Thursday, April 2, 2015

"Salinger," the documentary. Many unasked and unanswered questions.

Salinger (2013) Poster

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Wide Reading + Frequent Writing= Literacy for Life

Worth a watch--Nancie Atwell wins $1 million for her teaching, and gives it right back to her school.

I try to do the same thing as Atwell does: let my students choose their reading (when school allows me to), and I also encourage frequent writing in the genres that appeal most to my students.

If we get it right, our kids can achieve amazing things, great quantities of work (reading, writing) even without official "assignments."

We should all be reading at least 50 books a year; we should all have impressive writing portfolios by year's end. Not because we have to, but rather, because we want to.

Some day, I hope to have my own school, as Ms. Atwell does. In the meantime, congratulations, and thank you, Ms. Atwell, for your good work!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Are Teachers Bosses, or Should Teachers Be Leaders?

The longer I teach, the more I realize and the easier it is to recognize how good teaching is not authoritative, but rather, collaborative. 

And I don't only mean that teachers should collaborate with each other (although I do believe that). I mean that teachers and students should collaborate. 

We, as teachers, should model how we can all help each other to develop ideas.

Furthermore, even though a teacher does need to control a classroom, I personally believe we "control" through mutual respect--and not through fear. 

I will never be compared to a dictator, and that's a good thing!

Just as the business meeting graphic above illustrates, I think teachers should be mostly operate from the right-hand side, the "Leader" side.

My classroom is a circular one; I conduct discussion groups, workshops, Socratic (though more informal than that) seminars.

It's the best way to learn, I think. It's how I learned in college. It's how, ideally, we should run life: a meeting of the minds, full of positive modeling, brainstorming, bouncing ideas off one another.

(I actually dislike work meetings, however. That's probably how students tend to feel most of the time--as if they are attending seven hours of boring meetings every day, 180 days a year).

The circular, informal, come-learn-at-my-kitchen-counter approach works for me because I am lucky to teach small classes. My students generally want to be there. I also adore working with teenagers because they are so funny, so honest, so refreshing--and yes, all of that helps me teach the way that I want to.

Still, I think we can all develop our teaching skills afresh at any time. 

It is never to late to change the way we do things. 

There is always hope; there is always a way back to re-discovering teaching and learning as the utopia it was meant to be.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The End-Game: It's Not What We Think It Is

Ennui and dissatisfaction have long been part of the human experience--perhaps more so now than ever. 

More people are depressed. More people don't know "why [they're] here."

The existential angst only becomes worse when people have been groomed their whole lives to "get into a good college" or  to "get a good job" and then, they can't do either (given the unbelievable competition for college spots and the insanely high tuition rates, or the dearth of jobs available after graduation--even the lack of decent-paying jobs). 

Or, they manage to accomplish one or the other, but still, nothing feels satisfying, because they never bothered to figure out who they are, what they want to do, and how they can best contribute to human progress.

So why are we so depressed? Probably because we expect to be happy. We're constantly told that the point of life is happiness…but is it really? Is that why we're alive? 

It would be nice to think so, but happiness is a vague term, and those who seem like they should be happy (the well-off, the safe people with comfortable lives) are often the least happy of all.

[Social media, of course, makes it worse, as everyone puts on the happiest face they can, most of the time, and we start to wonder why we aren't as seemingly happy.]

The bottom line is that we are competing rather than co-operating, and that drives us for a while, often into college or half-way through it, until we collapse in a heap, feeling empty and wondering about the point of all the effort, all the competition.

Many of us push our kids to succeed, but never explain what "success" really means. It's like being told to "sit here and wait for the present," but you never get a present; you're just waiting (for what, you don't know).

As a teacher, I see so many kids who are driven to be the best, driven to study for a certain career (one that means nothing, personally, to them, but one that looks good, like the traditional doctor or lawyer jobs). 

What I'd like to see are people enjoying school and learning for the sake of learning. We should read books not to know what color tie Jim was wearing in chapter three, but rather, to know what the novel taught us about life, about human experience.

I don't believe much in either grades or homework, which probably makes me an idealist (and I went to Sarah Lawrence).  Punishment, to me, is usually misguided and stupid, and counter-productive.

Does that make me a rebel, or someone who understands there is a better way?

I was compelled to write this after reading a very interesting essay about these larger goals, the point of all the pressure we put on our kids.

We need to ask ourselves if we as parents, or we as teachers and school administrators, are teaching the right lessons and asking the right questions.

If we truly want to help our kids, we need to help them to feel engaged, capable, and worthwhile. It's not all about the labels we wear; it's about how we feel in our skin.

The best goals to have, it seems to me, are the ones we can't actually teach but can only urge people to experience for themselves: confidence in our ability to manage life; helping others; developing meaningful relationships; doing good, inspiring work that doesn't feel like work, but is instead a joy. Learning constantly. Reading. Engaging with the world.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Bad Writing Advice Debunked

As a teacher of writing, I spend much of my time trying to undo the tightly-knotted, deeply ingrained, and wholly incorrect writing advice my students have gotten in years past.

Now, I am not accusing other teachers (particularly teachers of younger students) of being bad at teaching writing; I'm really not.

What I am saying is that there are some old rules that were never correct in the first place and should be buried now. These rules don't help kids write, and they certainly don't help me help kids write...because I have to waste so much breath debunking the myths.

First up?  You CAN start a sentence with "And" or "But" or "So" or "Yet." Start a sentence however you want! Anyone who tells you can't do that is wrong. And you can tell your teacher I said so.

There are no grammatical rules anywhere that prohibit this practice.

Similarly, a sentence fragment may be wholly intentional--and effective. I frequently tell my students to vary their syntax (write long, complex sentences followed by fragments) because it grabs attention. Professional writers are allowed to use sentence fragments, and so are you!

Next? Begin that essay with a question (as long as you answer it in the next line; not to answer the question is begging the question, and that's annoying).

I constantly tell my students that posing a question and then answering it is a easy way to begin a timed essay. Inevitably, I hear that some teachers said students were never allowed to do that.

"You are allowed; many great writers start essays with questions," I counter. So just do it if it works.

What about passive voice? That's typically a huge no-no (and even spellcheck/grammar check looks for it):

'We now know that telling writers to avoid the passive is bad advice. Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader’s attention and memory. A skilled writer should know what those functions are and push back against copy editors who, under the influence of grammatically na├»ve style guides, blue-pencil every passive construction they spot into an active one.'--Steven Pinker, Harvard psycholinguist from his book, (on right).

I will add that I have even seen entire schools banning use of linking verbs in an effort to eradicate any vestige of passivity. This is completely misguided--so much so that I can hardly deal.

"Is" and "was" are sometimes essential verbs; banning them does not create spectacularly clear and strong writing. No, it only makes for some crazy-awkward sentences that I then have to fix. Don't ban linking verbs. 

Don't ban anything. Writing is about communication; it is about sharing ideas. Teachers should help students enjoy writing, and writing should feel natural.

Too many rules make writing a nightmare.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Gloating and Boasting About Getting a Teacher Fired

Yet another horrific story emerged today about a peanut gallery call for a teacher's firing (the teacher already resigned because it's not worth it to put up with this unjust persecution). 

This teacher got into trouble for, well, nothing.

In a creative writing class where the assignment (quite a common one: I have seen it in many places) was to rewrite a classic fairy tale or legend and give it a new, timely twist, one student took the story of Jesus feeding the poor with loaves and fishes and changed the groceries to medical marijuana.

That was the teacher's fault how…? And it's reprehensible because…?

Every creative writing teacher knows not to censor writing (unless the content and the words appear to  indicate insanity in some way). This teacher did not censor. Good for her.

But then another student (was the teacher baited? You have to wonder; baiting "liberal" teachers is a thing some sociopathic people do) then took it upon herself to report this "incident" and call for the teacher's firing.

How special!

"Katrina Guarascio said the student who complained about a classmate's pot-dealing Jesus [story] 'actually boasted to her classmates about how she was 'going to get her teacher fired.'"--from Ben Hooper's article, "Teacher Resigns After Student Writes About Jesus, Drugs," UPI

Sadly, I have read so many stories like this--among them: a teacher who was fired because he or she took students to an art museum where, horror of horrors, they saw naked statues! 

Someone, ONE person, complained about these innocent teachers…and there you go. Terminated.
(Mind you, that's not supposed to happen. It only happens when school administrators do the wrong thing.)

In my decade-plus of teaching, I have listened to many people tell me, with delightful tones of reminiscence, how in the past they "got a teacher fired." This, I find horrific--and strange: people I found perfectly nice still had this vein of entitlement or righteous indignation or…something.

Why, I have to wonder, are we not teaching our children it is wrong to do this? Why do we model incivility for our kids when we gun for someone to lose her job?

I think it's wrong to even speak the words, "I'm going to get her fired," let alone actually do it!

My heart breaks for hardworking, dedicated teachers who do not deserve to lose their jobs. 

How can anyone, in good conscience, seek to drive another person (a good person, with good intentions, mind you) into unemployment? It's inconceivable.

Quite a while ago, I decided that I will speak out for my fellow teachers (especially those who have gotten in trouble for ridiculous things) in the ways that I can. My hope is to effect change, to stop the madness, to protect teachers from this absurdity. I hope others will join me.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Standing by the "Depressing" (but Real) College Essay

I am in the throes of College Application Essay madness right now (I help dozens of students each year find an essay subject that is both unusual and intelligent, and I give them writing style and craft tips to make their essay memorable), and as always, I learn as much from the process as my students do.

Once a year, maybe twice, there is a Fabulous College Candidate I am asked to help. You know the type: perfect grades, prodigious talent, etc., etc.

The job, should I choose to accept it, is to “get this perfect candidate into Harvard.”

Well. I can’t get anyone into Harvard; students get themselves into Harvard. But I can steer these candidates in the right direction. I can offer tweaks and suggestions, particularly on the essay, and be the student’s advocate.

UPDATE, 12/2014:  Two more students of mine got into Harvard!

The other year, I had to fight tooth and nail to protect a student’s college essay. This essay was amazing (trust me as I tell but don't show). The student had worked for months on it. Without giving too much away, I will say that the essay was about visiting the middle East, and playing cricket on a front lawn with family while suicide bombs went off. Vividly written; lots of description; serious, mature themes.

“Too dark! Depressing!” someone said about this essay (then it was suggested that the student write a nice, safe essay about volleyball, instead).

No way in hell; I stand by this essay. It’s real, and it’s unlike anything else, I countered. The arguing went on for weeks; I told my student to ignore it. Wisely, she did.

The student used her "depressing" essay and got into Harvard. Early admission.

Because virtually every Harvard student has the same credentials (perfect grades, perfect or near-perfect SATs, top ranking, class valedictorian, and so on), sometimes it does come down to the essay. The decision to admit or reject can hinge on the seemingly smallest detail—and often, it has to do with what the admissions committee can see is different about a candidate. What life experience does the candidate have that will add to the campus community?

Remember, I often tell my students, it’s not about what Harvard (or any college) can do for you; it’s really about what you can do for Harvard. How will you make Harvard proud? Show me. Show them.