Tuesday, November 30, 2010

YA Book Review: Break

After reading reviews and a couple of summaries of Hannah Moskowitz's YA novel Break, I believed I was opening a gritty novel.  I was disappointed.

Littering the pages with everyone's favorite four-letter word while coming up with a pretty stable premise (a 17 year old boy breaks his own bones on purpose as a way to deal with his brother's incurable ailment) Moskowitz's writing fell far below the grit I expected.

I winced when I first heard about the concept of a boy breaking his own bones.  I was ready for a book where I felt something.  I felt nothing as each time Jonah broke a bone the prose was disappointing.  The idea was more uncomfortable than any of the underwhelming experiences.  Actually, the moments of the most heightened tension were when the protagonist's brother touch spilled milk.  Jonah's brother, Jesse, is allergic to just about everything, especially milk.

In a novel about a boy breaking his own bones, we are left to cry over spilled milk.  Oy...

Once I moved beyond my disappointment that the novel wasn't really gritty, just a teen angst story filled with a lot of attempted mileage out of a curse word...I did see the positives.  There is a story here.  The best moments of the story are certainly the moments when Jonah's interior monologue is flooding his thoughts and our pages.  Here the book feels natural and real.  The exploration of sickness and healing is quite promising during stretches of narrative, but then the author leaves it.

When the teenagers are interacting together in Break it is hit or miss.  There are a couple of moments of action which do not feel forced, and contribute to the development of the character or the progression of the story.  There is some depth to the teen relationships.  Some.

The worst parts of the novel are in the dialogue and in Moskowitz's use of adult characters.

So much of the dialogue is filler.  The bulk of your dialogue should either reveal something about character or move the story along.  This isn't the case here.

The least interesting voices in the novel are the spoken voices.  The most interesting voices are when characters think and we are let inside of their brains.

Towards the end of the novel we are forced to endure conversations between Jonah and group of teenagers whom he just met.  He is in a mental health facility and he doesn't know the kids, nor do we.  Suddenly, they are all playing cards and conversation fills the page.  This would be the part of any movie where you get up and grab a drink (and take your time) because you know you are not missing anything.  Yet, I hung in there.  Nothing happened.

And then, based off of a couple of lifeless conversations over cards, other teens in the facility start breaking their own bones because they are inspired by Jonah.  And then a teen volunteer, Mackenzie, sneaks Jonah out of isolation and out of the facility completely because she is inspired by Jonah.  What?

The adults are worse than flat characters; it doesn't matter that any are in the novel at all.  You could clip the pages where an adult appears and you wouldn't miss them.  They do not contribute to much of anything to the story.  We are told there is conflict among some.  We are shown glimpses of them arguing or being incompetent parents.  We are shown educators who are marionettes of the system, who ostensibly practice what they are going to say to teens at home, along with how they are going to say it.  Adults are stereotypes here. 

In the end, however, there is an idea here.  There is a story.  I'm just not recommending it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Patience of Dylan Thomas

If any teachers still have the good spirit to share holiday-based literature with their students, I want to hold Dylan Thomas up to whatever dying fragments of holiday light remain in our classrooms.

I used A Child's Christmas in Wales earlier in the year as an example of a few connected lessons in my creative writing classes: memoir, someone goes on a journey, and ...patience in story telling.

As I am trying to make myself better and improve my classes, I read a lot of advice for writers.  A fair share always leads the writer back to the question, "And then what?"  When developing an outline or hammering out a scene, I get the point of asking, "And then what?"  Yet, it strikes me as advice dangerously suited for a 12-14 year old brain...my students can be impatient in many ways and the way our world works certainly caters to these young impatient minds.  If all I gave them was the writing tip "And then what?" I think I'd end up with a pile of stories which themselves are a pile of...well, "And then what" events.

Our students need to know that there is nothing wrong with patience in story telling.  In fact, it is an art.  When I think of patience in story telling I think of author Kazuo Ishiguro.  Both The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are fine examples of patience in ink.  I can't imagine many of my 8th grade students attempting either novel, or even gaining anything of my trying to force feed them a few pages just so I can make my point about patience.

I did, however, demonstrate patience to the middle school reader and writer through Dylan Thomas.  I pulled from the Internet a series of images which seemed to match up to several moments in the prose poem A Child's Christmas in Wales:
…and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves…
  Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground…
…some grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely ivied the walls and settled on the postman…
After projecting the images I selected onto the screen, I had the class share their thoughts about why they think I selected those images.  And then I asked them, for homework, to choose their own piece of A Child's Christmas in Wales and find an image to match it, or draw one yourself.

The discussions we had all came back to (my) point of patience as a writer.  We don't have to overwrite something to lengthen it out, or to deliver great detail and understanding to the reader.  We have all of the tools around us.  Take the patience to choose the best word, the best image, the best moment...take the time to show us, tell us, and bring it to life.

True, all stories move along by answering "what happens next" but young writers have to learn that that can not be at the expense of what is happening now.

We spent two full class periods sharing our images and artwork inspired by the Thomas prose poem.  And then we spent the better half of the next day simply reading it and speaking freely about it.  We don't always have the luxury to spend that kind of time on one piece, but as the holidays come thundering towards us, and we pump holiday movies, music, and cookies into our students, consider introducing them to Dylan Thomas as well. 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

YA Book Review: Leaving Gee's Bend

Set deep in the heart of Alabama during the early 1930s, Irene Latham's Leaving Gee's Bend retells the story of a community starving and trying to survive among dire conditions.  The heroine of the story, Ludelphia Bennett, goes on a physical journey to save her dying mother and in the process ends up saving much more.

Latham's historical fiction familiarizes the reader with the community of Gee's Bend and its rich history of story-telling through quilting.  These quilts and stories still exist today. In keeping with the tradition of the region, Latham makes Ludelphia a quilter who gathers scraps of fabrics on her journey to save her mother, all while stitching a quilt together to lay across her mother's shoulders.  Her quilt will be her story of her journey.

Alone, Ludelphia experiences the very American story arc of someone young lighting out into an unknown world.  Barefoot and without a penny in her pocket, Ludelphia spends two tumultuous days and nights away from home while her mother suffers from pnumonia after just giving birth to a baby girl named Rose.  There is no medicine to help her mother as she further succumbs to her sickness.  There is the very real fear that her mother may die, and Ludelphia knows there isn't much time to find a way to help her mother.

Ludelphia's journey to bring back a doctor forces her to experience both the kindness and cruelty of the world, and confirms in her mind that there is no place in the world she would rather be but at home.  Home is meager and scant, but there is family.  There is no doubt Lu feels rich with family.  Yes, there are good people reaching out to help Ludelphia on her journey, yet there is also the villain of the novel, Mrs. Cobb, who grips a shotgun throughout the story and soon proves herself someone who can not be trusted.  She actively strives to harm both Lu and her family.

The strength and charm of the novel is in the dialogue.  Written with the affect and voice of a young Southern girl, Latham's use of dialogue rings true of the time and place.  This is a story which takes place in a part of Alabama at a time when America began to just feel the onset of The Great Depression, when a teacher traveled to poor communities to teach the young people and if there was nothing to pay the teacher with (eggs, goods, let alone cash) then there was no education.  Lu can read as can her father, but money was very tight: she had never tasted a Coke, ridden in an automobile, or washed herself in anything other than a bucket or a stream.  The dialogue brings all of these elements together and makes them authentic.  You believe Lu and you care about her story.

Ludelphia is a terrific American character which YA readers will actively enjoy.  She is tough, but feels real fear; she is adventurous, yet also needs a kind push (or shove) at times; and she is equally aware of the importance of family and personal responsibility:
Mama always said you should live a life the same way you piece a quilt.  That you was the one in charge of where you put the pieces.  You was the one to decide how your story turns out.
Reminiscent of classic Newberry winners past,this is a classic American tale of hardship and perseverance.  I've read that is has garnered at least some early Newberry attention this year which comes as no surprise.  Highly recommended for the middle school audience, Leaving Gee's Bend is a great book to pass along to any level of reader no matter what subject matter they typically might read.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

YA Book Review: Positively

I read the 216 pages of Courtney Sheinmel's novel Positively this morning over the course of three hours.  It now goes into my personal bookshelf of rare books which I have read in one sitting.

In the Author's Note, Sheinmel writes, "Jake once said that one of the most important things his mother did was leave us with a story."

She is referring to Jake Glaser, son of actor Paul Michael Glaser and his wife Elizabeth Glaser.  Jake, his sister Ariel, and his mother Elizabeth all became HIV+ due to a blood transfusion Elizabeth experienced while giving birth to their first child, Ariel. 

Sheinmel was 13 when she first read of the Glaser's story in a People magazine.  She then went on to discover the Pediatric AIDs Foundation and donated ten dollars a week from her babysitting money to it, and then even used a summer of her to time to volunteer at the Foundation.

Positively is not the story of the Glaser family.  Yet, Steinmel's story is built from what she knows, what she has learned, and what she has seen.  Her interest in the Glaser's story eventually led to this novel: Positively.  It is the story of a fictitious 13 year old girl named Emmy who is growing up HIV+.  Early in the novel, Emmy loses her mother to AIDs and the reader accompanies Emmy on her journey from sadness, confusion, and anger through resentment and frustration  to acceptance, self-discovery, and love.  For a fictional story, it feels incredibly authentic because it is authentic.  Nothing needs to be made up.  Emmy might be fictional, but the story is real for adolescents many experiencing life as HIV+:

The novel brings these experiences up close to the reader.   toIt is natural for children infected with HIV ask Why us?  Some adolescents are public about their condition, and others are not.  Some get angry when friends, not infected, talk about members of the opposite sex.  In Positively, Emmy doesn't want to talk about or acknowledge cute boys because she fears she'll never know what it is like to be loved by one -they'll all fear growing close to her.

A strength in Steinmel's story is the strength and courage which her HIV+ characters learn to gain through others.  Much of this strength, for Emmy, comes from the compassion she receives while at a six week camp exclusively for kids who are HIV+.  I had no idea camps like these existed.  Even the simple condition of being someplace where everyone is like you is in itself unique, and eventually comforting.  Emmy is actually allowed to feel normal for a brief period.  She takes her meds, and so does everyone else.  Her fears and thoughts, are similar to those around her.  She has lost someone who contracted AIDs, and those around her did as well.  Having others who understand what you feel and experience on a daily basis is a powerful tool to help people move towards acceptance and love.

One of the sweetest motifs in the novel is the story of Caesar's breath.  We all breath in molecules from Julius Caesar's last breath; the molecules never go away.  They get redistributed evenly throughout all the air throughout the planet.  There is nothing unique abuout Casesar's breath; it is just a charming piece of forklore.  However, the science behind is true.  We are all breathing a piece of each other as well as those who have been.  We all breath a little piece of the breath of Caesar, George Washing, Einstein, or in Emmy's case her mother.  The concept that we never truly lose someone is blended into that motif:
It didn't matter if I was at camp.  I could be breathing Mom in, no matter where I was.
The novel comes to its own rest as Emmy comes to terms with her mother's passing, her own condition, and most importantly, and brilliantly in the book, life itself:
I picked up the very last pill and held it between my fingers and then I did the weirdest thing: I kissed it before putting it on my tongue, because it was keeping me well.  Life was weird, like Robin said, but it was also important.  I wanted to live.
Highly recommended for middle school students and anyone who enjoys YA literature.  The novel is not too heavy for 12-13 year olds; it actually handles everything brilliantly and sensitively.  It is probably in the realm of crossover literature in that it is really suited for any age.  It is one of my favorite books which I have read in the past year.  I will be mentioning it to my classes when we get back to school next week.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

My dog Rain

My 15 year old Labrador Retriever passed away yesterday afternoon.  I came home early from work and found him laying on the floor with labored breath, and in a mess of blood, and excrement, and about an hour from death.  I carried him to my truck and then into the vet's office, after I cleaned him up, and he passed on his own in front of us moments after I signed the release to euthanize him.  I had a hard time signing the document.  If we did anything with him to try and save him, he would have needed an immediate blood transfusion.  The doctor said his proteins were down to 4 and wouldn't be able to heal with them down that far, especially at his age, and of bigger concern his red cell count was down to 14...normal is in the mid 30s.  It was critical.  I sensed it when I found him and carried him.  Even still, I labored on my own with making the decision if I wanted to be there in the room with him when they put him down.  I knew I wanted to, I just needed to say it to them.  When I decided that I would, and said it, he took one last breath and went on his own...literally a moment after I said it.

I have a lot of Rain stories.  He was a rescue dog.  I took him in when he was 1 and I was 27.  His first year was difficult; I brought him back from malnourishment, kennel cough, pneumonia, and the physical abuse he endured as a puppy with his previous, anonymous, owner.  Someone found him on a highway near Christiana, Delaware, and turned him in to the SPCA.

My favorite Rain story took place during his first year with me.  I had to run out to the market to grab cookies which I had promised my 8th grade homeroom as a snack for the next day, Friday.  A storm was kicking up and I had already learned in a short time that Rain didn't like storms.  He'd sit and lean next to me or literally on me if I let him.  He trembled during storms.

I took Rain with me everywhere when he was young, so he hopped into the back of our Jeep Wrangler and off we went to the market.  It really started to come down as we made the ride.  It was very dark.  The thunder and lightning kicked up, and the wind increased.  It was a nasty Spring storm.

I pulled in close to the front doors of the market.  Without a coat on, I sprinted into the store.  There were few people around and the automatic doors opened and I had an easy run to the cookie dough aisle.  I grabbed two sticks, paid for them and then hustled back out to the Jeep.

The back plastic window of the Jeep was pressed out and had been unhitched.  Rain was gone.

The market sat right next to a highway with a lot of traffic.  Being that he was a stray or left abandoned, I worried that he would run off someplace where I would never find him.  Or worse.

I shoved the bag into the Jeep and started to run through the lot screaming his name, Rain!  Rain!  Rain!

A car pulled up close to me, the driver rolled the window down and heard me yelling Rain!  Rain!  Rain like a lunatic in the storm...and he rolled the window right back up and sped off.

I couldn't find him.  Soaked to the bone, an old woman walked out from the overhang of the storefront and approached me.  She asked if I was looking for a dog.

He was in the store.

I sprinted into the store and ran aisle to aisle and found him sitting perfectly still next to the cookie dough.  He went right to spot I stood in only moments ago.  When he saw me he stood up and started wagging his tail so hard he actually was wagging his ass.

We both trotted up to each other, greeted each other, and then walked out of the store as if it were a perfectly natural order of business.  No one looked at us or seemed to even realize that there was a stray black dog in the store.

That's my Rain story.  He was a sweet, good dog.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Writing Suggestions by YA author Jessica Burkhart

My creative writing students had a chat last Friday on Skype with YA author Jessica Burkhart.  She offered some great ideas and resources for young writers to access:
Age doesn't matter.  Publishers just want a solid idea!  For example Nancy Yi Fan published her novel Swordbird when she was 12.  Hannah Moskowitz published Break at 17. There are many other tween authors emerging!
Teen Ink is a great place for young writers to start; they only publish work by teens. (http://www.teenink.com/)
Teen Voices publishes student work also; they do not discriminate because of your young age and exists as an online and print magazine for and by teen girls. (http://www.teenvoices.com/)
There is a brand new imprint which was just launched by Medallion.  They will publish YA books only by authors between the ages of 13-18.  Medallion is currently seeking submissions for its new Ya-Ya line; submission guidelines are posted on the company’s website.
If you are looking to get published and you have edited your work and have it in the best shape it can be, start a blog!  They are free and you can post a tiny synopsis of your work.  Keep it short, you don't want to give your idea away to others.  Jessica's agent found her that way.  The agent randomly Googled something like "tween horse authors" and found Jessica's blog and contacted her.  It hasn't been the typical way that agents have found authors, but it has happened.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Teaching Dialogue

Currently, my 13 year old creative writing students are deep into their Nanowrimo novels.  For the month, all I've wanted is for them to write.  Turn off the inner editor (and critic) and just write.  Put the story down on paper...or computer screen.

Yet, I still want to give them tools to use.  I can't ignore them for a month while they write.  There have been several tools which are rooted in questioning.

One of the least intrusive tools to the writing process which I've used with them, and can be used alone, with a peer, or in a mini-conference with me is simply asking whether their dialogue does one of two things:
a. does it reveal more about the character?
b. does it push the plot forward?
If they answer yes to either then take a moment and tell me, tell yourself, tell your peer how that exchange of dialogue does either of those two things.

If they answer no, circle it.  Move forward.  Revisit it after we finish the novel and work on a formal line edit.

There are many points which can be made regarding dialogue when a teacher checks in during the writing process.  Of course, dialogue can be honed and pruned and polished like anything else.  We could zero in on a specific line or word.  We could discuss if what he/she said is realistic.  We're not there yet.  I don't want to get in the way; I just want to hold the flashlight while they do the work.

The two questions posed above are solid and grounding questions which allow for an exchange of ideas between teacher and student, and still allows you to guide the student without telling him/her what to do.  It allows them to talk about their work in a meaningful way without their having to defend themselves or their style.

You are not saying if the dialogue does or does not.  They are.

I tend to lean more the Socratic method of teaching the longer I teach creative writing.  Learning how to nudge them back on track, guide them, or illuminate the options in front of them is so important when developing a young creative writer. 

It is their work, yet it is up to us to keep (selectively) sliding tools in front of their hands and eyes and encouraging them to find their use and benefit to a writer.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Synopsis of my YA novel

The novel is the story of my Italian inner-city childhood neighborhood.  Home to strong personalities and families, the neighborhood itself served in a lot of ways as an island when I was very young.  We couldn't cross the street, let alone go around the corner.  As we grew older, each street (or neighborhood) we travelled to was an island, and in some cases many groups of streets formed a larger island (depending on how far one was willing to venture.)  

I knew a lot of people who were born, lived their life, and then died...all in South Philadelphia.  They never left their asphalt and concrete street, let alone climb on a plane to see the world.   New Jersey was "the sticks" and about as exotic as it got for some.  Most of these people were just hardworking, blue collar people...a part of a line of immigrants who settled into these neighborhoods at the turn of the century and never left. Our streets were in some ways like the old farmsteads where the extended family was the rule, and not the exception.  It was also like the farmstead in that one could feel trapped (this life isn't for me), or one would hear of someone who "escaped" and maybe one who left and never came it back, and some who settled in and stayed and simply did their best and made it [a] Home.

It was a comfortably hard place to be.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

YA Book Review: The Secret Rites of Social Butterflies

I couldn't grasp, as I read the early stages of the novel, that there are really teenagers out there this pampered and privileged: chartered helicopter rides to a second home in the Hamptons, designer clothes and shoes bought with mom and dad's credit card, no curfew, private school, et al.  It bothered me.

Yet, as I read on, I came to the conclusion that it didn't matter if these were wealthy, private school kids, middle class students, or those trying to make something out of themselves within settings where all economic and societal odds are against them.  The major themes of Lizabeth Zindel's The Secret Rites of Social Butterflies exist in some form in every school in America: the potential damage caused by gossip, the powerful and at times hurtful consequences of cliques, and the rocky metamorphosis from childhood to adulthood.

The strongest element of the story is the independent nature of the protagonist Maggie.  Her independence carries her into trouble, but it also sets things right at least socially.  The mess is not entirely cleaned up at the end, but at the very least there are some positive messages for the YA crowd to glean from the conclusion of the book:

1. Maggie comes clean with her parents on her own
2. Maggie stands up to her foil, Victoria
3. Maggie makes the effort to make amends with a student who suffered greatly because of her actions

Even though kids will read this book coming from countless socioeconomic backgrounds, the one common ground which binds them all in this novel is the very human desire to be liked.  We want to be liked.  I haven't met a young person yet who wanted to fail, and I never met one yet who wanted to be disliked.

Actually, being liked, is so rooted into the core of so many decisions made by 11, 12, and 13 year olds, that I am confident many would read this book and absolutely connect with it right from the start.

I absolutely recommend this book for YA readers.  And I wouldn't be surprised to see someone take a shot at it and turn it into a film.  It absolutely fits the mold of what works (sells tickets) for the YA audience.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

YA Novels & Sex, Violence, & Death

As I am attempting the Nanowrimo challenge with my creative writing students, I'm at the 43,000 word mark of my attempt at a Young Adult novel.  This question comes up for though: at what point is a YA novel no longer YA and leaps into something else?  Is it coarse language?  Sex?  Explicit coarse language and explicit sex?  For example, the YA novel Sold is about female prostitution.  Was the line crossed there?  Actually, I don't think so.  Yet, where is the line?  What is the difference between a YA novel and an adult novel? 

The lines are becoming increasingly blurred as access to sex and violence and death is unchecked everyplace else.

Is the line how an author handles any of these topics?  Is the difference simply that a YA book has a YA protagonist?  If this is true, is Romeo and Juliet a YA play?  Is The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds YA or adult? 

Sex and violence and death have always been around.  They always sell.

It is the access to them which has changed.  We've come a long way from my reading the Hardy Boys mysteries and my cousin Mary Beth loaning me The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams when I was 11.  Those are what I had access to...and the occasional pages of a Playgirl or Hustler magazine, or nastier, left behind in an alley in Philadelphia.

The last  two YA adults which I've read dealt with death in two very distinctive ways.  Yet, there were moments in each where I had to pause and reconsider how heavy the situation grew.  It is astonishing in some ways that kids are able to handle the topics.  I don't know that I as a 11 or 12 or 13 year old would have been able to handle it.  Maybe I would have.

The first novel which made me cry real tears, so much so that I sobbed, was Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.  I absolutely lost on the rug in the family room of my parents house when the baby strangled to death on the umbilical cord and then Catherine hemorrhages and dies as well.  I was 16.

I ask these questions because as I write my novel about growing up in the inner city I revisit some fairly gritty situations.  Where is the line?  I want to keep it honest, and in the YA genre, but where is the line?

Friday, November 19, 2010

YA Book Review: If I Stay

A young, talented cellist, Mia, is in a state between life and death.  The novel If I Stay brings us into her experience as her soul, independent from her bandaged, bloodied body,  watches family and friends visit her in the hospital.  Are they coming to pay their last respects, or are they coming to see her open her eyes?

Pacing the hospital floors, sitting in a chair near her body, her spirit recounts seminal moments in her life while, at the same time, also learns most of those closest to her have passed on to the afterlife.  They did not stay.

Realizing she will be bereft of family if she stays, Mia leans heavily towards not staying: accepting death and joining her love ones.  She resolves the situation within herself and chooses.  Yet, she doesn't know how to do it.  How to let go, or even how to dig her heels in and stay for that matter.  She can't walk through walls or float.  No one can see or hear her.  She is stuck and watches and listens and thinks and remembers.

Two powerful moments stand out.  Her grandfather, her father's dad, who has just lost his son, daughter-in-law, and grandson, weeps onto her and whispers into her ear that it is ok if she wants to go.  He understands.  He doesn't like it, but he understands.

Second, Mia's love, Adam, also a musician, finally overcomes a series of obstacles and reaches her side.  He too whispers a message in her ear, "I'll let you go.  If you stay."  Meaning, he won't resist her accepting the scholarship to Julliard or anything else life presents her with. 

The recurring theme that people on the verge of death can hear their loves one speak to them, and need it, is interesting.  All of the nurses in the story seem to know and believe that Mia can hear, and she can also choose.  She can choose if she goes or if she stays.  It conjures up memories of our own family members who have passed; it made me pause and wonder if they really could truly hear and feel it.

Set to come out as a film starring Dakota Fanning, I hope young adults read the book.  It rings true to the young adults I know; for as dramatic as the plot is, it isn't overdone.  I liked the story more than finding myself connected to Mia or her boyfriend Adam.  The book reminds why I love story telling in its many forms and formats.

The author Gayle Forman writes best when she is writing about the disconnect which occurs within families or friendships.  There are several great moments of rough patches withing friendships or family relationships, and these ring so true.  How they start, and how they resolve themselves.

I enjoyed the moment between Mia and her grandfather when she calls him out on the fact the he never goes to any of her dad's shows (also a musician):
I've got bad ears.  From the war.  The noise hurts...I'll admit, I don't much care for all that electric guitar.  Not my cup of tea.  But I still admired the music.  The words, especially.  When he was about your age, your father used to come up with these great stories...You ever listen carefully to the things he says?
To which Mia explains to us:
I shook my head, suddenly ashamed.  I hadn't ever realized that Dad wrote lyrics...But I had seen him sit at the kitchen table with a guitar and a notepad a hundred times.  I'd just never put it together.
To borrow from grandpa, I admire the music [of the story], but it is the power of the spoken word between people, what people say to one another here, which makes this book special.

Encourage a young adult to pick it up.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Listen more.

As a teacher or a coach we have captive audiences every day.  In a lot of ways, the lines of communication between us and our students are more wide open than between child and parent.  We have more opportunities to communicate, and communicate with a lasting impact.

Our best and brightest in all the nations throughout the world don't necessarily know the difference between right and wrong.  So, we can't always expect it from our kids.  Give it to your students or players straight.  Talk to kids.  Talk to kids, so that you provide the opportunity for yourself to listen to them.  Young people need it.  They need honesty.  They can handle it.  And they need to know that there are adults who will truly listen to them.

And don't be surprised if and when they listen to you.

If you do not tell kids why you are doing something, you are leaving them in the dark creating their own reasons. 

When we don't talk to kids, or we don't give them a straight and honest answer for something, we leave it up to them.  We sever the lines of communication.  Sometimes for good.

I've done it with 12 year old kids in the arts and I've done it with 22 year old college football players.  Basic honesty works everywhere.  Sugarcoating helps no one.

I had one-on-one meetings yesterday with the college players I coach.   I am responsible for 8 young men.  The day before the meeting I told them I want them to prepare themselves to speak to three things: a) something you want, b) something you didn't get, and c) anything - a completely open forum.

They knew they could frankly talk about me as their coach, themselves, their teammates, the team, anything.  Anything at all.  My feelings would not be hurt if they chose to criticize my performance.  We are in this together; we are all trying to be better; we are trying to improve.  But they had the floor.  They knew my self-imposed job was to listen to them and write it down.

The most overwhelming comment I received from them was that they knew I cared about them.

That's what coaching is, isn't it?

That's what teaching is, right?

Coaching is caring.  Teaching is caring.

We can't be leaders if we don't enjoy what they have to say.  Listen more.  Without this happening, and with the way families are today, young people will have little reason to respect us.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Smile this morning

In an essay written for another class in high school, a student named Becky wrote about me:
Other teachers walked by in the hallway.  But he would smile and say "Hi Becky," or simply smile.  Either way, I actually remembered it and thought about it when I got home from school that day.  It would brighten up my day.  If he didn't realize it, I always wanted to tell him that when I felt lost and confused, I always knew that I could talk to him about it.  I never did talk to him about a personal problem, but just knowing that if I did tell him he would listen.  It helped me figure things out and find my way. 
I don't have too much to say about it other than Becky was pretty perceptive; I didn't realize it.

Yet, the advice we received as children from grandparents, parents, and probably Mr. Rogers is still good.  We should all smile more, especially those of us who work with young people.

Teachers and coaches are mountains to young people.  The closer we are, the bigger we seem.  If we create distance between ourselves, we simply become just a part of the scenery.  It is difficult to do this job, the complete job, from a distance.

By acknowledging every kid we can each week, we elevate them in their eyes.  Don't pretend not to see them in the hallway.  Hello, good morning, anything positive is better than nothing. It is on our shoulders to do these things for kids.  We may never be assessed on it by our administrators, it may never be at the top of the teacher training pedagogy, it probably doesn't make the cut for the NCTE convention, but it is so so important for us to do.

We can not let those opportunities go.  We all have another opportunity today.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Medical School Model

Scanning the news this morning two articles popped on my news feed attacking teacher training.  The following excerpts are from those articles:

Coursework tends to be long on theory and short on practical training in such essentials as classroom management and how to actually teach specific subjects. The result is that beginning teachers often walk into their new schools with very little idea how to handle and teach a classroom full of kids. (LA Times)

A panel of education experts has called for an overhaul of U.S. teacher-preparation programs, including a greater emphasis on classroom training as well as tougher admission and graduation standards for those hoping to teach in elementary and secondary classrooms.  The panel's sweeping recommendations, released Tuesday, urge teacher-training programs to operate more like medical schools, which rely heavily on clinical experience. (Wall Street Journal)

The truth is you do not become a better teacher unless you teach.  Period.  I can't explain it to a student-teacher and there aren't any single books in isolation or manuals which can explain teaching. You have to do it with some guidance and experienced teachers to talk with, to help you process what went wrong and what went right.

Mostly, teachers today are trained the same way I was trained back in 1991 and in the same way my father was trained back in the 70s.

I've had 6 student teachers in the last 12 years.  Most were very good; they came out of the University of Delaware who requires more time in the classroom than the other local universities supplying us with student teachers.  It is just a fact.  The student teachers from other schools come in stiff, apprehensive, and waste weeks of warming up to the soul of their job.

My first piece of advice to student teachers is to learn to build rapport with the students.  And understand that there is a difference between rapport and being their buddy.  Create great relationships with your kids and you can teach them anything, with anything, at any time.

Technology may change, the family structure may change, and political agendas will change (a lot), but the one thing which never changes is the fact that 12, 13, and 14 year old adolescents will either run through a wall for you and smile or build a wall between you and him/her and avert his or her eyes.

Building rapport doesn't come from a book or classroom lecture.  It comes from practice and being around people.  Young people.  I agree with the statement that teacher training might benefit from the medical school model.  Put student teacher candidates in classrooms more often, make it a part of our culture.  Some will bow out of teaching when they the realities; however, some will become inspired and motivated and flourish when they see these same realities.

The undertone here is The Medical School Model will also attract better people to education.  The current emerging thought is we need to attract more people to education who might be choosing medicine, law, or similar.  Those who are good with the books coming out of high school and throughout college.

The book doesn't make the teacher.  The information in the text doesn't make the teacher.

Lay the greatest text of Algebra down on the classroom floor.  It can't do anything.  It is paper and ink.  A middle school student can't do much with the lifeless book on the floor.

The student and the book needs a teacher's talent to bring it to life.  To make it real.  To help the student connect with the text.  And that all starts with and ends with rapport.

Believe it or not, students don't show up with hands folded, apples on their desk, ready to learn and attack the three days at Gettysburg at 8:00am, the quadratic formula at 8:50am, and the ten rules for comma usage at 9:40.  We'd all like to believe it I guess, but it just isn't true.

What is true?  Rapport and talent.  Both can be taught and developed...with time, experience, and connections in the classroom.  Not in a book.

By the way, can you gain talent for anything from a book?   Can you establish a rapport with a book?

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Power of Confidence

Early in my teaching career I cast a 14 year old stutterer as a male lead opposite a senior female in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

It wasn't a reckless decision, but it wasn't much more than a gut decision either.  I knew John a little bit.  John stuttered in my class, in any social situations I saw him, in one-on-one situations with me privately.  Yet, I gave him Lysander and he had well over a hundred lines to memorize and recite.   He stuttered each day at rehearsal when we sat at  the start and checked-in about our day.  He stuttered early and often during the first weeks of working through out scenes.

Maybe it was an experiment on my part.  Maybe it was the coaxing of his speech therapist who noted that this kid could use a break, could use something in school.

Then one day at rehearsal, the stuttering stopped on stage.  He recited his lines perfectly.  He spoke with fluency in social situations at rehearsal.  In class, he still stuttered.

When we performed the show, John didn't stutter once.  He didn't stutter when he spoke with me afterward for a short while.  He started to stutter again at the after party a little bit.

It taught me something about the research concerning stuttering and scripting; often stutters will experience some relief when they have something more scripted over the spontaneous...when they have some confidence and comfort of the next word.

Yet, there were the moments when we were social and he didn't stutter which interested me most.  This was almost ten years ago, and back then I thought it had something to do with confidence and comfort.  And not just confidence and comfort of the next word.  But something else.  And I still do.

Fast forward to today.

Our 14 year old kids are writing novels for the month of November.  They have set their own goals: 5K words, 10K words, 15K words.  And they are writing more now than I ever saw in any of my traditional classes where 500 word essays were akin to root canal.  None complain.  They'll all reach their goals.  It has little to nothing to do with anything I am saying or my colleague is saying in her class - we are experiencing the same outcomes.  The kids are hammering out word after word after word...and are excited about it.  Why?  How?  These are by large the same kids who I would have in a traditional 8th grade English course had we not created this Creative Writing class a year ago.


Yes.  These kids picked this class.  They want to be there.  They want to be writers or they just simply feel good about their ability to write.

This also has everything to with athletics in schools. Those who compete want to be there.  They want to be football players, lacrosse players, runners, etc.  Or they just simply feel good about their ability to compete in that sport on a daily basis.

There are many kids I know who need sports.  That's why they get up and go to school.  There are kids who need to play their instrument, or sing, or whatever it is.  A lot of instruction goes on inside the 4 walls of the cinder block classrooms, no doubt.  Yet I hope we never lose sight of the fact that a tremendous amount of teaching, mentoring, and influence can occur in after school programs whether they be the arts or athletics.  My experience in education recently has been that the classroom is the legitimate time and coaching is extra...the red-headed step-child.  "That's nice.  It's just high school football."

The power of confidence is a tool we can all do a better job of applying...and too often ignore.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Bully Pulpit

Our school has a proactive bullying program which has been in effect for over 2 years now.  It may not be perfect, as some bullying still happens (which we know about), but we are trying.  I know many other schools are as well.

The rush to demand "why aren't schools doing more" is like asking why can't we do more to stop global warming.  It has been in play for a long time, it has deep roots, and is empowered and strengthened as we progress and make advancements in technology.

I think technology, in the case of bullying, is a sharp edged weapon we are having difficulty controlling.

Bullying is not new.  I can trace it in literature.  From Judy Blume's YA novel Blubber, to King's Carrie where half the school bullies one girl, to Kesey's Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, to Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day" where the young girl Margot is bullied and shoved into a closet at school, to Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when Tom fights the new kid in town simply because of his appearance.

Bullying is chronicled in dozens of movies and television: Biff Tanen in Back to the Future; Ace Merrill in Stand By Me, Nelson Munce in The Simpsons, Scut Farkus in A Christmas Story, John Bender in The Breakfast Club; Johnny Lawrence in The Karate Kid, Buddy Hinton from The Brady Bunch (teasing Cindy Brady about her lisp: "Baby Talk, Baby Talk, it's a wonder you can walk!") this list goes on and on.

While bullying has clearly been around for a long time, what is going on with it now?  Technology.

Think for a moment what kids had access to when I started teaching here in 1995.  The internet as a home entertainment vehicle was in its infancy, social networking services did not exist as they do now (they were called bulletin boards), most kids that I knew did not have their own cell phone, no one sent text messages, no one sent photos or videos instantly over the internet via their phone or easily accessible computer, and now we are paying for what the kids do have.

I don't blame the technology.  I do not blame the gun.  I blame the person pressing the trigger.

What we need to understand, I think, is that discussing bullying is indeed a good thing but somewhere in there we need to also monitor the floodgates we've allowed to open in regards to technology and kids.  We've given them another weapon to bully with which has greater range, greater impact, and allows for more cowardice - no longer do you have to bully face to face and be ready to defend it.

Bullying is one of the initial seeds of shame.  Shame, according to Dr. James Gilligan in his book Violence is one of the seeds of violent crime.  Studying long-term criminals in the justice system, those who had committed heinous violent crimes, the one common denominator is shame.  The perpetrators were made to feel shame by being bullied by another person at some point in their life, and it scarred them, it changed them.  I met Dr. Gilligan while studying at Shakespeare & Company in 1995.  He discussed shame in violence which could be traced all throughout various Shakespearean plays.

We've come a long way from the 16th century century in so many ways, yet when we read about the recent tragedies about bullying are we simply doomed to forever arm a beast who has always been and will always be?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Google Docs in the Classroom

Our school has moved to a being a Google Apps school.  Every student and faculty member has been assigned a Google Apps account which is protected within the domain of our school.  We have all had at least one formal training session and have been assigned the task of using it and improving our instruction and ability to communicate and share with each other: student to teacher, student to student, teacher to teacher, et al.

This week marked our first attempt at using Google Docs in my Creative Writing classroom.  My 8th grade students are attempting the Nanowrimo challenge (the Young Writers Program) and have been hammering away at their individual novels for about 10 days now. 

I asked the students to write in Google Docs.  This way they are able to access their writing very easily from home or school no matter which type of computer they have in either location.  So far so good.

Today I blocked aside some peer editing time.  We used a computer lab and I had students "share" their novel with another in the class.  I told them who to "share" with.  They took ten minutes to skim the story and leave comments.  The comment feature is really useful and easy.  All one has to do if highlight a word, a line, portion of text and then under "View" select "Leave Comment."  A little post-it note pops up and you can type in your thoughts.  It leaves a signature as to who left which comment.

As the students were editing, I was also able to see and comment on every story in my class, even while another student was commenting on the same story.  Great feature.

Aside from "sharing" and "commenting" we also tested the Forms function today.  I set up a simple form which asked the students to summarize their novel in two sentences.  As they did and submitted it they were also able to pull up a spreadsheet and every summary in class began to pop up in front of their eyes in real time as others submitted.  Now, everyone can see every novel summary.  We are definitely going to continue to work with this feature during class discussion and homework.

I'm going away this weekend and don't necessarily need to lug a pile of papers with me...but the Google Docs function allows me to continue to comment on student work simply from a laptop. 

I've been most impressed with ability to provide instant feedback to a student as he/she does not have to wait for me to hand back papers in order to see the comments.

Writing Setting

My CW classes have recently studied the use of setting in fiction and how it can drive or impact a plot and character.  We moved beyond the initial understanding of setting as merely scenery.  The objective wast o get them to think about story in the sense that setting is part of the identity of the character.  Every object (pen, chair, light, vehicle, etc.), type of building or structure, electrical or household convenience, fabric, food item, piece of technology chosen to be in a story should be there for a very specific reason and play a very specific role.  By that I mean that if an author's setting is not carefully considered, the story occurs in a random time and a random place.  Characters behave in relation to their surrounding.

Consider this simple excerpt from Jack London's To Build a Fire:

He unbuttoned his jacket and shirt and drew forth his lunch. The action consumed no more than a quarter of a minute, yet in that brief moment the numbness laid hold of the exposed fingers. He did not put the mitten on, but, instead struck the fingers a dozen sharp smashes against his leg. 

The unnamed man in the story stops for a bite to eat.  He takes out a sandwich in the bitter and dangerous cold and starts a series of events leading to his succumbing to the deadly temperatures.  It is the cold, a very simple use of setting (tempertaure) which affects the next thing the man does: he repeatedly slams his fingers against his leg.

I'm not saying this is some great revelation, but it is a very clear example of how something in the setting affects an action or subsequent decision of a character.  Characters behave in relation to their surrounding.

As the story progresses, we see more examples of how the deadly cold seeps through his body and affects the next thing he does:

And he had not thought his fingers could go lifeless in so short a time. Lifeless they were, for he could scarcely make them move together to grip a twig, and they seemed remote from his body and from him. When he touched a twig, he had to look and see whether or not he had hold of it. 

He can no longer feel his fingers, so he looks down.  Simple.  Yet, if you have ever read a lot of 13 year old stories...

I teach 8th grade writers.  Kids who write stories and who want to be here and chose to do it.  A simple example like those provided above gives them a small tool to work with, consider, search for in other literature, and hopefully, in the end, improve their own creative writing.  

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Veterans Day

Tomorrow is Veterans Day in our country.  By the way, Facebook reminded me of this.

Seems like a reasonable moment in the year to have an open discussion about the American Flag, what it represents, and what we are doing and saying when we recite the Pledge of the Allegiance.

I teach 12 and 13 year old kids.  I don't know how aware I was of The Flag when I was in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade.  It was there.  We said The Pledge, yet it seems sometimes like a piece of furniture, like it just sort of comes with the classroom along with the desks.

I'm not saying that the conversation needs to turn into a lecture, but it will be interesting to note if my kids have anything, any thoughts, any reaction to the American Flag or the The Pledge.  I wonder if their thoughts will turn to war and the many men who fought under it, or the ideals the country has stood for, or maybe what they've learned in social studies classes along the way.  Is it going to be an "oh by the way" thing for the kids or will some walk out thinking a little differently about The Flag and The Pledge.  They're kids.  They can react and respond in any number of ways.

Between going to school myself and now going on to my 16th year of teaching I've probably said The Pledge of Allegiance at least 5,000 times.  I know of one day where I've spoken it about it to my classes. The second day is here.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pillows for Pets

An 8th grade student of mine has started her own business making pillows (for humans and pets as well as dog & cat beds).  A portion of her proceeds go to area animal shelters such as the SPCA.

Sarah became inspired by her own puppy-mill dog who was rescued by her family.  In her website she tells her story and why she is doing this.  An excerpt from that story:

I still believe, along with my parents, that the only reason she doesn't like him as much as us, is because maybe dad looks like the man who abused her. I mean she has to learn to trust men again, and it's not gonna be an easy process.

If you have a minute, visit her site or forward it to someone who may be interested in supporting her noble cause and efforts:


Monday, November 8, 2010

YA Novel Review: The Underneath

YA author Kathi Appelt's The Underneath is a fable of a young cat who saves his twin sister and an old beaten-to-an-inch-of-his-death hound dog.

Heavy with savage cruelty and stinging bitterness,  The Underneath is story of redemption.

In the Acknowledgements, Appelt writes that she was given the sage advice, "Write what you think you can't."  I will be very interested to hear her explain what that advice meant to her and how it helped shaped the developments of the novel when she speaks to my Creative Writing classes this December through Skype.

There are stretches in The Underneath when I feel like I am reading Kipling.  This is a good thing in that Appelt has been able to make anthropomorphic characters truly believable and real.  In this, the sorrow becomes real, the danger and the suspense becomes real.  I didn't feel like I was reading a simple YA book about the friendships between kitty-cats and doggies.

It is a mature YA novel because when Appelt shifts between plot lines older readers will find themselves missing the characters they had just been with, and more often than not, will be concerned about what may be next.  For me, this is the real success of The Underneath, you find yourself caring about the characters.

Cleverly, Appelt's story develops as one which has been 1000 years in the making.  The style of this "ancient" structure of the story absolutely makes it feel old and wise and passed on through generations of nature among the animals.  How and when and why these characters cross paths is just a brilliant arrangement by Appelt: an abandoned calico cat, her two kittens, a beaten old hound dog, a hawk, an ancient cottonmouth viper, her daughter and granddaughter, a hummingbird who brings the dead to the next life (who hovers between the world of light and darkness), a 100 foot long ancient aligator, and the resident villain of the novel, Gar-Face, an incredibly real (and sadly) cruel, cruel, human being.

Yet the real star of the novel is her use of trees.  Reminiscent of the Ents from The Lord of the Rings and something else mysterious and magical, trees play an important, subtle, and artistic role in the story.  I would be very interested hearing my creative writing students speculate about the role of the trees in this book.

The emotions in the book are indeed heavy at times, yet these emotions also serve to pull the reader through the book.  You find yourself constantly asking, it can't get any worse for this creature can it?   You may find yourself feeling a little like Annie Wilkes as the novel makes it way towards it climax and the hummingbird (the guardian angel who peacefully escorts characters who die to the next world) starts to hover near your favorite character and there are only a few pages left. ("You can't kill Misery!  No!!!)

Overall rating: Highly Recommended for older middle school readers and up

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Joe Pa 400

I heard Rutgers head football coach Greg Schiano speak at a coaches conference in Cherry Hill, NJ back around 2003 or so.  He told a story about coaching at Penn State.  The year he was there Penn State had a really large number of #1 draft picks go to the NFL, yet Penn State didn't win like they thought they should.  They had a really average season for having so many great players.  Coach Schiano's talk centered around how Joe Paterno interviewed everyone in the Penn State program after that disappointing season: players, coaches, secretaries, trainers, everyone.  What Paterno came up with was that there was little trust in the program.  No one trusted the next guy.  No one trusted anyone.  Schiano went on for 40 minutes about how important it is to establish trust with a team.

I spent the next 7 football seasons with "trust" in the back of my mind and in the front of my coaching plan.

Fast forward to last night.  It is a few hours after our 45-14 win over Millersville University and I'm having a beer with a former player from that 7-5 Penn State team.  I tell him all about the Schiano talk and what Paterno learned.

The former player says, "Hm.  Joe just literally beat the *** out of us that next year. He pummeled us.  Funny, I didn't hear him mention 'trust' once."

Paperless Classroom: Practical? Possible?

Is it possible or practical to have completely paperless classroom?  Is there enough technology in our individual schools and in the mainstream household (and pockets) to run an entirely green classroom?

Books online, or on CD drives or even through podcasting.  Teacher's notes online via Power Point, or even through a podcast.  Essays written and submitted through services such as Google Apps or even simply emailed after being written on any word processor.  Tests and quizzes and any other group or individual assessment can be done through technology.  Research projects have always been technology friendly; we see middle school kids using Smartboards, Power Point or similar applications, iMovie, podcasts, etc. and have for several years now.

If we did this, would we lose something?  Would handwriting and muscle development, fine motor skills, weaken?  If we did this are we catering or are we equipping?  Have reading and handwriting on paper become tedious, labor intensive, and boring to students?  Do we actually accomplish more at a greater rate when we allow students to use the technology to prepare a document, demonstrate learning, or explore?  Are we handcuffing them when we do not?

I think it would be an interesting experiment -a perfectly paperless classroom- take our every book, notebook, poster, etc.  Every trace of paper -gone.  Has anyone tried anything like this yet?  What would need to be sorted out ahead of time?  Where will our problems reside?  My gut tells me that we have enough in place in some schools to do it in at least one classroom.

It is green, but it is beyond green.  Maybe I'll take a whack at it for a month in the Spring.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Different Way to Live

Between teaching middle school and coaching college football I've worked 80 hours a week since the middle of August.  It certainly leaves me tired and it doesn't leave much time for home.  Yet, I love what I do on both ends -teaching middle school and coaching college football.

The full-time coaches I work with also put in those same 80 hours.  They just do it here in the office, the weight room, the meeting room, on the phone, or tracking kids down on campus to make sure they are doing the right thing and being an upstanding member of the community.  The most recent full-time job posted here this past July with a starting salary of $35,000.  Obviously, someone held that full-time job prior to the opening.

A coach's hours are consistently 8am through 8pm from Monday to Wednesday.  Slightly less on Thursday, and if they go out and physically scout high school players on Friday night then that becomes the longest work day of the week, 8am through 10pm.  With most games played on a Saturday you are looking at coaches arriving at least 3 1/2 to 4 hours before a game.  The game takes anywhere from 3-5 hours to play.  It would be nice to say we have gone out for some beers or a bite to eat after our games, but the schedule has not really allowed for it.

If you play an away game, you are gone from home and working the entire weekend.

Sundays are not off days for us.  We work 8am through 5pm breaking down Saturday's game, grading it, and then meeting with our players, showing them the film, and then we head back to the office to break down the film of our next opponent and developing a rough sketch of a game plan.

I lay all of this out just a few hours before we head out to play our tenth game of the season.  At 3-6 we are not going to have a winning season.  At 3-6 we have a bunch college athletes who are experiencing a wide range of feelings and opinions over our lack of success.  Yet, what sticks in my mind are the men I work with here who have wives, young kids, a mortgage, and all of the bills that the rest of us have.  I hear and see the anxiety of the reality that any one of us could get fired in a week or so.  It is a very real anxiety.  We try to keep some levity, but 3-6 is 3-6.

The men I work with miss their wives, their kids, their dogs, and sometimes they just miss sitting down and drinking a beer.  We all know the reality.  We know the hours.  We know the possibilities of what success may bring us, and we know the realities of what losing will bring us.  In this job, like many others, if you are not doing great at it after a reasonable amount of time then it is time to go.

I love this job, but I'm a part-time coach here.  I have a full-time career.  I teach from 7:30-3:30 and then I coach from 4:00-8:00 or 9:00pm.

These full-time college guys, they don't have that other thing.  Being a coach IS their thing.  I know the last guy who was fired from a position here.  He has a wife and kid.  He had to fight to find something to bring money into the house.  He isn't coaching.  He will again someday, but right now he has bills to pay.  His loss created an opening for another man with a wife and kids.

As I shut my laptop and walk across the hall to the players locker room and then the coaches locker room which we share with the local roaches (who don't even blink when we walk in and turn on the lights anymore) I just want to put it out there I feel pretty fortunate to have the full-time job that I do, and I feel pretty fortunate to have this part-time job.

My bills are going to get paid whether or not a twenty year old kid makes a tackle for me or doesn't.  I have a full-time job where my value isn't in part measured by 10 or 11 games.  Ten or eleven days of the week can and will determine whether or not some men keep their jobs or some do not.  I can lose this job too if my guys don't develop and play well.  I'm just saying I don't have this part-time job as the sole thing I depend on for income.

I work with men I respect, and I can hear and see the anxiety increase as each day brings us closer to the next game.

And then it dawned on, this happens in college stadiums across the nation every Saturday in November.

It is definitely a different way to live.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Paper is just a fad

Remember when bulletin boards were the iPads of the classroom?  A teacher would post pictures and information which we wouldn't normally see in our daily lives.  Now, bulletin boards are places to hang examples of student work, which is a noble use of the cork, but how much longer do we have before student work on paper is a thing of the past?

The cost of copy paper for school districts is exhorbitant.  So much so that some schools give teachers codes and limits on what they can print.  Teachers and librarians monitor what kids print.  Not to mention the cost of toner, repairing and replacing copy machines, printers, etc.

With the evolution of technology (Google Apps and Smartboards comes to mind) where students and teachers can share written work, comment on it, quiz, participate in classroom polls, and so forth, it is really only going to be a matter of time before copy paper in schools disappears just as chalk has.  Forward thinking and financially privileged schools (those two terms go together, no?  one can afford to be forward thinking) will soon find a better use for the money for kids and teachers...again further distancing the haves and the have nots.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

National Novel Writing Month

November has been dubbed National Novel Writing Month and there are organizations out there promoting it.  Nanowrimo.com sponsors the challenge and contest; there is a separate category and challenge for young adult writers (ywp.nanowrimo.com) and that is the challenge set before my creative writing classes this month.  We're going to take a whack at a novel.

That's write I said "we"...

The adult side of the contest requires that 50,000 words be written.  To put into perspective for my 8th grade students I broke it down to equal writing a 500 word essay 3 times a day every day this month.  To my surprise a few have taken that challenge on...and then they stuck their finger in my chest and said, "You should do it too."

The nice part of the Young Writers Program portion of the contest is that students can select their own word goal.  My student's goals range from as modest as 5,000 words for the month, to 15,000.  I'm going to give them points as they reach each benchmark.  My benchmarks are broken down into 10% tiers...at 10% of their goal they receive x amount of points, at 20% they receive y, and so forth. So, yes, those who complete their own stated goal can achieve a score of 100%.  However, at the end of weeks two and four they will submit their best chapter or their best 250-500 words for a more formally assessed score.

We begin in the writing lab today...I'll post random chapters or excerpts here as I move through my own.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Skype in the Classroom

Just over a week ago I experienced my first of several interviews with a published author.  I set up a discussion for my creative writing class, via Skype, with YA author Mitali Perkins.  I was surprised at how smoothly the technology operated during the 45 minute conversation.  We didn't need to free up any bandwidth at school and there was barely a hiccup.

Some of my students had read some of her novels in preparation for the class discussion.  Mostly though, being a creative writing class, students had questions about the craft and discipline of writing over anything specific about a particular novel.

However, several students did experience some curiosity about the recent history of Burma (Myanmar) as a result of the YA novel Bamboo People, written by Mitali Perkins.  I read the novel the read before our Skype session and really enjoyed it.  It is both a story about worlds colliding as well as separate journeys experienced by two male protagonists.  One protagonist is a child soldier, the other a young boy on the run with a displaced and villainized ethnic group.  Their paths cross and each experiences moments of moral conflict and growth.

The novel served another purpose beyond our enjoyment and background for an author chat.  It is a terrific example of a current topic in my creative writing class: setting as fuel.  Setting as means for a writer to drive the plot, and drive and define character.  The setting in Bamboo People establishes that this book is not taking place in a vague location or a fuzzy sense of time.  I recommend it the novel for any young adult or any creative writing or geography teacher.  The novel provides well beyond just telling a good story.

Finally, I have to say that Mitali Perkins was terrific with the kids in my class.  Sometimes guest speakers can unintentionally distance themselves from kids, belittle kids, or simple present and talk over and through them.  (Not every assembly is a home run)  Yet, this author truly connected with them and took the time to offer thoughtful and patient responses to all of their questions.  My kids asked questions for a full 40 minutes and took notes throughout.  I was really proud of the way they handled their first experience with this as well.

In a climate where field trips or bringing in guest speakers becomes unrealistic, setting up a classroom chat with someone via Skype is an effective and economically viable option.  Currently, I have a dozen authors committed to speak throughout the year, with several more offering hope that we may be able to set something up over the Spring.

I've found some authors asking for a fee ranging from $75 to $150 for about an hour, and others willing to do it gratis.