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Mr. Fitz

Saturn Ring Blues
Over the last few months I have occasionally followed links on my timeline to the "Mr. Fitz" cartoon strip, which is an online cartoon about a middle-school English teacher,which is drawn by a Florida, middle-school English teacher.  Many of them I found to be funny, and when they weren't funny it was because they were depressingly accurate about what teachers face in our increasingly standards-based, high-stakes testing environment.  Today I discovered that he also has a blog that includes his thinking about the cartoons.

I think I have a new teacher hero.

His latest post, "Teaching: a love/hate letter," struck home.




Saturn Ring Blues

class of 84The beginning of my teaching years were marked by three movies that oddly shaped my attitude about school and kids: ANIMAL HOUSE (1978), CLASS OF 1984 (1982), and RISKY BUSINESS (1983). I think I responded to ANIMAL HOUSE and RISKY BUSINESS because they reminded me that being a kid meant not knowing who you are. I know that puts a lot of weight on two light-weight movies, but that's what I was left thinking about afterwards. Tom Cruise's Joel Goodson (did you catch the last name there?) is caught between a fear that he will become his parents, and a fear that he will become something unknown. This seems similar to Larry Kroger and Kent Dorfman who are caught between childhood and something else, and living within their own rules or someone elses.

And then there's CLASS OF 1984, which is one of the meanest, stone-cold depictions of delinquency on film, and that's saying a lot since I have CLOCKWORK ORANGE in my memory mix. CLASS OF 1984 scared the beans out of me. I was still in my first year of teaching when it came out. Thank goodness I've never run into the level of sadism that this film portrayed.

Fortunately, later in the decade I cleansed my palate with Nick Nolte's TEACHERS (1984), and then totally rinsed the taste away with DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989).


What Kind of Composition Teacher Are You?

Saturn Ring Blues
Yesterday I went to an afternoon discussion of our Early Scholar program for the high school. This is where high school teachers teach some of the freshmen classes from Colorado Mesa University. I teach English 111, which is the first semester of freshmen composition.

What I thought was interesting about yesterday’s session is that our presenter briefly touched upon a division in the university’s English composition teachers. Some of them, he said, are “expressivists."

Expressivists are the teachers who emphasizes writing as a way to discover and express thought. They do a lot of exploratory kind of writing in class. The classes emphasize student choice in topic and expression. There’s more “creative” writing in class.

On the other side of the divide are the “formivists” or “formvists” (I’m not sure how to label them—we didn’t talk about them much or even name them). They teach freshmen composition by emphasizing the kinds of papers the students will write: five-paragraph, personal response, comparison-contrast, definition, cause and effect, formal research, etc.

You would think that there would be a nice middle ground where the expressivists and the formivists could meet, since one approach emphasizes the creation of thought while the other emphasizes the form of the creation, but it seems they don’t. The expressivists have their students brainstorming, journaling, free writing and paying attention to sound, rhythm and word choice, while the formivists have their students reading and analyzing model essays, imitating master writers, studying grammar, and then moving through a series of assignments that hit the essay form highlights.

The formivists, by the way, often complain that their students lack originality in thought and expression while at the same time being horrified by the lack of rigor in the expressionists’ classes. The expressivists have a tendency to see the formivists as paint-by-number, rule followers who kill student enthusiasm and stunt student growth.

I’ve noticed the divide before, but I’d never looked at the two approaches quite this way.

I hope that I hit the middle ground. I spend a great deal of time in class looking at examples of awesome writing, and then deconstructing the process that produces that writing. In my class, we see the form (like a comparison-contrast essay), but we work on what kind of preliminary thinking/writing/exploration can fill that form with interesting content that the student had to grow to produce. I teach grammar and structure while also having the students free write and do exploratory stabs at the topic before writing the final paper.

It’s a tough tightrope because in the “real” world, no one sets out to write a comparison-contrast paper. They have a thought and an urge to speak, and occasionally the comparison-contrast approach is the best one to use. The form arises organically out of the necessity of the topic. In the classroom, though, we do the opposite: we demand that the form is the goal and that we find a topic to fit it. That’s backasswards, but there’s not much we can do about it. The classroom is a place where we can practice technique and familiarize ourselves with forms so that when we have a genuine need for expression we know how to make some of the required moves.

By taking the middle ground, I manage to piss off both ends of the composition teacher chasm. The formivists wonder why I spend any time freewriting and talking about where student thinking comes from, while the expressivists can’t believe I teach grammar directly.



MileHiCon Schedule

Saturn Ring Blues
My yearly pilgrimage to Denver for MileHi starts on Friday. I'm the toastmaster next year, so, besides hanging out with friends, family, fans and writers (there's crossover in those categories), I'll also be watching Jeanne Stein, who is this year's toastmaster.

Friday, 6:00 pm, Unca Mike's Bad Advice with C. Berg, EJ Stone, M. Swanwick (M), J. Van Pelt and C. Willis.  "C. Willis," for those who don't know, is the incomparable Connie Willis.  This is a high powered panel!

Friday, 8:00 pm, Autograph Alley in the Atrium with all the authors who are signing.

Friday, 9:00 pm, Short Story Sampler,Vol. 2:Discussion & Readings with R. Seagren, EJ Stone (M), and J. Van Pelt

Saturday, noon, Lasting Appeal of The Time Machine/Time Travel Stories M. DesJardin, A. Mayer (M), D. Riley, EJ Stone, and J. Van Pelt

Sunday, 1:00 pm, Ask the Authors with J. Heller, R. Owens (M),M. Rotundo, J. Van Pelt, and P. Wacks

Sunday, 4:00 pm, Suspension of Disbelief with H. Bell, G. Jonas,R. Owens (M), J. Stith, and  J. Van Pelt


Saturn Ring Blues

Yesterday I went to Teague's final cross country meet. Teague is my youngest son and a senior in high school. A wave of melancholy swept over me as he was running. I've had sons on the FMHS cross country team for the last eleven years, and now they are done. I'll never have the same relationship with the team (and it's another harbinger of age).

It has been an awesome ride, though, watching the three of them run for four years each. They worked so hard and accomplished so much personally. I've always argued that cross country is the hardest sport to do. Of course, I'm prejudiced, but it's difficult to make an argument that other sports are MORE demanding physically than the coach pointing to some spot on the horizon and saying, "Run there, and then run back. Shouldn't take you more than a couple of hours."

What I liked best about FMHS cross country was that it has always been an inclusive, welcoming group. A lot of that is on the coaches who fostered that attitude. Many high schools can barely field enough kids to fill the seven varsity spots they get at a meet (remember how hard I said this sport was?), but Fruita has always had huge squads. I think that came from the coaches making it a fun, important place for the kids to be. Of course, the kids and their attitudes make the team, but a lot of their behavior came from coaches who encouraged an inclusive approach.

Thanks coaches! The FMHS cross country team has continuously been one of the best arguments for high school athletics I've seen.

Cross DylanCross Sam


Story Sale!

Saturn Ring Blues
Daily Science Fiction bought my short, "Everything's Unlikely."  Hooray!

Marketing Your First Novel

Saturn Ring Blues
I received an e-mail from an ex-student tonight. He was in my science fiction class eight years ago, and he told me that he took the short story that I'd thought highly of then and turned it into a novel. But he doesn't know what to do now with it. He wondered if I had advice on finding an agent.

Here's what I wrote to him:

Congrats on finishing the novel!

I do not have an agent because I was approached directly by the publisher for my first book. He talked to me because he was also the editor of a magazine that published some of my short stories. He wondered if I had ever considered putting them together into a collection. He did my first collection and the three that followed.

One day, over lunch at a convention, he asked me if I had written any longer works, so I told him about my novel that I had shopped around to most of the English speaking publishing world without success. He asked if he could see it, so I gave it to him, he liked it and published it also (I've made more money on the book going with Fairwood Press, a print-on-demand publisher than I would have made in an advance from one of the major publishers).

So I skipped the whole agent thing.

That said, I think you are right to look for representation. In general, you have much better chance of selling a novel through an agent than on selling it by sending it directly to a publisher (although some books are sold that way too).

Publishers like working with agents because agents only represent books that they think are salable. The agent serves as kind of a first reader for the publisher, winnowing out the unpublishable stuff.

I highly recommend that you read this article from A.C. Crispin at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association website:

You can learn a ton that way.

You can find out a bunch more about publishers by visiting

Ralan is amazing. He compiles lists of publishers for both short and book-length science fiction, fantasy and horror. Evidently he has no life beyond this project that he's been doing for years. I've met him. He's a true treasure to working sf/f/h writers everywhere.

For my first novel, I tried sending it as an unsolicited manuscript to a bunch of publishers. Some never replied. Some said they weren't interested. Some asked to see the first couple of chapters and a synopsis; and some asked to see the whole manuscript. They all, eventually, said no. When it occurred to me that maybe an agent could do the job more efficiently, I had already poisoned the water with a bunch of publishers by submitting it to them myself. It turns out that many publishers won't look at a manuscript a second time. Whoever rejected my novel at each of the publishers was the lowest member of their company--quite possibly an intern who was willing to read the slush as a way to get started. A good agent would know which acquiring editor at the publishing house would be the right reader for my project. An agent only makes money if my manuscript sells, so she/he has an interest in finding the manuscript a home.

That only works, though, if the agent likes your manuscript. So, read the SFWA article, follow its suggestions, make a list of possible agents, and send off your queries.

Also, if you are interested in a longer career than just one book, I'd highly recommend going to science fiction/fantasy conventions. Agents, editors, publishers and other writers attend. I've made many helpful connections with the publishing world by meeting up with other people in the industry at a convention. Your first book will probably be your worst book (you are planning on getting better at writing, right?), so the people you meet while learning about this book might be very helpful in the future.

One more thing, Harlan Ellison, a writing icon (or iconclast--it depends on who you talk to) has a mantra for writers. It's worth repeating as you enter the potentially predatory world of first publishing: "The natural flow of money is TOWARD the writer." Say that to yourself twenty times in a row or how many times it takes you to pound it home. That way when someone says they'll read your book for a fee, or offers to "doctor" the book for money, or tells you that they'd be happy to publish it if you would help defray the costs, then you'll know its time to run away.

Good luck!

We Should Be Immortal

Saturn Ring Blues
I got home today from a half-day writing workshop, and I thought it would be productive if I cleared off the pile of books by my bed, but the topbook was Jay Lake's PROCESS OF WRITING that I'd bought at When Words Collide in Calgary. The cover is a picture of Jay walking through shallow flood waters at the Rain Forest Writers' retreat.
I'd forgotten that I'd bought the book. I picked it up, processed the cover and what it was and started crying.


I've been jumping around in it since. The book is an organized collection of Jay's thoughts on a variety of writin
g-related subjects that he posted at his blog. Since I'd been a long-time reader of the blog, and I respected Jay a great deal, I know that I've read almost all of them, but what I've read so far sounds new to me again and helpful. They also sound like Jay.

At least for the moment Jay's voice is alive in my head as it should be. We should all be able to carry on like that--to live on.

Jay couldn't walk on water, despite the cover of his book, but man could he create the illusion that he could.


Changes Over Time

Saturn Ring Blues
The yearbook is doing a page about how the school has changed over the years. When I started at FMHS, I was the yearbook advisor, so the yearbook has always had a soft spot in my heart. The current advisor, Mrs. Miller, was one of my editors in the early 80s. A staff member e-mailed me and asked how much I've changed over my teaching career. Here's my reply:

You could ask Mrs. Miller how much I've changed since she was the yearbook editor when I was the advisor. Of course, she's changed some too. You should have her tell you stories about the darkroom in your classroom when we had to develop all of our own pictures.

I guess things in my life have changed a lot since I started teaching here in 1981, although I don't feel too different.

• I'm now teaching under my 7th principal, which has been interesting.
• When I started teaching, we didn't have the state-mandated testing like we do now, so our year didn't feel like it rotated as much around CSAP, or TCAP, or PARRC.
• We didn't have ParentVue, so parents couldn't tell how their students were doing until either parent-teacher conferences or when the report cards came out.
• Also, there weren't video cameras watching kids in the hallways.
• I remember when all the kids watched MTV for the music videos (and how so many of them were asking for a couple of weeks, "Have you seen Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' yet?")
• When I started here, almost no one owned a "personal computer." Also, the following words meant nothing: Netflix, Google, iPod, iPhone, Amazon, Prius, AL-Qaeda, sexting, selfie, texting, Internet, cyberspace, grunge and about a gazillion other words.
• If you would have told me in 1981 that Colorado would legalized marijuana, I would have said, "Not in a thousand years."
• I was teaching here during some of the most traumatic moments in our recent history: the Challenger disaster, the Columbine shooting, and 9/11, all of which impacted the school.
• I remember when many kids carried Walkmans, which were portable cassette players. To them, an iPod or cell phone would be pure science fiction.
• I remember when the kids went on strike for a seven-minute passing period.
• I've taught under several different bell schedules here, and I was teaching here when FMHS went to "year round" school.
• When I started teaching here, I didn't have any children of my own. Now all three of my boys have gone to Fruita. Both Dylan and Sam graduated from here, and my youngest, Teague, is a senior.

What I also think is interesting is what hasn't changed. You've probably heard people say that kids nowadays don't care as much or don't work as hard or aren't as respectful. I absolutely don't believe that is true. If anything, I think today's students have more demands and handle them better. I am so proud that I have spent my entire teaching career at FMHS. It has been wonderful, and it's wonderful because of the marvelous students I've met, and the outstanding educators I've worked with, including the ones who were once my students, like Mrs. Miller.

Good luck with your page.


Reading that Shaped Me

Saturn Ring Blues

My friend, Sara Backer tagged me with the ten-book meme. The list is the books that "stayed with me." I compiled the books without really thinking about how they "provided insight about societal injustice as well as compelling characters."  This is the list I came up with:

1. My Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett.  I could have picked several other little kid’s books, but I think this one warped me best. A clever protagonist, a plucky baby dragon, and a lot of scary animals.
2. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury. MANY people might put this one on their list. Beautiful language in the service of imaginative, thought-provoking, emotional stories. Bradbury was my introduction to short fiction (although I read “The Pit and the Pendulum” even earlier).
3. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein. Heinlein’s juveniles were the entry-level drug to his important, adult novels like this one.
4. Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit), by J.R.R. Tolkien.  I lost a week of college classes because someone left a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring on a table in the student union. Poetic language and epic storytelling.
5. Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock.  This one the World Fantasy Award in 1988, so one of those rare books that made the list from after I was 22.  James Michener once said that you should read as many of the great books as you can before you are 22, which I have just taken to mean that you are most influenceable when you are young.
6. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. I think I made three or four false starts on this book that at first I thought was just profound philosophical meanderings before I discovered that it’s also a darned good novel about a father’s relationship with his son.
7. Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis. I didn’t know it was also religious allegory! I just thought it was great world building that shook my view of humanity.
8. Goodbye Mr. Chips, by James Hilton. I read this my first year of teaching, at the back of a class that was doing silent reading.  I wept.
9. Lincoln’s Dreams, by Connie Willis.  Willis is a world treasure.  She’s funny when writing comedy, and tragic when she needs to be.  Her work is the best melding of speculative thinking, solid background research, and the human condition that I’ve ever read.  I could have picked a half-dozen other titles from her.  She’s awesome.
10. I can’t name a tenth book because there are twenty more titles that should be in my top ten.  How can I get this far without having mentioned Edgar Rice Burroughs, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula Le Guin, Stephen King, David Brin, Kim Stanley Robinson, George R.R. Martin, Zenna Henderson, or James Patrick Kelly?  I know that I’ll keep revising this post by adding other names.
11. Yes, I’m an English teacher, and I love to teach Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, A Man for All Seasons, Death of a Salesman, Hamlet, and the many other classics that are a part of the English canon, but they aren’t the books that shaped me.  They’re influential, but I read them too late.  My early reading pretwisted me.


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