Intro to Feature Writing with Joe Robertson, The Kansas City Star

Ms. Laird interviews Joe Robertson from the Kansas City Star to get his professional insider perspective on the fundamentals of feature writing.


UPDATE- kidnappings in Israel

Editorial Note: First, thanks for bearing with us as we didn’t update while traveling. We don’t have a real excuse; I think we were all just tired. Second, we wanted to try to shed a less newsy perspective on the kidnappings. Both regional and western media have been covering the kidnappings as journalists, and we’d encourage you to read those sources. We’re going to go in the opposite direction. Below, you’ll find an email from a Palestinian college student who lives outside of Hebron that describes his raw, unfiltered thoughts on the situation. Save for deleting the greeting and closing, the email is completely unedited. Later in the day, I’ll write a post about a conversation about the kidnappings I had on the plane with an American college student who goes to college in Jerusalem. In this way, we hope to capture a balanced and personal look at the event. As always, we’re trying to capture the stories people share with us; we’re not trying to take a stand one way or the other. 

Things here have, sadly, been really bad. They cut off electricity everyday during the night. They have arrested more than 200 Palestinians, most of them are former Palestinian prisoners who were released in the agreement between Hamas and Israel last year. One of them is actually Na’el Barghouti, who had been arrested since 1978 and was released last year. However, he was rearrested again yesterday. Today, they have bombed 3 shops in Hebron, invaded two schools in the old city of Hebron and arrested young kids. As I was on my way to Seeds of Peace office in Ramallah today, they did not let anyone from Hebron into Ramallah. Israel has a checkpoint that separates the north of Palestine to the south. It is the only road to connect the North to the South and it has been closed since Thursday. They have gone into the heart of Ramallah, Nablus and Bethlehem. A Palestinian guy was killed after he got out of a World Cup match in Jalazon Refugee Camp around Ramallah. 

Whether the Israeli settlers are kidnapped or not, I am not sure. What I feel in here is more like systematic terror to horrify people and make resistance unthinkable to them. It is a systematic and collective punishment to all of the Palestinians who live in Hebron. There has been no evidence for the kidnapping. All what Israel is talking about is vague statements, and they indict Hamas of doing it with no proof. Here is how I see it. Israel has been put under so much international pressure. Though the Palestinian Authority is a bad leadership, it has done an amazing job of putting Israel under international pressure. The PA obeys everything that the US and international community say, which has left no justification for Israel to do what  they do to Palestinians. Saying that settlers were kidnapped not only humanize settlers (who attack Palestinians on a daily basis) but also create a justification for Israel to conduct this massive operation of terror against Palestinians. Even the United Nations and the German Foreign Ministry have said that though they condemn any kidnapping, they are not quiet sure that a kidnapping has actually happened. Hebron is too small. It has been put under siege, and yet they have no clue. Reports say that Israeli police got a “call” from the car kidnapped. The settlers were calling for help, but Israeli police did not respond to that until 10 hours later. This is a story from the Israeli side, and I think it shows how much contradiction there is around the story. There is something known about Hamas. They always claim what they do because that’s their way to get support from Palestinians. Hamas has said it bluntly and clearly that “they have no hand in the kidnapping”. 

They are terrorizing people and killing any potential for resistance. They are,literally, humiliating people and making them long for nothing, but bread and income. 

Sorry, this is a very long email. It has been a very heavy day on me. At the end of the day, justice prevails. Throughout history, it always did, and it will do this time as well. 


Black and Blue

An editorial note: I cannot overstate how difficult it is to write on an issue and place as an outside observer. For this reason, I find myself leaning towards a mystical and transcendent tone. There is no way that we are in neutral ground or giving a balanced viewpoint, for so many reasons. It is one of the struggles every writer must face: thinking of how your audience will receive something, yet writing what you want to, with the words you want to use, even when provocative or biased (again, students, journalism deals with this tension but it is a different bear–we will learn from Ms. Giesler together). Even though I am an outsider, but because I am an artist, and arguably because of my common humanity, I am a participant. So, here is another vignette–one that reads less like a story and more like prose or poetry–of hopefully several more to come:

Another editorial note: This is draft 1b. One of my biggest weaknesses as a writer (some may say a strength) is that I intensely and perfectionistically revise as I write, which means that though this is my first draft and will take it through a longer process of revising and editing, I wrote it with the self-inflicted burden of the desire to write something immediately publishable. In this vein, feel free to give me feedback!  – katie 

Blue is the color of the noonday’s sky, fading into its deeper shade of the Mediterranean. It is the color of ocean waters at every earthly bay and the color of the wide sky over every child. If blue were a sound, it may be the swooshing of these waves, softly rolling in, harshly clashing with the inlet’s rocks protruding. If blue were a state of being, it is this restful calm. Heaven knows we need this canopy of peace. If only peace were its effect.

It didn’t take long to realize that peace had become an empty notion, a cuss word to some. “I don’t believe in peace,” she said. Just the word felt oppressive, like the anesthetic pacification of true justice. It carried the connotation of concession, of giving up and giving in. She was sixteen, weaving in and out of impassioned conversation with me and texting her friends. Blue was the color of the sign in the ruins of a Palestinian village that narrated a lens of history she did’t agree with, producing visible anger that she seemed to carry around in her youthful ancient memory. “This is not even how this happened. That didn’t happen,” the other girl said, as if physically pushing away the blue sign as she walked on.

She wanted to tell me about the other’s flag. The blue stripes- blue to represent the two rivers and their declaration to occupy all the land in between. All three of their faces were determined, frustrated, sincere. This is their deeply settled story, reinforced by encroaching settlements of the “other”, by blue signs everywhere, by the official presence of blue that is compounding and swallowing up their hope.

Black- is black a color or just the absence of color, whose neutral opposite is white?In their own flag, black is the non-color of battles, death, loss. It pushes up against the white triangle of the hope of peace.

Black is the non-color of the water tanks on the tops of homes in the Arroub refugee camp, which only is allotted water access a few days a week most months of the year. Their story is that it’s one of many efforts to make life unpredictable, unsustainable, unbearable. To create absence, just like the non-color of black is absence, and then replace this black with blue.

Blue is the color of the human-herding gates in one of the 522 permanent checkpoints in the West Bank. Blue is the color of my passport that relieved me of the harassment the Arab woman in front of me faced. The color of my skin is not irrelevant, either. Blue is the color of the I.D. card that denotes those who never fled their home in now-Israel, giving them something of the resident-alien-status sort–the right to pass freely, if you can call that freedom.

Black is the exclusive non-color of the Ultra Orthodox dress. Black suits, black top hats or black kippahs, black shoes, black beards and black curled hair strands in the front of their black-on-white shaved heads. In one enlightened window of history, it was the standard of formal dress of the public, instituted from henceforth to level the playing field for the Yeshiva youth, proclaiming human greatness for all (but only in the exclusive sense, of course). But who remembers that? Now it is as it is, crystalized in the blessing and curse-or beauty and danger, if you will–of tradition. Perhaps black is the color of tradition. As you walk through the streets of the Ultra Orthodox neighborhoods, there are shoe stores of all black shoes, kiosks of all black skirts and cloaks, and little ones in identical black dress running around in the universal way that children do, joking and playing. Black-this was the costume of the man from the Ultra Orthodox settlement who got caught in barbed wire, climbing the fence to take down the Palestinian flag raised on a roof in their own territory. Perhaps black is the absence of empathy, allowing the presence of fear to swell in.

Black- the color of Ethiopian Jews who came in droves to Israel in the 1970s and 80s, recruited to return home to the Promised Land. But, we all know the story of utopias. Humans impossibly cling to hierarchy–a real knack for creating an “other.” Who ever said it was us against them? It’s us against us.

Blue is the color of the 1, 2, or 4 of the tassels, tzitit, on the traditional white Jewish prayer shawl, the tallit. The blue dye comes from the hillazon, a rumored sea creature that surfaced on the shores of Israel once every 70 years. The blue tassels are wool, one of the only garments in which wool is allowed to interlock with linen, according to Torah law. Blue was the color of the royal courts during the time of Moses, its turquoise hue mirroring that of the gulf of Aqaba.

As he says this is the real story of Israel’s flag, not the one about the rivers, I wonder what makes a story real.

Some rabbinic wisdom professes that blue is the color of God’s glory. I wonder if the teaching is to wield it or to simply watch it.

Black and blue are the self-inflicted wounds of unknowing, as well as the bruises of loss, perseverance, even love–battle wounds to boast of, yet from a battle, nonetheless.









Enjoy the ride… love the ending

Editors note: this title is stolen from a advertisement for an Israeli version of the drum stick ice cream. It was referencing that bite of chocolate in the bottom of the cone; we’re referring to getting to write from the Mediterranean. 


I don’t want to belabor the point, but thank you so much to those who have supported our work here in Israel. We’ve had incredible support from the people we’ve met in the region and from home in the States. John mentioned Fund for Teachers last night, but I’d like to extend a specific thank you to Corey Scholes and the Kauffman Foundation for funding FFT grants locally. We couldn’t have done this without your support!

As I write, it’s early afternoon and we’re on the beach in Tel Aviv thinking about the next phase of our project. Up to this point, our writing has been pushed to the back burner in favor of taking advantage of every opportunity in the region. We’ve had an unofficial policy of saying yes to everything while we’ve been here. Some of our greatest moments were impromptu or not at all what we expected.

The shift to writing means that we’ll also begin reorganizing the site so that it serves as a student resource. If you know someone, other than us, that teaches secondary humanities, feel free to pass along our work. In the coming weeks, you’ll see what’ll appear to be a slow trickle of work filling out the website. This is my first writing for public consumption since college; it’s taught me to be empathetic with our perfectionist students. It’s hard to let go and publish a draft for someone else to see.

Nevertheless, John will post an early draft of his research on Palestinian daily life- a topic that is incredibly tricky to write because it’s hard to predict from day to day what life will be like. For instance, just a few days ago, we toured Arroub and Hebron in relative peace and quiet. We saw a little scuffle between two Palestinian men in Hebron, but the day was essentially calm. The next few days, there were over 80 arrests of Palestinians, gun fights, and closed checkpoints around Hebron in response to the kidnappings. John has his work cut out for him.

Katie will start pushing out vignettes. She’s finishing up a poetic vignette called “Black and Blue” that she’ll probably publish today. I read part of a draft last night; it’s going to be terrific. She’ll continue writing vignettes which, in conjunction with my efforts, will form one kind of narrative exemplar. She’s also going to write a feature story on Hashem that you should look forward to.

I am starting to write a couple of vignettes to add to Katie’s “Black and Blue” and my “A Little Girl’s Little Scar.” After I get done with my vignettes, I’ll be shifting to the policy paper than I’m absolutely dreading. A mea culpa- I absolutely own the arrogance of thinking I could write even a basic policy paper on the situation in Israel. If I’ve learned anything, and Daniel Moses tried to help me see this from day 1, it’s that I don’t know anything well enough to do this paper. I feel okay with capturing and telling people’s stories- as long as we frame them as the incomplete snippets that they are. I feel torn between wanting students to have an example of persuasive writing, and wanting to scrap the writing entirely and focus on story telling. You’ll see some work from me soon…

This has been an incredible ride so far…and we’re loving writing from the beach on our last day. Keep checking in with our site as we begin to publish more photos and writing that goes beyond blog-style summarizing.

Thanks, again for following along and for all of your support!


Mil Gracias

It’s our last night in Israel and I wanted to make a few general statements, as well as, thank the people who made this trip possible (by the way, there are several more posts to come, so stay tuned…this isn’t the end).

My personal take-a-aways:

1. ALL of the people we met on this trip are INCREDIBLE. I truly mean that. I leave here recognizing that people are great everywhere; they’re just more hospitable here.


a) we’ve stayed here a week with no contacts outside of Daniel Moses and we’ve been invited into four homes for conversation/dinner/drinks, been taken on two full-day tours by Yaser, and been given a free place to stay. The one word I would use to describe Israel/Palestine is HOSPITABLE.

Jay and Katie- thank you for dreaming up this project and making it happen. I’m a grateful passenger on your writing journey. Thank you!

Daniel Moses- when Jay told me the “rough itinerary” a few weeks ago (which didn’t have many definitive dates/times/places), I became concerned. Jay wasn’t, and I understand why. Once we arrived, you facilitated some of the most important experiences of my life. Thank you. This trip wouldn’t have been worth a damn without you.

Lisa and Iddo- thank you for sharing your personal stories and thank you for being incredible people. We really wish we could have spent more time with each of you, but it wasn’t in the cards.

Avi- I will never forget the evening at your house. “This is the main idea”: The 2011 olives and the stories of chainsaws and New Balance running shoes will always be ingrained in my mind. I know Maria has already claimed “dibs,” but I consider you to be my Israeli grandfather.

Adriel- You rock! Again, we wish we could have spent more time with you, but it wasn’t necessary to see who you are as a person. I’m excited about the impact you’ll make with Seeds of Peace.

Leo- you’re a soon-to-be sophomore at Duke, right? Pretty sure I felt like I was talking with someone my age. You are incredibly intelligent and someone I would describe as “wise beyond their years.” I look forward to watching your award-winning documentary! I also look forward to kicking Duke’s ass in the NCAA tournament next year:)

Maria- First of all, thank you for inviting us to Avi’s house. Your directions were stellar. I’ll never forget driving down that gravel road surrounded by a barbed-wire fence thinking, “Is this how it will end?” I’m kidding. You are an incredibly warm person who wins people over within the first 2 minutes of meeting you. I know you will do well in whatever field you choose.

Yasser- Besides Daniel Moses, we owe you the most for this trip. Please come to Kanas City so we can attempt to repay you.

Bob- We appreciate your knowledge and passion for this issue. Keep fighting the good fight!

Ali- you are a modern-day prophet. Arguably, the most interesting person I’ve met. Thank you for a truly unforgettable evening.

Hashem- check out my earlier post named “Hashem”. You should have a clear understanding of how I feel about you.

Daniel- I told Katie that I feel like I’ve met you before. You have a soul that is endearing and powerful. I’m very grateful for your personal stories and perspective; it was incredibly important to this whole project. I hope you make it to the U.S. soon for school or just to visit.

Families, friends, and students of Katie, Jay, and myself: thank you for supporting our trip and this website! You made us reflect on all of our experiences and try to tell the stories we experienced as best we could. Although the trip has been great, we can’t wait to see you all soon!

And last, but certainly not least, thank you Fund for Teachers! Fund for Teachers is the organization that approved our grant and made this trip possible. We are so appreciative of what you do for teachers!

Israeli Teens Kidnapped

All three of us want to avoid commenting on this ongoing situation. However, it does underscore the daily tensions in the region. In short, three Israeli teens, one of whom holds dual US citizenship, were apparently kidnapped late Thursday night. The Israeli government has responded strongly, as you’d expect. I, Jay, think that the following live blog from a local news organization does a good job capturing what we understand of the situation. Not to worry, we’re all safe and sound, although we probably missed some excitement in and around Hebron by only a day.

Check out the situation here

Ode to Daniel

We spent our last day in Jerusalem visiting the holy sites in the “Old City” and then moved on to a free night’s stay at an apartment located in a super cool, modern area of the city. Adriel, Leo, and Maria, we can’t thank you enough for letting us stay at your place, while you were at the Seeds of Peace conference! We wish we could have attended, but it just didn’t work out.

Katie, Jay, and I found a fantastic restaurant called “Kitchen Station,” where Daniel, one of Katie’s friends from “The Camino” met us (the Camino is the walk, or pilgrimage in Spain). Daniel’s parents are from Australia, but he was born in Israel. First of all, Daniel is incredibly intelligent, cool, and generally fun to hang out with. Additionally, the timing of our dinner with him couldn’t have been better. To be fair, we have spent most of our trip listening to the Palestinian narrative of the issue. As a I mentioned earlier, Daniel grew up here, and he also served in an elite unit in the Israeli army. It was important to hear an Israeli perspective told by someone who we can so easily relate to.

While walking home, we saw a little Italian restaurant broadcasting the England/Italy soccer game on a projector. We stopped in to watch the game, which turned out to be one of my favorite watch party experiences. There was a large group of Israeli kids sitting in the front who reminded me so much of our students. There was a also a group of Orthodox Jews from England who were here in Jerusalem to attend high school. To spice things up, Jay intentionally started a conversation on American exceptionalism, which got an Orthodox kid from Belgium to comment that we entered WWII to spread democracy. I not so subtly reminded him of Pearl Harbor and said, as a Belgian, a “thank you” would suffice. America! Hence, my nickname on this trip, “A.C.” which stands for the American Colonist.

Heading to the beach to relax and eventually do some writing.