Thursday, December 31, 2009

Literature is Life (and my resolution to write about it)

It’s the New Year—time, perhaps, to speak in clich├ęs. To make resolutions.

Mine this year is to write down—finally—what I have learned from my students.  I think it may be more than they have learned from me.

I teach literature—novels and stories and plays. I also teach writing, where we tell our own stories.  What’s more, I teach talking.  I am pretty quiet in my personal life, but in class, I tell many stories of my own.  Sometimes I think I shouldn’t do this, and yet, I do it because I remember that I learned the most from the professors who told me tales.  Not tall tales, true tales. Informative anecdotes.  

I believe that many of the stories we tell each other are where we truly learn more about not only how to use words to describe what we’ve seen and what we’ve felt, but also where we learn more about life and what it means to be human.

I learned from a college philosophy professor how Alan Watts (I was and still am very impressed with Alan Watts' work) never had money for dental care, and his family’s teeth were, reportedly, a “mess.” What did this teach me?  Well, I suppose it taught me that no matter how successful one may appear (Watts published many books), personal struggle is still very possible (and don’t take your teeth for granted). 

A religion professor told me about his quest to plant every horse chestnut he found.  At one point, he had a college campus full of saplings that were then mowed down by weed-whacking landscapers who obviously didn’t see the importance of his project. The importance was only, apparently, in the joy-making capacity of horse chestnuts. We all love to pick those things up, caress them in our pockets, chuck them across ponds. Plus, the blossoms of these trees smell pretty nice in spring...

In other classes I learned about how spatulas are very useful, sometimes, for cleaning babies’ bottoms (no, I never tried this one). The lesson? That practicality should probably, as in this case, trump the gross-out factor. Sometimes the best ideas just sound too distasteful and so are ignored…

From my students I have learned (I will write more later about this. I think I might write a book) many things: among them, I heard about parents being told their child is about to die (thankfully, she did not);  I have seen the ordeal of chemo through the eyes of  a three-year-old who grew to be 17, who is still growing now; I have learned about dreams of stardom and private lives full of late-night teenaged creative writing. I have seen the strength that comes from living with diabetes. I have witnessed kids trying to be heard in the midst of large, boisterous families; I have felt (vicariously) what it’s like to the poor kid in a rich girls’ school. I have seen the effect of praise from one particular teacher (let’s say it was me. It was me), and how a well-placed sentence can quite literally change a life.

When break is over, school resumes—for my students and for me, the Perpetual Student. As usual, I can’t wait.

Literature is life.  Life is literature (chiasmus—oh joy! No, seriously; I’m a nerd like that).

More stories to come later.

Happy New Year! Let's hope this one is better than the last...and that the wars finally end.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Snow Days

1. My little one told me today that not only are the kids at her school often not even allowed to go outside if there's snow (I think really it's the lunchroom aides and playground refs who don't want to go out), they are specifically told, "Don't touch the snow!" or "Don't you dare go near that snow. Get away from the snow!" and "The snow will burn you."

"How will snow burn me?" she asked. 
"It's the salt in the snow, I guess," I told her. 
"But salt doesn't burn..." 
"It's not really salt. It's chemicals and salt. I think." (Note to self: look that up. I hate not knowing what I am talking about!)

Pollution of the snow not withstanding, I remember the greatest days of elementary school were after it had snowed, when the municipal plows had piled up a mountain of snow at the edge of the playground.  That was so much fun--climbing on the snow, sliding down it, building snow forts.

What a shame that kids aren't even allowed to touch the snow in the school playground now...

2.  My husband used the ridiculously large snowblower he has (given to him by his brother, which was given to brother by his father...these men are obsessed with pricey tool-toys) to unearth the entire neighborhood. Well, almost. He forgot the single mom down the street and had packed away the gigantic snowblower when I realized her driveway was still a mess. I feel bad about that. Next time, she is first on the list, and my guilt-tripping of the snowblowing man did nothing...

But, for the most part, the clearing of snow generated a heap of Goodwill. Other neighbors chipped all the ice off my car. The across the street father-of-a-celebrity gave us an autographed photo of his daughter. Still other neighbors brought cookies.

"Using the snowblower is fun," said husband.  Fun?  Well--if it's fun for him, then everyone's happy, I suppose.

3.  A few days to myself mean I am now thisclose to finishing my final (fourth) revision of my YA novel, PRETTY FREAKY.  Yes, I am nearly done!  Just some cut and paste puzzle pieces to fit together today, plus a review of the end, and a re-printing and re-saving.  Then it's off to the literary agent I sincerely hope remembers me...and please say prayers that I can sell this book.

It's a good book (well, it's not a book yet)--honest!

Part of my slowness--which was due to many things, among them: work craziness, my workaholism when it comes to schoolwork and class prep, plus the massive leg injury I have been recovering from since last year--may be attributed to praise I had. 

That sounds counter-intuitive, but let me explain. 

"You are writing what could very well be an award-winning book," I was told. "So it has to be perfect."

I think I gulped.  

I certainly had no intention of writing a stinky book, a stupid book, or even a mediocre book, but potentially award-winning? It was almost too much pressure.

My heart is pounding right now. But I think that's adrenaline because I am NEARLY DONE!

Let me now wish a very merry Christmas to all--and a relaxing winter break!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Rate of Autism Keeps Rising. Why, Why, Why?

The last time I checked, the rate of autism was a staggering one in 169. That was four years ago. 

When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, I don't recall ever hearing about autism, or knowing anyone who was autistic.  Clearly, the rate of autism back then was much less severe.

Copy and paste to read autism statistics tables:

But today, I read in Science Daily (December 18, 2009 article, "Rate of Autism Disorders Climbs to One Percent Among 8 Year Olds") that the autism rate has inexplicably increased to one in 110. 

This shouldn't surprise me. When I curl up with current issues  of my college alumni magazine, I am nearly always saddened to read about a classmate's struggle to find help for her or his severely autistic child. 

It seems that I know far too many people whose families have been slapped by autism, driven into debt, marriages strained, other children ignored because of the endless need to try to rehabilitate a child with autism. Shockingly, there are also many parents who have multiple children with autism. I can't even imagine how hard that is.

Several of my colleagues now have grown children about my age whose own babies have been diagnosed with autism. A good number of my friends have autistic children, too.

Autism feels like an absolute epidemic, and it frightens me. What is in the water, in the air, in our bodies, that is making this developmental (brain) disorder so pervasive? Is there hope? 

I am glad to see articles in various sources touting newfound "cures" for some diagnosed children, but what will stop the rate of autism from climbing even higher? Will it, like so many other things, have to get worse before it gets better?

I am, let me say now, not trying to argue that an autistic child's life is without worth. I have read Temple Grandin's books, and I was impressed.  I assign Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" to my high school literature classes every year. I also think I know some very smart adults who, while not overtly diagnosed, strike me as being somewhere on the spectrum.  

Perhaps autism has always been with us. Perhaps autism makes the world go 'round. Perhaps we are now just much more conscious of any differences in brain processing.  Maybe it's not really as bad as--some days--I think.  Still, statisticians tell us that the rate of autism is, in fact, increasing.

This is scary.

I think of the tremendous effort it must take to try to do everything one can to help an autistic child. It is a concept that nearly overwhelms me. Children without development disorders are already challenging. How does a parent cope with a child who may not be able to respond, who can't see how to make sense of much of the world?

I understand that autistic children themselves may not realize there is anything "wrong" with their perceptions or thought-processes. And an autistic child can certainly be a productive member of society--perhaps brilliant in unexpected ways that enhance others' lives.  

Still, knowing what is missing from an autistic child's life makes me sad for him or her. Mostly, though, I am sad for parents and grandparents who must often feel helpless in the face of the stony silence or screams or just plain everything-much-harder-than-usual caused by autism.

I am also perturbed by the fact that the causes of autism haven't been pinpointed yet. Mercury in vaccines has been widely discounted by the CDC and certain scientists (though some believe it is the problem, and I can certainly see their point). Diet cures and other health treatments have been both promoted and criticized. Intensive--and, I am sure, very expensive--therapy seems to be the only thing upon which the warring factions will agree.

Maybe this is because going for therapy means one doesn't have time to point fingers at polluters or the possible problem of government-mandated vaccines or widespread viruses. Maybe everyone saves face if we just keep saying, "We don't know what causes autism, and it almost doesn't matter. Let's just work on reversing it with early treatment."

But I wonder: wouldn't we as a nation save much of our healthcare money if we could stop the cause of autism? Aren't we always told that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?

I think we owe it to ourselves and to our children to figure out now what causes autism and fight to make sure that more children aren't afflicted.

I'd really like to stop reading about the rate of autism climbing.  It has climbed far enough.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Reading: It's The Solution to Basically Everything

I think I have two or three students a year who might be described as "readers." By this I mean kids who must have a book, who immerse themselves in stories, who love to talk about literature, who get a rush from reading.

I myself was that way. I still am.

I became a reader largely because I was an only child, and I had to read to entertain myself. I remember being desperate to read and I actually learned on my own. My mother was a reading specialist, but she was deep into the 1970s pedagogy exemplified by phonics workbooks--which I hated and eschewed in favor of the real thing.

I never understood the point of phonics. Why mumble letter sounds if you can actually form a word with letters? Why purse your lips and exhale forcefully over and over again when you can just look at the letters and see their meaning? Let's cut to the chase, I thought then (and still think); workbooks are boring!

No wonder so many students never got into reading--if schools are spending those first formative years making students endlessly repeat, "Buh-buh-buh...bee."

I talked to my mother about her annoying phonics books. "Why did you do that to me?" I asked her. "I hated those books."

She admitted that it took her a while to realize phonics was a waste of time for some kids--including her own. "You just broke the code," she explained. "You didn't need that step. You were way past it."

I wasn't even sure what my mother meant by code-breaking, but it sounds impressive, doesn't it? The only "code" I knew I needed to break was the wonder of books themselves. How could I be a part of that? I just wanted to be in a story, and to know everything I could.

As a kid, I read everything--cereal boxes, medication bottles, joint replacement textbooks, both books of the Bible and all of Grimm's fairy tales. The result? I became a walking fountain of trivia (mostly because I remember what I read; it's just how my brain works). I also became more interested in the world around me.

When I was five, I used to be into Switzerland, reading all about it, from Heidi to cheesemaking to the old tuberculosis sanitariums. Later, I was fascinated by cardiology. I know a little bit about many different things. This is useful, and it allows me to be able to carry on a conversation with anyone about almost anything.

Now studies are showing that students who read widely, who've always like to read, have a distinct advantage on the verbal sections of standardized tests. This has recently been published as "news."

Are you kidding me? Did we need scientific studies to realize this? Shouldn't it just make sense?
I would think it would logically follow that the more you read, the more you know.

When I was in school, I had, typically, about 50 books recommended to read each summer. I read as many as I could. We all did, at my school (Kent Place in Summit, NJ). We were all readers.

I enjoyed reading most of those books, but I didn't realize back then what an advantage it was for me to have reading as such an integral, expected part of my day.

Many kids now haven't had that, and it's hard to suddenly re-adjust (though, thankfully, there are programs such as Reading Olympics, which help).

Students are now coming up to me, frantic. "I'm not much of a reader. Can I catch up?"

Can they? It certainly won't hurt to try.

"Books are your friends," I tell my students. "There's nothing better than reading." I am serious; I urge them to just try it. (Formulating lists of books for reluctant readers feels like a part-time job, sometimes. )

But it's worth it when kids come up to me later, glowing after a particularly satisfying read. "That was really good!" they tell me, slightly breathless. "Can you tell me about another book like that?"

Of course I can, and I will.

I hope more teachers will do the same.

It is, after all, through reading that we also learn how to write. A person who has read widely just naturally absorbs--as if through osmosis--the rules of good writing.

There is no need to ever diagram a sentence (a timeworn practice that seems to turn kids away from words, not towards them) if you're a reader. Readers just know what the proper use of language looks like and how it sounds--at least subvocalized. Reading is also the key to success in virtually every other subject in school.

If we want our kids to be effective communicators and strong writers, that all starts with reading.

What is the last book you read?