Friday, December 31, 2010

Everything You Thought About Success? You Thought Wrong.

I am loving Brene Brown (social worker, researcher, writer) and her TEDxHouston talk on vulnerability as being the key to leading a truly successful life.

Brown discusses what courage really means (whole-heartedness), and how people who are genuinely good at connecting with others (that's what life is all about, after all) are the ones who consciously choose to make themselves vulnerable and open. 

I urge everyone to watch this 20-minute talk. It's sweet; it's funny; it could change your life.

As I watched this, I thought how everything I tend NOT to like about myself has just been my unwillingness NOT to be other than I am. I let myself be vulnerable; I always have. I do this in part by sharing stories. Also, I speak the truth of the world because I must...even though I know (better than most) that it can make me vulnerable.

I was stunned the other day to find one of my kids saying, in jest, "I will sue you until you're dead and I will laugh! Mwahahaha!"

That's exactly what someone said to me this past March. 

First, I considered the need for family therapy as a result of the abuse I suffered (and thought I had kept from my kids); I already know I'm going to need it for myself for possibly decades.

Then I remembered that all I can do is remind my kids, "People should never say things like that to each other. Never."

I teach compassion to my children; I always have. Compassion starts at home. Compassion starts with each of us, in our hearts. We share compassion by listening to each other's stories and really hearing them. It is not compassionate to demand that someone be fired (and hope they die) because they do not agree with your politics.

Anyway--namaste. Be well. Happy 2011. Be more vulnerable this year and see what it brings you. I hope it only brings you good things and love.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Tragic Memoir: Ultimately Hopeful, Definitely Useful

Lately, I've been in contact with some wonderful writers who have been through terrible, tragic experiences. I very much admired their courage in telling their stories, as I told them, and I think they did public services, truly, by writing about their personal pain. These writers are also kind, giving, honest people, as I could tell from our correspondences, and I admire them for that, too.

Elizabeth McCracken wrote An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination about her son, Pudding, who was, heartbreakingly, still born a few years ago-see book shot on left; and Shirley Enebrad wrote Over the Rainbow Bridge about her son, Cory, who died at age nine from leukemia, but who left her with a lifetime's worth of lessons about love, metaphysics and mysticism--see book shot on right (the photo is smaller for some reason, but I can't change that).

When we've been through something that turns our life upside down, what is the best course of action? Is it forgetting about it, not talking about it, 'moving on?'

That's one school of thought. But honestly, sometimes the hardest thing to do is to re-live the experience by writing about it. To write about tragedy is probably the toughest road, but it is also, I think, the most worthwhile to travel.

Why? Because we can learn from each other's stories. If we do not share those stories, then we will never realize our profound connections with other people we don't even know. Those people will never realize, in turn, that they are not alone in their pain.  We will all just fade away, lonely and misunderstood.

Writing my own memoir about teaching and the hell I endured last year (most unjustly; I was nothing if not misunderstood in my quest to really challenge and hone thinking skills and open minds and help my students become bright, productive citizens of the world) has been very hard.  I did it because I know my words will eventually make a difference to other people, other teachers.  I did it not for me (because truly, I would rather not think about this most of the time) but for the world.

This past year, I have read so many disgusting, horrible, cruel and nasty comments that were written about me by, I assume, people who don't want students to have to think, who would rather they spout the bullet points they've been fed. Total strangers have speculated about me, calling me "immature" and much worse. People I don't know have told me, via comments, to "STFU!" I even saw a newspaper columnist write a sickening column about memoir writers who should "keep it in a diary."

Some people are very threatened by the truth, I guess. Some people don't want to see anyone else rise above their pain and share their stories. Why this is, I cannot imagine.

I am only glad that there exist brave souls who have put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and written down all the painful details, words that made them, I am sure, cry all over again, and even made readers cry, too.

It is not such a bad thing to cry. To cry can be cleansing. To cry means we feel and we are alive. 

We write because, mostly, we must. We also write as a service. If you get that, you are more highly evolved than some others who would prefer that you suffer in silence and "shut up."

Thanks, Elizabeth and Shirley and every other memoir writer I have loved. I hope to soon join your ranks as a writer with a painful personal (but important, if not nearly as tragic) story to share. 

Still, this is not about me; this is about writing about the pain we've all endured. Only by writing about it can we finally get past it--even if the fact that we've written our stories means people keep asking us about them, or, in turn, stop to tell us their stories, too.

Writers are inevitably teachers, but they are also students of the world--and everyone who retells her or his story is trying to share an important lesson.

I am listening for the lesson. Are you?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

All I Know is That I Know Nothing: Self-Directed Learning

"Inspiring people to become self-motivated and life-long learners is what I'm all about..."

Do you see that line at the end of my profile (on the lower right-hand side of this page)? I wrote that ages ago, but I meant it then, and I mean it now.

The other day, I was expounding on how impressed I am by D.R. Haney, author of SUBVERSIA and BANNED FOR LIFE, because he is an autodidact (see this blog from Dec 13, 2010). 

I remembered, too, how when I was a fresher in college (note the P.C. lingo--I am not a man, as in "freshMAN"), my Don (adviser) told me she loved that I always wrote down what she was saying to me.

For example: she mentioned Plato's Phaedo, and I wrote that down and I read it, and then, the next time we met, I discussed the work with her. I always did things like that.

That's self-motivated learning. It just came naturally to me, and I never gave it any particular thought before my Don noted how much she liked it and how unusual it was, but this trait, this desire to read and grow, is what I most admire in other people and students, and it's what I most want to inspire, if I can.

I saw a fabulous example of a reader/writer/blogger who exemplifies this when I was reading this morning. This is Bookslut's Jessa Crispin in a piece she recently posted for PBS' Need to Know, and which I found via Twitter.

Note how Crispin writes about one book inevitably leading to another, to one reference leading her to discover new works, new art, and new ideas.  This is precisely what I want students to do, and it's what all educated, thoughtful people should be doing all the time.

Wide reading, constantly striving to learn and know what we are talking about is essential to being a person who contributes to culture, I think--and to being one who may also motivate others. 

One of my favorite films, and one I saw when I was just a kid, 12 years old (my mother took me to see this), is Educating Rita, and it is about a character--an uneducated hair stylist in a bleak, British, pub saturated city--who desperately wants to be and know more. 

Filmed at Trinity College Dublin (which I later attended, strangely enough), this is an amusing, witty, important film about a burned-out literature professor who is brought back to life and purpose by an unconventional adult student who has a deep desire to learn and better herself.

I hope some of these words and ideas inspire someone else to read and do more.

What better time to read than a holiday? The holidays are coming; I hope everyone has enough books to read (I suggest E.M. Forster's Howards End, which Julie Walters' character describes as "crap," but it's definitely not) and films to view, such as Educating Rita.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Is There Anything Better Than a Fresh Book?

Fresh is brand new, shiny, clean, and enticing. Fresh is something you haven't had before. Fresh is, well, refreshing.

If you're looking for a fresh new read, may I suggest SUBVERSIA by D.R. Haney? This innovative essay collection is fresh off the presses as the very first (see, I told you it was fresh!) book published by the TNB imprint.

I love all things TNB (that's The Nervous Breakdown, a very interesting literary web site to which I occasionally post essays--see, and I love the work of D.R. (Duke) Haney, a fascinating writer who is very popular (far more so than I) as an essayist on TNB.

See here for book trailer:

See here to order:

To be honest, SUBVERSIA (conveniently, also his Twitter handle) is Mr. Haney's second book; for the first, see the excellent novel BANNED FOR LIFE, published by And/Or Press. 

Duke still needs a publicity push--who doesn't?--and he truly deserves to be read and appreciated. I hope that if anyone out there is looking to encourage an older teenager, a young adult, or a middle-aged adult to read something grabby, off-center and totally new, you will check out SUBVERSIA and BANNED FOR LIFE and order these books (I am especially pushing SUBVERSIA right now because of its newness and because--as a writer who is primarily an essayist, although I also write fiction--I love the content and I know how good Duke's essays are).

Most writers, even published writers, are struggling, and all artists need our support. Let's make this a merry Christmas for writers and get out there and buy some books, dammit!

One of the things that I think is coolest about D.R. Haney is that he is, as he once told me, an "autodidact." That means he is self-taught. He taught himself--and very impressively, too--all about literature and writing, among other subjects.

You see, he is in L.A. and was working hard in showbiz as an actor, screenwriter, etc. He read all the time; he studied all sorts of subjects, and I daresay he is far more educated than many of the people I know who've graduated from college and grad school. Duke is a wonderful personal example of someone who is self-motivated to always learn and grow, and I love that.

I want to spread the word now about his wonderful writing. When something is really good, it has to be shared. When a writer is very promising and already accomplished, he or she must be duly rewarded.

Remember: if you're looking for a great read for yourself or a friend or family member, order the brand-spanking-new SUBVERSIA and don't forget BANNED FOR LIFE, either (it's a read that will suck you in and not let you go for two days).

Highly recommended (and I don't say that lightly).

Happy reading and happy holidays,


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Confidence and Marshmallows

I have a huge, fluffy dog who has decided that his mission in life is to be next to me at all times. Wherever I walk, his head is glued to my hip (that's how tall he is). If I leave the room--even if he was just, a split second ago, sleeping soundly--he will follow. If I close the bathroom door, he lies down in wait just outside, never moving, even when the door opens and I try to push him gently away so that I can get out.

I have another dog, too, but she does her own thing (which is mainly sleeping). 

My big dog has long, wavy reddish hair (which is lovely), and the floppiest ears you ever saw. These ears are constantly getting infected (which is disgusting). I try to clean his ears at least once a week, but my dog, at those times, actually does leave my side and tries to get away. 

I don't want to hurt him, so despite the fact that I have to clean his ears, I usually just let him go.

But he needs them cleaned--and so today, I took him to the vet. The vet techs cleaned his ears so thoroughly I had to wince. My dog just stood there and took it, and I wondered how they could clean his ears, but I couldn't.

"Confidence," the vet said. "See Katie, our tech here? She just has this confidence. She sits right down and doesn't even consider for a second that the dog isn't going to let her do her job. You must be exhaling worry or something--and the dog can literally smell it. That makes him nervous, and so he bolts, even though you're trying to help him."

So I learned that today. I also learned that it helps to have marshmallows--the big, fluffy kind for my big, fluffy dog. I am not making this up about the marshmallows--and despite the wholistic, organic diet I feed my dog, the VET suggested the marshmallows.

"But he only gets a marshmallow after you clean his ears. Pretty soon, that guy will be carrying the bottle of ear medicine over to you, just so he can get a marshmallow," the vet said. I smiled, but I thought this was a slightly over-confident statement.


One thing I haven't been feeling all that confident about lately is my ability to make satisfying sense of the WikiLeaks stories.  At first, I just thought WikiLeaks was not a very catchy or cool name for a "news" source. Then, I wondered what Julian Assange's deal was. Then, I started to think, hmm. This is an interesting case. That Julian Assange is an interesting guy, making us all wonder what, exactly, he is up to. Is he just an incredibly smart, bored guy who wants to see what he can unearth? What is his true agenda?

Should I believe Assange's Op-Ed in The Australian, wherein he explains that he is performing a public service, especially as regards the wars? (Wars I hate; I hate those pointless wars; I hold nothing against members of our military, but I think it's awful that Americans and countless civilians have died so needlessly...and for what? What have we accomplished? I believe we were lied to, all of us, and that is not acceptable. The purported reasons for the wars were fabricated; war profiteers such as Halliburton have benefited, but who else has? Think about that).

Assange wrote that Americans deserve to know the truth; if we had known the whole truth in the case of the wars Bush got us into, the wars would not have been "sold" so easily to us. (And, as I note, maybe now we wouldn't be in such a financial hole, and stuck in a hopeless quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

I can get on Assange's side about that. Many others are doing the same, I noticed. It is, right now, pretty cool to back Assange. The only people who aren't backing him, it seems, are the ones who were embarrassed that he had them pegged, through his cables (and yet, even Hillary Clinton made a great joke about WikiLeaks, and I truly admire her for that; it's not as if, however, I ever thought for a second that back-room deals weren't being made, that diplomacy wasn't incredibly complicated. Nothing surprises me here. Nothing. What did Assange do wrong?).

Some have come out swinging against The New York Times, instead, for daring to disseminate the leaks, albeit in a digested, translated, well explained form.  I believe Joe Lieberman (Lieberman! Don't get me started) termed this possible "treason."

As much as I believe Al Gore would have been a very good president, I am glad we didn't have to deal with Lieberman...I feel as though he always tries to butter his bread on both sides, and that is so slimy. That's just ridiculous. Pick a side, Joe. Whose team are you on?

I hold nothing against the Gray Lady, either. I respect the Times. But hey: I consider myself a New Yorker, so there's that. You'll never get me to say anything bad about the Times, probably, or New York, which is definitely, without a doubt, the greatest city on earth.

We DO deserve to know the truth. I have been against secrets and lies (as Assange says he is) for decades, at this point (again, don't get me started--though I take exception to Assange quoting Rupert Murdoch about truth prevailing. That's a huge laugh. This from the man who inflicted Faux News and the new and increasingly repugnant WSJ upon the world). I will continue to think, however, that secrets and lies are poisonous, in all circumstances. 

If people know the truth, then they won't allow themselves to get fooled again. Knowledge is power. Knowledge helps us protect ourselves.

Good luck, Mr. Assange. I read somewhere that you seem paranoid, but I take that with a helping of salt. Usually, the paranoid have a reason to be paranoid. Everyone who has something worth sharing, something valuable, is usually paranoid at some point. It just means you're alert, and you're thinking ahead--good lessons in every respect.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Next Big Thing

I just spent many months writing like crazy--a blizzard of writing. I am pleased to report that my teaching memoir, tentatively titled TOO COOL FOR SCHOOL (that's tongue-in-cheek, believe me), is done.

Well, it's as done as I can make it right now (an editor may have other ideas), and in it, I have written hundreds of pages about my life as a teacher, and my experiences as a perpetual student. I also wrote many chapters full of helpful ideas for other teachers, and I charted the progression (up and down) of my fabled teaching career.

I can't tell you how it ends, really, but it's not what you might be thinking.

It's a very good memoir (sorry if that sounds egotistical). I spent years working in publishing, and I have read SO many memoirs both then and when I was in graduate school. I know this is a good one--at least, better than Keith Richards', which I leafed through last night in Borders!

TOO COOL FOR SCHOOL is funny, which you knew it would be, right? It's also frightening, infuriatingly sad, timely, unusual in its contemporary format, and--I think--ultimately motivational.

There are several parts to this potential book, and it includes something for everyone, really--my past students, fellow teachers, aspiring teachers, activists, and educational reformers (or just plain voyeurs).

Now that the words are out, I am--understandably, I hope--somewhat tired of the subject.

I can hardly bear, right at this moment, to think about teaching issues (and I may drop out of the educational side of Twitter; it pains me sometimes to read the ed reform Tweets; it really does). At the least, I need a break for a little while.

I tried my best to change education, to make school more interesting, fun, and relevant. I hope it happened, somewhat, on my watch.

I think I can mostly feel good about teaching, even if my brain is now elsewhere--on to issues of health and wellness, mostly--other ways in which I hope to help people.

I am passing the torch (someone please take it...unless you think it's cursed or something; I think it's probably clean). Ms. Collins has left the school building...

I pray that some really sharp new teachers take over now and keep moving all schools in the right direction, away from these annoying standardized tests and numbers-based assessments, and toward deepening creativity, inspiring (not boring) students, and truly preparing them for life in an ever-shrinking world. 

I hope that school becomes what students really, truly need it to be: motivating, fluid, able to serve everyone as individuals. Education needs to be more customized, not less, as I fear has been happening.

Teachers need to once again be free to honestly teach what they know. Those who have never taught need, most of all, to stop sticking their fingers into education and contaminating the soup...

My best to all teachers. I wish you boundless energy, strength, and curiosity. Life seems to be getting harder for teachers because of bureaucratic meddling and other issues, but perhaps that may soon change. 

I've done what I could to spur that change. The rest is up to you. At the risk of sounding preachy or prescriptive, I'll just add what I know is important: Don't let people come after you or other teachers; don't be afraid to stand up for your principles, and just keep moving forward, and keep working hard (as I know you all do), no matter what.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

We Are All Made of Stardust...Memories of Myrtle

Call it New Agey nonsense (or don't), but literally and poetically, we can, all of us, claim to be composed of the same elements as star dust. 

A few years ago, I told one of my classes to use an idea like that for a college application essay. Consider a prompt such as this, I said: If we are all made of star dust, then what, exactly, does that mean to you? Free write on the topic.

That's what I'm doing here...

For more general info on the famous "star dust question," see here:

"Star Dust," was, apparently, my grandmother Myrtle's favorite song.  There are many versions by a slew of different musicians and singers, and I don't know which is the best, but I do know that Myrtle couldn't get enough of this meta love song. I love that her favorite song was about a song...that's so brilliantly layered and complex and thoughtful. Here's a great cover of "Star Dust," with an informative little Power Point playing at the same time:

Myrtle died a week ago, at age 95, and I was just in Florida for her funeral. 

After the Mass and her burial, the family was at my aunt's house, and my mother handed me a card that had been given to her by the nursing home/hospice where Myrtle had last lived and where she had died.

The home is called The Haven, and seriously, it's a lovely, loving, joyous place. My grandmother probably spent some of the best years of her life there. Every day was a celebration with crowds of friends. My grandmother won a beauty pageant at The Haven (no joke), and was the most photographed resident, I'm sure. She was always in the newspaper, beaming as she trimmed a Christmas tree or laughing, thrilled, as she participated in a square dance.

The card my mother showed me was written by the pianist who visited The Haven every Wednesday to entertain the residents. Myrtle loved Wednesdays; they were her favorite days. She always requested "Stahdust," the pianist wrote, and the musician always played this song for her favorite customer, Myrtle.

I so appreciated that this woman--whose name escapes me--took the time to write a note about her memories of Myrtle. It's wonderful to learn how a relative you've lost touch with--due to distance, age, time, and the vagaries of late-onset memory loss--has also touched others, and to learn more about her from an anecdote that a stranger remembers.

My grandmother Myrtle was the sweetest woman. She was always smiling and laughing--especially at The Haven where she reportedly had a "fella" who loved her back.

There were a pile of photos of Myrtle that The Haven assembled for the family, and among them was one that really touched me, and I regret not taking it (I felt that maybe my aunt or my mother deserved it more, and I hope one of them has it). In this shot, Myrtle is standing on a dance floor, clad in skinny black pants, a plaid blouse, and the cutest pair of navy blue boating sneakers I've ever seen. She is open mouthed with delight and clutching the arms of a young woman who is helping her to dance. They both have on cowboy hats for, I assume, some Western-themed celebration. 

I love the joy on Myrtle's face in this photo. It is reflected, too, in the smile of the woman who is leading her on the dance floor. What I saw in this picture is that feeling of exhilaration you get when you do something that is so much fun and that you didn't even realize you could manage--like a flip on a trapeze or getting up on waterskis. Myrtle was usually in a wheelchair at The Haven, so standing up and dancing must have felt like flying to her.

The look on Myrtle's face and the emotion conveyed in this photo are so special. But it's those navy blue sneakers that I really remember. They are so adorable--so Katharine Hepburn as Ethel Thayer in "On Golden Pond," so reminiscent of glossy wood Chris Craft speedboats and days on the Cape with the Kennedys. They speak of simpler, carefree times, I guess--though Myrtle's last years were certainly carefree.

And that's the way it should be.

My grandmother lost her dad in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-1919. Years later, her husband was fighting in the Battle of the Bulge while she waited back at home with a baby (my mother).  Myrtle had been a widow nearly half her life by the time she died.

I remember her, when I was a child, as slightly trembly. Nervous. Myrtle drove so incredibly slowly she would get ticketed for that. I remember watching her cause an accident because of her slow driving as she backed out onto a busy road. I am sure the resulting ticket only made her slower behind the wheel, but I also know that she was just  trying to be careful.

I also remember the way she would call me "Dolly," or "Doll." For some reason, when I was a child, I would always show her my teeth after I had brushed them. "Oh, Doll, they're like pearls. Pearls!" she'd say, clasping her hands to her heart and smiling a broad but shaky smile.

I would stay with Myrtle and her mother (my great-grandmother, Elsie) when I visited the family in Florida, and I remember the way they both had false teeth floating in plastic tumblers in the bathroom. There were tablets of Efferdent that they dropped into the water to clean their dentures. I remember the fascinating way they fizzed. 

One night, I probably dropped in two extra Efferdents just to watch the bubbles, and the next morning, Myrtle's teeth were glowing a preternatural shade of white that still makes me laugh when I think of it. She never said anything about it (what would she say? "My teeth are too freaky white! What did you do?"), and I felt vaguely guilty for playing with her dentures, but that's a memory I'll always have.

I remembered all of these things as I entered the church for Myrtle's funeral. The priest at the Mass did not even really know my grandmother, it turned out, and I sort of had a problem with that. The person who eulogizes the deceased should know her or him, don't you think? He even flubbed when he said, at one point, "We are here to pay our respects to Liz..." Wrong name, buddy! That was certainly disconcerting.

Other than the priest, I  thought the funeral was lovely, and, as my aunt said later, "Mother would have found it classy. She would be pleased."

My favorite hymn, "Be Not Afraid," was sung, and the flowers were gorgeous (and I know flowers; I used to work for a florist): feminine arrangements of Irish bells, stargazer lilies, magenta roses and spikes of lisianthus. 

The casket was open in the beginning, however, and I have a tremendous problem with open caskets. I just can't deal with them at all, and neither could my daughter. My grandmother did not look like herself, in my opinion, and while I did not want to be rude and not look, I also couldn't bear to see the heavy funereal makeup and Myrtle lying stiff-lipped, unsmiling. That wasn't my grandmother anymore; I didn't want that view of Myrtle to be the last one I remembered.

At Myrtle's funeral, I was asked to do a reading. There were several Xeroxed choices that I suppose the priest had chosen as standards. I randomly chose something from the Book of Ecclesiastes because it was at least slightly familiar (a selection paraphrased in that 1960s song, "Turn, Turn, Turn" by The Byrds). 

"There is an apppointed time for everything...a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant...a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to seek, and a time to lose...a time to speak, and a time to be silent; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. God has made everything appropriate to its time."

I realized later that this was appropriate for Myrtle. She had had bad times and good times, as do we all (though she had more of them, perhaps, because of her long and interesting life). She had had her time to dance, as well. 

I will miss you, Mama. I know that you were, and are, Star Dust.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Shadow Scholars Lurk...Essays Need to Be Written in Class

Ten or so years ago, I was thinking about launching a business to help students with essays. (I actually do quite a bit of this as a tutor.) What stopped me was my inherent morality: I did not want to become an essay ghostwriter or work for a paper writing service.

After I first set up my web site, I realized that term paper writing was the primary service students were seeking. While I wanted to help students develop great and original college application essays--because I am really good at doing that--many students were simply looking for a way not to do their assigned class work. I am not okay with that, for obvious reasons.

Then, I just got too busy with my book-length graduate school thesis, and I put that idea aside. (Financially, also, it wasn't really worth it for the time and effort involved.)

Sure, I could do it. I think I could write a cogent, at least semi-impressive paper on just about any topic. Being a former news reporter and an essayist by trade, as well as an experienced teacher of several subjects, gives me those mad skillz.

I just read yesterday, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a fascinating essay by Ed Dante (pen name) about being one of these hidden essay writing talents. See this link:

But I won't start a paper mill service, because I think it's just wrong.

Note: No blame here, Mr. Dante. I can see how and why you got into this business, and I understand you wouldn't be supplying these essays unless there was a demand. That's how capitalism works, after all. No patriotic American could blame you. Rather, teachers must try to anticipate that their students might pay for essays and work to make that impossible, or simply more difficult.

I also understand that some students really need help. I can hardly imagine, for example, how difficult it must be to be an ESL student in grad school, perhaps one on a scholarship that cannot be lost. English is an almost absurdly hard-to-learn language. We have so many idioms and homonyms and's frankly a miracle that I can write it as well as I do (and no, I'm not perfect. No one is).

I don't blame students such as those for seeking professional help. How could I blame them?

I do blame the lazy students, though, the ones who have perhaps coasted through years of schooling and are now entrenched in colleges where they never deserved admission in the first place. Because they often also have money to spend, they can buy all their papers (for thousands of dollars) from essay writers. They will never be found out and--shudder the thought--they will also never learn anything.

And then, picture it: 20 years or so later, we'll be stuck, thanks to our fast dying meritocracy and quickly rising plutocracy, with a moron for Prez who just does favors for his rich buddies and starts crazy wars; or, maybe we'll be faced with the truly frightening possibility that a candidate who attended five undergraduate schools before finally receiving a BS (as in bullshit) diploma in a non-academic subject such as sports broadcasting might one day become president; we might see a rich, bored woman who has billions to burn running for governor of a big state as a...hobby (it's not as if she was ever into politics).

Throughout history, there have always been a few lazy students, and we can never entirely cull these types from the pack. They are only natural, after all. Perhaps those students just aren't mature enough for the responsibility that comes with higher education. Years from now, they may be ready...that old saying, "College is wasted on the young," holds much truth.

College is a scene that many students are not well equipped to handle. All that downtime, all those long-term assignments, the lull of all those intriguing parties....I have long believed that students need to understand what college will really be like before they head off to a campus far away from home. 

To do this, I always tried to help my own students learn how to budget their time (I have a personal rule: NO ALL NIGHTERS) by assigning long projects in parts and checking and grading each piece.

Another idea that could help students not fake out their teachers is not assigning long-term projects or essays at all. Now, wait--before anyone gets mad at me for "dumbing down" education, or suggesting it, I am not saying that "no long papers" is the solution. I do think there is value in training students how to research, draft and self-edit a paper of significant depth and length.

Here's the problem, though: Teachers and professors do not, realistically, have the time to read those papers, especially not fifty or a hundred of them. The instructor can only skim...and the grading is rushed, and plagiarism can be missed entirely.

What are the students learning from that? They are learning, in many cases, how to be deceptive, how to beat the system. They are learning, also, not to respect their teachers.

To get around this, I liked to assign most papers in class. This eliminates the plagiarism problem and lets me get acquainted with each student's writing style. It also teaches students how to handle time pressure (although they hate it, and I can understand that, but writing under pressure is another important life skill).

The problems with in-class writings are 1) having to read the terrible handwriting and 2) rough writing. 

Typically, after assigning an in-class essay, I might take note of the subject, style and ideas and then send the students home to revise--and type.

That can work. Of course, it's a lot of grading. The hard work gets dragged out, in a way, for the teacher. 

But is it worth it? I think so, because students seem to actually learn something.

Another solution is for educators to move away from graded assessments to actually speak with students and find out what they want to learn, what they know, what their questions are. This only happens in the Dewey-centered institutions--you know, learning for learning's sake, not for a number.

I am lucky to have experienced this freeing, self-motivating style of education at Sarah Lawrence College which has no grades and subscribes to John Dewey's philosophy. What a better educational system we would have if all schools and colleges were like this...

If only there were enough time to sit down one-on-one with each student (for more than a few minutes) and really help students with their writing. But that's why we have tutors.

Encourage your students to use tutors, not paper mills. And read Dante's fine essay--it should be required reading for all teachers and professors.

Happy essay writing!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Some PA Agency is Torturing People Into Buying EasyPass

Tonight, I was stuck in hours-long traffic that did not move...right by the mid-county toll booths. To say that I was upset and unnerved by this would be a massive understatement.

This PA traffic jam photo and more findable on the link below (thanks, Doug):

Never have I seen such a nightmarish traffic situation. I felt like we were in Indonesia (you know, that place where there was recently a two-week-long traffic jam, which is hard to imagine, but not that hard for me anymore, not after tonight). 

What made it so awful was the fact that while I was stuck in a long line of cars trying to get into the cash only lane, all sorts of jerks kept flying up on our left and forcing their way in. Literally, people could not make progress because of all the pushy line-cutters.  It was pure insanity (sort of like the current American political climate).

I was getting more than a little ticked at the college girls in front of me who were (stupidly, IMO) letting every jackwagon in. 

I kept beeping at them to express my displeasure with their lack of cojones. Don't let people who can't follow the rules win in this case, ladies, I was trying to say. Don't let people scare you with their stupid big cars.

Because of those timid little girls, I think I had to endure at least 30 mins longer in line than I had to. And then a bunch of boys who knew them forced their way in, and that was truly crazy. It was like a Jersey Shore fist-pump party, right there, sitting in traffic. It was not funny, though; it was truly frightening.

When I finally had a chance to express my shock at the interminable traffic in words and not beeps, the toll booth guy said, "Hey, blame PennDOT."

And so here I am blaming PennDOT. But I also think that a significant portion of the problem could be attributed to someone--was it someone or some board on the PA Turnpike Commission?-- deciding, way back when, to shut down thousands of normal toll booth lanes and make most of them EasyPass only (which, duh, most people still don't have yet). 

I realize they are forcing us to get EasyPass, and I want to know who to get mad at for the dangerous and frustrating traffic.

The toll booth people say it's PennDOT. PennDOT says it's the PA Turnpike Commission.

I think it's both that are to blame. And, since I rarely take the interstate, I don't really see why I need EasyPass...and I resent being bullied into buying it. I am also really sick of the ongoing construction on the highways.

Sure, I can see why they are trying to convert the bulk of the lanes to EasyPass; it seems that the state wants to stop employing toll booth operators, perhaps, and make all of this electronic, but I don't think that punishing regular drivers with hours-long tie-ups, aggressive, nasty drivers cutting in line, and rampant lane closures--not to mention layoffs of the toll booth workers--is really noble or respectable or good for the people.

Just for that, I feel like telling them to stick EasyPass where the sun don't...oh, never mind. I am totally buying an EasyPass. I can't go through that sort of traffic again. I could literally die of stress.

Once we finally got through the tolls, there was a further nightmare of construction traffic...we're talking construction on the Blue Route (I-476) that has been ongoing for dang near two years.

Finish the stupid construction, people! Stop dragging it out (was it even necessary in the first place?). Stop milking the project for more government stimulus money.

Just finish it...before there is a worse crisis on the Philadelphia area highways.

I frankly consider it a miracle that we all survived that traffic jam. Not only was it intolerable, it was also pure mayhem, and just plain dangerous.

I know that there has been worse traffic (now that I think about it, trying to get home from college back in 1991 took ten hours from NYC to NJ, when it should have taken one...this in the days before cell phones. When I finally got home, ironically, my mother wanted to kill me).

Even last year, there was a 20-hr traffic tie-up in PA.

Are these marathon traffic jams becoming, sadly, more commonplace? When is it going to stop? Enough of this already. There must be a way to fix this...let's use stimulus funding for that.

Friday, November 12, 2010

What Zumba Has Reminded Me About Life and Teaching

Zumba is big for me right now. Anyone else out there Zumba? I realize it's been around for a while and that I am sort of late catching on to this trend.

After the first Zumba class (which was dizzying in its intensity, and I really had to learn what I was doing and how and where to move my feet, and where to stand so that I could see the teacher to get the steps right--never look at the other people around you; they will often just screw you up and don't always know what they're doing and can't necessarily dance that well, either), I found myself hooked.

That initial class was fun, it was fast, it was new, and Zumba was clearly an activity--like yoga--that I expect will get my head in shape, as well as my body. An hour of Zumba is such a flurry of movement that there is no time, really, to think about yourself and harp on your own worries; it's all you can do to keep up. (The happy, pounding music helps lift your spirits, too.)

We have a wonderful teacher who is now out (oh, no!) for eight weeks, recuperating from a torn ligament in her heel. She hobbled into the studio today wearing an aircast...I felt so bad for her. I know exactly what that's like. 

I felt worse for the Zumba teacher today than I did for myself when I broke my leg two years ago. That's because I know that her identity--indeed, her very job--is tied to her movement. 

"I felt so depressed. I was sitting on my couch crying," she said, "I miss my classes so much!"

Again, I knew exactly what she meant. When you can tell that you're making a difference and that other people depend on you to teach them something new, lift them up, help them realize what they are capable of achieving...well, it's a valuable thing for a teacher as well as her or his students. There's something reciprocal happening, and when it's just right, when you're really helping people learn, it's a boost for the teacher, too.

It's not always that great (teaching, I mean). Some days are miserable. Sometimes, people aren't paying attention or you can tell they're whispering about you or giving you weird looks. Some entire years of teaching can be depressing, while other whole years can be great. 

Some years, you might even have spies in your classes (happened to me, no exaggeration), and b.s. such as that can turn you off completely and make you question your entire life and vocation. Here's another lesson: no one deserves that, spy kids. No one. Especially not someone like me.

We had a sub in Zumba today and it was so clear that all of us resented the poor sub. You know how kids usually hate having a sub and tend to torture substitutes? It was, just a tiny bit, like that. 

I, of course, paid total attention to the substitute teacher--because I've been there, but also because I'm just always nice, anyway--but some other ladies were being difficult and talking (or, not listening) and rolling their eyes.

No, the sub was not as good a teacher as our regular one. Her cueing was off in places, and she liked to fancy it up by throwing in these ridiculous moving-around-the-room-and-in-useless-circles steps. She made Zumba harder than it needed to be, really, but I also knew that she was just doing that to try and prove that she had something new to offer.

Despite the huffs and gasps of some of the old-time Zumba dancers, I could appreciate what the sub was doing. I didn't like it all that much, either, but it wasn't the same old routine, and that can be good, as well. We all need a change now and then. Change--and learning something new--keeps us sharp.

There was a get well card going around the Zumba class today for our injured regular teacher. Most people signed their names and a quick "feel better soon!" I actually wrote something, and not because I am a writer. 

I wrote something to the teacher because--even though I do not know her personally--I knew it would matter.

Thank you for helping me feel like I could fly again, G., I wrote. Your Zumba class has changed my life.  You've given me an amazing feeling of freedom (not just in my stiff ankle), and dancing in your classes has made me remember that I can be beautiful. Learning this new skill has been utterly transforming. 

Then, of course, I wrote, Get well soon.

I know she will appreciate that. I know that notes such as those will renew her sense of purpose and give her some more strength.

We all need that, don't we? We need to appreciate each other and learn new things and not simply resent or roll our eyes at what we don't understand.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Arguing Toward Beauty--Better Than I Could Have Said Myself

Dear Readers:

I am writing like crazy lately and trying to finish my memoir (currently, I'm on p. 245), so I haven't wanted to take the time to write a new blog post. (It's also hard because I don't want to post too much stuff that I am going to use in my book.)

So, just because I like the blog article below, and just because I noticed it, again, the other day when I was checking hits for "Pretty Freaky," I thought it couldn't hurt to post a link to writer Beth Kephart's kind and relevant words:

It's a timely discussion about the current state of publishing, really, and a semi-philosophical argument about literature. Read and enjoy (I have a comment there, too).



Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Poetry is the Best! Analyzing Poems, Painlessly

The following post is an excerpt from my upcoming teaching memoir, "Too Cool for School." Copyright, Elizabeth Collins.

If The Teacher Can Learn to Love Poetry, Then So Can You…

            When I first began teaching poetry, I did it because I had to, because it was part of the curriculum. The kids had been told, by the school, to purchase a fat orange Heath poetry textbook (chosen by a previous teacher; I don’t even know who it was), and I needed a solid unit over the course of the school year to justify its near-$100 cost.
            That first year or two, I felt distinctly uneasy teaching poetry. I felt that I just didn’t know enough, that I didn’t, personally, like poetry enough, that I was frankly sick of that white-gowned weirdo and American Lit staple, Emily Dickinson.
            Now, she speaks to me, now I get her brilliance (one line, in particular, I dwell in Possibility, truly resonates with my life right now):
I dwell in Possibility-- 
A fairer House than Prose-- 

More numerous of Windows-- 

Superior--for Doors--
Of Chambers as the Cedars-- 

Impregnable of Eye-- 

And for an Everlasting Roof

The Gambrels of the Sky--
Of Visitors--the fairest—

For Occupation--This—

The spreading wide my narrow Hands 

To gather Paradise—
            As the years passed, I realized that poetry (and also the short story, which I have always loved---I loved teaching the short story, assigning short stories to be read and writing the short story, or having my class trying to write short stories) is an amazing vehicle and resource for an English teacher.  I came to love poetry almost best of all the works that I taught, like a child that might actually be your favorite, but it wouldn’t be right to admit.
            My favorite short story, “The Twa Corbies” by Carolyn Cooke, told in the voice of an elderly, former teacher, discusses the power of poems—and the memory of one’s own power as bestowed by the recitation of poems. The narrator recounts how he would stand at a lectern, teaching literature and (gasp!) smoking. This was, of course, decades ago. “…Poems, cigarettes…” he says as he remembers, rather dreamily, these two once-loved, now abandoned, indulgences.
            I hate cigarettes (though I used to love them), but I can sincerely relate to the sentiment in “The Twa Corbies,” the longing for the good old days of passion intertwined with literature, the deep, abiding love that a devoted academic has for the written word, for any beauty conveyed through writing.
            Poetry is--as I explained to my students after my enthusiasm for it built up and I felt myself becoming defter, looser---playing with language. It’s a puzzle, a game. It’s fun. It’s beautiful, and it’s magical, too.
            Being assigned a poem to write about is an actually a profound opportunity, I told my students. Dissecting a poem is NOT like doing a math problem (oddly, to me, my students almost universally proclaimed a preference for math “because there’s only one correct answer.”) 
            Poetry is much cooler than math, I tried to explain, because there is room around a poem, room for reasoning and even room for error.
            What’s so great about black and white, right and wrong? Nothing, in my opinion. Black and white sucks! Better, I think, to have the world wide open to you, to explore your options, to create new ideas or come to startling, unique discoveries and conclusions.
            Poetry lets us do that. There is not necessarily a correct answer when it comes to a poem. We don’t, after all, know in most cases what a poet intended his or her poem to mean. The point of poetry is that it can mean more than one thing; it can mean different things to different people. All of that is fine, and it’s what makes poetry full of wonders.
            Meaning fluctuates for the individual, just as the weather does in different parts of the country. We all feel something different, and yet the elements—the wind, the precipitation, the sunshine---are the same. There is an essential, similar truth that every careful reader of a given poem will grasp.
            To help my students figure out what poems might mean—to them and to others--I taught a system that I learned in AP teacher-training workshops, particularly in one on English Literature taught by master teacher, Mary Filak, in a CollegeBoard seminar at Drew University (thank you, Mary, for everything you taught me about how to approach AP and how to convey meaning in literature to my students!).
            This system is called TP-CASTT (an acronym for the parts of a poem that students/teachers need to focus on to start dredging up the meaning and to enhance understanding). I find TP-CASTT tremendously useful for comprehending poetry and starting to come to some ideas about meaning, metaphors, and message.
            All poems need to be read and then quickly analyzed by thinking about Title, Paraphrase, Connotation, Attitude, Shift, Themes and (again) Title. Deeper discussion and interpretation can come after this initial work is done, after this first analysis starts pulling away the layers of the poem.
            Here’s how it works: after reading a couple of times, perhaps both aloud and silently, students get to work breaking down the poem by examining the following parts of the poem--
            T (Title)           
            This is the student’s initial impression of the poem, important only insofar as it serves to later show her/him not to solely rely on the first impression! The end point of TP-CASTT (the second consideration of the title) is more important, but the first glance can be interesting and demonstrate to students that they need to think about titles in more depth.
            P (Paraphrase)           
            Putting a poem in one’s own words and learning how to summarize is a thinking skill. It may not be useful in a literary analysis, but it helps to force the student to think about what is going on in the poem. Ultimately, however, it is not the “plot” of the poem that is most important; it is the use of language.
            C (Connotation)           
            In order to analyze connotation (what the words make you think of, what images and ideas are conjured up), diction (the words) has to be the focus. Students should circle words that jump out at them in the poem and then work for a minute trying to explain the images that the words evoke. For example, in Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry Picking,” words such as “clot,” and “Bluebeard” connote blood, lust, looting, and greed.
            A (Attitude)
            Attitude in a poem is the same as tone. It is also hugely important. Based on the diction, students should get a sense of whether a not a poem is happy or sad, brooding and funereal or whimsical, thoughtful, idealistic. See how I used fancy adjectives there? Students should begin with the basic idea—good or bad—and then progress to trying to select truly apt and impressive words to describe the poem’s tone.
            S (Shift)
            Sometimes, a poem starts out one way and then, by the end, seems completely different. There is often a shift; have students mark where the shift happens. It’s important to note because a quick glance at a poem may initially lead one to the wrong, ultimate idea. Students need to pay attention to all parts of a poem!
            T (Themes)
            Themes are the messages about life and what it means to be human that come from the poem, or other work of literature, and that resonate with the reader. What is the point of the poem? What is it saying? How is this useful to the reader, as a human? Does the poem, for example, contain the warning that people should simply enjoy what they have and not try to hoard things (as in “Blackberry Picking”) because there is no point; there will only be ruin, waste and regret? Students should consider what they have learned from a poem, what it seems to be telling them, and think about whether this lesson is, in fact, a theme. Is there more than one theme? There certainly can be; students can brainstorm themes and bounce ideas off one another in a group brainstorming session.
            T (Title)
            Yes, students should consider the final idea conveyed by the title (they do this twice—just in case the possible meaning of the title has changed in the student’s mind after the basic analysis work of the other parts of TP-CASTT).

            What makes a poem scary is the initial view of it, I think. It’s like staring down a ski slope you skied to accidentally, one you don’t think you have the skills to handle. How are you going to get down? Will it be fun or a nightmare? Will you hurt yourself? Will people laugh at you? Will you have to go hide in the lodge after this, nursing your wounds and a stiff, hot buttered rum?
            If you have some tools, some direction, though (for me, the best tool, at least initially, is TP-CASTT), it’s not so bad. You can do this, and in the end, you might even find that you’ve accomplished something worthwhile, and that it was sort of fun.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Would You Vote For A Cat If The Other Candidates Were Useless?

Harold, the Mayor of Madison

By Elizabeth Collins

It was election night in a town called Madison, and the citizens were supposed to vote for a new mayor. The problem was, no one liked either of the candidates. One was a boor--red faced, loud, cranky. The other candidate barely looked awake.

The people of Madison called these would-be mayors Grumpy and Sleepy, like two of Snow White's dwarves. No one really wanted to decide between them. One seemed just as bad as the other.

Timmy (not the real Harold, who died in 2003)
© Stavros Nicolaou
As a joke, someone in town sent around a petition and managed to add a new name to the ballot: Harold the Cat.

Harold was famous in town for cruising through backyards catching mice and letting children pet him. Friendly, sleek, and shiny black, Harold was always out and about, making his rounds. Most people in town knew who Harold was, and they liked him.

When November second dawned, the people of Madison dutifully filed into school gyms to vote. Most chuckled to see Harold's name on the ballot. As it turned out, they voted for him, too, since they still couldn't stand either Grumpy or Sleepy.

Harold won the election by a landslide!

This was the most noteworthy thing to ever happen in quiet, little Madison. The newspaper announced Harold's win in a huge headline: Harold the Cat Kills the Competition in Mayoral Race! 

The town was even on national television after its absurd election, and Grumpy and Sleepy made the political talk-show rounds, publicly outraged about being bettered by a cat (and seeming not to realize that they were making themselves look even dumber by complaining about it).

But then, there was just one little problem: How would a cat ever manage to lead the town's government?

There was talk of holding another election, but this would take weeks or months to set up and neither Grumpy nor Sleepy would give up the race (ugh). 

Some people said there should be an acting mayor in the meantime, and Grumpy--who came in a far, far distant second to Harold--said this job was rightfully his. The people disagreed (because Grumpy was so obnoxious); they vastly preferred Harold.

"Just give that darn cat a chance!" shouted a man at an emergency town meeting held soon after the election. "Harold certainly can't make anything worse!" 

So the people agreed, voting in a special referendum that Harold would lead Madison until they figured out something else.

Harold's owner, Mary Peterson, brought the cat to weekly meetings in a basket, and lured him up to the council table with his favorite food: grilled shrimp. 

At the first meeting, the council and an overflowing audience of citizens and reporters just sat there in silence for what felt like an hour, waiting for Harold to do something, anything. It seemed as if they even expected Harold to open his mouth and speak.

But the cat just gave himself a bath, slowly and carefully. He started with his tail, moved up to his back, then licked his paw and finally wiped his face. Everyone in the meeting stayed quiet, staring at Harold, wondering what this excruciatingly slow self-grooming process could possibly mean, until Mary shouted out, "I think Harold is telling us we need to clean up this town! Harold is saying that we need to tidy Madison from, uh, bottom to top!"

Murmurs of assent swept through the room. Madison certainly did have its share of litter and trash and fallen tree branches. The other council members voted to establish a new seasonal, town-wide clean-up, and recruited volunteers.

The next item on the meeting agenda was traffic lights. Some residents stood up to speak publicly and complain that the town really needed some new lights, and that a big intersection downtown wasn't even safe because there were no traffic signals there. 

Council members protested that there wasn't enough money in the budget to pay for more traffic lights.

Just then, as if he were responding to the protests, Harold stood and up and leaped down from the council table. Holding his tail high and proud, he marched straight out the door. All in attendance at the meeting sat frozen for a moment, watching Harold's tail descend down the town hall steps. The people seemed as though they didn't know exactly what to do. 

Someone finally piped up, "Follow the cat! Harold is probably trying to tell us something!"

Everyone rose--the town council, all the lawyers, Mary Peterson and every citizen who had come to the meeting. (The newspaper reporters were the first out the door.)

Harold gently padded down the Town Hall's winding marble staircase and was streaking out the open front doors when the people caught up. 

Outside, it was dark indeed. Harold, being a black cat, was utterly invisible in the dark, except for his glowing, yellow eyes.

Harold walked toward the unlit intersection that had been decried as "dangerous," and calmly sat down in the middle of the road. The people could just see his shimmering eyes--placid, and unblinking--staring back at them.

"What a wise cat!" said one woman on the council. "Harold is showing us that we really do need a light here. Right where he's sitting, in fact. We'll just have to hunt through the budget and find the money somehow. Maybe we could also solicit some corporate and private donations."

Harold's owner, Mary, ventured into the road (seeing Harold out there made her understandably nervous), scooped up her cat, and said to all present that it had been an interesting meeting, but now Harold really needed to be getting home. It was 10 o'clock, past time for Harold to be hitting the fuzzy gray bathmat that he called his bed.

Everyone at the meeting reluctantly left, with the reporters and the lawyers thrilled that this meeting had been both the shortest and most productive one yet!

The next week, Harold led the council and even more spectators three blocks away to a nursing home. He pawed at the sliding doors and when they opened--due to the weight of the people behind him--he strode on in and lightly jumped into the lap of old man who sat in a wheelchair in the lobby

Harold curled into a tight ball on the old man's lap, purring audibly. The old man stared down, amazed at this friendly cat, and petted him with bent and shaky hands.

Before he left the nursing home that night, Harold made sure to greet every single one of the residents, rubbing up against their legs as they sagged in their wheelchairs, and the presence of the gracious cat cheered everyone up--even the people who said they didn't care much for felines.

"Harold's telling us that we need to start a visiting pet program. We need therapy pets!" said one of the lawyers. "Even I can see that."

Harold's wise and generous leadership continued for the next several months. The townspeople never did vote Harold out of office while waiting for a "real" mayor. 

When a new election was finally held, Mary Peterson, running against Grumpy (but not Sleepy, who had finally bowed out, realizing he could never beat the popularity of that stinking cat), took over Harold's spot.

You see, by that time, Harold had lost interest in politics and wanted to do more pawprint paintings. (His artwork still hangs in a local cafe.)

Many years after Harold's successful term as mayor, a statue of him was erected in the middle of town.

People still talk about Harold, and how he got more done for Madison than any other mayor had before him. Voting for Harold was the best move the people of Madison ever made.