Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Ineffable and Enduring Salinger

Reading about J.D. Salinger's death brings several automatic reactions: shock, sadness, sentimentality, and another, stranger, sense of giggling anticipation.

What will it truly mean?

On the one hand, Salinger’s death changes nothing, as he retreated from society and wouldn’t share whatever new pieces he was writing. But apparently, he amassed a vault full of material. Will we finally see it now—or soon? It’s exciting, and I hope some publisher and editors are now working feverishly (with Salinger’s surviving children) to get the work out there, in book form.

Seeing as so much of our lives centers on money, I am sure this is the case, because you know that millions of people are going to buy whatever it is—good or bad, big or small—that is hurriedly packaged and put on bookshelves. (Hey—maybe even after death, Salinger will revitalize publishing!)

  • Some speculate that Salinger refused to publish because he must not have been able to produce the much-anticipated “follow-up.” But after 50+ years of working? I doubt that.
  • Maybe he just didn’t want his follow-up to be judged in the annoying way it certainly would have been.
  • Maybe he was working on some magnum opus that will soon blow us all away.
  • Maybe he was just creating art for the sake of art…though of course that leads to all sorts of other philosophical questions. Does art serve any purpose unless others can share it, appreciate it, have it affect them? (It’s sort of like the sound a tree makes, falling in a forest when no one is there to hear it. Does it make a sound?) Creating art and not getting paid for it is a common crisis of artists, and yet we artists rail constantly about art being under-appreciated, about being expected to create and disseminate art just because we have to, not because we hope to, or deserve to, get paid for it.
  • Perhaps Salinger didn’t want to deal with the ugly sides of life—notoriety, literary criticism (though some of this is undoubtedly good and useful, but I really mean for the study of literature and for intellectual discussions), and money.

I understand he had enough money. I suppose that writing a literary classic will set up a writer in a pretty decent way.

Maybe Salinger wasn’t writing about the Glass family, as he was said to have been (how much can be said about them? I like the Glass family, but I would be more interested to see what else our beloved author might have come up with).

It is my hope that Salinger used his Quiet Years to create something staggering, something that will change our lives and way of thinking in much the way his other works did for me and many other readers.

I first read “The Catcher in the Rye” when I was 12. I didn’t get it to the extent that I do now (as an English teacher), but I knew immediately that it was special. It spoke to me.

Soon afterward, I devoured every other piece of Salinger that I could find.

I always found Salinger to be Important. Certainly, he may have shaped my own voice, or at least, he made me better able to articulate what I liked about his: its veracity, its wit, his tone always tinged with sadness.

I sort of hate it now when anyone tells me they didn’t like Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the Rye.” (That seems increasingly common as a response, and it worries me.)

What’s not to like? Holden Caulfield is a hurting, and very human, character. He expresses so many vital truths about life, about growing up, and mourning, and trying to find purpose and seeing the good in the world (along with the bad).

I don’t care that the character curses. I don’t care that he criticizes so many other characters and the world at large. Anyone who is thinking probably does both of those things with startling regularity. After all, if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention—are you? (that’s from a bumper sticker)

What makes “Catcher” so eminently (and permanently) re-readable for me is its ineffability. I can’t quite express exactly what it is that makes the novel so profound, but it has many layers. It is like a great spiritual text, in a way, that one can pick up and open to any page and find something useful.

I also love “Nine Stories.” There’s so much amazing, unforgettable writing there.

I need to re-read “Franny and Zooey.” It’s been a while. And “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.”

I’ve always wished there was more Salinger to read. Well, now there almost surely is. That makes me happy.

I am sure Salinger himself might be quite unhappy to see how many people are, over the past few days, trying to cash in on his name and his death--and let me be clear that is NOT my intention. If anything, I hope that by mentioning Salinger, more people will read him and appreciate what he was trying to give to us, what he DID give to us.

We need his message(s) now more than ever.

Photo credit,2.jpg

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Essays vs. Multiple-Choice: or, Grading is Really Hard When You're an English Teacher

I tweeted yesterday about the six+ days I just spent grading midterm exams for four classes. No wonder I haven't been blogging lately! Rather, each day I spent about four hours grading. More than that was just not possible due to brain strain; I graded until my eyes glazed over.

What did I grade? Well, many short-answer responses to literary passage analysis questions for my American Lit classes, plus vocabulary (handwritten) questions. There were about 40 of those exams.

For AP English Language, I read nearly 40 Synthesis essays on the topic of Beauty, and whatever its definition ought to be, plus multiple-choice (only 12 questions) sections and short answers.

So, in all, I just spent more than 24 hours grading. Then I had to curve grades for a some classes and chart results for my AP group, so that they can see what they might have scored on an actual AP English Language exam.

The extra calculations probably took about three more hours. Then I had to input all the grades and sort through all the paperwork. Tack on another two to three hours.

I finished at three o'clock on the dot (the deadline, actually) Tuesday. I worked late each night and woke up at 4: 30 a.m. some days, as well. Whew!

If I were a math teacher, I might have been done with grading oh, say, last Thursday? Maybe grading might have taken me four hours, tops? (I am just guessing; no offense to any math teachers out there.)

English teachers' workloads are just not comparable to other subjects, from what I can tell. English assessment grading not only takes days longer than other types of grading, but it's also just plain harder.

For one thing, reading student handwriting is never easy, and add to that the whole subjectivity issue, and the subconscious biases we teachers can build up when we keep seeing the exact same topic over and over. (To resolve the latter issue, I tend to offer an assortment of essay topic options.)

When I was in graduate school, I had a job grading essays for a large, lecture-hall class. I would grade perhaps 200 essays in a few days' time. At least I was not also teaching, so I had much more time on my hands. Looking back, I wonder if assigning multiple essays for auditorium-sized classes is even practical (certainly not, if the school doesn't hire outside graders).

It's a similar issue for the relatively new SAT essay. It's a great idea--offering an essay, ensuring that students must develop decent writing skills--but realistically, when it comes to, not so much.

Essay tests--which most English teachers prefer to give, or want to give, because they require students to prove that they can express themselves well, formulate strong arguments, integrate ideas, and make connections and inferences--are always extremely time-consuming to read and grade.

That's why most essays--when teachers are in a rush, and certainly this also applies to the SAT essays--can get only cursory reads.

I say this, and yet, I always end up spending much more time than I've budgeted on reading and marking essays. (I do, however, sometimes use a system whereby I circle writing issues on a rubric and attach that to the essays, rather than scribble all over them...which sucks up time and I'm pretty sure never even gets read.)

To help myself cope with the grading load, I might set a timer. Or, I set a stopwatch. I figure out how long I should spend reading/grading an essay if I am really focused and not distracted. Let's say the time is 3-4 minutes.

I mark down how much time I've spent on each essay, and if I start getting dilatory, then I mentally smack myself, take a quick break, and then start again.

I have to work rather fast on the grading or else it will never end. Also, it seems that students always want their essays back rather quickly--a teacher can tell students are feeling peeved when it's been a week and still no essay has been returned.

I don't blame them, and yet, as that 70s novel went, "I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can."

The solution lies in alternating essays with other assessments that are faster to grade--such as quizzes, particularly multiple-choice format. (Having a Scantron machine to grade these would be a Godsend.)

I've written several multiple-choice verbal sections of a national standardized test, so I know that's not something that can be done quickly. Still, once you write the questions (which can take a week--part-time, of course), the grading is pretty simple.

Some people might argue that an English teacher should never use multiple-choice (and I actually just had someone say to me--and I appreciate this--"Well, you're a teacher who is genuinely interested in what your students think, and in how they write, so you don't mind all that reading and all that grading time"). Well...

In a perfect world, perhaps English teachers would not ever test, and would only assign essays. But when we are pressed for time, as we nearly always are, what are the options? Also, what are the benefits of multiple-choice tests? Are there any, when it comes to English?

For one thing, with a multiple-choice test, you can cover small bits of material rather intensely. You can also offer students faster feedback on their comprehension and progress.

There are pitfalls to multiple-choice, however--among them, the Guessing Issue. You can avoid this by deducting a portion of the score to account for this (as the CollegeBoard does--though it seems rather mean-spirited, doesn't it?). You can also construct your questions in clear way so students know what to study in the first place, or know precisely what is being asked (then again, that could start feeling as if you are teaching to the test, although there are ways around that problem, too.)

You can also anticipate the typical test-taking strategies and work in some zingers and reverse questions. Although students will undoubtedly groan, the brightest will actually enjoy the battle of the minds.

The point is: make sure students understand that even if your assessment is multiple-choice, they still need to study and deeply understand the material in question.

I personally always read Cliff Notes and Spark Notes and make sure that my test questions do not resemble plot summaries or typical review guides in any way, shape, or form. The last thing I want to learn is that my students never read the actual novels or plays, that they skated by on "SparkNoting." Grrrr....

Show your students that they should expect the unexpected, even if the test you are giving is multiple-choice. Show them, too, that the old testing superstitions (that they can't have all choice D in a row, or that they should always pick the longest answer or the one that includes big words, for example) definitely do not apply.

Why do we test, anyway? In school, we test because we have to prove that our students are learning. But we also offer tests to get our students to study in the first place!

Please feel free to share any hints for faster, easier grading. All teachers, but especially English teachers, can surely use them.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

U.S. “drug-sniffing” dogs abused, neglected, killed in Pakistan

Yesterday, while strolling the quaint streets of Doylestown, PA, my father’s beautiful yellow lab, Nellie, in tow, we met a woman who was about to collect three labs and one German Shepherd who were being sent back to the U.S. from Pakistan.

Apparently, as the woman explained, the U.S. (Military? Civilians?) donated many dogs to help Pakistan “sniff out” drug operations (which are said to fund Al-Qaeda) in that country. She was scheduled to drive to JFK airport, outside NYC, to pick up the remaining dogs from this failed operation.

(As a former reporter who always wants to get her facts straight, I have tried to research the situation, but am not finding much online—mostly just postings by breeders who want to ship dogs to Pakistan…)

Apparently, the problem here—one that no one appears to have adequately researched beforehand—is that Pakistanis seem to have a widespread (cultural) aversion to dogs and absolutely zero infrastructure for, or possibly even concept of, animal welfare. They do have other problems which probably seem more pressing...

I was also told that people in Pakistan tend to think dogs are rather disgusting; they don’t want to work with them, can’t usually afford to keep them as pets, and let’s be honest: they probably aren’t (based on long-term lack of results) all that into fighting the drug/terrorism war, either.

Our American German Shepherd Dogs and Labs—trained, well-behaved, good dogs all—have reportedly been systematically neglected, abused, starved and killed in Pakistan.

Out of 100 dogs sent to Pakistan, four (yes, FOUR) were said (by my source) to have survived.

This woman in Doylestown was taking them all in. What a nice person; I wish I had gotten her name.

She was worried about the temperature shock to the dogs—coming from 80+ degree Pakistan to cold Pennsylvania. She wanted to get them all coats for the car trip! She wondered what size; assuming these big dogs are now skeletal, what size should she get? Three dogs are male, one is female.

What can I say now except that I am proud of this woman’s gesture? I can’t imagine the personal expense of this project (I don’t think the U.S. is paying for this). The photo of the German Shepherd dog above is positively heartbreaking (see tinyurl address below for more information and photo credit).

I wish I could do something to help.

What I can do is write about this, in the hopes that others can look into the matter, as well, and help save these dogs.

I realize that we have many animals right here in the U.S. that need our help. Believe me, I know. I have a rescue dog. I advocate helping local dogs, too.

Let’s all help where we can. That seems the best plan, after all—and let’s help fix unforeseen problems when we realize, finally, what’s been going on.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Coyotes--A Portentous Image of Anxiety in Iowa

The coyote is lying on the side of the road--lazily, softly, as if it is sleeping. But dead—this is obvious. A dead coyote, the color of maple, with thick, lustrous fur that makes it seem pettable and friendly. My tires whiz by its body with one final indignity: the spraying of filthy sleet.

The air outside is frigid. It is early morning, January, and from the gunmetal sky fat snowflakes fall quickly to the earth. I notice how long the coyote’s ear is, splayed backward and open, now quietly filling with snow.

A little further up the road is another coyote, in similar posture. Then 50 yards later, one more. A trio of coyotes, struck down, I imagine, in quick succession. Perhaps they were a family. Perhaps each was running to the aid of its fallen mother or brother. At the thought of this, I almost start to cry.

The snow starts falling even faster now, in a diagonally blowing wing that howls faintly and whips around my car. I slow my old Saab, make sure the lights are on, but the other traffic, I notice, is moving at its usual highway pace of about 90 miles an hour.

I have a baby in the car with me, just two months old. She rides, well-anchored, facing toward the back. I peer at her car seat in my rearview mirror, and my heart stutters. My baby, Muirgen, sees no dead coyotes; she only hears the music on the radio or the soft cadences of my voice. I take her to the art museum where I work. She lies quietly underneath a baby gym or in my arms as I make phone calls. I nurse her and type with one hand.

But I hate to drive anywhere with my baby. I hate to leave the house. Catastrophe and death, I fear, await us, as if we too were coyotes, scrounging for food in the wasteland of winter fields, dodging speeding semis and Jeeps in our quest for a small puddle of water from which to drink.

I can picture clearly the accident that will kill us. It plays in my mind like a film. I feel the steering wheel spin through my helpless hands as the car flies off the road, flips in the air. There is a pause, during which time we hang upside down, wondering, suspended, "What is happening? Is this real?"

I can almost hear the delicate whisperings of angels as they hover by our impending wreck. But this is not reassuring—instead, it is terrifying—and then angel whispers are drowned out by a crash, massive and final. Glass and metal crush and smash. I scream and reach out for my baby, but we are both strapped in too tightly, unable to escape.

This is the scene that I picture when I drive or even think about getting into the car. There are more scenes, equally horrible.

I picture my child burning alive, myself overcome with smoke, unable to rescue her. I see her in a tiny coffin, being lowered into the ground. I cannot bear to even imagine this horror.

This pervasive sense of doom and dread, the heart palpitations, nausea, the crushing pains in my chest—it is anxiety, I learn. Just one little word for this terror that haunts me. I am simply anxious.

Am I also depressed? I tell the psychiatrist that I don’t think so. Oh, but anxiety goes hand-in-hand with depression, especially post-partum, I am told. I must have PPD—post-partum depressive disorder.

I bristle at this diagnosis. I have read horror stories about PPD-suffering new mothers who lost their minds and smothered their babies. I love my child; I am certainly not sad that she exists, or that I am her mother. I am not crazy. I would never hurt her. In fact, all I can think about is how to keep her safe.

It is, I learn, hormones that are most likely the cause of the problem. I am seriously depleted, running on empty as far as estrogen goes. Stop nursing, I am told. Take Zoloft. Take Paxil. Go on a vacation and leave your baby behind.

This PPD that I am told I have renders me consumed with worry, even during quiet, happy times. I hold my daughter and rock her, read to her, sing. She gives me a radiant, gurgly smile and looking into her chubby, blissful face, I feel joy. A nanosecond later, I am sure that we will be savagely murdered by the repairman who is coming to fix our washer—so sure of it that I can imagine exactly how he will corner us in the kitchen with an enormous knife. I will try to flee, but he will catch us and pull us back, stabbing brutally, relentlessly, before we can wriggle out the window.

I picture all of this while sitting on the couch frozen in terror, clutching my baby. Then I have an idea. I steel myself to get up, lock all the doors and post a note saying we had to run out. I huddle on the couch with the baby, hiding, keeping still, until the repairman gets the note and drives away.

Only then can I breathe normally.

I tell my husband about my horrible daydreams, but briefly, and always with a touch of humor. (“I just thought Satan was speaking to me through our child. Ha ha. I think I’ll go lie down on the couch.”)

I don’t want to scare him, but I just want him to understand that I need help and hugs and comfort. This he offers, but because I am not completely honest, he never understands either the depth of my fear or how close I might be to a breakdown.

The word “anxiety” is interesting to me. It slides off the tongue and sounds almost elegant, but is derived from the Latin angere, which means “to choke.” Anxiety is a disorder that is sadly commonplace, and, by definition, frustratingly vague.

Anxiety can be either low-level, or “generalized,” or it can manifest itself into full-blown panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, or obsessive-compulsiveness. According to psychiatric literature, anxiety is often not attributable to a real or appropriate threat and can be a symptom of other problems, physical or psychological.

The sort of anxiety I have feels like full-blown panic sometimes, but apparently it is only generalized. There are people much worse off than I am, those who actually pass out from fear, those who cannot ever leave their houses.

After consulting a pharmaceuticals textbook, my university-clinic doctor prescribes low doses of Valium because, she says, “That’s the most cost-effective way to treat this.”

I don’t take the Valium because I am still nursing, and because I need to drive. Instead, I make up excuses not to come in to my part-time job in Cedar Rapids. “My car tire blew out,” I say. “I can’t find my keys.” Oops—couldn’t call in sick (had to e-mail; the coward’s way out) because I misplaced my phones.

I buy life insurance—much more than my father says I need. I want to be sure that my child is cared for, in case the worst should happen. I hope she will remember how much I love her, but I know that if I die before she reaches a certain age, she’ll probably retain no memories of me at all. That doesn’t matter, I tell myself. It is now that matters. Do the best you can for her now. Keep her healthy and safe.

While Muirgen naps, I go online and visit the PPD survival group chat rooms. I see a posting from a woman who, it seems, is just like me. She got pregnant on her honeymoon and now is struggling with both PPD and trying to maintain a good relationship with her husband, who claims he hardly knows her anymore.

I write to her. I say, “It’s so hard to be hit with all of these changes at once—getting married, being pregnant, possibly moving house, having a baby.” Her husband, like mine, probably had about two weeks to look around and say, “Wow, we’re married…” before being faced with a nauseated, exhausted woman, a woman whose pretty face got puffy, whose nice clothes no longer fit. A fat, tired stranger—and then, suddenly, two strangers, one of whom cries a lot and has stinky diapers.

“Of course it isn’t easy for us; we’re the ones actually experiencing all these things,” I write, “But it’s got to be almost equally weird for these men.”

She writes back that we are kindred spirits, in the same boat, exactly. She tells me that her son is named Vegas. I assume, rather stupidly, that she is Hispanic, but then she explains that her baby is named after Las Vegas, where she honeymooned.

“Good God,” I think, “She named her kid Vegas.” I can’t bring myself to send her another note.

I drop out of the chat rooms. I resist the psychiatrist’s reluctant offer of psychotropic drugs. I decide to handle things on my own, to let my body adjust naturally.

There are some women in this online PPD group who are seriously ill. Their children have been taken from them. They cannot get out of bed. They are hallucinating and could be dangerous.

Some are glad that their mothers or in-laws are taking care of their babies. Some desperately long to get their children back. They all have to wait, though, for the drugs to kick in, for their hormone levels to stabilize. This could take weeks or months.

Meanwhile, their babies are growing fast, apart from their mothers, swaddled and alone with relatives who may be forcing outdated, even harmful baby-care practices on them—feeding the newborns “pablum,” insisting that they only get a bottle every five hours on a strict schedule, that they not be picked up when they cry so as not to “spoil” them.

Some women vent about this. I read their postings but keep silent, feeling grateful, despite my own problems, that I am not in their shoes.

The biological point of anxiety, its reason for existing, is to help us run from danger. But if the danger is all in our minds, well what’s the point of feeling “fight, fright, or flight” in response to that?

I understand that PPD is essentially the result of a chemical imbalance, but it seems like a disorder we should have evolved not to have. Post-partum is a crucial time, a time when we need to be fully present and strong for our babies. As a species, how can we afford to have up to a quarter of all new mothers paralyzed by fear, wracked by tears and hallucinations, hearing demonic voices? What could possibly be the benefit of all this?

Does PPD keep us safer by keeping us at home? Does the very presence of this disorder spur husbands and relatives to help more with the baby? Or, is PPD just a sick example of natural selection—weeding out the neurotics, the especially paranoid?

I am driving home from work, south on the Avenue of Saints from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City. I remember the coyote I saw the previous summer, when I was heavily pregnant but could not yet even imagine how much my life was going to change. That coyote stood in a field that had just been mown, hay tied in neat bales that dotted the landscape. Her ears were back, and she looked scared, as if thinking, “What happened to everything I knew? Where is the long grass that used to hide me?”

Everyone says that coyotes are smart, that they are brave, adaptable hunters who will eat flesh or fruit, whatever they can. But many farmers see coyotes as nuisance animals, predators that will steal and kill their sheep or chickens. Coyotes are, therefore, unpopular guest on the land that they hunt—and the rest of the land is being taken from them and used for new roads, new subdivisions.

The world is changing for coyotes. I realize that the world is changing for me. Still, the coyote adapts, using its innate cleverness to negotiate the changing landscape. Of course, I will need to do the same.

The image of the anxious-looking late summer coyote is imprinted on my brain. When I see, months later, the dead coyotes, I wonder if she was with them, if her life is over, if her presence has been savagely erased.

I don’t believe that my life, with all its blessings, is really anything like a coyote’s. But it is the coyote that reminds me how quickly things can change.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Literary Passage Analysis: Why I Think It's Much More Important Than Memorizing Facts

I work in a school where the motto has to do with teaching students what they will truly need to know in their lives.

I am down with that. Aren't we all, at heart?

I personally have little tolerance for busywork, or heaven forbid, for spending years memorizing facts that will never be relevant in my life. I am very good at memorization, so that has never been a problem for me--except that I know most of it will serve no later purpose, unless I am cast on a game show.

While I understand that students should be well-rounded and well-versed in a variety of subjects, I think sometimes schools and teachers focus too much on the "spitting back up" of quickly memorized (and just as quickly forgotten) facts.

What about deeper thinking? What about making connections? That's what I am interested in, myself.

I know many teachers are, too. I know that "critical thinking" is the current catchphrase, and we are all trying to ensure that our courses require our students to think critically.

But there is some lag happening, here. For years, schools have required rote memorization in order to ensure success and good grades and test scores.

Our students want to do well, and they are understandably unnerved by the sudden (or perceived as sudden) shifting of priorities.

To be told now, "There isn't always a right or wrong answer. Sometimes, you will just get credit for your insight, or for how well you phrase your argument," can often stun students for a while.

One thing we are doing in my American Literature classes is literary passage analysis work. This is a good example of an exercise which requires students to be slow, thoughtful and insightful. They may come up with something I personally hadn't thought of--and I will give them credit for that.

While there are certain answers that I--in a perfect world--will hope they know, I want to see what they can do, how far they can run with an excerpt of literature.

My students were, at first, semi-incredulous that there wouldn't necessarily be specific facts to memorize that will help ensure that they ace their midterm exams.

"No, it's what you can tell me about the passages of literature," I explained. "Don't paraphrase. Don't tell me what is happening here because first of all, I have read all these novels (The Scarlet Letter; The Great Gatsby; The Catcher in the Rye; Ethan Frome) about 20 times, no lie. And also, I can see from the passage what is happening. Repeating plot will not impress me."

"What can you say about the use of language?" I asked. (I got some blank looks, some blinks, but then they were Into It.)

They told me that Fitzgerald's use of the phrases "colossal vitality of his illusion" and "ghostly heart" are both oxymoronic.


My students said that Hawthorne lists the Reverend Dimmesdale's good qualities in a long line of phrases set off by commas and then tersely comments that having all these traits cause a "prick of anguish" in his daily life. The short diction--prick and anguish--plays off the long, complex syntax and both serve to emphasize each other.


So why is this important in life?

It all has to do with understanding how to effectively communicate with other people. How can we use language to our best ability? How did these great authors use language?

If we can appreciate literature, we will be that much closer to being able to create great literature (or even just coherent copy) ourselves.

For midterms, I am aware that some other English teachers might be requiring students to memorize when an author was born and when he died, but I am hard-pressed to understand how and why facts of this nature will be relevant later on.

Sure, we can test students on whether or not they were paying attention to our lectures, but shouldn't we actually be testing them on what they can glean from all the reading they've done, and on how well they themselves can write?

It is good to know that Hawthorne lived in the 19th century, but I wonder: isn't it more important to understand why we still read The Scarlet Letter, and what this novel has to say about what it means to be human?

There is so much Hawthorne says (as well as Fitzgerald, Wharton, and Salinger). It would be a shame to miss it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I Was So Happy to Get an H1N1 Shot Today!

There was a free H1N1 flu shot clinic today in my town (for schoolkids), so I took my girls.

The screaming that came from the backseat when I mentioned where we were going...well, I felt bad about it, but if it had been captured on film, you would be laughing.

Eventually (after 40 minutes of screaming, crying, threats, "You suck!"--charming, huh?--and kicking of my car seat), we went inside and got the flu shots.

Yes, I had to bribe them. But I am really terrified about my children contracting a virulent form of swine flu.

The nurses at the clinic were incredibly kind, and my little one, my brave child, sat right down and rolled up her sleeve. She cried a little, but it was over in a second, and then my eldest child (destined to be an actress) started swooning and shrieking.

They got the needle in anyway. I was impressed.

Again, it was over in just a second. One second.

Even I got an H1N1 shot--and I was thrilled. Seriously.

I just casually mentioned, on our way out, that I wished I could get an H1N1 vaccine (after telling my girls I was proud of them, sort of, and happy they'd gotten vaccinated).

So far this year, I had not been able to get a swine flu shot as I fall into the non-priority group. But now there is plenty of vaccine. There is so much vaccine the government is literally giving it away.

I was pulled back into the room and offered a shot, which I happily took. And no, it didn't hurt at all.

Take advantage of H1N1 vaccines, if you can. Bring your kids to get vaccinated, too.

I realize that the obligatory Mickey D's run after shots sort of defeats the healthy purpose that parents intended, but do what you have to do.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Pretty Freaky Ankle Update, for Those Who Want it

Photo here is my ankle (taken 1/12/10. Notice that it still gets swollen, as evidenced by the sock lines! You can't see the scar on the other side, but it's shorter. This photo makes my leg look wider than it really is...).

Today, as I looked at an old (and oddly blank) date book from 2009, I was reminded of how my life last year was basically on hold.

The entire year was a blur.

From my perspective, it was the last year in (as TIME magazine so aptly put it) a Hell Decade.

At least it went by fast.

You see (and many of my readers will know this, as the Gory Ankle Pix and injury story is why they found and read my blog!), I was recovering from a devastating leg injury and I could barely walk last year at this time.

I had a tri-malleolar ankle fracture, and after it healed, I still had trouble walking for months.

I endured countless hours of PT. I probably spent just as much time icing my leg. If only I had those hours of my life back (the icing hours)'s not a good way to live.

It wasn't until my second surgery (where I had the orthopaedic hardware removed)--well, it wasn't for a month or two after that surgery--that I started to feel like my old self again.

But I still can't run. I can't dance. I can't ice skate.

I probably will never do any of those things again.

Well, I hate to say never, so I won't say never. The pain, though, that I experience when I try makes those sports and activities seem very unlikely.

I was told I should swim now, but I don't enjoy swimming the way I used to because it stings the scars, and my ankle is still so inflexible and weird, despite all the exercise (mostly bike riding) that I do.

Anyway--I hate to even talk about my ankle. It's boring to me now. But I get asked about it, and I get many e-mails from people who recently fractured their ankles and want to know about recovery and whether hardware removal surgery is worth it.

What can I say? Recovery is long. Recovery is ongoing. The work you do (as is true for much of life) is never really over.

It takes discipline, and it takes time every day, but you have to do it so you can function to your best ability.

Still, you will feel grateful later (and yes, I recommend getting the hardware removed. It made a huge difference for me in terms of decreased pain and increased range of motion--once you recover from the surgery itself and rebuild your muscles).

After this type of injury, you will be grateful that you can walk, for one thing. Grateful that you can pedal a bike, even if you may not ever again experience the exhilaration of running a shady, soft trail through the woods.

I used to love that.

I worry now that I will break some other bone(s).

My daughter broke both arms this past fall, but even that (which was bad, and I felt awful for her, though she coped and adjusted amazingly) would be preferable, I think, to breaking a leg.

Not that I want to find out.

My daughter can't breakdance now, which bothers her.

It's always something.

I sort of wish I had taken photos of my atrophied leg--just to compare last year to this year. I might feel better about my recovery process then.

Still, I've come a long way. And so will you.

As someone else told me in an e-mail: Broken Ankles Unite!

Feel free to write to me with questions about ankle fractures and ankle surgery. I am always happy to help if I can.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Apparently, I am NOT going to blog every day in January

To be truthful, I only missed one day (yesterday), though I did delete one of my other posts for personal / political reasons. My inner PR flack (I used to be one) could not rest comfortably; I envisioned repercussions of some sort--undeserved (what I write is always fair and truthful), but problems nevertheless.

Last night, when I might have blogged, I was just tired.

We have been entertaining relatives every weekend for what feels like a month. It probably is a month.

Entertaining means serious cleaning and marathon cooking. I can't take much more of this. The holiday season needs to be *over*--but we still have our tree up.

Anyway, I am prepping this week for midterm exams. I still have to write them. I do this every year.

My American Lit students told me today that they heard my vocabulary sections were "killer," and "impossible." I was sorry, but I had to laugh.

1) Not true and 2) They've been studying these words for months, so how it could it be that hard?

Vocabulary is one of my favorite things to teach. I love words.

What is more important to reading and writing than words? That's what it's all about, after all.

The other part of the American Lit midterm will be literary analysis of passages from the novels we've read. I will practice with my class, but again: I want to see what they've absorbed so far in terms of analysis, comprehension and writing.

AP English Language will have a midterm that is a practice version of an actual AP English Language exam. That's easy for me.

Before I write these exams, however, I have a foot-high stack of papers to grade.

Wish me luck.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

High Diction, Low Diction and a Melange of Memes

Tonight, I took my kids to see Avatar (it was too long for them; it took half our day!).

I hadn't intended on seeing this film; in fact, I had been sort of weirded-out by the freaky blue people with cat noses when I saw innumerable previews. But, since the world has been flocking to Avatar and it's rising to meet Titanic's box office record, and everyone is talking about it, I thought: better catch up and form my own opinion so I know what I'm talking about--or so that I can talk about it.

NPR recently ran a very clever article criticizing both Avatar and Ke$ha's party pop song, "Tik Tok," as hopelessly derivative. ("Avatar and Ke$ha: A Denominator in Common?" By Neda Ulaby and Zoe Chace.

I had my students read this piece because I think it illustrates how ignoring the old rules of academic essay writing and taking risks can lead to far more engaging pieces.

One thing I love about the NPR essay is that its form echoes its content in a way that is surprisingly witty.

For example, Ulaby and Chace write, "Admit it: If you've seen Avatar, weren't you sort of overwhelmed by how everything in the story has been in some other movie? Pocahontas, The Last of the Mohicans, the Smurfs. (OMG, we love the Smurfs.) It's like some unholy mashup of those movies, plus bits of Wall-E, Thundercats, Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Lawrence of Arabia — every colonialist fantasy in which an Outsider Saves Natives..."

The NPR essay is about the mixture of influences and it mixes low and high diction in a similar "mashup."

I love to do this myself; sometimes I am criticized for it, but I love the jarring effect of this technique, and it hardly ever fails to amuse me.

You can see the high and low diction here. Ulaby and Chace write:

"Lyrically, Ke$ha's reference points are a weird jumble of cultural references: She calls out P. Diddy as her baller role model, and only wants to ride with boys who look like Mick Jagger? The aesthetic of her video is hardcore '80s, but her voice is totally Britney. She looks like a cracked-out Taylor Swift...

Now, pastiche is a tricky thing. One person's pastiche might come off as slick and smart, while another's is just derivative. Blaxploitation movies — you know, movies that took every racist stereotype that black actors had been traditionally playing in the movies and put them together into one big superfly extravaganza...

The trouble with Ke$ha is that she's channeling pop and hip-hop memes without adding any personal commentary or insight of her own. And if you're just employing a bunch of played-out old tropes without trying to make a larger point, you're just tired."

I had a good time with my students discussing (well, first explaining some of the words and then discussing) the diction. Cracked-out, pastiche; derivative; superfly; Blaxploitation; memes; and tropes.

What an unholy mashup of words! No, really, I thought it was rather brilliant.

The authors of this essay showed us exactly what they were telling us. They demonstrated the jarring effect of mixing influences, and also appealed to us with memes that have practically become archetypal.

I want to see my students do the same. Playing with ideas and fooling around with language can lead to bold, persuasive, insightful pieces of writing that engage readers in a delightful way.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The More Rules You Have to Obey, the More Creative You Can Be

This week, I asked my AP English Language students to write argumentative essays in the most creative way possible.

That means abandoning their usual tactics and creating a list of new rules for themselves--what they won't do in this essay, and noting what they will do (must do) instead.

I have also given the students constraints, just to make it more interesting. I started with a bland title (but one that could go anywhere): "Should You Drink the Water?"

The essays, strangely enough, DO NOT have to be about water.

(We also discussed brainstorming. I modeled mind-mapping, demonstrating how my initial notes about water might lead to Woody Allen, NYC, or tsunamis, or eco-consciousness or even whether or not to follow the crowd.)

But the essays DO need to contain an anecdote of some kind, and a reference to either an historical, literary or pop culture figure. They also need to be replete with sensory details (since that is much of what makes writing of all kinds come alive!).

The main point of these essays, though, is to learn to see what is inside our personal writing boxes and force ourselves out of our comfort zones. The hope is that the exercise will show students how their writing can reach the next level when they have no choice but to bend in new ways.

We all have words and phrases we typically use in academic essays. Most of us start relying on a safe but boring formula--partly because it has worked for us before, and partly because it has just become our routine.

I once had a boyfriend (a very smart boyfriend) who assured me that, "One way to always get an A on an essay is to drop in the word 'quintessential.' Works every time."

In order to force students into new ways of writing (for this essay), they have to honestly note their usual tactics and then make another list of rules for themselves--lists of what they will NOT do this time.

All of my students seemed honest and eager to drop the tired habits and try something new. No one had difficulty making a list, from what I could tell, though I did have to think fast and suggest many positive alternatives to the old habits they now want to avoid.

Some students want to stop relying on the word "however" as their main transition. They can decide not to use "however" at all, or to use it no more than once.

Some others admitted that their tendency is to write long-winded sentences full of parenthetical remarks. They will now give themselves a sentence word-limit, and keep paragraphs to four or five lines, in order to get around this blizzard-of-words crutch.

Students end up with a checklist of all the habits they have to kick for this essay--as well as a list of all the new ideas/rules they have to use this time, in their place.

I explained that although not being allowed to use the word "however" feels like a self-inflicted punishment, perhaps, the students shouldn't worry about it because they ALSO have a note right next to it that tells them what they will write instead.

It might be that they will substitute longer, more sophisticated, "Not only....but also" transitional phrases for one-word quickies. Or, perhaps their task will be to incorporate metaphors when they usually just stick to plain facts.

In the end, the point is to see how rules force us to think of new ways to get around them.

Who, after all, has better fashion sense than the kid who has a uniform to wear to school?

How much better is art when we are told to do something awkward, such as draw the inside of a lightbulb from the perspective of an ant--as opposed to the block that can happen when we stare at a blank sheet of paper after being told just to have at it?

Lists of odd rules are something I often give my creative writing students to help them start writing short stories.

I am really excited to see these essays, though. Creativity in an argumentative essay. It's going to be cool.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

When the Writing is Frustrating

I just spent the past four years (well, very part-time over the past four years) writing a novel (PRETTY FREAKY).

Right before Christmas, I completed my fourth revision. It was torture. I love the novel, but it was hard going and it weighed on me, caused me serious angst.

I just heard yesterday from my agent that "narrative tension" (the whole issue I was attempting to address in this latest revision) is still lacking. I was told the novel won't place until/unless this is resolved.

I feel sort of like crying some moments (but I won't) or even, at other moments, tearing my hair out.

I am an award-winning writer. I have my MFA from a prestigious writing program. And I can't see narrative tension (the lack of it, at least) in my own work.

Am I too close to the work? Isn't this what editors do (or did)?

I know my writing is good (the novel, I mean--not necessarily every quickly-dashed-off blog post). I don't mean to be egotistical, but I also know it's better than a lot of YA I read (and I read as much as I can).

So what's the deal? What do I do now? What can I do except get back to work and slog through it again?

I have asked friends to read and comment for me. No one has time. Hmmmm.

Trust is something I need to have at this point, I think. I need to trust that it's ok that I am not done yet. Maybe publishing is just still really difficult and slow. Maybe the next draft (ugggghhh) will bring me even closer to fine (and fini).

I need to trust that it will all work out--and relatively soon.

Time should be essentially meaningless, and yet, I am always, always worried about time.

I may be a late blooomer, and I have come to terms with that. But when everyone else in the world--it seems--has a book out, I want mine to come out, too.

Back to work...

I keep muttering to myself, "This is the last novel...."

Do I mean it?

Time (hah!) will tell.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Journalism Experiments

Inspired by something I mentioned yesterday (The Good Samaritan Experiment--see 1/3/10 blog post), I came into school today armed with a great new group project for my Journalism class.

I explained how the Samaritan experiment was planned, and its results.

Then, my class and I brainstormed for similar experiments we might try here at school.

As usual, my students stunned me with their wit and wisdom.

"How about The Great Pastry Experiement?" A. asked. She explained that she thought it would be interesting to walk through various school hallways holding a tray of pastry (cake, cookies, cupcakes, etc.) and see how many people asked for a piece. Her hypothesis is that pastry makes previously unintroduced people extra-friendly.

She also plans to compare numbers of asks during "rush" times and slow times. Will there be fewer asks during busy hallway times? There will be more people, so the results could be telling.

Also, will an "ask" result in more friendliness later? If you ask someone you don't know for a cupcake, and that person gives you one, how will your impression of that person change? Will a relationship (even if it's just a favorable impression) result? Post-ask interviews are planned!

Other ideas raised included experiments for how people feel when they forget their re-usable shopping bags at the grocery store (and how other clientele and cashiers feel about these people).

This one hits home for me: I probably own 15 re-usable bags, but most of the time I forget many or even all of them. It's terrible, and I always feel incredibly guilty about it (but I won't buy more because I already have 15, and also because when I once went back to my car to get them, I broke my leg in the grocery store parking lot!).

We may also test out young women's changing opinion of chivalry. Is it dead? Do we sort of want (parts of) it to be dead? Should chivalry now morph into common (shared) courtesy to both genders?

Ideas, ideas. I love ideas.

I am sure there will be even more ideas tomorrow--but the point is that these are complex, and long-term, projects. Much planning and many parts will go into them.

I will post end results later!

Have a great day. It is freezing here, but I am excited to talk about ETHAN FROME later (one of my favorite novels).

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Twitter for Professional Development

Next month, I am going to give a presentation on the benefits of Twitter for professional development in education.

I have presented to faculty before on writing centers and writing across the curriculum, but this talk will be broader. And, although it is not original, I think it's timely and crucial.

In education, there are many fine teachers who are excited by and on top of the latest technological tools. But there are also many more who might be afraid, or feel that it's now pointless, that they will never catch up.

I want to show everyone how easy it is to incorporate lifelong learning into daily routines, and how the sharing of information on Twitter benefits us all.

Twitter is like many things in life--it can be silly and gossipy and superficial, or it can be thought-provoking, inspiring and deeply useful.

Since I've been posting on and reading posts on Twitter, I have (some days--not all) learned so much. Just this morning, @CafeNirvana posted and Re-tweeted (RTed) about six articles that made me think, "I can use this in my teaching!"

Example: a psychological experiment that compares perceived personality traits with situations. Dubbed "The Good Samaritan Experiment," researchers hypothesized that people are more likely to help others if they are not being rushed (if they perceive they have time and aren't being pressured to hurry up) AND if they already have the parable of The Good Samaritan on their minds. Being rushed, I believe, was the primary reason people didn't stop to help an apparently-ailing "victim."

I want to use something like this for my own students. In Journalism class, I believe we can craft a similar experiment, try it out, and then report on our findings.

What else did I find on Twitter today? Wonderful articles on the nature of genius (what makes a genius?) and genius and "late bloomers" --can you tell that I am interested in this subject?--and poetry.

I read and will use it all.

Go ahead--create a Twitter account. Feel free to follow me @ecollins8

There is an impressive community of thinkers, writers and artists (and people interested in every subject imaginable) out there on Twitter.

Time on Twitter is, I am happy to report, time well spent.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Agh, the Looming Pressure of the Last Two Days of Vacation

I think every teacher goes through this. We work so hard, get practically burned out before break and feel positively desperate for vacation. Then, the break feels almost too long...but when it's just about over, that creeping, nagging lump in the chest wall comes back. Anxiety. Pressure. Unfinished business.

I am feeling that way right now.

On the one hand, I will be glad to get my children away from each other and end the "What will we do todays." On the other, I have to rewrite curricula for several courses (it's not that bad--it's really just busywork, typing up syllabi into a new format dictated by school admin) and get all my papers in order.

I am excited to be back at school, and yet I am also worried because my family has all (me included) just come down with Something. Perfect timing.

I have also pledged to blog every day this month. Hmmm.

Well, last night I said I would post the opening lines of my second novel, PRETTY FREAKY. So I will do that. Just to say that I did.


By Elizabeth Collins

Chapter One: The Vision

Give me my Romeo, and when he shall die,

Take him and cut him out in little stars,

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night,

And pay no worship to the garish sun.

--Juliet, in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”

With an almost audible bang, I feel my life change the first moment I see him. His shine catches my eye from a distance. At first, I stop still in my tracks, utterly stunned. Then I run closer toward this vision to see exactly what it is.

What can I say? I am in many ways just a regular girl, or perhaps like a crow; sparkly things attract me. A golden-tan boy, just a bit older than me, standing in the late-summer sunset, shirtless—that’s an attention-getter. A boy clad in only jeans, there in his driveway hefting two cans of paint, two probably full cans that are maybe kind of heavy, making his arms taut with sinewy muscles, making him sweat a bit, making him glow and shimmer: well, I am sixteen and especially prone to attraction. But to anyone, of any age, I think, a guy like that is undeniably sexy.

I want to look long and hard at him, get my fill before this beauty dissipates, before he walks away. Yet I know that this vision will live in my memory, in the sweetness of my imagination. I know I can fall for that.

Fall, I do. On the ground. Hard. I spit some small pebbles from my mouth. My knee is scraped up and starting to bleed in thin red lines. The heels of my hands are burning, tiny white curls of skin peeling back. What a humiliating splat. Just standing here, basically still, lost in a daydream, I have tripped over absolutely nothing.

As always, feel free to comment or shoot me an e-mail. Please also officially follow my blog. I have many readers, apparently, but not that many public followers.

(Ah, the sweet sound of husband on the treadmill! I love it. Gives me hope for the new year!)

Friday, January 1, 2010

NaBloPoMo--will I blog every day in January?

Just like National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo (that was in November, and no, I didn't do it. Why? Because I already wrote two novels. One of them--the second--has to sell this year or I might...I might...completely lose hope. Because it's good and it's important, and believe me, I'm not just saying that. I have incredibly high standards, even for--especially for--myself), there is also NaBloPoMo.

Yes, you guessed it: that stands for National Blog Posting Month.

The challenge is to post every day during a month. I believe NaBloPoMo starts now, in January.

Google it and find the website/blog about it. (I apologize for not being more specific. I am really tired from last night, and think I have a fever. NaBloPoMo is neither my brainchild nor project, although I am happy to participate.)

This means, of course, that all my posts in January will not be fabulous. They can't be. There isn't time. Quantity in this case is more important than quality. But because it's also just important to write daily, and to start conversations, I think NaBloPoMo will be useful and worthwhile. Good will come of it.

I will write, as usual, about what is on my mind. Today, it was the Mummers (how cool are the Mummers? Seriously. Google them, too, and check out their outfits, their choreography, their masks, and tell me what you think!). That Mummers Parade is one of the more interesting things about Philadelphia, and there's plenty of interesting around here.

I have also been thinking about the first line of my first novel. I still like it, though my task right now is to revise the first novel--in the hope that the second will sell and that whoever buys it will ask me if I have another...can you say "two book deal?"

I realize that two-book deals aren't always in the author's favor, but I really need to get my novels out. I always feel that life's a-wastin'.

Anyway, it's not like I know of any impending deal for the first (agent is probably reading it right now), so it's a moot point.

Now, the question is: "What's the first line of the first novel?"

I am sort of scared to type it here. It will read strangely out of context.

Instead, I will post the first lines. Remember, this is from my first novel, which I wrote four years ago. Maybe five.

I was thinking about the first line as I walked my dogs tonight and wondering if it was great or boring. First lines are so important. Then again, how many books have I read where I wasn't all that impressed with the first lines?

When does the novel really need to grab you? I realize that the answer is: "As soon as possible, or else I'll stop reading."

What do you think of this?

By Elizabeth Collins


They say that there are only two things you need to know about the universe. One, that it is infinite. Two, that it is always expanding.

I’m not going to lie and say I even understand what that means. Literally. But I guess this stuff about the universe represents some great big honking universal truth. Something we’ll all understand at some point, something like ‘change is constant.’

Yeah, change. That’s one thing you can count on.

My second novel's opening lines might be better. I'll leave that posting for tomorrow.

NaBloPoMo is in effect...keep writing those blog posts. Keep warm, keep busy.