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Essay Advice

Saturn Ring Blues
My. A.P. Lit class is writing their first essay of the new semester today.  They're responding to a poem by Edward Field, entitled "Icarus."

The prompt reads, "The following poem, written by Edward Field, makes use of the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus.  Read the poem carefully.  Then write an essay in which you analyze how Field employs literary devices in adapting the Icarus myth ot a contemporary setting."

To help them out, I thought I would write a couple of tips on the board to keep as mind as they composed (the two tips were going to be "Write long," and "Nothing without quotes"), but I seem incapable of being brief, and my two tips blew up into nine.

Still, I think it's a good list.


Nov. 14th, 2013

Saturn Ring Blues

​We teach our students in the English classes that an argument is composed of a claim (the opinion you wish to argue), the evidence to support the claim, and the warrant (the explanation of how the evidence supports the claim).

We hear many, many, many claims about education. Some are from educators, some from community leaders and politicians, some from school board members, and some from for-profit educational companies.

What I notice about the majority of these claims is that they are unsupported, or the support is unsound. Most of the educational debate appears to be folks shouting claims at each other as if they are proven facts.

They are not.

Here's a video that makes numerous counter claims about the debate we are all a part of now. His claims are not fully supported either, which means they are just as valid (or invalid) as the claims that oppose them.

It makes me sad that the fate of our education system is in the hands of rhetoricians who make claims without evidence. I wish we were engaged more often in a thoughtful discussion about what is really best for kids and that we could divorce that discussion from the political axes that so many people seem more interested in grinding.


Saturn Ring Blues
After eighteen years, Coach “Bear” Herb Huskey retired from his position as the Fruita Monument Cross Country team head coach. Assistant coach Terri Bowen who worked with Huskey for eight years also decided to move on to other pursuits. My youngest son, like his two older brothers, is on the team. Between him and his brothers, I’ve been involved with the cross country team for ten years.

Here’s what I’ve seen and what I think is most interesting about Huskey and Bowen’s program: it’s huge!

For anybody who ever ran a mile in PE class and thought that there couldn’t possibly be anything more tortuous, cross country is like an extended nightmare. Physically, I don’t think there is a more difficult sport to do. The coaches pick some spot on the horizon, point to it, and tell the kids, “Run to that, turn around and come back.” At least that’s what it feels like. In a typical workout, the kids run for over an hour or more. Over an hour! Running! The football team looks positively lazy in comparison (of course, a cross country runner isn’t periodically slamming into another runner or being tackled).

And yet, as hard as the sport is, dozens of young men and women come out for it, year after year. Only seven kids can run varsity. Only a couple of others have a chance to slip into the varsity spots—the competition is intense—but all these other kids show up every day. How did a program like this develop at FMHS? What’s going on here?

The only answer that makes sense is the Huskey and Bowen created and fostered a culture that kids wanted to be a part of. They made kids feel included and valuable. People are hungry for an environment where they believe they matter, and that’s what they got at FMHS on the cross country team.

This week the team held their end of the season banquet. Many folks cried about Huskey and Bowen’s departure: kids, parents and coaches. What I got from the banquet is what I believe is what is best in American education and what is our true resource in the classroom: caring, amazingly competent instructors who care deeply about what they are doing for kids.

When we foster an environment where teachers can flourish, we build strong schools. When highly skilled teachers engage their students in programs where the kids feel included and valuable, the students soar.

What I think happened in cross country is that instead of the drudgery of the miles, Huskey and Bowen helped their athletes see that the long run can be done in joy. We should all celebrate our teachers who can give a sense of joy to the students in what they do.

Thank you Bear. Thank you Terri. You’ve done more good than you can possibly measure.


Music for the Soul

Saturn Ring Blues

When I was 17, and just graduated from high school, a buddy of mine introduced me to the music of Jethro Tull.  Nothing was the same afterwards.  I think I listened to Thick as a Brick a hundred times.  Wow!

Since then, though, I've added his softer stuff to my life list:  "Teacher," "Life's a Long Song," "Skating Away (on the Thin Ice of the New Day)," and "Living in the Past."  He was a wild man!  But, as the same buddy told me last week, he's aged well.

I offer as evidence, the following:


Writing Process: Practical Application

Saturn Ring Blues
My college freshmen comp class is writing a literary analysis on The Turn of the Screw. This is a challenging text for high schoolers (or anyone else)!

They're at the point where they have to start writing their papers, so I put the steps we'd already taken toward writing the paper on the board:

  • Studied the background to the novel and Henry James

  • Quiz and discussion

  • Read and discussed the novel (with writings along the way)

  • Read and discussed critical approaches to the novel (with writings along the way)

  • Chose among the approaches (the four approaches were Psychoanalytic, Gender, Marxist or Reader Response criticism)

The next step, I think, would be to do freewriting on their understanding of the book and what they want to say about the book. I didn't make this an assignment, so some kids did it but most did not.

Write a thesis. This might be something like, "The ghosts in The Turn of the Screw are illusions in the head of the sexually repressed governess."

Today I asked them to do a 10-minute freewriting on where they are in the writing of this essay. While they were doing that, I wrote on the board what I thought were the possibilities. I'm very interested in what is their real writing process rather than the idealized one where everyone is doing the same thing at the same time.

Here are what I thought were the possibilities about what was in their free writing:

  • I do/don't remember quite a bit of the book

  • I do/don't remember quite a bit of the critical approaches

  • I do/don't know what I believe about the book

  • I do/don't know a direction I'd like to take

  • I do/don't know what to do next

  • I am/am not already writing the paper

  • I have an attitude about the book or assignment that is blocking me

turnWhy this freewriting is important is because it will determine the student's next step. Many students wait until the last moment, and then plunge into what I've come to call the "desperation draft." This is a top-of-the-head, least-well-considered version of their response to the wriiting prompt. This kind of essay is so prevelant that it upsets the curve in the class. So many papers are written this way that the whole idea of what is an adequate response to the prompt is scewed downward.

What I want most of them to do is to do at least one more step before trying to draft. Possibilities include reading some more (particularly for students who say they don't remember or understand the book or the criticism), researching more, talking to other readers of the material, freewriting, and, in some cases, skipping all that and beginning the draft because trying to write the paper tells them what they need to go back to do to make the paper good.

In the meantime, I need to decide what is an appropriate deadline for the rough draft of the paper. The entire piece is only 1,000 words long, so I might want to see them on Friday.

Upcoming Appearances

Saturn Ring Blues
My October is busy!

Friday/Saturday, Oct. 11/12.  Language of the Fantastic Festival sponsored by the Western Colorado Writers Forum.  I will be doing a reading at 7:30 on Friday night, and a three-hour workshop on plot Saturday morning.  From 6:00 to 7:00 on Friday is a meet-the-writers social at 800 Colorado.  Multi-talented science fiction and fantasy writer, Daniel Abraham will be in attendance.  The reading starts at 7:30.

Saturday's workshop on plotting is in the CMU Student Center from 8:30 to 11:30.  We'll spend three hours talking about and working on plotting.

Thursday, Oct. 17th, 7:00 p.m., reading at Planet Earth Gallery.

Friday/Saturday/Sunday, Oct. 18th-20th.  MileHiCon in Denver.

Find the Writers You Like

Saturn Ring Blues

And study them!

I'm reading Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn now.  It's a book that I'd heard quite a bit about, but I never got around to reading.

Lucky for me, because now I get to read it for the first time.  It's kind of a fable, for those of you who don't know, about the last unicorn searching for others of her kind.  It has a heroic prince, and a bumbling wizard, and an evil king, and a truly frightening monster (plus plenty of curses and spells and castle stuff that makes my heart go squee).

But there are two features about it that I really, really like.  First, the book reads to me as if Beagle decided to absolutely, as often as possible, bend similes and metaphors to the breaking point.  There's hardly a paragraph that doesn't offer up a startling bit of figurative language, like this bit:

unicornThe unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.  She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was not longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moon lit night.  But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.

Isn't that cool?  It's poetic, but I'm hard pressed to tell you exactly what I see in it.  What is a "lilac wood," for example?  I know what a lilac is, but it's a bush, not a tree.  Is it a forest that has a lot of lilac?  And then, what is the difference between the color of sea foam (which I have seen), and snow falling on a moon lit night (which I haven't seen, but I can imagine)?  How does a shadow move on the sea?

The point isn't that the description strains my ability to see it; it's more that the description is evocative.  It's spoken as if there is a significant difference between sea foam and moon light on snow, and that I should know it.  And for the moment of the sentence, I DO know it.  At least I feel I do.

I'd heard once that a writer should use similes and metaphors sparingly, since they can compete with each other for attention.  If Beagle heard that advice, he must have thought, "Screw that, I'm going the other direction!"

So I like this book because the language is consistently interesting and entertaining.

The other reason I like it surprises me.  The language drew me in and kept me going, but now that I'm 61% done (thank you Kindle for keeping track), I find that I'm emotionally attached to the characters.  Prince Lir's tragic love is heartbreaking (and, frankly, he started as a ridiculous person), just as the unicorn's quest has me scared for what will happen next, and Schmendrick, the bungling wizard, unexpectedly developed depth and pathos.

I'm delighted that I found this book because it's both fun to read, and I like what Beagle does with the writing.  I'm learning more about the possibilities of prose through reading him.

The advice is simple: find the writers you like, and then pay attention to how they do what they do.  Maybe you'll become more of the writer you want to be by doing this.

Why Don't Teachers Quit?

Saturn Ring Blues
People quit the teaching profession much less often than I would think, at least at Fruita Monument, and I suspect through the entire district.

Why is that?I mean, on the surface the job sucks.Not only is teaching amazingly, unreasonably stressful, it doesn’t pay that well, the health plan has degraded over time, loud voices in the community don’t support teachers’ efforts, and there doesn’t appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel.No one is saying, “Yes, teaching is tough now, but if you just hang in, class sizes will go down, you will be given more autonomy in your classroom, and you will be given less bureaucratic responsibilities that take away from your teaching time.”

Nobody says that.

And yet, not that many teachers quit.In my thirty-two years at FMHS, I know of one teacher who resigned because he felt the district’s educational direction contradicted his own (he’s running a gift shop in Montana now), and another who retired early for the same reason.But that’s just two teachers in all that time.I know more teachers who had to quit because of mental breakdowns than ones who chose to go because of the work itself.

mr-hollands-opusSo, I think I’ve found the answer in Mr. Holland’s Opus.What I like about Mr. Holland’s Opus is that Mr. Holland is not an extraordinary teacher.At least he’s not like Robin William’s in Dead Poet’s Society or Julia Roberts in Mona Lisa Smiles.Those teachers are superstars, icons to the teaching craft, who in their stories pull off teaching moments that mortal teachers aspire to but seldom reach (and certainly not on a day to day basis).No, Mr. Holland started off as an ordinary guy.He fell into teaching because it was his fallback job.He said that he was doing it because he could use the “spare time” to work on his own music—this line, by the way, elicited laughter from the audience when I saw the film, but only the teachers were laughing.

He’s not even a particularly good teacher when he starts.He’s impatient, somewhat insensitive, and, as an administrator pointed out to him, “You are quicker to the parking lot when the bell rings than your students.”

Something about the job got to him, though.Over time he changed.He became like what I see around me at FMHS and in this district all the time.He didn’t have a job anymore.He was the job.Who he was and what he did became inseparable.

I said that he wasn’t an extraordinary teacher, but I think he wasn’t extraordinary because the teachers who surrounded him shared the same quality of “being” the job.

You know you’re in the right profession when “extraordinary” is the default setting.

When I hear discussions about teachers, when I hear people talking about teaching as if teachers were interchangeable parts and that the job can be described, quantified, and standardized; when I hear politicians attack teachers as if they were part of the problem, and that when teachers advocate for the their students by asking for smaller class sizes, more financial support, and reasonable work conditions, that the teachers are not being “realistic,” I want to ask them, “Did you watch Mr. Holland’s Opus?

Because if you did, you wouldn’t wonder why teachers don’t quit.You would wonder why teachers aren’t on pedestals.


A Good Review

Saturn Ring Blues
interzoneLois Tilton at Locus Online had nice things to say about "The Hareton K-12 County School and Adult Extension" that is in the September Interzone.

To me, the titular school is the ultimate place of learning. I call it "the school eternal." She said of it, "The strength of the vision is such as to make readers wish it could all be true, that this is the place learning could have in the world."

Very cool, at

Why the Internet was Invented

Saturn Ring Blues
No, not just for cat videos.

Interesting and odd items for teachers fill the Internet, and the miracle of a fast connection and digital display technology means that we can either entertain ourselves or share with our students. The best stuff, though, is hardly ever the straighfowardly educational. It's the emotional or funny that catches my attention.

For example, I don't understand half of this video, but I'll bet our physics and math students will find "Bohemian Gravity" whimisical and memorable (and pretty darned clever--clearly not all the grad students in the world have enough to do).

In the same manner, chemistry students might find Tom Lehrer's "The Elements" pleasantly diverting.

English teachers can share the powerful poem from Taylor Mali, "Tony Steinberg, Brave 7th Grade Warrior." And for themselves, when the world seems excessively bureaucratic, his "I'll Fight You for the Library" reminds them that other teachers struggle too.

Sometimes we just need something funny to start the day, like the Trunk Monkey videos.

And, finally, if the day is dark and my teaching soul needs provocation, fifty seconds with the Despicable Me minions and the "Banana Song" will start me on the path to recovery.


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