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I’ve told this story before about the staff at FMHS in 1981.  What a fractious, contrary, opinionated lot they were.  Quick to defend what they believed in.  Full of their ability to make a difference.  Convinced that their position as professionals lent their voices extra weight.  Every policy suggestion was debated.  Changes went before teacher committees.  Teachers heavily influenced the school.  Passionate voices rang out during faculty meetings. 

It was chaotic, messy and glorious.

That’s the way the superintendent of the district and the school board wanted it too.  Individual schools were encouraged to behave autonomously, to come up with solutions that best fit their community’s needs and their teaching strengths.  Experimentation and innovation were supported.  It was through that philosophy that the three traditional high schools in the district each came up with their own bell schedule, from the school that adopted an eight-period day on a traditional 18-week semester with forty-five minute classes; to the one that decided extended class periods would be better, so they ran a four-period day where the classes were ninety minutes long and a semester lasted nine weeks.  FMHS, suffering from overcrowding, had to transition to a full-year schedule.  A teacher committee investigated dozens of schedules (there were some wild ones) for the staff to decide between.  We ended up with a five-period day, seventy-minute long classes, and four 12-week long “mesters.”  Kids and teachers attended three of the four sessions.

When the district built a facility to take our 9th graders and the overflow of 8th graders from the middle schools, we were able to go back to a traditional calendar, but the Fruita teachers liked the 12-week schedule so much that we kept it.

One of the superintendents in those early years always said, “Keep the main thing the main thing.”  The main thing, of course, was the students.

Then things changed.  Many teachers mark the change with No Child Left Behind, but I think it started earlier for us with the new gym.  FMHS was built originally for 600 students.  Over time, our population grew to 1,800.  We could add new classrooms, but the gym was too small, so the district decided that we needed a new one, as did the other schools.  We were told that we could have a lot of input into the design.  You can imagine how excited the P.E. department was about this!  They investigated gyms from all over the country before recommending the one that they thought best fit our needs.  It even would cost less to build than the district had budgeted.

The gym committee worked for almost an entire year to find the design.  It was a ton of time and effort, but at the end, the district decided that all the gyms should be the same so that none of the schools would be “jealous” of the other school’s gym.  We didn’t get the building we wanted. It wasn’t even a design the committee considered.  All the schools were going to get exactly the same gym.

I don’t know if jealousy was really the explanation.  It could have just been a budgeting concern.  The point is, though, that the teachers’ input was disregarded.  Folks who were in the know said that the powers-that-be knew months earlier that they were going to ignore the committee, but they let it continue to work. 

That’s disheartening.

Later, we heard about No Child Left Behind.  I remember the meeting where the teacher who had gone to the presentations about the upcoming changes presented what she’d learned to the staff.  She said, “This is real. It’s not going to go away.”

I don’t think the staff believed her.  Educational fads come and go.  I’d already taught through several of them.  But she wasn’t wrong.  No Child Left Behind came, and it grew more pervasive every year.  Instead of talking about our strengths, our innovations, and our independence, we heard more and more that our school was being run from the outside.  No more committees to decide independently what was best for us and our kids.  Curriculum changed to fit the mandates.  Instruction time that used to be spent on subject-related material shifted into test preparation.  Department meetings were devoted to strategies for keeping our test scores high.

At the same time, the district began a move away from autonomy.  Suddenly what was valued was consistency.  The old idea that each high school could shape itself to best fit its community was shunted aside.  The high schools in the district had to be on the same bell schedule, offer the same classes, and within those classes to be teaching the same things, hitting the same benchmarks on the same schedule.  No discussion.  In fact, the district aggressively named the new standards as "Non-Negotiables."

For someone like me, someone who remembered when our staff fought for everything, it was depressing.  What happened to the staff was best embodied by an administrator who faced questions about why we were giving in so easily to No Child Left Behind by saying, “It is what it is.”

“It is what it is” has a kind of Zen-like simplicity to it, doesn’t it?  At first I thought it sounded wise.  It admitted that discussion at our level didn’t matter.  It told us that teacher’s opinions, the ones that used to shape the school had become irrelevant.  But after a while, the “It is what it is” mantra made me furious because it started to sound more like, “Shut the hell up.”

And that is where I’m going with my final thoughts.  Education in this country has changed.  The change is not the superintendent, the school board, or the building administrator’s fault.  It truly did come from the outside.  Even the principal who always said, “It is what it is,” was right.  It just hurt to hear it.

But I don’t think “It is what it is” should be a teacher’s guiding thought.  What “is” doesn’t have to stay that way.  I think we have to remember that despite the outside forces, the real work in education happens inside the classroom between the teacher and the students.  What “is” is what the teachers make of it. The professional teacher’s opinion of what is best for students does matter, and we should speak our mind.

I’m not going to leave you with the old saw, “Question Authority,” though.  The problem is that we are too far from Authority to question it.  The principal has no freedom to change the mandates, neither does the school board or the superintendent.  Even the state is powerless.  Who can we question (there is an answer to that—go to education advocacy sites on the web if you want to see how)?

What I’ll leave you with is this.  I think our obligation is to not question Authority but to speak truth to it.  Speak truth to Authority.  Always do it.  If you’re classes are too big, tell authority.  If school policies are taking away from your time to teach, your time to prepare, or your time to reflect, speak truth to Authority.  Be a squeaky wheel. Advocate for what you believe is best for kids.  Always do it.

Here’s the problem with a docile faculty.  If everyone lives by the “It is what it is” philosophy, in no time at all Authority will assume that what is going on is fine.  I worked for an administrator like that once who was so powerful, so intimidating, that the administrator scared people into not speaking the truth.  After a while, the administrator would say, “It must be a good policy.  I haven’t heard any objections.”

For the principal of Fruita in 1981, trying to lead must have been like herding cats.  Everyone felt the right to speak truth to authority, often times with contradictory truths.  It was also a faculty that pulled together, that innovated its way to solutions, and that prided itself for its professionalism and independence.

We work in perilous times.  Teachers are assaulted on all sides.  Maybe you like what is happening in education.  Maybe you are a teacher that can roll with the punches, and none of this bothers you.  If that’s the case, teach on.  Do the best you can despite the environment (after all, teachers have been doing this for decades).  If you don’t like something, though, if you think it’s wrong for kids, then talk about it.  Speak truth to Authority.  Don’t put yourself in the position where someone else can say later, “Everything must have been okay.  There were no complaints.”

I know that I always wanted to do what was best for my students.  I also wanted to keep my job, so I tried to voice my opinion respectfully.  I learned to make my thoughts known, and then to back off.  I wasn’t talking to the people who could make a direct change in the conditions.  After I talked to them, though, they could pass that opinion on.  My unrest was not unvoiced.  I did what I could.

As far as my own behavior goes, here is where I ended up.  First, of course, was this speak truth to Authority idea.  The second, and one that gave me comfort when I felt stuck between a rock and a hard place, was this: no teacher ever became great by following all the rules.

Oh, and here’s a P.S.  Wouldn’t it be fantastic if for an entire year of faculty meetings, the principal could announce, “Here’s what we’ve done to make your job easier.  Here’s what is going on to support you in your efforts.  Here’s a list of things we’ve taken off your plate so that you can focus more on your classrooms and your kids”?

Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Good luck FMHS teachers and School District #51.  I know that you are doing the best you can for kids.  I know you care deeply, think deeply, and that you’re impacting our students.


Parents: a Neglected Resource

A couple years ago, a parent of a senior started e-mailing or calling me every week.  She wanted to know if her son had turned in assignments and what the next week’s work was going to be.  I thought that was obsessive behavior for a senior’s mom, but I answered her questions and sent her the material she asked for.  Later, after the class ended, I talked to her about it.  She said that she loved her son, knew he was capable, but he was a terrible procrastinator.  He would be going to college next year, so she felt this was her last chance to be a parent and to help him develop the work habits he would have to have.

There was a sense of desperation in her voice that I totally understood.

On a related note, I have an ongoing argument about ParentVue with a friend of mine who teaches middle school math. He thinks that teachers posting their gradebook online feeds two evils: student irresponsibility and helicopter parenting.  Since I disagree with him, I have a tough time paraphrasing his point of view.  Basically he thinks that by the time a kid gets to middle school that he should be adult enough to take care of his own grades.  My friend believes that the high stake nature of grades creates responsibility since if the kid fails he will pay the penalty.  Paying the penalty is the lesson.  ParentVue makes it harder for kids to fail so an irresponsible kid won’t learn the important lesson by failing.

See, I told you I wouldn’t be able to make his argument well.  It sounds silly to me to even say it.

At the same time, ParentVue encourages too involved parents to become truly intrusive, where they call all the time, question the teacher’s grading policy, and never give their kids a break.

My friend believes that the quicker we treat kids like adults by making them solely responsible for their grades and divorcing them from their parents, the quicker the kids will become adults.

In theory his arguments make sense.  here’s why I think he’s wrong.
One of the best things to happen to me as a teacher was to become a parent of a school-aged child.  Suddenly, in a very concrete way, I understood that every kid in my class was somebody’s baby.  When students sat in my room taking notes or reading their texts or writing essays, I saw like a ghostly presence the image of their parent or parents behind them, hoping, praying, agonizing over their child’s fate.  Even the kids who were doing well—or maybe most particularly the kids who were doing well—had parents who still wanted to be involved in their student’s academic life.

They want to parent. I think I’m shortsighted if I don’t involve them.

My administrator friend who asked me for “easy wins,” the things we can do to make education better that don’t break the bank, will appreciate this: I believe that the most underutilized force to improve high school are the parents.  We made a stride forward with ParentVue by putting the power of the gradebook in parents’ hands.  It’s only a single step, though.

Somebody asked me once what changes I’d seen in education during my career.  There weren’t many, and most of them were negative, but ParentVue was a positive.  A concerned student or parent could query me if the kid’s grades were going south.  One click on an e-mail link, and we were suddenly in a dialogue.  Parent-teacher conferences were no longer “gotcha” moments where a kid’s bad grades ambushed parents whose kids had kept them in the dark.  ParentVue gave parents a chance to be parental.

Here’s the next step I would like to propose.  In high school, there’s a tacit conspiracy of silence toward parents.  ParentVue exists, and an active parent will take advantage of it, but ParentVue is passive and impersonal, providing only grades without explanations.  No nuance.  The silence comes from the teachers.

A weird feature of high school (and I suspect this is true in middle school too) is that most teachers do not communicate directly with parents.  The change I propose is that they should.

The quickest way to change our students’ learning, especially for struggling students, is to involve the parents.  I know that sounds obvious, but how often does it happen?  I’ll bet (a lot!) that most middle school and high school teachers do not initiate even one personal parent contact a week.

If I were an administrator who wanted the quickest way to both improve student achievement and to raise the school’s reputation in the community, I would require that every teacher phone (not e-mail or text) five parents a week every week of the school year.  The calls wouldn’t have to be to the lowest performing students, although why wouldn’t you call the lowest achieving students’ parents?  They could be randomly chosen.  The call might just be the teacher telling the parent about a highlight from the student’s week.

Most parents would appreciate the information and the human contact.  Kids would be held more accountable.  Phone calls could help to initiate an active, coordinated conspiracy of adults working in concert to help the kids.

Five phone calls a week.  It’s not a radical suggestion.  It’s an easy win.


Students: an Evolution in Thinking

​I am completely, totally, and irrevocably tired of the narrative that says kids today are in some way less than the kids of yesteryear.  It’s a false assertion supported only by the tint of nostalgia-infused glasses.  The core kid is not lazier, more disrespectful, or less bright than kids were from when I was in high school in the late 60s and early 70s.

We have always had dropouts, underachievers, confused loners, bullies, rebels, and the apathetic.  Reading for fun has always been considered odd by the majority.  In the same way, there are still overachievers, hard workers, geniuses, and the ambitious, audacious, inventive, clever, honest, humorous and idealistic kids.

I have come to wonder if the adults I talk to who argue the opposite aren’t actually saying that they don’t like kids: that they’re the kids-only version of misogynists.

That’s my starting premise.  And even if I’m wrong, it doesn’t matter to my job as a teacher or my evolution in thinking about students.

Right now, this quarter, I have way more students who rock my world and make me glad to be in front of a classroom than I have students who don’t.  If my classes are typical, I’m optimistic about the future or our country when I’m sitting in a rocker at a nursing home (in about fifty years!).

I’ve always been kid-centered, but my thinking about them has changed through time.  My first year, I started with a tough-love attitude.  Deadlines and discipline were important.  Part of this may have come from my coaching background.  My classes were like my teams.  We set goals.  Everyone had to work hard for the common good, and the expectation was that everyone was equally motivated.

With those attitudes in mind, I met with my students.  Sheesh!  In my first class, right after the starting bell, a sophomore boy called across the room, “Hey, Alice, that sweater looks good on you. It would look better on my bedroom floor.” In my second class, which was just called READING, I asked the kids how many of them liked to read for fun.  I expected all the hands to shoot up.  Two kids out of thirty raised their hand.

That began my evolution in thinking.

My initial breakthrough was that I had to adapt to conditions that I found.  Clearly I couldn’t teach my sophomore class as if they were all equally mature, or that reading class as if they all already loved to read.  I trashed my lesson plans I’d been working on for weeks and went a different direction.  My “adjust to the conditions on the ground” attitude stuck with me for the rest of my career.  That’s why I’ve always been at a loss when a kid tells me that they will be gone in two weeks, and can he have the assignments.  I have to say, “Ask me when we get there.”  I don’t know what the conditions might be in two weeks.  It’s possible that I could have totally new handouts and assignments, ones I’d never done before, two weeks from now.

Most of my handouts, assignments and tests are ones I’ve created myself.  I went digital early.  Not only does each class have hundreds of files, but each concept has numerous variations as I’ve created different approaches.

I may be guilty of many things as a teacher, but being stuck in a rut isn’t one of them.  Even my first year, I was horrified by a long-time teacher who showed me her yellowed lesson plan book.  She said, “These are my lessons from when I started teaching, and I’ve never changed them.”  She spoke with pride.  The teacher who copied all of his handouts and tests for the year before school started equally baffled me, although I had to admit that his boxes full of class sets, organized by subject area and quarter, was impressive.

My second breakthrough came when my oldest boy turned five.  It’s an embarrassingly late breakthrough, since that was 1995, fourteen years after I started teaching.

I had always been annoyed by squirreliness.  This is why I knew I couldn’t teach in the middle school.  It drove me crazy to watch freshmen or sophomores poking each other, grabbing each other’s stuff, squirming around in their seats, talking when other people were talking, etc. I even made handouts defining immature behavior and went over them with classes that were particularly bad.

The problem was that I knew by the time they were seniors, for most of them, squirreliness would disappear.  I could see the seniors in them that hadn’t expressed themselves yet.  When my boy turned five, though, and I had to be patient with his five-year old behavior, I suddenly realized I’d been thinking about the younger students incorrectly.  I shouldn’t be mad because of the seniors they hadn’t become; I should be patient because of the five-year olds they still carried around with them.

It was a revelation!

I learned a ton of other lessons along the way, each with their own stories.  They include the following what should have been obvious conclusions:

• Small-group and one-on-one interactions with students are more powerful than large-group presentations.
• Sometimes large-group presentations are the way to go.
• Don’t make rules because of bad behavior that punishes kids who haven’t behaved badly.
• Don’t point out mistakes without teaching them how to fix them.
• Kids grow at uneven rates.  You might not be the teacher to see the greatest growth with that kid.
• A one-on-one conference with a student who is having problems can solve many of them, and if that doesn’t work, a phone call home can solve many more.
• Classroom culture is the teacher’s responsibility. If the teacher is unhappy with a class, the teacher needs to take responsibility for the problem and fix it (and work on it immediately).
• Give students multiple ways to demonstrate learning.
• Retakes, rewrites and redos should be the norm. It’s not, not, not important that a student demonstrate learning on the first try.  What’s important is that they demonstrate it on the last try.
• These are high school students, not adults. That means that some of them need help learning timeliness and responsibility.  If that’s the lesson they need to learn, teach it.  Their college instructors and employers will thank you later.
• The gradebook is not the only place to teach timeliness and responsibility, and it’s weak teaching if that’s the teacher’s only tool.
• Students respond to genuine enthusiasm.

Where I arrived in my evolution of thinking about students is that they are individuals.  I have to treat them as individuals.  Large class size works against that.  An eight-period day where I only see them for forty-five minutes works against that. Standardized tests that encourage me to think of kids as statistics, and that tell me what to do with this year’s kids based on last year’s results work against that.

I see I’ve gone on for a while about students, as well I should.  The pity about retiring is that my thinking about students has been evolutionary.  I’m still learning.  Now that I’m getting an inkling about kids as learners, I’m moving on.

I know, though, that in high school I’m a better teacher when I see the student as a person.  Teaching is a person to person interaction.  One of my many weaknesses as a teacher is that I’m terrible with names. I think I would have been better if I could have always been able to greet each kid by name by the end of the first week.

I wish that when I see them on the street years later that I still know who they are.

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.

Getting Ideas: Lecture Notes

My presentation at the Rain Forest Writers's Retreat this year was on getting ideas. This is an intimidating subject on a couple of levels because it's really a topic that you might present to beginning writers (the Rain Forest crew had a ton of non-beginners), and because I can't really answer the question.  Nonetheless, here are my lecture notes for the presentation.  When I have too much time to prepare for a presentation, my notes begin to look like an essay.

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/firstlinegenerator.php will give you a first line like, “As the policeman pulled back the sheet, she knew immediately that . . .” or “The victim had tried to write something as he was dying.”
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
j.        Gardening
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
b.      Dreaming
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?


My Science Fiction kids did their own version of WAR OF THE WORLDS, like the Kevin J. Anderson GLOBAL DISPATCHES anthology, as if warotwthey were witnesses to the H.G. Wells Martian invasion happening today. The assignment is a preliminary foray into writing narrative, which is what they will be doing later. So, the paper is short (only 500 words) and what I’m looking for are appeals to the senses and emotional reaction. But some of the kids do so much more! Some ...of them are fun and inventive. I can see the developing story-tellers and wordsmiths.

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.”

Mr. Fitz

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.




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?

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.




Saturn Ring Blues

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