Thursday, December 15, 2011

My 2011 Reading List (and the year's not over yet)

  • I have not included cover art for all books because I don't have time. I may finish this task or I may not. No personal slights intended!
  • Included are lists of books I reviewed, books I read for pleasure, and books I read in order to grow as a person. There's something for everyone.
  • Happy reading!

Books I reviewed or wrote about:

Books I read for entertainment:

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (Highly recommended! This is a brilliant suspense novel, and precisely the sort of masterwork that would never get published now because it takes 50 or so pages to get going, but when it does, watch out! Thank you to my favorite book catalog, Bas Bleu, for the spot-on recommendation.)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society  (I adored this book, although I resisted reading it for a long time because it was such a commercial hit. Now I understand why everyone loved it. This novel--about WWII-era Guernsey and London and the Nazi occupation of the Channel islands--should be a film) by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Linger by Maggie Stiefvater  (I read YA because I write YA. This particular novel is very good, even better than its predecessor, Shiver. I really enjoyed the werewolf novel, Shiver, and found it intelligent and well crafted, except for the very, very end...but that's what happens when a sequel is planned, I suppose.)

Forever by Maggie Stiefvater  (Final book in the changing-into-wolves trilogy; I think the series should have ended with Linger. My verdict is, unfortunately, negative. I really hate the multiple narrators thing, and in this case, I didn't like the characters who got the focus; they were the unlikeable characters. When different narrative voices are used in a novel--by any author--they always end up sounding alike to me. That trick is getting tiresome, and I wish the trend would die.)

Mockingjay (last Hunger Games book) by Suzanne Collins (Why does the final book in a series that started out so strong always feel like a waste of time and money? I loved The Hunger Games. I seriously loved it. The second novel, Catching Fire, felt much weaker. Mockingjay was weaker still. From now on, I will not read the third book in a trilogy…no more three part series, please, commercial publishers! The Hunger Games was awesome, but I think the story was simply pushed too far, and it read as though the author was rushed to pump out the next two books, or maybe her heart wasn't in it anymore.)

My mother lent me Tina Fey’s Bossypants (read it on the Kindle). I live next to Fey’s parents and see her several times a year. She seems nice, but I always feel like a loser when the driver in the Escalade pulls up. Fey wrote a book that will give readers some laughs (and provides great behind-the-scenes gossip about the Palin thing), but I am glad I didn't pay for this considering the gaping wage discrepancy between Fey and myself. That's just my way of evening the playing field...I am kidding. I still hold out hope that she will play me someday in the movie version (if one is ever made) of my memoir...I get, "You are just like Tina Fey as the teacher in Mean Girls!" all the time when I am teaching. 

A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard (Jaycee was the girl who was kidnapped and lived with her captor for decades, bearing two children by him...the story is so creepy. Dugard is largely self-taught, and I think she had ghostwriting help, but she's still an inspiration. This book is not literature per se, but it's an interesting story and sheds much light on Stockholm Syndrome and brainwashing.)

The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert   (Utterly lovely novel from a great small press. I was enchanted by this book about an eccentric family. I don't recall specifics because I read it months ago, but I really enjoyed the novel. The title is from left field; it's a sweet, quiet, literary story--just what I like.)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery; Translated by Alison Anderson (Intelligent, impressive, thought-provoking and truly amazing for a translation. I see that its Amazon reviews are not fabulous, but maybe you have to be a Philosophy major, like me, to get it...)

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell.  (A fine novel that is engaging, haunting, and leaves you thinking. There is a strong, young female protagonist, and interesting details about American poor in the Ozarks. I have been recommending this book as supplemental reading for all the AP English students I tutor because it has many relevant themes and something interesting to say about human nature and resilience.)

The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett. It took me a while to get to this novel by Patchett (I greatly admire her memoir, Truth & Beauty), possibly because it's about unwed mothers, strict Catholicism, giving babies away, etc. (Disclosure: I am an adoptee and found many parallels between my own birth and this novel.) I found the main character unsympathetic and inscrutable, but nevertheless, I loved the story. It disturbed me in some ways, but I am impressed by Patchett's ability to imagine a world she probably doesn't know at all.

Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler. I found this book in our beach house. Anne Tyler is always good. Always. What a prolific and talented writer! This novel is about a catering hall of sorts, and it's about the strange, sudden choices we make that alter our lives forever; it's also about accepting ourselves for what we've become and not trying to rewrite the past.

Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. I was so looking forward to this book (all the dirt about the Clintons, Obama, McCain and Palin), but I found it a bit of a let-down. It's impressive from a reportage standpoint, but all I really learned is that the presidential candidates apparently cuss like sailors...and that Palin is as doltish as I already thought she was.

Books I read for my own personal edification:

The China Study by T. Colin Campbell (Very interesting; about the health dangers and heart problems caused by our consumption of animal-based foods, written by a scientist who used his own family story as the basis for his research. )

Jesus Land  (a memoir) by Julia Scheeres. (Why I read so many books about hard-core Christianity this past year, I do not know. But this one was great. Scary, disturbing, traumatic, and sad. This is what happens when people focus on religion and their church but don't actually care for other people--what I would term hypocrisy. Scheeres had two adopted brothers--one of whom raped her constantly, but the other  she loved dearly and tried to protect, to no avail.  Her parents were modern-day Puritans and obvious racists. The kids, Scheeres and one brother, got sent to a frightening Christian reform school that they barely the book.)

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.   (Absolutely brilliant graphic novel about a family and young woman enduring the Iranian revolution. You'll learn so much about this horror, and, ironically, you'll laugh and love the cartoons. For all ages.)

How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and 20 Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell  (This is a great book about one of my favorite topics--Montaigne's essays--and one I will surely re-read. Includes fascinating biographical information about Montaigne; this book is so well crafted. What I learned most of all is that life for Montaigne hundreds of years ago was not all that different--from a human perspective, from an emotional and intellectual standpoint--as it is now.)

Innovation You: Four Steps to Becoming New and Improved by Jeff DeGraff  (Part business consulting, part life coaching, this is the type of book I would ordinarily never read, but I found much food for thought here and plenty of useful advice. In fact, I racked up a big library fine because I didn't want to bring the book back...I should just buy it. And so should you!)

90 Minutes in Heaven  by Don Piper and Cecil Murphey (I picked this up because one of my daughter’s friends told her to read it. My child didn’t like it because I think it scared her…it wasn't scary, but I thought the description of heaven was vague and unsatisfying—Piper, by his own account, didn't see much of heaven and never even went through the pearly gates before he was sent back—but I liked the parts about recovering from injury. I know what that's like.)

Note: I also read The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven by Kevin Malarkey and Alex Malarkey (I found it relentlessly evangelical and freaky. It sort of feels like one of those chain letters. Now, as a huge fan of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and other classic works of mysticism, I am always interested in books about the life of the spirit and "proof" of God and angels, but I am definitely not a Bible thumper, as one would probably have to be in order to connect with or love this book).

Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari  (A scary and enlightening memoir about a journalist's recent imprisonment in Iran under the Ahmadinejad and Khamenei regime. It may be TMI in some areas--tons of background info on the big Iranian pols and religious figures that starts to blur, in a way. Still, it's an apt warning for all societies about what can happen when intolerant religious fundamentalists feel threatened by open-minded academics, journalists, etc. That happens all the time, and it could even happen here (and has). Fortunately, Bahari escaped execution; he got out of prison, but just barely, and endured countless beatings and savage, absurd interrogations. Of course, Bahari hadn't even done anything wrong. As I told my students, this is the type of cautionary tale that potentially applies to any and everyone--and then I explained the title, based on the Pastor Niemoller quote. I understood much more about Iran after reading Then They Came for Me; my attention to the topic had initially been grabbed by Persepolis. This new memoir was the perfect follow-up.)

Main book I taught this year:

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder (Needless to say, I recommend this interesting nonfiction biography of the amazing and saint-like Dr. Paul Farmer; it's about poverty and public health in Haiti--and in Russia and Peru. It's also about how much we can accomplish if we actually have purpose in our lives, and it's about the truth of life: work never ends, and there is always more we can do to be of use to humanity.)

Books I read to be on same page as my daughter

Revolution is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine (lovely middle grade novel--based on the author's own childhood experiences--about the 1970s Communist revolution in China under Chairman Mao. This one made my pre-teen think...and I found the writing crystal clear and perfect.)

The Code: The 5 Secrets of Teen Success by Mawi Asgedom (This book--half memoir, half self-help guide--is hugely inspiring, a keeper for life. Motivational speaker and Harvard grad Mawi Asgedom is the best role model a kid could probably ever have. Do your own kids a favor: give them this book. It's basically a Mawi lecture in book form, but for those of us who don't have Mawi speaking at our schools, get the book!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Apps Help Improve Writing Skills (as Does Wide Reading)

Big news lately: Doctors are prescribing reading books to babies.

l can tell you from experience that reading to kids from infancy fosters a love of literature that will last a lifetime. Not only that, but the earlier we start reading or being read to, the more we can read and absorb, and the more we will know.
Perhaps some people need to see a formal article or scientific study to back up the claim that increased exposure to books helps kids develop literacy skills (I would think this would be a no-brainer!), but, for the rest of you: just try it. You can't go wrong reading books to your kids.
I can also tell you--as a teacher and as a person who learned how to write and developed a desire to write because I was, and still am, a wide reader--that reading helps with writing.
What I did not know is that all those apps out there now (like the ones my children charge to my AmEx from their iPods, or apps you can buy for your iPhone or iPad) include some great, fun tools that can actually help kids improve their writing skills.
Guest writer / teacher Elaine Hirsch has the details:
Top Five Apps to Help Improve Writing Skills

Helping your children with their writing used to mean repetitive writing exercises in notebooks and endless piles of grammar worksheets, but technology has changed the way in which kids can learn how to write. Tablets and smartphones have been instrumental in this change, so check out these great apps which can help improve your child's writing skills in an engaging and fun manner.

Chronicle for iPad
 (see screenshot, above) is an app that allows your children to create individual journals that are carried on their tablets. Kids can record short items like lists or scraps of conversation, or they can fully describe an important event. Not only will this app help child writers organize their thoughts, it will also allow kids to record a written snapshot of their lives and improve their writing skills at the same time, a skill which will reap dividends later on.  

Essay-Czar is a professional app that is helpful to your kids as they get older (high school and college). This app is often purchased by schools to help students find answers to questions about essay writing. Essay-Czar explains how to write more than 40 types of essays while also giving students an idea of what to expect on the SATs.

My Writing Spot is the solution when your student wants to write but is away from his or her desk. This app has the full functionality of a good word-processing program, including features such as word count, document groups, dictionary, thesaurus, and spell-checking. It is fully compatible with Bluetooth keyboards, and it also allows your child to lock writing work with a password.

Chapters is an app that allows each child to keep his or her own notebook on your smart phone. These virtual notebooks get different cover styles with their own passwords, and you can also separate notebooks by category. Consider how much fun your kids will have creating notebooks on their lives, on their schoolwork, and on their personal projects. (Sounds like an easy way for a kid to start writing a novel or book-length work!)

Grammar App HD takes your children back to the basics. This app is oriented around getting better with grammar, which helps children pick up the basic building blocks of writing, making communication easier. This interactive app quizzes students and helps them become more comfortable with grammar and what it can do. (This is a great choice if you need to entertain younger students on long car trips but want to steer clear of time wasters such as Angry Birds.)

A definite link exists between students' writing and their capacity for success, so don’t underestimate the help your iPhone or tablet can be. Many of the apps mentioned provide enjoyable ways for children and students to exercise their writing skills. 

There are plenty of tools out there for parents who want to help their children become better writers, so consider these apps when teaching your children or students.

(And don't forget to keep reading!)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

On Reading, Writing, Editing, Time Mgmt, & Study Skills

This is my end-of-the-semester review sheet for my college students, but it would work for any student, I believe. I hope it helps. We are all students of life, after all...

My Best General Tips on All of the Following School-y Topics


·      Make reading active. Read with a pen or pencil in your hand. Use that writing instrument to underline, make margin notes, scribble little stars by important passages, AND—if you really want to remember what you are reading—copy down key passages in the notebook that is sitting next to you. (There’s a notebook sitting next to you, right?)  *Note: students should NOT rewrite a textbook in their notebook. Taking notes on EVERYTHING is pointless and will only lead to confusion about what's most important (and it will lead to lack of retention of the information). Just read a bit. Think about what you read (purpose, tone, thesis). Jot down some key phrases, questions, and ideas. Copy facts you might need to know for a test. That's it!

·      Don’t read in bed late at night unless it’s a book you are reading for recreation (not for college or work). First, you won’t complete the reading you need to because you will fall asleep too soon. Second, you won’t remember what you read because how many people lie in bed with a pen and notebook along with a book? Hardly anyone. If you do, well, good for you, but I can tell you from experience that you will inevitably get big, impossible-to-remove ink stains on your sheets from the pen that will (also inevitably) drop from your hands after you fall asleep. Lying in bed with a pen is like falling asleep with gum in your mouth. It never turns out well. Think about it.

·      After you read, try to talk about the book with another person who has read it (ideally, people in your class). Go out for coffee with people and talk about books (no, really). We need to be sure that we can articulate our ideas about our reading. Try this verbally for starters. Try to articulate your ideas about your reading in your class writing, too. Listen to others talk (aural comprehension). It all helps to enhance your understanding!

·      Ask the questions or make the two points you wrote down in your notebook…because you always, always prepare for a class by planning two things to ask or say, right? (This is my big hint for getting your prof to admire you, and for making an impression, learning something, and upping your participation grade. You can do this for class or business. Just do it. You will feel better about yourself, and everyone will admire your brainpower and self discipline.)


·      When you feel you have nothing to say, free write. This means: write anything, just get going, even if you start off by writing, "I have no idea what to write about. I am supposed to write a persuasive paper about the ethical decisions behind the recent bill to blah blah blah, and I don't get it; I don't have any opinions; I don't know what to say..." Even if you start off doing this, you will eventually get to a point, to some usable material. Just start writing and then see where the writing takes you. You will--maybe after a page or two of scribble--get somewhere, and it’s good training (like running, which always starts hard and then you hit your stride).

·      Write a little bit everyday when you have a big assignment or paper looming. Don’t try to do it all at once. It will not be good writing.

·      Writing is RE-writing. I am a professional writer and guess what my first drafts of my personal essays or creative writing look like? Nothing like my final drafts. Night and day. My first drafts are stupid and boring, and so are yours (probably).

·      So, write until you just don’t feel like writing anymore (make notes at your stopping point about what you might say next; I always do this with my fiction writing, and it’s a lifesaver, trust me. I usually know where I think I want to go with something so I will write, EXPAND MORE ON ALIX’S DREAM HERE, or something like that, and it makes it simple to pick up the writing again when I am fresh. If I did not do this, I would forget everything and be stuck. Try a similar tactic.


·      Always come back to your writing and add more.

·      Then, go over what you already have written and make it better. (Don’t do this before you add more because you will spend all your time/energy fixing the old stuff but you won’t make any progress in terms of content. If you think you’re done with the complete draft, then it’s okay.)

·      Look at it again (REVISE) and read your work aloud. You will hear what sounds convoluted, and the awkward parts can be difficult to see (they are always easy to hear, so make reading your work aloud a habit before you turn it in).

·      Proofread. Self-edit. Let someone else read your work, too, and/or let them listen to you read it. Ask them where they were confused or wanted to know more. Take notes based on what they tell you and be objective, not defensive. Everyone’s work can always be better. Try to make your writing better, and don’t leave it all until the last minute.

·      When we edit ourselves, we do not only add more (expand on our thoughts and keep going), but we also fix errors and CUT what isn’t serving our paper. Do not be afraid to cut parts of your writing. Everything needs to be working toward your goal: supporting your thesis (you have a thesis, right?).

·      Usually, other readers are the best people to tell us where we should cut. This is  always the hardest thing to see in our own writing/editing.

·      Use a service such as or, for book length work, AutoCrit. Grammarly, for example, will show you where your writing is too wordy, confusing, grammatically incorrect (and pay attention here so you don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over!), etc.

·      It is tough to edit your own work! Try to exchange papers with someone and help each other. I have to pay people to edit my work. Try to find someone who works for free but will still do a good job for you.

·      When you get a paper back from a professor, read the notes. Trust me: time was spent reading and commenting on your paper. There’s nothing worse (from a prof’s perspective) than making the same comments over and over and over again because clearly, no one was reading them.

Study skills

·      Take notes while you read (see my comments on reading, above).

·      If there’s anything you want to remember (this is how I memorize information), copy it down. Read it again. Try to copy it from memory. Check how you did (quiz yourself). What did you miss? Read the text and write it from memory again. Keep doing this until you have it memorized and it’s perfect.

·      You can do the above with flashcards, too. WRITE your own flashcards (don’t buy them pre-made). Staring at flashcards will not magically make the information imprint itself into your brain. You have to pick up a pen and write/re-write to get the information memorized. This makes the learning visual and kinesthetic at the same time—a brilliant recipe for academic success.
Read ahead of the syllabus or class plan. You will never be in bad shape if you do this. Ideally, always read a book in its entirety before discussions even begin. Then, read it piecemeal as the discussions happen. Your comprehension and retention of the information will be so amazing, it will feel like you grew a new brain. Try it!

·      Review your notes every night.  Spend about 10 minutes looking over the notes you took for each class. If you do this, you will never have to study again. Never. Can you imagine? No, you can’t imagine it because you have probably never done it before. Try it for two weeks. No more cramming; no more all-nighters. Why didn’t you think of this before? God only knows, but you get it now, so live your life in this new, far easier way.

·      Study sitting up at a table like a Scandinavian student. (I am half Scandinavian, but I didn’t know about this Nordic trick until I was about 28 and in grad school. It totally works—probably because it is much harder to fall asleep when you are sitting at a table). You will need to prop up your books with a little  reading rack. They sell these wooden desks-for-desks in the Levenger reader’s catalog, but you could also use a cookbook holder or something.

Time management

·      We all procrastinate. I am not sure why. Maybe it has to do with dreading a certain task or tasks…maybe it’s because we’re worried about failure or success. Maybe it’s because there are simply too many distractions in life. Well, whatever. We can’t afford to procrastinate. Procrastination makes our lives suck. We must resolve to cease procrastinating and resolve to be more disciplined!
The best tool I’ve found to help with procrastination is (as I’ve mentioned) the Pomodoro Technique. Google it if you missed that class. The Pomodoro Technique calls for you to decide how much time you think a dreaded or overwhelming task is going to take. Break it down into little chunks (20-30 minutes). Work one un-interrupted (this is key!) chunk at a time. Check off your bwat or little sketch of a tomato. Congratulate yourself for a second. Do it again. And again. And again. Take a mini-break. Are you done now? Probably close to it. How awesome are you for buckling down and getting that task off your desk and off your mind? You are so awesome. Now, finish the next horrible task the same way and feel the relief wash over you…you are more productive and less stressed, aren’t you? I told you so. (Believe me, I have the same problems when it comes to work I have to do…)

Know your limits. My writing limit is 3-4 hours. I seriously cannot write for any longer that that. My brain is fried at that point (it's as if a switch turns it off), and I have to stop. If you know your limits, you can plan accordingly and not force yourself into writing garbage all night long because a paper is due tomorrow. 

·      Sometimes, the only solution is to physically remove yourself from the source of all distraction. Use the library. Lock yourself in one of those box-like rooms. Draw the blinds. Turn off your phone. No checking the internet, either! You can do this for 20-30 minutes. Try it. If you don’t feel like stopping for a tiny break after that, don’t. Keep going until you can’t anymore. This really works!

My best wishes for the rest of your academic careers (and your careers after that). It has been a privilege to meet and teach each and every one of you. Thank you!
--Elizabeth Collins

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Who Is to Blame for Cheating on SATs?

The recent Long Island SAT cheating scandal has people asking: is the SAT a fair assessment tool when it's apparent that people can pay smart kids to take the test for them?

That's a valid question. 

See this article by my former prof, Nicolaus Mills. I read it on CNN today:

We've also been asking for a while: is it ethical to put so much emphasis on SAT scores when it's clear that students can be trained--at great expense--to perform well on this exam? Is the obvious correlation of familial wealth and high SAT scores just another example of the shimmering plutocracy and "might makes right" that reigns in the good old USA? 

Poor kids, ones whose parents can't afford costly test prep and have to rely on getting adequate prep in high school (trust me: there is no time for this) don't usually have this same advantage. Therefore, rich and average students might have far higher scores than poor, more-intelligent kids. The rich kids will then gain admission to better the cycle continues.

There are, however, regular kids whose parents will go the extra mile to find and pay for good test prep. Some parents will spend whatever they must to get their kids help. This is commendable, but it is a struggle. Not everyone's parents are so concerned or so selfless--and I don't think that families should have to go into debt just for the sake of the SAT. Even so, it would be nice if parents everywhere paid more attention to their kids' test scores, and worked to get them help (and not the cheating kind).

Another big question now is: should the economic disparity associated with SAT performance nullify its results? Some colleges think so, including my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College. I agree in principle with SLC's recent decision not to consider the SAT because of this economic (and oftentimes racial) injustice, but I hate to see the college lose its USA Today ranking because of it. That actually bothers me quite a bit.

So what's the answer? Mills points out in his Op Ed that admissions staffs should be expanded in order to allow more attention to be paid to applications and the human beings behind them. I agree with this. He also calls for more interviewing of applicants. I agree with this, too (and I am always shocked when I hear from my students that they applied to 20 schools they've never even visited, and they rarely arranged interviews). I don't know if it will happen, especially at the big state schools, but it's a nice idea.

Getting back to the SAT, though, I personally think the exam needs a re-design. (Yes, I am aware that it just had one.) Even though I spend a great deal of time studying and teaching the SAT and showing my students how to get past its traps, I don't have much faith in the test as a realistic measure of academic ability--merely training.

Specifically, I see issues with the hard-to-grade essay section (and I'm a writer!) and the confusing "improving paragraphs" portion. I would rather see the return of analogies, substituted for some of the weird and nearly pointless, IMO, editing sections.

I don't want to shoot myself in the foot and call for the de-emphasis of the SAT (since I earn much of my living teaching it), but I would ideally like the exam to be more equitable, a more accurate measure of intelligence. This is how the SAT was originally conceived.  I think the first idea was a good one: assess whether students have the native intelligence to succeed in college. 

What happened to move the SAT away from its original purpose? A business empire built up around the exam, the books, and the test prep, while our society changed its expectations and now everyone has to go to college (and grad school).

Besides, it's just easier for the really big schools to assign a number to a student than to assess her or him as a human being with a complex history and talents that might not be apparent on a fill-in-the-bubble test.

It's also easy to pay others to take the test in your place. Despite the ID requirement, people who can afford to pay a test-taker can also pay for fake documents. It happens all the time.

Of course, it's unethical to take the test for someone else. It's also highly unethical to ask and pay someone to be a fake test-taker.

Notice that in the Long Island scandal, the people who are in serious trouble are the students who took the SAT for others. They are facing jail time, fines, expulsion from college, and more.

What about the people who paid them? Why are the worker bees (the ones paid to take the test for others) the ones shouldering the blame and the punishment? These people obviously needed the money. Why is our legal system going after them? I see the test-taking students here as victims who were taken advantage of by ruthless types who had enough coin to get around the system.

I'd like to see some news focusing on the people who pay others to take the SAT for them. Obviously, some parents had to give their kids thousands of dollars to pay others to take the SAT in their place. It seems sort of strange that we're not reading stories about that.

Those thousands of dollars could surely have been better spent.

On test prep.  

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader Jumped, Then Muzzled. Familiar?

An unsuspecting, pretty young woman gets tackled from behind and dragged to the ground. She shakes it off and smiles brilliantly. So cool under pressure. Then she dares to post two adorable, self-deprecating tweets about the incident.

[Dallas Cowboys vs. Miami Dolphins, November 24, 2011. Cowboys cheerleader Melissa Kellerman tackled by TE Jason Witten.]

The next thing you know, she's been muzzled. It turns out, something weird can happen to you out of the blue, but if you dare to talk about it intelligently, certain people might threaten your job and force you into silence.

Why, Cowboys? You hired a capable, attractive young woman (Melissa Kellerman) who has been working for you for years now (four years is a long time in cheerleading) and knows how to write about her experiences (in 140 characters, no less) in a way that actually makes you look good. 

So you silence her. What for?

I saw this incident unfold in real time, which is unusual because I generally don't watch football (it bores the hell out of me, and I can't stand how long it takes and how it stops and starts incessantly, and how even the best plays are over in three seconds), but my father wanted to see the Cowboys-Dolphins game on Thanksgiving.

Three hours or so into this seemingly interminable game, Kellerman was on the sidelines, back to the field, just doing her cheerleader thing when TE Jason Witten careened out of bounds. For some reason, he grabbed her as he did so, pulling her to the ground and landing on top of her. 

Why this happened, I have no idea. Did Witten think he'd keep his balance if he took her with him? The whole thing was so strange, such a freak occurrence.

I felt bad for the cheerleader, but she seemed delighted, or at least acted that way, laughing it off on the jumbotron.

There must have been thousands of people (fans, followers, friends, reporters) asking her about the incident, so she tweeted sweetly:

The next thing you know, her Twitter account has gone bye-bye. 

This bothers me for a few important reasons
1. I do not care for the muzzling of people who dare to write about their own lives. 
2. I worry that this is another example of the Man paying a young woman a crappy salary for a high profile job, and then trying to control her in every way.  
3. It also seems to be a perpetuation of the sexist mandate that women should just stand there and look pretty, and not actually use their brains or think for themselves.

Kellerman apparently plans to become a teacher next...and it's just going to get worse, I fear. Who is more muzzled than a teacher?

I am also very tired of people getting in trouble for using social media. Contemporary culture is such that we live and experience things and then we write/post about them. We share them. We connect to other people in this manner (an important detail, considering that people are more cut off from each other than ever before, it seems).  I want to see more acceptance of the idea that people can reflect and share.

How long is it going to take before people stop attacking and threatening others for daring to discuss their own lives? Why should anyone get in trouble when they were just writing about what happened? It makes no sense to me.

In the meantime, I wish Melissa Kellerman good luck and quick healing. She appears to have won a big following of fans for the way she handled herself after the accidental tackle--and that is how it should be.

The Cowboys franchise, on the other hand, looks like a bunch of big, dumb oafs.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Turkey Farm: Just Like a Horror Film

Back when I was a reporter and Thanksgiving was coming up (full disclosure: it was still at least two weeks away; we worked in advance for the non-essentials), I was assigned the requisite trip to the local turkey farm. 

"I really don't want to see a turkey slaughter," I objected. ("Animal lover" is my middle name.)

No slaughter, I was assured. Just get some nice photos of a sea of live white turkeys, their heads bobbing, looking pleasantly expectant; ask some questions about how many turkeys will be ordered and "dressed" this year, when customers should ideally order their Thanksgiving turkeys, etc.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images North AmericaWith less than one week before Thanksgiving, hundreds of turkeys standAn estimated forty-five million turkeys are cooked and eaten during annual Thanksgiving 
I have interviewed some VIPs; I met and shook hands with and close-up photographed President Clinton. Could I write a fluff piece about turkeys? Hell to the yes. I just did not want to.

I don't really like turkey, and I can't remember when I did not feel guilty about  the main dish of Thanksgiving (I still won't buy or cook turkey; I make my parents do that.  One year, I "earned" a free turkey from the supermarket. I gave it away. We don't do turkey in this house.)

As it turned out, the professional photographer was coming to the turkey farm, so I could focus on writing the story and not worry about capturing the images. This was a partial relief.

We drove to the farm separately. I parked my car, and even through the air vents, I could smell something bad. It was the smell of death.

"Do you smell that?" the photographer asked me, crinkling his nose. I nodded; I certainly could, and in fact, the odor will haunt my dreams...for the rest of my life.

We walked past a pen where turkeys roamed freely. I was relieved to see they still had their heads. 

Did they look "pleasantly expectant?" I can't say that they did. What I saw read more as abject terror.

Then, as we got closer to the barn, we heard the screaming. Turkey screaming. Axes were being used. Six axes at once. It was a freaking massacre. 

"Don't look over there!" the photographer shouted at me (which of course made me look there). 

A thick river of blood coursed down the dirt driveway. When I write, "thick river," it does not adequately describe how thick this river was.

That was it for me. No turkey story would be written this morning (I would get the interview by phone; even from 15 feet away, the farmer stank so bad of blood and guts, and his overalls were so slimy that I could not deal). 

"Then all I saw of Collins was the dust churned up by her silver Saab," the photographer (who was equally traumatized but could laugh about all this) later said back in the newsroom.

If you learn anything from this, it is: Do not visit a turkey farm before Thanksgiving or any other holiday when people traditionally eat turkey. 

Sarah Palin once gave an interview at a turkey farm, right before Thanksgiving. She was officially pardoning a turkey, back when she was governor of Alaska. Then came the post-presidential-election interview questions. Palin blithely smiled and prattled on in her folksy twang as a man dispassionately beheaded and bled turkeys right behind her.

The executioner kept looking around as if he couldn't believe she would have chosen that spot for an on-camera interview. How could she not know what was happening? No matter what you think of Palin, and I don't have the highest views, it came across as either callous or unbelievably stupid.

You know what? That Sarah Palin turkey video is so crazy, I am going to repost it. Enjoy!

I would add now: Maybe don't eat turkey, but people tend to get pissed at me when I suggest vegetarianism. I don't have many other ideas for how to get around the Thanksgiving conundrum besides, "Cook some great side dishes; take the focus off meat." (Or, as Palin put it at the pardon, "Find nourishment elsewhere." This may be the smartest thing I've ever heard her read.)

"What about protein?!" people always ask then, as if humans will literally drop dead if we don't eat big slabs of meat at least twice a day.  

Digression: we do not need nearly as much protein as we think we do, and besides, there are plenty of other non-flesh sources. But do what you want to do; I am not trying to tell anyone else how to live. 

Have a happy Thanksgiving, and if you're so inclined, please pardon a turkey.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Shakespeare for Everybody! Starting Young for Best Results

I am of two minds about Shakespeare: I love Shakespeare, and I'm over Shakespeare.

During my own high school years, I got almost nothing but Shakespeare (and Hemingway), as if no other authors existed. I had so much Shakespeare that I did not know what else I could write about on my AP English Lit exam.

[Back in 1989, we had a doozy of an open question on the AP English Literature exam.  Go look it up, if you're so inclined. It's the hardest prompt you ever saw, right? I thought so. Just for kicks, compare that prompt to one from three years ago. Notice the dumbing down; it would be funny if it weren't so sad.]

Since we had only read Shakespeare in my senior year AP English class, I wrote about King Lear in response. (It was a stretch.) I thought I had failed; I got a 5--but God knows why. Maybe because I deeply knew King Lear...but that doesn't mean that I would not have appreciated variety in our reading.

As an English teacher, I have taught many works of Shakespeare (and King Lear remains my favorite), but even though I think the themes of Shakespeare's plays are perennially important, and his use of language and imagery impressive, I don't think Will S. is the end-all, be-all.

I once had a supervisor who wanted to know which works of Shakespeare were covered each year in high school English ("a Shakespeare a year" seemed to the prescription under which this admin was operating. I guess that this is old school; needless to say, I don't believe in blanket prescriptions for curricula, and I DO believe in flexibility).

I had to explain that I don't teach Shakespeare in AMERICAN Literature...since Shakespeare was not American. To make up for it, though, I taught two works of the bard in senior year. I would have loved to assign Atonement or Middlesex, instead.

Because that made sense, I was left alone to teach as I see fit.

I am all for varying the reading lists: I find that high school students will turn off reading if the reading feels as if it needs translation, and if they can't see parallels with their own experience. This is why I mix it up and make sure I don't overdo a genre or an author (I also cruise when I teach--meaning, I never spend months on one book or one topic. Not only do I personally find that boring, but it keeps my students more lively, too).

Having said all that, I recently corresponded with a teacher who has some very good ideas about teaching Shakespeare to younger children. I love this; I think it's the messages in Shakespeare that are of the most use to contemporary students, and if we can pique students' interest in Shakespeare when young, then it will become that much easier to engage them and effectively teach other works of Shakespeare later. Classes will be more productive and run faster (which means we can teach MORE!).

Here then, from guest writer and teacher Elaine Hirsch: Teaching Shakespeare to Young Children

William Shakespeare is known for his complex plays, literary genius, and exposing things about humanity that are not the prettiest or most appealing. Most adults have been exposed to Shakespeare at least once in their lives, likely during high school or college, yet a far smaller percentage can say that they were introduced to his works as a young child. Furthermore, some scholars devote their entire studies to Shakespearean texts. Despite the complexity of the language and the dark themes prevalent throughout most of his work, Shakespeare's plays can resonate with a young child and early introduction to it can help them more easily process and interpret these stories as they encounter it throughout their education and beyond.

Here are a few ways to make Shakespeare easier for young children (and even adults as well) to understand and interpret.

1) Modernize the stories. A lot of the language in the books can fly over the heads of adults, let alone young children, so it's best to simplify the outdated language and paraphrase it into something more contemporary. If children are reading the story themselves, each section of the book should be read aloud in a group with the teacher present to elaborate for those who might be confused. If they are being read the work aloud by the educator and do not need to read themselves, it can be easier to use Cliffsnotes/SparkNotes or help students better understand the text and context. There are also many websites that provide links to kid-friendly remakes of these classic plays. Finally, complex expressions should be removed if they do not greatly impact the main storyline.

2) Focus on the main story and try not to get too bogged down in the details of smaller, less important side stories. Shakespeare is known for running several themes throughout his works at once, and it's less overwhelming for a child if you focus on the main theme until it's understood. Then, depending on what else there is to cover, you can explore side themes as needed.

3) Use other forms of media to help children visualize what is happening in the story. Find age-appropriate movies or cartoons that are based loosely off the stories being taught. 'The Lion King' can be used for 'Hamlet' and 'High School Musical' is also a great movie to use to talk about Shakespeare, due to the 'Romeo and Juliet' theme prevalent through the movie. Another great idea is to find a kid-friendly play that is locally produced and take a field trip.

4) Tone down the controversial topics. Shakespeare is notorious for having dark themes in his writing, such as suicide, murder, violence, etc. While some of these themes are hugely important to the storyline, it's best to try to either choose stories with less obvious expressions of these themes or to dumb down the dark themes by slight modification of the 'truth' in the story to something more age-appropriate. 
--Elaine Hirsch

I appreciate Elaine's ideas about teaching Shakespeare and making his work accessible to kids. I especially agree with finding connections to other novels and films and plays. For example, kids never seem to tire of discussing The Taming of the Shrew as compared to Ten Things I Hate About You. They also love to talk about why works of Shakespeare tend to be set in new locales and times (sometimes this works and sometimes it's ridiculous...but it's all good when it comes to having a productive class and getting students to articulate ideas about literature and drama!).

So, whether you have to teach Shakespeare or you want to teach Shakespeare (or both), it's all about finding ways to make Shakespeare sing for your students--whatever their age.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

What I Learned from Andy Rooney

AP file photo, 2009

Oh, Andy Rooney.  You have just died, and while it is natural to die, it seems fitting, somehow, that you died one month after retiring at age 92. I still feel bad that you died (almost as if you died because you lost your purpose). The fact that you lived and worked so long doesn't make your ending that much easier for your family or your most devoted fans.

I understand your desire to keep going until the end. I understand that writers never retire (or want to retire). I understand your mission--telling the truth--and I share it. It's a writer thing.

I am not sure how much you changed the world, Andy. I hate to say that I thought your writing was highly over-rated. At times, you could even come across as a jerk (but the curmudgeon act might have been just that). I thought at times you were brilliant and other times you were boring.

For the last decade or so, whenever I caught 60 Minutes, I'd think, "He's still there?" and "Why?" Now, I feel mean for thinking that, but I had honestly stopped seeing the point of your broadcast essays.

What I admire is the way you kept working and building up a body of words, some of them remarkable, some of them not. I admire the way you didn't even need to finish college and yet had a long, illustrious career in network news (for which I am sure you were paid lavishly) and several homes. 

The world has changed: my generation saw your shining example of an easy, decades-long, highly-remunerated career and most of us will not be able to have any of it. At least you knew you were, as you put it, "lucky."

I do know you had hard times. As every writer is (now and then), you were attacked for having and daring to share opinions. You were even--gasp!--suspended without pay for things people thought you said (but I doubt you did).

From the AP article linked above ," [Rooney] said he probably hadn't said anything on "60 Minutes" that most of his viewers didn't already know or hadn't thought. "That's what a writer does," he said. "A writer's job is to tell the truth."

People are ridiculous. You knew that. I know it. People will freak out on a writer who dares to admit to an opinion--and I'm not talking about mean writers, such as the ones seen in the right-wing papers. They know who they are. They are simply out to cause division and trouble; they like the negative attention.

You, though, you just told it like it is, and people can't even deal with that. They'd rather someone rip apart the character of another than expound, as you did, on minutiae, such as what's silly or poorly made.

Rest in peace, Andy. Despite my occasional lack of appreciation, your example taught me much.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Political Evil: It's Not What You Think (But Cheney IS Evil)

This morning, I heard a fascinating interview with Alan Wolfe, Boston College professor and author of the new book, Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It

Wolfe discusses morality, genocide, American involvement (or lack thereof) in foreign wars, and the niggling question that bothers all progressives: shouldn't there have been a war crimes trial for George W. Bush and Cheney? And, did their extreme actions post-9/11 make things better, or worse?

Wolfe answers these questions and does so bravely--no typical equivocating or apologizing for having strong views. 

If only we could see more honest writing of this sort! In the meantime, I'm reading Wolfe's book and urge others to do the same. 

For more on Political Evil, read:

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Psstt...The PSATs Count; Take Them Seriously!

As a teacher and a test prep tutor, let me just admit to one thing that really burns my ass: the PSATs are typically not emphasized by either schools or most teachers of sophomores and juniors.

Instead, innocent students entering their all-important junior year (the primary year of high school that I taught, and my favorite age student) are thrown into the lion's den after being told at the last minute, "The PSAT doesn't really count; don't worry about it!"

Then they totally freak out when they get their (usually rather bad) PSAT scores.

Why are teachers and/or admin failing to mention the PSAT until a week or so before the test, and then brushing it off as no big deal?

Are we as a society too afraid of putting pressure on our kids?

Are we feeling guilty or remiss that there hasn't, realistically, been time to cover PSAT prep in an already jam-packed English curriculum?

A little pressure on our kids can actually be a good thing, and I speak from the wide experience of having many students and tutees whose parents demand absolute perfection..."absolute" is a bit much, I agree, but striving for a top score is not a foolhardy past-time. 

I have personally seen kids who do not even speak English study for two years, master the language, and then ace the Verbal SAT, so I know that anything can be done. Anything. Nothing is impossible; it just takes work.

I have also seen some alarmingly poor PSAT scores in native English speakers and heretofore decent students. 

I have seen entire families shocked to realize that no one ever told them that the PSAT (despite the P standing for  Preliminary) is pretty important. No, it doesn't count for college admission, but it does count quite a bit for courting colleges' interest.

One good thing about the harsh truth of low PSAT scores is that then people are motivated to really prepare for the SAT, and they still have a good year to get serious. 

Here's the bad thing: what isn't often mentioned is the fact that the PSAT--a excellent chance to win a National Merit or other scholarship and score brownie points with colleges, and a great opportunity to truly test how prepared a student is for the SAT--has been wasted. Not only that, but what has also been ignored is the fact that good PSAT scores basically guarantee stellar SAT performance, so by preparing for the PSAT, students would be way ahead of the game.  (We have to start early in order to master the tested skills and the all-important vocab and strategy.)

So, what's the solution? Is it more in-class test prep and more teaching to the test? No. 

As a teacher, I understand that there is not much time in the high school English class day to do PSAT prep in addition to the myriad other important tasks (Novel reading! Essay writing! Notice that both the reading and writing done in English is absolutely essential to the PSAT or any other standardized test) that must be accomplished. 

The only solution is for kids to get hardcore PSAT preparation on the outside; families will have to take the initiative to seek out PSAT courses or tutoring for their kids...and in the meantime, the other way that people can help themselves is by realizing that kids need to read as much as possible in order to ensure verbal exam success. 

I have written before that wide reading is honestly what separates the superior students/thinkers/test-takers from the average ones. Reading starts at basically birth...we have to read to our kids every day (I typically read about an hour to my kids...and I still do! Reading never ends) in order to get them interested in words and books. Kids also need to read because it's an activity that exercises their brains.

So read more. Seek out PSAT prep and don't blame English teachers--except for the fact that they may not have warned you to take the PSAT seriously. I do not pretend to understand why this is, but maybe they are busy; maybe they think your PSAT is just a benchmark...still, there is no excuse not to do the best that you can, so get ready to do your best.  It is really up to YOU, the student.

Remember, the PSAT is a big deal; please study hard!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Fathermucker: Pick it Up Soon!

Here is my latest author profile piece on Bookslut, focused on author Greg Olear and his new novel, Fathermucker (you can buy it in October or pre-order on Amazon now).

We're talking James Joyce, stay-at-home parenting, keeping up with the Kardashians and cursing around the kids. Don't miss it!

Monday, August 22, 2011

What the Koch Brothers are Doing to Kill Public Ed

Some days, I am just so inspired by other people taking the initiative to tell the truth, to get the word out, and to embolden others to resist the tyranny that oftentimes surrounds us.

See this great blog:

Specifically, click on the August 15, 2011 posting, which is a YouTube video about what the Koch Brothers are trying to do--via the "Americans for Prosperity" organization they fund--to public schools in Raleigh.

You next job? Resist. Signal your alarm and your displeasure. The Kochs aren't running for anything, but they do control many politicians and even school board members. They are "Libertarian" (I don't agree with Libertarianism, for the most part, but some members of this party seem relatively innocuous...definitely not the Kochs, however).

However you are inclined to vote, first always follow the money trail and dig for the true agenda.

Ask: what are these people doing with their power? Are they trying to change the world for good...or for the sake of their own money-making? Will this agenda help me, or hurt me and others?

Billionaires don't need more money and power. But people everywhere do need a strong, equitable, fully-funded system for public education. That is, in fact, a cornerstone of our democracy.

Don't let any people, no matter how rich and scary they are, try to bully their way into controlling education for the masses.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Big Lobster Stories: Always Favorites

Jennifer Vargas holds up a freakishly large lobster that was saved from the kitchen. (Wildlife Conservation Society).

I love stories about animals being saved from slaughter. Speaking of this, I once saw a huge lobster when I was a reporter...and I wrote a story about it. 

It, too, was saved--and it weighed in at a slightly larger 20 lbs (and looked pretty much the same as this one). I mention that not for the sake of one-upmanship, but only to emphasize that Big Lobster Stories are perpetual favorites and never cease to amaze.

Just think of how much garbage such a large creature has eaten during its lifetime...that makes lobster just a bit less appetizing, hmm?

Good luck, lobster. After 75 years of avoiding traps and nets, you deserve a break.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

When You Write About Your Problems, You Control Them

Here are some wise words on leading writing workshops by Marion Winik of the University of Baltimore. I saw this piece because of my writer friend, Jessica Anya Blau (via Twitter). 

I am a writing teacher, too, and I've lived through some traumatic workshops back in Iowa (traumatic in a good way), and this is a classic essay about the experience. I love how Winik shows how helpful and scary leading a workshop can be...and in light of the "too-much-coddling" we often see in schools, I think the workshop experience is useful and enlightening, if sometimes difficult.

For more on teaching writing, see the film "Wonder Boys"--this is also a novel by Michael Chabon, but I think the film does more to illustrate teaching writing, even though I do love the book.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Matt Damon Decries "MBA-Style Education Policy"

Among several reasons (none having to do with his appearance--seriously--not that there is anything wrong with the way he looks) why I  like Matt Damon is that he is unafraid to enter the fray and tell people when and how they are being stupid.

Check out this clip of Damon being interviewed. It was filmed by the vomitrociously-named "Reason TV" at last weekend's "Save Our Schools" march in D.C., and is being covered again by Yahoo.

I love the look of disbelief Damon gives the Libertarian "journalist" who challenges why teachers should get tenure.  Even better, I like his responses. Why do teachers put up with the "shitty pay" and long, long hours? Because it's their calling. 

Does that mean everyone should put up with those conditions? Um, no. 

And yet, teachers put up with that and so much more, and keep having to defend their profession against loudmouths who know nothing about what it's really like to teach.

The only way to stop the mindless blather of people with loud opinions who have no basis in fact for those opinions is to speak up and speak over them. I wish more people spoke the truth, as Damon does here, in defense of teachers (like his mom).

Here's the SAME CLIP, just interspersed with more interesting commentary by Anderson Cooper, getting all funny in his "Ridiculist."

Sunday, July 31, 2011

You Can't Run a School Like a Business. It Doesn't Work.

Thanks to Angie Villa, author of
for posting this button on her blog...where I just saw it. I wholeheartedly agree with what Angie says and writes about reforming American education away from an inappropriate corporate model!

I recently heard that a principal declared, "We're going to run this school like a business!" That is both a naive and callously simplistic statement (although in terms of pure propaganda, it sounds okay--sort of like "No Child Left Behind." And we know how that's been screwing up the educational system). 

If and when that school-as-business model is implemented, then "education" quickly becomes all about hitting numbers, not about actually learning anything. 

Inflicting a business model on schools will mean that the creativity and inspiration in school (on the students' side and the teachers') will immediately disappear, replaced by the simple fear of not earning enough to put bread on the table.

It's so wrongheaded to say, "We're going to run this school like a business!" that I am not even going to waste my time explaining it further (I have an article to write, and a deadline). 

You either get it, or you don't. 

Speaking of "getting it," there has long been an incorrect and offensive statement floating around. I'm sure you've heard, "Those who can't do, teach."

The statement is actually Aristotle's, and this is the real thing: "Those who know, do. Those who understand, teach."

Don't you feel better now?

My best to all teachers. Hang in there...and keep on top of the good activism that is happening to reform American education and move it away from the insensitive, dead-wrong corporate model some unthinking types have thrown in our way.

Teachers who care are trying to make education and schools better...don't be duped by the businessmen! They have no idea how to teach.