I’ve worked with a handful of terrible teachers over the years. Probably the worst was a teacher who when he neared retirement gave up on teaching altogether. This was the time when we ordered films we were going to show for the week from the district media office. They’d come in their big silver cans in canvas bags on Monday. This teacher would go to the delivery room and sort through which films other teachers were using that week that he could show.
Once, he showed FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF for three weeks straight in all of his classes. He was so bad that in his last year, the administration assigned him only study halls. He had a master’s degree and over thirty years in the classroom, so he was one of the highest paid teachers in the building, and he was just supervising study halls.
By that last year, he’d piled up so many unused substitute days that he called in sick on the first teaching day in January, and then called in sick for the rest of the year.
There’s a really long story about how a good system to protect teachers from administrative whims ended up protecting this awful teacher long enough that he could end his teaching career that way.
He wasn’t the only bad teacher I worked with, but I bring him up because he was so rare. I’ve seen so many hard-working, caring teachers over my time that I remember the bad ones vividly. They stand out.
Overall, my experience with teachers highlighted my career, and I so, so underutilized the opportunity I had to learn from the teachers around me.
A Facebook friend, a former administrator, said that he was interesting in hearing my list of things that can improve education without having to move a mountain. He called them “easy wins.”
An easy win for me would have been to spend even more time in other teachers’ classrooms. I know amazing stuff must be going on there, but I was so wrapped up in my own room that I hardly ever observed other teachers teaching. In the same way, I didn’t invite other teachers in to watch me. What I wished I had more of was the kind of thing I get from a writers’ workshop. In a writers’ workshop, a group of peers gets together to review each other’s work. The idea is that we’re too close to our own writing to see what is going on. We need an outside set of ideas to see where we’re not clear, where we misstep, where we flat out miss the boat. In my teaching utopia, teachers would act like a workshop. There would be a lot of observing and a lot of commenting.
Some people criticize writing workshops because they say they can be stifling. A writer might become too aware of the workshop’s tendencies and start bending the writing to avoid criticism and attract praise, and thereby squelch the writer’s voice. I think that’s a legitimate concern, but that’s also a bad workshop.
In a good workshop, the writers are all fans of each other’s work. They want the writers’ stories to succeed on their own terms. They get what the writer is trying to do, and they offer their observations with that goal in mind. That’s a cool workshop. I think that would be a cool teaching atmosphere too. I’ve always liked to coach and to be coached. I wish I’d done more of it with other teachers.
Luckily, I did learn from extraordinary teachers, and what I learned is there are numerous ways to do this job well. Some of the first teachers I worked with blew me away with their competence: Patty Halloway, who could run small groups and make them shine; Linda Cates, the professional’s professional, who not only dressed more businesslike than anyone I knew, but whose lessons were monuments of planning and clarity; Sandra Haulman, whose intelligence, intensity and passion lit classrooms on fire, and a host of others. My list of great, influential teachers is long.
I’m working with some of my favorite teachers now. Thank you, FMHS English Department for being the eccentric, dedicated group you are.
There’s also a small group of teachers I admired because they knew when to quit. Occasionally, what some teachers want to do, what they know to do is right, runs afoul of circumstances. I know several teachers who could not work in the current environment. The constraints of changing curriculum, an emphasis on testing, the vagaries of administration were too much for them. They walked away from teaching because they didn’t feel like they could do the job they expected of themselves.
I didn’t always agree with them, but I think that anyone who cares enough about doing the job right that they quit is the kind of teacher you want to hang onto.
There’s a great scene in a Nick Nolte film called TEACHERS. An inmate of an insane asylum escapes, and through a series of unlikely events, becomes a long-term sub in a social studies class. The thing is, in his insanity, he’s brilliant. He comes to class dressed as historical figures. He makes the kids reenact historical moments. His approach wakes kids up, gets them involved, leaves them talking about what they learned. He was awesome!
Of course, it couldn’t last. The asylum catches up to him. He’s teaching his class about the Battle of the Little Bighorn dressed as George Armstrong Custer. The doctors rush in and grab him. Stunned, the class watches him being lead out. Custer straightens in their grip. He says something like, “Unhand me. Don’t you know who I am?”
We all wait. He’s wearing buckskin, a 7th Calvary jacket, a blond wig. He says, “I’m a teacher.”
God, I love that moment.
I started my career in District 51 in 1981. Arnold Hayes was the principal, and he interviewed me during the summer. Two elements from that forty-five minute meeting stuck in my mind: first, I was interviewing for an English position and to be the boys and girls swim coach. What struck me about that interview was that Arnold only asked me questions about coaching, mostly coaching girls. During the forty-five minutes, he didn't ask a single question about teaching English. After that, I coached the boys team for four years and the girls for six.
The second memory that stuck is that for some reason I got it in my head that he was Irish. All the way through the interview, I called him "Mr. O'Hayes." Bonnie Noble, the secretary, corrected me as I left the office.
Still, he gave me the job. When he called to tell me, he asked which school publication I wanted to teach: newspaper or yearbook. I said, "Mr. Hayes, I have no journalism classes, and I've never been a newspaper or yearbook staff member."
He said, "What's your point?"
I owned a camera, so he said, "Great. You're yearbook." I did the yearbook for five years. Later I took over the newspaper for eleven years.
When I stepped into the English office my first day of school, Steve Congdon looked up from his desk and said, "Where are the donuts?"
"First year teachers are supposed to bring donuts on Mondays. You're off to a bad start, Van Pelt."
It took me a week to figure out he was pulling my leg.
Thirty-four years of my life have been spent in the service of Fruita Monument High, my permanent teaching home. During that time I married twice and divorced once. I became the father of three boys who all graduated from FMHS. I started and nurtured a writing life outside of the school. I lived in five different houses and taught under seven principals. My classrooms are now sprinkled with children of students I once taught. I haven't seen a grandchild yet.
In retirement I will become the full-time writer I dreamed about being at ten when I walked through the science fiction section of our public library and saw that my book (when I wrote it) would be shelved between Jack Vance and A.E. Van Vogt. Pretty good company.
My plan is to post over the next four days what I think I've learned about the most important parts of my teaching life: teachers, students, parents, and authority.
I hope all my teaching friends have a great last week. Once again we've pulled off the impossible trick of handling multiple classes a day, juggling the progress of way too many students, and not only survived but thrived.
Hang in. You're four days from wrapping up 2014-15.
Looks like this wasn't the best year to have a story eligible for a Hugo that was entitled "This Story Will Win a Hugo."
There's been an avalanche of pixels spent on the Hugos and the Sad/Rabid Puppy turmoil. Some of the discussion is about how should we read authors whose personal views or actions seem repugnant? How do we separate the artist from the artist's work?
Also, and more specifically, how do I read works on the Sad/Rabid Puppy slates when I'm opposed to the tactics that created the slates in the first place?
I'd like to think that I just enjoy the art. Art exists on its own. But I know that's not true about myself. I have a tough time watching Mel Gibson, for example, knowing some of the stuff he's done off screen. I certainly can't listen to Bill Cosby the same way as I used to.
But I think the real proof that how I feel about the person affects how I feel about their art is how I read my friends. Brenda Cooper is a good example. I really enjoy Brenda's company as a smart, compassionate and funny human being. So, when I read her work, I hear her voice and I connect the work to the person I know. I'm predisposed to like it. Now, when I say that Brenda tells great stories and is a fine writer, I can say that I evaluate her work without considering the person--and, in my opinion, she is a wonderful author--but you know (and I know) that I'm prejudiced in her favor.
I probably have the same issue evaluating Carrie Vaughn, Daryl Gregory,Daniel Abraham, Kevin J. Anderson, L.E. Modesitt, Connie Willis, Robert J. Sawyer, Eric James Stone, Paolo Bacigalupi, Barb and J.C. Hendee, Patrick Swenson, and several other friends. When I read them, I also hear their voices. My feelings about them as people come into play.
So, it makes sense that people who I don't feel great about are harder for me to read. Sorry. That's just the way it is. I'm human, and my mushy, human sentiments color my judgments. I think that it makes sense, then, that I will read the Sad/Rabid Puppy slate with tilted sentiments.
So, here's the quandary that started this post for me: Kevin J. Anderson, and Kevin's novel, THE DARK BETWEEN THE STARS. I haven't read it yet, but I'm going to. I will read all the fiction nominees before I vote, but I know my initial impulse was to vote NO AWARD for all the Sad/Rabid slate-tainted works. I think there's an obvious difference between previous years where all kinds of people recommended works they liked, like John Scalzi or George R.R. Martin or HOSTS of other people have done. I recommended works I liked too. That's a part of the glorious, noisy democracy that was Hugo voting. What happened with bloc voting the Sad/Rabid puppy slate was clearly not that.
I don't get any of the defenses of the slate based on the overall quality of the work: five John C. Wright stories? Eight Castalia House nominations? The finalist list is warped.
So back to Kevin J. Anderson, a writer who numerous times has written work worthy of Hugo consideration, but like many authors (like most authors!), has never won one. But, and more critically for me, I know Kevin, and he has been one of my invisible mentors for my entire science fiction writing career. He and his wife, Rebecca Moesta, have been unfailingly kind, helpful and generous to me, starting when I first met them at MileHiCon in 1996 or 97, and ever since. Kevin edited one of the most enjoyable anthologies I own, GLOBAL DISPATCHES, and he's consistently produced fiction that I've enjoyed.
So, Kevin is my quandary, and he's why I will not reflexively vote NO AWARD for the Sad/Rabid Puppy nominees. As I said, I'm going to read them because although there's a philosophical statement to be made for voting NO AWARD, and I'm sorely tempted, the finalists are not abstractions. They're writers, some who had no clue of what the slates were going to mean. They're people, and it would be the worst sort of prejudice on my part to treat them as a uniform whole and vote against them because I'm mad at the slates.
Or, I could want them because I've been lucky to have beautiful covers on my books. I mean really, really lucky. Awesome lucky. You can see the current covers here.
And then there is this new one, Pandora's Gun. I want the art in a three-by-four foot frame. Maybe with a craftily placed spotlight on it. It will be available at WorldCon in August.
The image is a wrap-a-round, so it's twice as wide as you see here, with gobs of interesting details.
A reader on my Facebook page commented with "What are the Hugos good for?" to an earlier post of mine, where I reposted a Katherine Cramer article about all the good writers who hadn't won the award.
I think the easy answer is "not much," but the Hugo winners I've talked to have told me that there actually are numerous benefits to winning one, besides the obvious sales bump to the work (albeit a small one in most cases). This bump is pretty much limited to novel Hugos, by the way, since the best a short story writer could hope for would be reprint sales on the winning story, or maybe being able to leverage the short work Hugo into a short story collection. Either way, not much economic benefit for most of the shorter work Hugo winners.
I suspect that Hugo name recognition is a real thing too. It's the ultimate cover letter factoid which wouldn't even need to be mentioned. Not that being a Hugo winner means that the new story is any good.
I have had reported to me career perks to winning a Hugo, like guest of honor possibilities at conventions, the possibility of some paying speaking gigs, and a greater demand for the winner's work (although Hugo winners still have stories rejected too).
To me, though, the real benefit is to the writer's pride or sense of self worth. There's something very, very cool about winning an award. In the case of the Hugo, I think there is a genuine cachet to it. Certainly, if it is true that just being nominated is an honor (and it is), winning one must be a bigger one. A Hugo winner is forever a Hugo winner. The phrase "Hugo winner" will always be attached to the writer. It will be a part of introductions, and it becomes permanent in the biography. It's sort of like getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
To my thinking, the Nebula carries the same weight. Some people disagree with me on this.
For most writers, writing will never pay the bills or financially change their life style. The Hugo is a tangible award that says "for this one year, the WorldCon voters liked your work best." And that's a cool thing.
The award won't make the writer any better. It won't give them a leg up on creativity, and it will quickly gather dust somewhere. But still, it feels wonderful to win. It gives a writer a special pat on the back for the effort. And even though many more writers (and in some cases, different writers), deserved the award and didn't get it, at least some writers did.
And I think that's awesome.
For me, the Hugo is the equivalent of Teacher of the Year. The Teacher of the Year award is part popularity, politics and service. It comes with no money or promotion, but it does pick one teacher to highlight. There were many other teachers that year who also worked hard and were deserving. Hopefully they will get their chance in another year, and it's entirely possible that they will finish their career without the award. They weren't teaching to win it in the first place. The good work is really the best reward. The Teacher of the Year recognition is just a bit of special icing.
For readers, the Hugo award can serve as a guide to reading, but not an infallible one. There have been numerous years where I hoped a different title than the winner would have taken the rocket (how in the world didDaryl Gregory's "Second Person, Present Tense" not win a Hugo?). I don't think a reading fan would go terribly wrong reading the Hugo winners, though, and there have been amazing pieces that have also taken the prize.
From the reading standpoint, the Hugos mostly point me toward authors. It gives me a shortcut to find recommended works. I get the same boost from the various Year's Best collections.
So, all in all, that's what I think a Hugo is worth.
So, because several people asked, here are the notes:
I. No matter what I say today, idea generation is still, basically a mystery. Peter Elbow made a similar point when he tried to explain what learning how to write was like. He said, imagine a world where the people are trying to touch the ground, but for some reason they’ve come to believe that the only way to get to the ground was to reach higher. They’re walking around with their hands in the air, bemoaning the fact that they can’t touch the ground. Some people, though, can touch the ground, they just have a hard time teaching other people to do it, so they try tricks, like telling the people to tie their shoes, and while they’re down there to wave their hands around. This works, but the folks who do it also have a tough time explaining how they did it since the idea that the ground can only be reached by straining upward is intrinsically ingrained in everyone. Getting ideas is like that. People get them all the time, but they don’t have a way to tell anyone else how to do it, and when they get right down to it, they might be able to tell you when and where they got the idea, and what they were doing when they got it, but the actual mechanics of why an idea appeared in their head is still unknown. One moment there was nothing, and the next there was an idea, just like that.
II. Almost all anecdotal evidence on how authors get ideas is interesting but impractical. I work with an English teacher who is also a poet. He talks to his classes about inspiration. One of his favorite stories is that he was hiking one day and he saw a solitary crow on a power line. He said that image stuck with him and became the basis of his favorite poem. Of what use is that story to a student? He could take his whole class out to see a crow on a power line, and not one of them would get an idea.
III.On the other hand, I knew another English teacher who would take his English class out to the canyons to watch him dive off a cliff with a hang glider. They all seemed to find plenty to write about.
IV. Annie Dillard says that her best writing environment is the one that is most unstimulating. She likes a room with no view. What does seem common is that writers often do best in an unfamiliar environment. I’d read that meant that for some men, they write best at home, and for some women, they write best anywhere but home. The call of the house is too loud for some, evidently.
V. I read an interesting book called DAILY RITUALS, by Mason Currey, which was about the working habits of 161 artists, composers, and authors. What I thought was interesting was how many of them incorporated long walks into their day. That was probably the most common behavior between them (followed closely by lots of coffee).
VI.So, what I’m going to talk about will be in many ways the equivalent of trying to get you to touch the ground by misdirection. We won’t be trying to touch the ground: instead we’ll do something else and occasionally run into the ground, more or less by accident.
VII.Freewriting: This is stream of consciousness writing championed by Peter Elbow in WRITING WITHOUT TEACHERS. The idea is that the act of writing will produce ideas faster and more reliably than the act of being paralyzed in front of your keyboard waiting for an idea. Freewriting is timed writing (say 10 minutes). You can write with no prompt, or you can start with your reaction to a quote or thought from someone else. I think it’s productive to look at the summary of a plot on the back of a book, and then use that as my starting point. Freewriting means idea production at the keyboard through active effort. This activity can be used at any time in the writing process, where you may be trying to figure out things about your character’s motivation, or you are wondering what is supposed to happen next. Stop at the stuck point, open your notebook or another document, and do the freewriting.
VIII.Use writing prompts. The web is filled with them. Do a search for “writing prompts.” You can even narrow your search to “science fiction writing prompts,” “fantasy writing prompts,” or “horror writing prompts. Bruce Holland Rogers wrote his brilliant short story, “The Dead Boy at Your Window,” because he was responding to a writing prompt in a workshop, which was, “Begin a story with a lie.” He won both the Pushcart Prize and the Bram Stoker Horror Award for that story.
IX.Writing exercises: a random first line generator, like http://writingexercises.co.uk/firstlineg
X.Co-writing. Sometimes two heads are better than one. It’s an interesting exercise to work on a piece with another writer. Brainstorming and the inevitably different approach your partner takes will produce new thinking.
XI. Without know how ideas come, many people talk about the conditions where ideas seem to come to them. One is while doing any activity that requires them to be awake, but doesn’t require much thought. It needs to be an activity where the mind can wander. This list includes:
a. Long drives
b. Mowing the lawn
c. Washing dishes
d. Jogging, walking or biking
e. Taking a shower
f. Painting the house or a fence
g. Knitting or sewing
h. Proctoring a test
i. Preparing a meal
k. Raking leaves
XII. The other activity where people frequently report getting ideas is where their brain has had a chance to disengage from the busy world.
a. Going to sleep
c. Waking up but staying in that drowsy, free associative state
d. Drinking/drugs (not recommended)
e. Sickness (particularly if they’re bedridden)
XIII.It is possible to actively provoke ideas, or at least put yourself in an idea-rich environment. These are activities that creative writing teachers will use:
a. One of my favorite memories of being in an English class was my junior year when the teacher had told us that our next assignment was going to be a short story. When we came to class the next day, she’d covered the walls with photographs from magazines, and art prints. All four walls were covered. There were hundreds of images. She told us to walk around the room, studying the prints, and then when one “spoke to us,” to write the story that the print suggested. This was basically the same prompt as the the VISUAL JOURNEYS anthology in 2007, where the authors were given a set of science fiction art to choose from to write a story to, or the 2003 anthology, IMAGINATION FULLY DIALATED featuring the artwork of Alan M. Clark that operated on the same principle.
b. So, go to an art museum.
c. Listen to moody music with the lights low.
d. Go on a long, solitary hike, especially in a strange place or at an unusual time (like 3:00 am).
e. Sit on the beach or by a stream (moving water seems to be very inspirational)
f. Watch a fire
XIV. When I assign a short story to my Science Fiction class, I’m dealing with an audience who didn’t necessarily sign up for writing a story. It is a lit class, after all. So when I give them the assignment, bunches of them are at a loss for coming up with an idea. To help them, I give them the “What If” sheet. Show them the What If sheet.
XV. Ideas do not come full blown. They develop as the story is written
XVI. Where to you get ideas? How would you answer the question from a sincere, beginning writer who would really like some help?
So, to debrief the assignment, I took what I thought were the best sentences from each of the essays and put them on a PowerPoint. This is great to do in a class. Students respond very strongly to seeing their own work published (I try to use their writing in class as much as possible).
One of my favorite opening sentences was from a student who told the story as if she was dealing with survivor’s guilt. Her sentence was “I don’t rightly know how I got here. I’m not sure, after all, that I really belong in this aftermath.”
Isn’t that beautiful?
Here’s a couple of others:
• “I decided to hide. I found a path to the sewer systems below my town. Surprisingly, It didn’t smell badly as the bacteria died from the radioactivity and stopped producing gasses and breaking down materials. The rats were dead as well – small animals and small organisms alike. I trudged through the sewer waiting for hope, waiting for something to allow me to continue with life.”
• “This attack almost seemed like a holy cleansing; it almost seemed like god himself was trying to destroy the earth and end all of mankind.”
My second favorite passage was from a student who thought of the practical results of surviving a Martian invasion. How would life go on? I’m afraid that I agree with her. This probably is what would happen:
• “As you can tell, living through a Martian invasion is very impactful, and instead of lockdowns at our school, we now have Martian invasion bunkers and drills every two weeks.”