth — essentially, to train our brain.

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A Gesture from Yester… year

What do you notice?

I see a man in a pink shirt and tie (dangling so slightly between his arm and his waist) banging on the glass at a hockey game. In eight seconds, he goes from banging on the glass to turning to his left in profile and screaming. There is joy in the scream.

I see one hockey player in the background skating around, which establishes that “Crazy Carl at the hockey game” is during intermission, or some lull in the game. For these eight seconds, the game of hockey is on hiatus.

I am 36 years old, and the fact that a lot of my life is on the internet astounds me. We can broadcast ourselves from any place at any time, filter the image to make the shades or the colors or the light work just right, or create a border around which jettisons the photo into some meme-osphere. Clicks form cliques, facing books turns into book-marking friends, and the ability to create some coherent, cohesive, organized narrative through it all is the new imperative.

That is what I try to demonstrate to my students. Essentially, the blog is an imperfect conversation, an argument left unsaid, an “ask” requesting an answer. It’s the child at the playground yelling from fifty feet away to her mom, “Hey, look at me!”

For many of my students, blogging is personal. It’s curious to watch them tip-toe around the requirements, but then jump head first when no one is watching. They post instinctively, they laugh uncontrollably around the juxtaposition of academia and their personal lives. Of course, a blogging rubric is 1 a way for us to discuss what they write, and I find our conversations to be that much more meaningful when guided by this rubric, which turns their attention to self-reflection and their own goals and accomplishments. They reflect on their voice, layout, hyperlinked content, and imagery. Essentially, they are artists critiquing their own and each other’s art.

The internet is possibility. I am teaching my students currently about blogging because blogging empowers their minds to go places they never knew they could. I am using the technical-adaptive approach which is to show them both how/why hyperlinks, imagery, and the formatting of their blog works, along with the theoretical such as “Why I Blog” by Andrew Sullivan or “Blogging as Pedagogic Practice: Artefact and Ecology” by Marcus O’Donnell.

Ultimately, the articles suggest technologies such as the blog provide the writer/caption-er/photographer with new ways of thinking and new ways of doing. What 21st century student doesn’t want this?

The project is called “Dare to Fail” and over the new few weeks, the students will have the opportunity to learn as much as they can about their relationship to blogging. The philosophy of David Hawkins preaches that to approach anything scientifically is to understand the I-Thou-It relationship. i-thou-itI look forward to seeing their engagement blossom, to seeing them work through the frustration of apathy and confusion and time-management.

I see a man in a pink shirt. There is joy in the scream.






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I used to… and now I…

Josie Harper Abramowitz

So, if you’re like me, you started to ponder the meaning of life this week. You started to question your practice and your purpose, your relationships and your career goals. And then your colleague gave you a book to read called literally show me a healthy person. It did little and then it did a lot if you value self-deprecation and self-care, absconding in vomit, sex, caffeine, and the internet. It’s actually a good read.

But I didn’t come here to talk about the book; I came here to talk about a practice in thinking I’ve been neglecting, but which I remember being one of my favorites. It’s a practice in self-preservation and self-love. It’s “I used to… but now I…” As a teacher and a former student (weren’t we all former students?), I try to model the behavior of reflection. I have my English students assess their own learning weekly. We meet and discuss, our conversations about their growth being online and face-to-face, whatever works for them to grow as learners and writers, and especially as readers.

My, how times have changed! I would describe myself as a necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention-kind-of learner. As a tweet, that would be an adaptive learner. Five years ago, I was helping to start this school and now I am learning about what it means to be a childless father.

Let that sink in!

We tend to use reason to help make sense of emotions. I used to think that becoming a father would be the ultimate professional development for my job. I could hang my hat on that accomplishment only brought on by life’s unexpected journey. And then it was all taken away.

On the morning of September 6, 2017, my first child passed away. As a soon-to-be father, someone who was only just learning to face the life that will be, I saw my life suddenly branch out into multiplicity. To multiply my life into parallel universes was a defense mechanism. There wasn’t (and there still isn’t) a lot of research and guidance for fathers who have experienced what I was (still am) going through, but I am learning that there is support out there; there are final chapters of books like Joy at the End of a Rainbow which provided me some ways to elucidate my own behaviors, from one to eight months after the tragedy.

Josie Harper “Altuve” Abramowitz was born during a hurricane. Image result for hurricane harveyAs Hurricane Harvey pummeled my hometown of Houston, I watched as my wife suffered through the pains of the loss of a child. Our child. Our future. Our future that was. That could have been. My mental and emotional strength since that moment was put to the test.

And life goes on. I am learning that rather than focusing on the parent I was going to become, I am learning to be the parent who has lost. I am learning how to move forward with that.
I’m currently reading a book entitled Vaster than Sky, Greater than Space: What you are before you became and what I am learning from the book is about how to walk the line between being and becoming. I am learning how to give voice and respond to my own inner chatter. 
I am a firm believer of sharing our vulnerabilities to create stronger groups, and my vulnerability is the loss of my child. I imagine, sometimes, the parallel life I would be living alongside the life I am currently living; I imagine someday that my wife and I will have children someday and our lives will forever be changed again. I’m holding onto hope.
The self-talk practice of “I used to … but now I …” has become a way to connect the dots. I have realized that writing, sharing a moment with a friend, and consistently giving voice to my past are important aspects of my life. They are a necessity.


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Creative Writing Syllabus

Creative Writing

Instructor: Carl Abramowitz


Meeting Times: TBD



Honor Code

We, the student-athletes of YSC Academy, in order to pursue academic and athletic excellence, pledge to live by the following code of conduct:

Always conduct ourselves with confidence and humility

Respect and value the opinions and ideas of all people

Challenge ourselves and each other to do our best

Accept and learn from our mistakes

Lead the way and share our successes, on the pitch and in the classroom

Treat one another and ourselves with honor and respect

Treat all academic and athletic environments with reverence

Embrace change and demonstrate resilience

Take pride in being a member of this community

Every day, everywhere we go, and with every person we meet, we work to earn respect for our school and ourselves.



Overview of the course and its goals:

Creative Writing: This semester-long course explores the art of creative writing, focusing on three major areas: creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. After this broad exposure, you will choose a primary area of emphasis for the remainder of the semester. Coursework reinforces the writing process: understanding and stimulating creativity, brainstorming ideas, revising drafts, and establishing a writer’s practice. All students participate in writers’ workshops to learn both how to give and how to receive constructive editorial assistance.

This workshop-style class is an introduction to the pleasures of the writing process. You will benefit from in-depth readings and constructive critical support in a class that fosters a community of writers. We will spend half the semester writing fiction and non-fiction and the other half writing screenplays and poems. Some of each meeting will be devoted to discussing the texts. We will look at literature as writers rather than as scholars. From time to time, we will do some in-class writing. Growing, experimenting, and revising are key. Class participation and attendance are vital.

  • You will develop a working knowledge of the basic elements of the craft of fiction and non-fiction:
    • Character
    • Plot
    • Point-of-view
    • Dialogue
    • Style
    • Narrative distance
    • Voice
    • Riffs
  • You will explore and practice a variety of approaches to the craft of poetry including:
    • Narrative
    • Lyric
    • Free verse
    • Formalist
    • Epistles
  • For homework, you will complete brief writing assignments (known as two-pointers) designed to help you shape and generate work. These are journal entries, meant for you to approach the reading in a scholarly way. Prompt questions will be provided.
  • Details, due dates, and texts are found in this syllabus and on Canvas (for the two-pointers and the discussions). This syllabus is a basic course guideline. I may make some adjustments to it as the semester progresses.


  • Selections from Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University
  • Selections from Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
  • Selections from Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence
  • “The Distance of the Moon” from Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
  • “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell
  • “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner
  • “The Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka
  • Selection from Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee.
  • About plot and pacing: “Mastiff” by Joyce Carol Oates from The New Yorker (
  • About point of view and voice: “Happy Trails” by Sherman Alexie from The New Yorker (
  • About dialogue: “Hunters in the Snow” by Tobias Wolff. Find the story here:
  • About ending a story and aspects of theme: “Paper Losses” by Lorrie Moore from The New Yorker (





1.     Course Introduction: Aspects of Fiction and Non-fiction


2.     Screenwriting and Poetry




1.     TBD


2.     TBD



1.     Days 45



2.     Days 45



1.     Days 45


2.     Days 45



I will be looking for participation, improvement, revision, and experimentation. I expect your work to be polished in terms of the written conventions of good English style and grammar.


This is composed of your fiction, your non-fiction, your poetry, and your short screenplay. Your grade on these assignments are based on improvement, revision, experimentation, and timeliness. Each student is required to present his work for constructive critiquing. Be sure to keep your critical feedback and mark-ups from both myself and your peers.








These are double-spaced analytical essays about the texts. These give you opportunities to strengthen your skills in composition and analysis, and to generate critical thinking skills about the reading in a scholarly way. Prompt questions will be provided.



Leadership / Participation means facilitating the discussion on that week’s reading in class. This class is a workshop-based class; hence, pro-active and candid/productive collaboration comprises the majority of this grade. Reading is fuel/nourishment for the writer’s task à not passive reception, but reading as entering into the texts pro-actively, with incisive curiosity, and a critical, perhaps even, meddlesome eye.



Extra Credit: response to a Kelly Writers House reading attendance (see website below)

 +5% (half a letter grade)



So that everyone can write freely as possible, grades are based on your maintaining an active writing process as above defined. Doing the full gamut of required activities (your own writing, two-pointers, and in-class discussions) responsibly and punctually is what earns an “A.”



Late work loses 5% on the specific assignment per class-day late and will be allowed up to two weeks late.



This class is about both your individual creativity and the group’s dynamic. Constructive interaction means the following:

  • Being on time.
  • Staying through class
  • Listening actively
  • Speaking in turn
  • Speaking civilly in all circumstances
  • Keeping your integrity (online and in-person)



  • We discuss what the text/writing achieved or fell short on (not the author/writer)
  • The author DOES NOT speak until the group is finished critiquing his text.
  • Be respectfully frank and specific (being too nice or too general/abstract is not useful)
  • Critique with a text’s potential next evolution in mind.
  • Silence is not a friendly gesture in a creative writing workshop — passivity will be taken as evidence of not having prepared for class.


ACADEMIC INTEGRITY: All students are required to adhere to these policies:

  • When you say you did the work yourself, you actually did it.
  • When you rely on someone else’s work, you cite it accordingly.
  • When you use their words, you quote them accurately, and you cite them too.
  • Refer to the Honor Code at the beginning of this syllabus.
  • Guidelines for Collaborative Work will be explicitly explained per assignment.



  • It’s best to use Microsoft Word or PDF given that many computers you’ll have access to here might have difficulty with other formats.
  • Double-spaced text is easier for others to write comments on.
  • Title your work. Take the titling of a piece of work as part of the creative process.





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On Teaching Poetry Across the Curriculum — Creating Buoyancy for Our Young Readers


“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.” — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

We read for buoyancy. I’ve probably read this quote over 10,000 times. I have been teaching Anne’s book ever since I started a new school, but the quote has been a part of me much longer. It is inscribed in my soul. The practicum of teaching poetry spans multimedia: from Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society to the Apple iPad Air commercial quoting from the aforementioned movie. All too often, however, we forget about the buoyancy of reading. We forget our personal marginalia; in other words, we cast aside our disposition in relation to the poem. Our disposition, our ways of taking stock of the market negotiations between us and the poem, our network of other readers who have also shared in the reading — these create the buoyancy, which is really a space created for wiggle room, and if we’re floating together along this sea of profound uncertainty, we might as well “[sing our didn’ts and dance our dids].”

Recently, a new buoyancy has awoken in my teaching and learning with poetry. I am currently walking through various kinds of poetry with my 9th, 10th, and 11th graders. The 9th graders are being introduced to poetry much like a restaurant would build a buffet. The walking through and the messing about is more for their various engagement with poetry of all kinds. The 10th graders just began poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Before, we had read Frederick Douglass’s The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The 11th grade began the semester with T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and recently we moved into Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago” and Blackstar’s (Mos Def & Talib Kweli, ft. Common) “Respiration.” Each poetry class has a purpose but the purpose does not have a stranglehold on the experience of the poem. This multipurpose approach in poetry has created various outcomes: reflection essay on poetry, debate on the toolkit of poetic devices, remix of poetry in contemporary voice, timeline of connections between the content of poetry and historical events.

Most of all, I like exploring Essential Questions with my students around poetry. These essential questions are generated from teacher-guided and student-driven curiosities. I recently read an article that helped with a template for helping students generate essential questions. It is this specific act of question-making that creates some of the buoyancy for engaging in poetry collectively. Some of the essential questions I like to ask are:

  • Why does the poet write this poem? For whom?
  • How do effective poets hook and hold their readers?
  • How is this particular poem about me?
  • How is the structure of this poem related to the function of this poem?
  • What are the common factors in various poetic forms?

Students demonstrate understanding of poetry NEVER through multiple-choice questions. They show their learning through writing. They exercise the toolkit of poetry: alliteration, assonance, dissonance, meter, rhyme, sonnet-form, villanelle-form, ekphrasis, repetition (chorus/hook), free verse, Imagist poetry, onomatopoeia. It’s a disservice if educators of poetry avoid these forms and practices of writing poetry due to more emphasis on rational thought and essay-writing. Again, our disposition, our ways of taking stock of the market negotiations between us and the poem, our network of other readers who have also shared in the reading — these create the buoyancy, which is really a space created for wiggle room. Emphasis on synthesis/analysis ideation comes after the wiggle room.

I’ve recently come back to Socratic Smackdowns with my 9th graders. Socratic Smackdowns come from The Institute of Play; to play you create a fishbowl classroom where one-half of your students participate in the discussion and the other half remain outside, responsibly paying attention to an assigned classmate on his discussion strategies:

  • body language and eye contact to indicate active listening
  • poses and responds to questions
  • builds on the thoughts of others
  • quotes the text to support a point
  • challenges ideas and conclusions in a thoughtful,well-reasoned exchange of ideas
  • makes new connections

Some questions I invite the students to answer throughout the poetry units are I borrow from Junot Diaz, professor extraordinaire and writer from MIT:

  1. What are the poem’s primary features—spatial, cultural, biological, fantastic, cosmological?
  2. What is the world of the poem? What are its ethos (the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize the world)?
  3. What are the precise strategies that are used by its creator to convey the world to us and us to the world?
  4. How are our characters connected to the world?
  5. And how are we the viewer or reader or player connected to the world?

These are difficult, albeit frightening, questions for students to sometimes answer because they require the kind of engagement not always asked of them. At the same time, the discussion about our discursive habits and using poetry to explore our and others’ worlds facilitates the buoyancy we are trying to create with our students. That is the direction of literacy, to decrease our students’ sense of isolation, so they can feel a little connectedness and meaningfulness within the pages and within themselves.

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A New Perspective

A reluctant reader found solace in parkour and then he began writing about it.


This semester I started blogging. At first I was not amused by it whatsoever. In fact, I strongly disliked it. I was doing it only for the sake of my grades, not because I truly enjoyed it. Then it all changed when I read the book Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne LaMotte. This book gave me the urge to write, which was baffling for me because I have never wanted to write before in my life. It was a new feeling but a good feeling, and I loved it.

Anne LaMotte describes writing in such a beautiful way. She makes it seem fun and enjoyable, unlike the educational system that I am used to. She describes it as a way for us to “feed the soul” and “decrease our sense of isolation” (237). She tells you as a writer to just throw down your…

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Bird by Bird: A Great Read for Improvement of Writing

We’re onto something here.



Is it possible for a book to change a person’s perception and aid in their writing ability? Well sure it is. Anything can change one’s perception of something or help them. The only difference I am feeling about this book: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, is that after being a very bad boy and disappointing the English teachers of the world by judging the book by its cover, is that after finally giving the piece a chance, I found that it truly changed my thought process on writing. Now, I would not go as far as to say that this book is “life-changing” or “magical” because the hyperbolic nature of those words is a bit over-the-top to describe a high school book, but I would say that it has helped me and my writing progress. This progression in my writing can be shown and explained…

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