Tag: my classroom

Sunshine Award blog hop

Author Sophia Jones tagged me this time, for some random questions:

Favorite Color: Blue. Light blue, dark blue, bright blue.  I also love the combination of a blue sky with a few thunderheads drifting over an asphalt road surrounded by prairie in late summer – such a bright mixture of blues, greens, and yellows.

Tree along the Missouri River south of Bismarck, North Dakota.

Favorite Animal: Jellyfish. And penguins. Possibly lab rats. I would love to get a pair and teach them tricks, but my cat, Sappho, would probably eat them.

I plan to be reincarnated as a jellyfish.

Actually, no, she wouldn’t. She’s old and fat (the vet politely said she’s a “full-figured lady”), and if she can’t be bothered to catch the chipmunk living in the front flowerbeds, I doubt she’d go for a rat either.

Favorite Number: 17 and e. Whenever I crochet a blanket, I use e for my sides ratio.

Favorite Non-Alcoholic Drink: Iced tea, unsweetened because I’m a Yankee.

Facebook or Twitter: Twitter for writing stuff, Facebook for real-life stuff.

Your Passion: Road trips; I would live in my car if I could. And education equality. I start grad school in a couple weeks, going for a master‘s in social work, and today my adviser suggested I go for a school social work endorsement, to which I said, “More classes? Hell yeah, sign me up.” I’m slowly writing my students’ stories, and some day I’d like to publish a big collection of them.

Giving or Getting Presents: Giving. I don’t like getting them, actually. I especially like giving them as guerrilla acts of kindness.

Favorite Day: I tend to be really phlegmatic and don’t get excited about much, including days: Saturdays, birthdays (I prefer to not even acknowledge my birthday, not because I worry about getting old but because it’s just another day), Christmas, etc. Days are days.

Favorite Flowers:  I love blue hydrangeas. And the massive sunflower fields in North Dakota in late summer. 

Heaven = fields of sunflowers as far as the eye can see

 And once again, I’m tagging everyone who reads this. Ha!

Z is for Zero-Sum #atozchallenge

Day Z of the 2013 Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: zero-sum.

When I was a teacher, I tried to hammer into my kids’ minds that my classroom, and life in general, was not a zero-sum game.  If you’re not familiar with that concept, it means that for every winner there must be a loser. For every A there must be an F. For every millionaire there must be a homeless person.

Unfortunately, that attitude seems to be prevalent with writing. If you buy my book, you can’t buy someone else’s. And while there may be some truth in that – your disposable income probably isn’t unlimited – you can at least read my book as well as someone else’s. Being a fan of one person doesn’t preclude being a fan of another.

I’m fortunate in that I know a lot of writers who are super supportive of me, and of most writers they come across. While we’re all working towards that end goal of an agent, or a publisher, or sales of our self-published book, we can help other writers at the same time: sharing resources. Writing critiques and beta reading. Talking about what’s worked for us, and what hasn’t, and why.

Writers are all in this together. My classroom wasn’t a zero-sum game, and neither is gaining readers.

P is for Pride #atozchallenge

Day P of the 2013 Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: pride.

When I taught high school English a few years ago, I found the kids learned best if the units revolved around a theme rather than just form or length, like non-fiction, poetry, short stories, etc.  And to that end, my whole sophomore world lit class focused on pride.

We started out our poetry unit with excerpts from The Inferno, talking about the layers of Hell in the context of the Seven Deadly Sins (yeah, I talked about religion in a public school; that’s actually okay as long as you don’t endorse one religion over another). And the kids came to the conclusion that pride was left out because Dante didn’t want to burn in hell too.

Next was a poem by Pierre de Ronsard:

The original Ladies’ Man

When you are truly old, beside the evening candle,
Sitting by the fire, winding wool and spinning,
Murmuring my verses, you’ll marvel then, in saying,
‘Long ago, Ronsard sang me, when I was beautiful.’

There’ll be no serving-girl of yours, who hears it all,
Even if, tired from toil, she’s already drowsing,
Fails to rouse at the sound of my name’s echoing,
And blesses your name, then, with praise immortal.

I’ll be under the earth, a boneless phantom,
At rest in the myrtle groves of the dark kingdom:
You’ll be an old woman hunched over the fire,

Regretting my love for you, your fierce disdain,
So live, believe me: don’t wait for another day,
Gather them now the roses of life, and desire.

The kids took it to mean, “Hey, I loved you when you were hot. And now you’re old and ugly and just wish you could’ve hooked up with me when I was around, but now I’m dead and you’re old and ugly.” Which is definitely pride, the kids were quick to point out, especially in light of his picture.

And then we moved onto excerpts of Machiavelli’s The Prince, which I spun as a dictator’s handbook. It takes a lot of pride to see yourself as a worthy ruler when you’re a complete d-bag. From there we did a nonfiction unit on genocide around the world – Cambodia, Srebrenica, and Rwanda in addition to the Holocaust – and looked at interviews and biographies to try to figure out why ordinary people were so willing to kill their fellow citizens.

Plays gave us Bizet’s Carmen (yes, the opera; we read the words as a script), Goethe’s Faust, and Molière’s The Misanthrope; three plays that all revolve around pride.

As our novel we read Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, a wonderful story about forcing someone to become something they’re not and then punishing them when they don’t meet your expectations (read as satire of the Iraq War as well as the Bolshevik Revolution).

In all these works, we looked at not only what excessive pride moves people to do, but also what happens to them because of it.  And that’s something I bring into my own stories; how does excessive pride lead to a character’s downfall – or, more interestingly sometimes, the downfall of others?

What themes do you work into your stories? And which of the Seven Deadly Sins – Greed, Anger, Pride, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth – are you most guilty/fond of?

D is for D-bag #atozchallenge

Day D of the 2013 Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: d-bags.

I’d planned to write out a long post about Dostoevsky and Russian lit for D-day, but I’m tired.  So I’m going to tell you a story about my students instead.

Last year I taught job- and life-skills classes, full of high school kids who wanted to go to college but needed a boost to get there; kids who could be successful in school if they got an extra boost; kids who were stuck in my classes as a last-ditch effort to keep them from dropping out; and kids who just happened to have an empty spot in their schedule and were put in my classes.

Needless to say, it was quite a diverse group: socioeconomically, academically, and racially/ethnically.

But they all had one thing in common – they loved to call each other d-bags.

Granted, my classroom management style was a bit unorthodox. These kids had so many issues that writing them up for every little thing would’ve gotten me nowhere with them. On day one, I told them my views on cursing: it happens. As long as it’s not excessive, and it’s not directed at everyone, I’m going to overlook it – but I WILL write you up if you use the words “gay” or “retarded.” And for the most part, the kids were great with it; other than a couple slips at the beginning they respected my ban on those words, at no point was the swearing directed at anyone, and it was never excessive.

Except for d-bag and its variations.

I tried to fight it.

N: “Mr. S is such a douche.”

Me: “N, don’t say that.”

N: “Say what, douche?”

Z: “What’s wrong with douche?”

A: “Who’s a douche?”

Me: “Stop saying that word.”

S: “What word? Douche?”

Z: “What’s wrong with douche?”

And so on. I was more concerned with debating the merits of Machiavelli’s leadership style, or showing them how to fill out a resume, or teaching them Latin roots to improve reading comprehension, than getting them to stop saying that word.  But finally, on the last day of the semester, it happened.

N: “Mr. S is such a douche.”

Me: “N, don’t say that.”

N: “Say what, douche?”

Z: “What’s wrong with douche?”

D: “You guys know what a douche is, right?”

A chorus of no’s.

D (a guy), clearly embarrassed: “It’s this thing a woman puts in her, um, uh, vagina to clean it out.”

A chorus of disgust.

And from that day on, I never again heard d-bag or any of its variations in my classroom. I pride myself on the fact that if there’s one thing I got through to those kids on, it’s that they stopped vocally calling people d-bags. And that’s a skill that will serve them well in life.

Weekend Writing Warriors 3/10 #8sunday

About a month ago I started a new temp job. Easy clerical stuff, six-month assignment, and freedom to read or write if there’s no new stuff to type or file.

So every day I take with me something to read (physical book or something on my phone) and a notebook.  I have three notebooks I alternate between, so I can jot down stories whenever I want.  It’s convenient, except tonight I realized I couldn’t find my main notebook, the one I’ve been writing in for the past few weeks.  I specifically remember bringing it out of the office with me when I left Friday.

Not in my writing bag. Green notebook, yes. Red notebook, yes. Blue notebook, no.

It wasn’t in my car.

Not by my computer.

Not in my bedroom.

I was beginning to get a bit concerned. While I could probably rewrite everything in this notebook, I didn’t want to. Partly because I probably liked it better the first time around, but mostly because I’m lazy.

Finally, I remembered that I’d brought home a lot of paper to recycle. My office doesn’t really recycle paper, even though they use a lot, so I usually grab what I can at the end of the day and bring it home to put in our recycling box.

My blue notebook was about 2 inches down.

Crisis averted.

So, short story long, here’s this week’s 8 sentences, from my blue notebook.  I wrote an essay (creative nonfiction?) about one of my students in my remedial reading class, then decided I needed to tell the story from his POV, in his own voice.  This chunk, from the first draft, is about testing the kids’ reading levels with a computerized test.

After about five minutes Mitchell finishes first, makes a big production of it.

“It’s not a race,” I tell the kids as one after another they yell out, “Finished.” “Take as much time as you need; we have the whole period.”

Approximately five out of twenty kids listen. The librarian shoots us dirty looks as the kids talk loudly to each other for the rest of class, but at least I get them to stay in their seats instead of wandering around knocking over books or leaving the library entirely.

Two weeks later, the text scores are back; my class of freshman, kids 13-16 years old, average a fourth grade reading level.

I pass back the individual scores, and Mitchell is impressed with his.

“I read like a kindergartner,” he says with an insolent grin; a smirk, actually, according to the word he uses in the story he writes for me later in class.

Post a link to your eight sentences blog entry, or join the fun at the Weekend Writing Warriors website.

This is not the story you’re looking for

My dad enjoys watching crime show reruns: Law and Order, Gunsmoke (yes, that’s a crime show; it just happens to be set in Dodge 150 years ago), CSI, etc, and sometimes I’ll watch with him.

Marshall Matt Dillon always saves the day; picture from TVLand website

The culprits are usually pretty predictable: the rich doctor didn’t kill the prostitute; his jealous wife did it and framed him. The stressed young mother’s baby wasn’t kidnapped; she killed him when he wouldn’t stop crying (a scenario that unfortunately happens in the real world).  The prominent rancher’s son is an out-of-control jerkwad, so when he tries to kill a vagabond, the dad shoots his son.

So as I watch, I don’t focus on the main story; I focus on the secondary characters.  How does that doctor rebuild his life and practice after what his wife has done? How does the baby’s father start a new family knowing his girlfriend killed their baby and he couldn’t prevent it? How does the rancher make peace with his actions?

Those, to me, are much more intriguing stories.

And I’m not alone in thinking this.  A cousin recently asked for reading recommendations; Wicked was something that came up.  If you’re not familiar with the book by Gregory Maguire (and the musical based on it), it’s The Wizard of Oz from the wicked witch’s perspective.

And my son enjoys Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, which is the wolf’s explanation of what exactly happened to the pigs and their houses.

I tried adapting this approach in my classroom as well.  My kids were always begging to watch movies, so about once a semester I’d give in.  One time we watched The Pursuit of Happyness, where Will Smith is a homeless guy interning without pay as a stock broker.  One of the twenty interns would be hired at the end.  I had my students write essays from the perspective of one of the guys not chosen: how would they feel to work for six months or whatever without pay, and not be chosen? How would they feel towards Will Smith’s character, and would that change if they knew he was homeless? How would they explain to their families that they weren’t chosen?

When you read, do you focus on what the other characters might be thinking and feeling? Any examples of famous books or movies that are from the antagonists’ or secondary characters’ POVs?

PG or R language?

I don’t generally use a lot of profanity in my stories, unless it needs to be there.  Sometimes there’s none; sometimes there’s a little sprinkled in, and sometimes it’s all over the place.  And usually it’s not an issue.

I recently submitted a story to Spark: A Creative Anthology.  On the subject of profanity, its guidelines said,

“Because we’d like to reach the widest audience possible, we actually recommend that you avoid it entirely.”  

So for that particular story, just to be safe I changed “shit” to “crap” or “damn.”

Now, contrast that with “Small Town Life,” the story that’ll be out in a couple weeks in Shadow Road Quarterly.  It’s told through the POV of a seventeen-year-old boy.  I’ve spent three years teaching high school, and wow.  Those kids (especially ones similar to the MC) will say anything and everything.  And usually it’s not intentional; they just don’t pay attention and drop f-bombs all over the place in the course of normal conversation.  So that’s what my MC and his friends also do.

However, I wasn’t sure if that would fly with the editors, so I asked before submitting.

Dear editors,
I have a story that I’d like to submit to your magazine, but it contains quite a few f-bombs. Would you prefer I edit the language before submitting, or should I send it in as-is? Thanks!

Their response:

F-bomb away! Fuckin’ A.

(That means sure.)

I submitted it, adding to the cover letter,

If its adult language is an issue, I’m more than willing to tone it down.

When I received my acceptance notice, it included feedback from the editors. One of them said this:

I did think that ‘fuck’ was way overused and more creative cursing could’ve made the story more enjoyable. 

Yes, I could’ve changed it, but I think as it stands, it’s more realistic.  It’s also probably the most profanity-laden chapter in the novel, because as the MC grows up, he, like most of us (hopefully), realizes that words are powerful, and the less you use profanity, the more power it gains when you do use it.

What’s your stance on bad words?  Do you try to use them, always avoid them, or let the story’s characters and potential audience dictate your word choice?

Huh? Knowing your audience

The class I taught is part of a national program, and as such, we have a standardized post-test we give at the end of the year (I won’t get started on the idiocy of teaching to the test, I promise).  Although I taught high school, many of my students are reading far below grade level, a problem many students across the country face (that I also won’t rant about here).

Here’s one of the test questions:

Which of the following are negative attitudes that create bad feelings toward others?
A. Sympathetic, tolerant, and involved
B. Impartial, decisive, and motivated
C. Idealistic, thrifty, and serious
D. Secretive, complacent and distant

Want to guess how many of my students got that question right?

About 25%.

Several students asked me what sympathetic means, and impartial, and idealistic and thrifty and complacent.  Quite a few more just guessed, and got the questions wrong.  However, I know if I’d given the kids the question as short answer, they could’ve all answered it correctly.

In another similar situation, a month ago I took some students to a day-long team-building workshop.  One of the activities was that the teams had to make various machines (mostly appliances) out of their bodies.  It was a lot of fun, except the kids (many being low-income minorities) didn’t know what a food processor was.  Or an espresso machine.  They lost points as the clock ticked away while we judges tried to explain it to them.

Same thing with logic puzzles – most of the kids had never seen them before, so they didn’t know how to complete them.

What’s this have to do with writing?

Make sure you know your audience.  Slang in dialogue, jargon to describe the setting, even big words used unnecessarily – all could alienate your readers.  I’m not suggesting that you dumb down your stories; just have in mind who you’re writing for.

For example, I recently read Kim Stanley Robinon’s Mars trilogy.  All the characters are scientists, and the books are about the colonization of Mars and the terraforming process.  So there are tons of hardcore geology terms, specific rocketry terms, detailed economic terms.  For this book, it makes sense because the audience is (presumably) nerds such as myself who revel in accurate, realistic hard science in their sci-fi novels. Now, if the audience were people reading for the romance among the characters, they’d throw it across the room.

Like the test makers I mentioned at the beginning of this post, know your audience’s limitations.  Let them reject your story for the plot or characters or theme, not because they can’t understand it.

Have you ever stopped reading something because you couldn’t understand the vocabulary?  Or ever had anyone stop reading something of yours because of your word choice?

Plausible lies and the importance of research

Earlier this week, one of my students decided he didn’t want to be at school.  He asked his first block teacher to use the restroom, and proceeded to call the school from his cellphone.  According to him, and corroborated by the school secretary, the conversation went something like this:

R: “R won’t be in school today. He has the flu.”
Secretary: “R, I can tell this is you.”
R: “No, this is R’s, um, step-dad. Brian.”
Secretary: “I’m going to call this number back.  It better not be R, or he’s going to be in a lot of trouble.”

Phone rings.  R doesn’t answer.

5 minutes later, R tries again:
R: “R won’t be in school today. He has the flu.”
Secretary: “And who am I speaking with this time?”
R: “This is R’s uncle. Um, Brian.”

My students have no boundaries with me, and no fear of self-incrimination, so in second block R told me all about his attempts to get out of school.  He was genuinely baffled as to why they didn’t work.

I explained to him that:

  • although he’s 18, he sounds like a student, not an adult.
  • he needs to have a game plan! “I know.  I can’t think under pressure.”
  • he needs to do research first.  The school’s policy is that they won’t talk to anyone who’s not listed as a contact, which includes made up stepdads (R’s parents are married) and uncles (Uncle Brian is allegedly real).  IF he wanted his plan to work, R should’ve pretended to be his dad right away.

So, what does this have to do with writing?

R’s story not only was full of noticeable holes, its lack of plausibility insulted his listener’s intelligence, and she in turn refused to talk with him.

If you’re not careful with believable details, and the attitude with which you present your plausible lies, your audience could easily put down your story.

And from experience, this happens.  I’ve been that reader.  Most recently, I picked up a book by a guy from my hometown.  He had the whole thing setting – businesses at their actual real life locations, streets by name in the right place, actual terrain where it should be.

And then he threw in crackwhores walking the streets that my students actually live on, and blazing gang war shootouts in broad daylight.

So I put the book down, because to me, that was insulting.  Yes, my hometown has issues with gangs, but even in the worst parts of towns they’re not having roving turf wars.  And as many times as I’ve driven around, I’ve never seen prostitutes actually working the corners.  In short, his novel was implausible and insulting.

So, take a lesson from R, and that horrible book (which I wanted to like, I really did!):  If you don’t take the time to research obvious things, then bash your reader over the head with its incredibility, don’t be surprised if your reader walks away.

Y is for YA #atozchallenge

Day 25 of the Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: YA.

I don’t write YA.  I probably could, if I tried, but I like adult themes and depth and language.

But I like reading YA, especially books my students can relate to – drugs and gangs, parental abandonment, relationship issues, etc.  I have a display on my classroom wall of books that I recommend.  I’m slowly buying copies as I come across them in used book stores, so I can loan them to the kids if they’re interested.

It’s almost summer, and I’ll have a lot of time to read.  What are some issue-focused YA books you’d recommend?

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