Sunday, January 13, 2013

Finding the Extraordinary in "Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life" by Amy Krouse Rosenthal [Review & L.P.s]

Finding a book that inspires writing opportunities I can share with students gets my little English teacher heart pumping. Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal offers many teaching ideas.

Beginning with the "Forward," the book embodies writing ideas:

I was not abused, abandoned, or locked up as a child. My parents were not alcoholics, nor were they ever divorced or died. We did not live in poverty, or in misery, or in an exotic country. I am not a misunderstood genius, a former child celebrity, or the child of a celebrity. I am not a drug addict, sex addict, food addict, or recovered anything. If I indeed had a past life, I have no recollection of who I was.

I have not survived against all odds.
I have not lived to tell.
I have not witnessed the extraordinary.

This is my story. 

Rosenthal's use of litotes, defining or explaining by negation, effectively illustrates how students can include the technique in their own writing. I showed Rosenthal's example to a former student during lunch as we discussed her definition essay assignment for another class. She experienced an epiphany of sorts. We don't just have to say what something is, we can say what it's not. Cool.


Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary act of living is both the purpose and theme of the book. I first learned  about Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life through Kelly Gallagher's Write Like This, in which he suggests using Rosenthal's "What My Childhood Tasted Like" as a way to generate writing ideas and as essay prompts. Rosenthal includes 16 items on her list and includes notes on these in the second column.

I also wrote an entry about what my childhood tasted like and set up a Google doc (editing enabled). Below is a screenshot of my doc. I wrote about the Mayonnaise Cake my stepmother made. That generated lots of questions and sharing in my classroom.

Rosenthal includes many charts for her "ordinary" life, including "Sounds that are Loud Though Quiet." She includes the example of "a mosquito buzzing in your camping trip at three A.M."

Another chart: "Anxious, Things That Make Me." I can relate to her constant checking the flight schedule just to be certain she doesn't miss a flight. I typically worry about time zones when I fly and never quite trust my phone to update the zone.

She includes charts for the following: Memorable t.v. shows and movies, things that confused her for longer than they should have, customary things, depressing things, favorite smells, distinct smells, smells that remind her of something, and several others. Each offers an instantaneous teaching idea.

Rosenthal's chart of moods and what can change her mood immediately is a real gem. Who hasn't been in a great mood only to have some annoyance change our good mood to its opposite?

Another fun inclusion is a how Rosenthal might look on a Wanted Poster vs. a sketch artist rendition based on her father's description. Showing students the images could lead to discussions about characterization and/or illustrations in various editions of a novel. The history of illustration over time for Huck Finn, for example, is fascinating.

The book itself takes the form of an encyclopedia, Rosenthal's personal life story, a memoir of sorts that includes numerous entries about her life. To avoid the listing effect that can happen with the use of chronological structures, teachers will want to share Rosenthal's writing process. She describes it as "accordion style," a  non-chronological writing process, including writing the "Y" entry first.

While teachers can have students write about themselves, it's also possible to use Rosenthal's example for a class project or for a character or novel. Indeed, many years ago I assigned students the task of writing an alphabet book for The Scarlet Letter.

However teachers find inspiration from Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, it's a reminder that we need to constantly remind our students

You were here.
You did things.
Your story
Your writing
Your life
Matters.
You are the extraordinary in your ordinary life.

1 comment:

  1. So neat. Just finding this after looking up AKR because of her gorgeous, heart-breaking piece in the Times yesterday. I've always loved her children's books but didn't know about all her other work.

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