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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.


What the Story is About is Not the Story

Saturn Ring Blues
I had  mini-breakthrough in teaching story writing to my sophomores this week.  They are supposed to write an argumentative essay that uses a personal anecdote as its evidence.  This is a complicated essay to teach (particularly since the prompt is totally intimidating) because the essay requires TWO skills: argumentation and narration.

So, how do I teach story writing, a huge topic area, in the tiny amount of time we're given to teach this essay?  Hmm.

I gave the class this story as an example of what an argumentative essay supported with a personal anecdote might look like:

The Sample StoryCollapse )
So, we were talking about what makes this an effective story, and I realized that when kids answer the question, "What is the story about?" they leave out all the stuff that makes it a good story.

Here's what I mean.  When a kid answers that question, he will say something like, "The story is about a girl whose older sister is broken hearted because her boyfriend has moved away.  The younger sister wants to help, but she doesn't know what to do.  She just listens, and that's the best thing she could do.  Her sister feels better at the end, and the narrator has learned what it means to be a good listener."

Not a bad summary, right?

But summary dropped out everything that made the story a story, like the smell of flowers in the older sister's hair, the feel of the older girl's sobbing in her breathing, the sound of the refrigerator buzzing in the kitchen, and all the dialogue.

Kids who have trouble telling effective stories are pretty good at writing down what the story is about, but really bad at putting in the sensory/descriptive details that make a story a story.

Pointing this out seemed to make a difference with a bunch of kids, and the practice narratives they turned in that day showed a ton of improvement. 


The Accidental Lesson

Saturn Ring Blues
Sometimes the best lessons are the ones where something unplanned falls into place perfectly.

In my A.P. English class, we just finished Robert Bolt’s wonderful play, A Man for All Seasons.  Frequently, after we finish a major work, I have them write an in-class essay, but we’ve already done three in-class essays, and I wanted to wrap up this play differently.

I didn’t want them to write another essay.

What I did was to divide the class into five groups of six or seven kids, and then I gave each group an A.P.-style question to answer for the rest of the class as a panel presentation.  Each of the questions asked them to relate some part of the play to the play’s overall meaning, so I knew I was going to get a different meaning from each group.

My plan was to give them a half hour to come up with their answer to the question before they presented to the class.  I envisioned putting the class in a circle so they could all face each other, and my intent was that the lesson would broaden their understanding of the play by seeing the different approaches the groups used to discuss the play’s overall meaning.

I took the class to the cafeteria to spread them out for their initial work because 34 kids in a small room trying to do group activities is ridiculous.  When I brought them back, though, I decided that I didn’t have enough room to do the circle discussion.  I went with a panel-style format instead.  I had them move six desks to the front of the room and face them the other way.

The first group to present had this question:

In our attention on the fate of the major characters in a play, we often overlook the role the minor characters play.  They, however, frequently exist to focus and direct the major characters' actions.  Using minor characters from the A Man for All Seasons, discuss how they contribute to the work’s overall meaning.  Characters you might consider include Roper, Norfolk, Margaret, Alice and/or Richard Rich.

What happened next, though, is where the lesson veered off.  Remember my plan was that what we were going for was just multiple approaches to the play and to deepen their familiarity with the work.

The first student read the question and lead to their statement of the play’s overall meaning.  The second student talked about Roper.  The third, Norfolk.  The fourth Margaret and Alice.  The fifth, Rich.  And the last summed up their argument, relating the characters to the overall meaning.

While they presented, I realized what I was watching:  it was a human representation of an essay.  Each student was a paragraph!  Brilliant!  So I pointed that out to the class, and our entire focus changed.  The student who discussed Roper, for example, related his character to the question and the group’s overall meaning.  The next three students, though, only talked about their characters without relating them to the overall meaning.  What was cool was that the class suddenly saw the paragraphs of an essay as each having a task to do.  If they thought of an essay as being like a team of presenters, where each presenter was a paragraph that could be weak or strong, they saw the entire essay differently.

All the groups that went after that first one were much better.  I could see each kid reaching the end of what he wanted to say and then going on to tie his portion of the presentation back to the play’s overall meaning.

No one wanted to be the weak paragraph in their group essay!

So, my plan went awry.  What I intended to happen only happened in a minor way.  My intention, which was to avoid writing a 4th essay in four weeks, turned into a great session on writing essays.

The lesson was great, accidentally.

Have any of you had that experience, where what you planned didn’t work out but what happened instead was great?


Sharing My Worst Fear

Saturn Ring Blues
When I was in grad school, another student worried about what everyone else wrote. She said, “The bad things that you imagine, you invite into your life.”  So, if your subject matter was cancer, you would get cancer.  If you worried about rape, you increased your risk.

She was a nut, of course, but I’ve never forgotten it (ironically, as you will see).

At the time, I was working on a fantasy novel with a character in it who was effectively immortal.  He wasn’t invulnerable, but, barring accident, he didn’t die.  He didn’t age.

Immortality has always fascinated me.  I’d like to achieve it, personally, or at least have a solid five-hundred or six-hundred years to consider it.  But how would a character deal with that incredibly long memory of life events?

The way I handled it for the character was memory loss.  My character really only held twenty years of so of clear memories.  Old friends, old loves, previous family, all faded away.  He could have become an expert in a field of study years before, but if he didn’t continue using it, he would lose that expertise.

I have some experience with this.  First, I graduated with a B.A. in history and English.  I had intended on being a history teacher.  I student taught in history and my teaching license says I’m qualified to teach it.  But I’ve been teaching English for thirty years now, not history.  I would be useless now as a history teacher.  I believe I’m barely more knowledgeable than someone who never studied it.

In a similar sense, I was married for five years, starting when I was 27.  That’s twenty-seven years ago now.  My memories of that marriage really feel like they belong to someone else.  I think there are books I recall better than that marriage.

I’m becoming my immortal character.  The memories fade.

My classmate in grad school worried that I wrote about memory loss.  She felt that by writing about it I was inviting it into my life.

Sometimes, sort of, I think she might be right.  Memory loss truly is one of my great fears.  I have had Alzheimer nightmares pretty much my entire teaching career.  I dream about not being able to read to my kids because I don’t remember what the words mean.  I have bad dreams about not remembering where my room is or that I’m standing in front of kids I don’t recognize.


This is a long lead up to sharing my fear that I’m not as mentally sharp as I used to be.  I occasionally will retell an anecdote to someone I’ve already shared it with (and, sometimes, tell it back to the person who shared it with me in the first place).  I have had loved ones tell me about conversations I can’t remember (sometimes recent ones).  I can’t remember lessons that I’ve taught, sometimes the day before.  I have to look at my lesson plans to see what happened.  I can’t keep names in my head, although to be fair, I’ve never been very good with names.

My dad’s Alzheimers is no doubt pushing my fears.  If nothing else fells me first, Alzheimers seems like a fair genetic bet for me.  So, when does it start?  How would you know?

Mental acuity is of particular interest to me because I write.  As a writer who occasionally manages to sell stuff, my plan has been that when I retire, I will write full time—sort of like summer vacation, but year-round.  However, I’ve always felt that I’m a just barely publishable writer.  The difference between my work selling and being rejected is knife-edge thin.  If my mental sharpness slips even a little, then I’ll never sell again.

Don’t laugh!  I actually think about stuff like this.

If I retire at 60, which seems possible, how many good writing years will I have left?  If I follow my dad’s path, it’s not as many as I would like.  Dad quit volunteering at the high school to help with the math students when he was in his 70s because he said he didn’t feel like he was handling the math as well.  He said he was worried he’d misinform the kids.

And writing hardly seems like it is the most important worry.  Will I recognize when I shouldn’t drive anymore, or turn a stove on?  Is memory and cognitive loss like a fog that the person doesn’t even know they are in?  Will I be conscious of the change?  Am I already losing it?

These are troubling questions. 


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