Friday, January 19, 2018

Judy, Judy, Judy... I'm pretty sure Judy Blume made me want to be a writer. Or at least she made me into a reader. I *was* her target 1970s pre-teen audience and read every one of her middle-grade and teen books about Margaret, Deenie, Sally J. Friedman, and Sheila the Great. I did not read her later "adult" books, but this one intrigued me because a) I'm revisiting writer Judy in my quest to be a YA author, and b) it's based on actual events that happened in 1952, when 3 planes crashed into the well-populated suburb of Elizabeth, New Jersey, within a 3-month period, killing the passengers on board as well as people on the ground. Each of the planes crashed near a school or orphanage, one of them just a few blocks from where the pilot's own daughter attended high school, and after the third plane crashed the old Newark airport location was shut down.
Judy Blume lived through these events as a teenager and decided to tell this amazing story of how the town dealt with these tragedies.
Short version of my writer review: Judy makes it look simple. Her prose is simple and her characters are real people with simple thoughts who use simple dialogue. Although I know it's not as simple to pull off as it looks - and, in this case, she did an incredible amount of research about the crashes and about 1950s America to flesh out these stories - it's ultimately a simple read. Maybe that makes it a great story to read - I mean, I did not put it down! And these people witnessed or lost friends in 3 plane crashes! - but there is not a lot of depth, of language or of character.
The decision to use multiple POV is central to Blume's desire to tell the story of a *town* - an entire community - and, while the thread of the story does connect everyone through the life of a young teen character named Miri (the authors stand-in), there are ultimately probably 20 different character POVs presented. Everyone in the town is connected, and several of the passengers on the doomed plane are also connected to the townspeople. It is a story of intertwined lives.
I understand Blume wanted to do this in order to show how the crashes affected the entire community, and how else to get to know about and care about the passengers on the planes than to introduce them in context, as characters, before the crashes? I found the "everyone gets a POV chapter" method ultimately less satisfying, though, as we just get the surface level of each character's life and the story - and the connections - often feels rushed because of it. Something to think about as a writer, especially as everything I've written so far has been 1st person POV, a single character's life and thoughts.
Breadth v. depth? Which do you prefer?
I am always telling my students (and my own kids) that, even if you have to do something you don't want to do, just be open to the possibility that you could still get something positive out of the experience. I do not always follow my own advice. Today I was scheduled two periods to help out with supervision during our afternoon performing arts rehearsal for the upcoming winter play. I'll admit that I was mumbling to myself about needing time to get other things done besides babysitting high schoolers backstage.
But I took a nice forest walk down to the theater/gym (before the rain & hail started) - so that was the first positive. And then I was sitting there, listening to our director get the kids organized, and then he shared this amazing quote and perspective with them about the need for empathy... Empathy for one another, as they each stretch out of their comfort zones (keep in mind that our performing arts program is *mandatory*) and take great risks in being on stage, singing, dancing, acting. But also empathy for the characters that they will embody. He read a quote about how theater builds empathy. I couldn't find the exact quote again, but I found the source for the idea from the Artistic Director at the SF Playhouse website: "When I think about it this way, it becomes clear why empathy in our world today is in such short supply. It isn’t always fun. To really feel what others suffer is painful. When we enter a character’s grief, her sorrow, his remorse, we kindle those feelings in ourselves. If all the circumstances in the theatre are just right, the lighting, the music, the acting, our hearts will jump to life and ache with the characters as they yearn, and suffer and hope. It hurts us like it hurts them and we feel joined with their humanity."
I was intrigued by thinking about the theater experience - for both actors and the audience - in this way. And I was glad I was scheduled to be there and witness this moment, the implicit education our 14-18 year olds are receiving by being involved in this enterprise, and hearing these words from such dedicated teachers.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Proud of Lilli's poem for 7th grade English: 




I am from parakeet feathers
From blankets big and small
Pink curtains in my room that match the green wall
Stuffed animals piled high
And clothes fit just for me

I am from quails
From dry grass in the front yard
Little white tails on deer
And green apples that grow on a tree in the front yard that have a sour taste

I am from bikers wearing colorful clothes
From houses mostly yellow and brown but mine is a light blue
Old mean neighbors
And cats, orange, white, and black

I am from Sadie my cousin who is just the most fun to play with
From Nate my other cousin who has a wild spirit but is so sweet
And Asher the smallest of the Wayne family who just wants to play and be your friend

I am from chill out
From okie dokie artichokie
And see ya later alligator

I am from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
Honey bunches of oats our favorite cereal
And muffins from Safeway

I am from the blue ball park in Santa Cruz
Orchard School the best place on earth
And my back yard

I am Lillian Wayne



Tuesday, January 7, 2014


I had a headache this morning and didn't want to go to school. I still have a lingering cold and just wanted to stay in my warm bed and sleep...  but I didn't.

Sometimes I have it all planned out what I'm going to do with each class each day and then it gets scrapped because something else more interesting comes up or we didn't finish what we were doing the day before or whatever, so I've learned not to over-prepare.  Also, our class periods are only 45 minutes long, so it's usually pretty frantic and limited what we can accomplish on any one day.  Some days, though, we accomplish a surprising amount.  Another factor is that our school does a lot of "extras" that take away regular class time.  For example, the seniors are going away on a one-day trip this Thursday and then I only have them once next week because the whole high school goes into a "special" Performing Arts schedule with daily rehearsals leading up to the all-school production. Other times the students want to leave class to take photos for the yearbook or leave early for sports or have a Quidditch tournament.  In the spring, the various grades will be going on one-week trips to various locales. Core subject teachers at our school are extremely generous with giving up their class time to all kinds of special projects!  So I just go with the flow...

It's not like college, though, where I am presenting detailed lectures or slides or have a set amount of material to get through.  The main goal in high school English class is to discuss the literature we are reading, to do some vocabulary work, and to do creative writing exercises.  Beyond that, I go in each day and look around on the internet for interesting literary news or poems of the day (Writer's Almanac is a good resource).  Like today was the birthday of Zora Neale Hurston, a fact commemorated on Google and especially relevant to my 11th graders who read "Their Eyes Were Watching God" last summer.


I think they were surprised to see their English curriculum validated by Google, ha.  I love that - having them see connections outside the classroom.

So I read them a piece about Hurston's background and we talked about the Harlem Renaissance and some other writers they may or may not have heard of and I told them about Alice Walker "rediscovering" Hurston and then expanded that to talk about how women's studies and ethnic studies in the 1960s and 70s brought about a resurgence of interest in different traditions and canons, etc. etc.

None of that was planned. That was just the 11th graders. Technically, I have designated Tuesdays as Poetry Day, and I do try to be somewhat systematic about that since it is an AP Lit course and they need some technical info.  So we moved from Hurston to a discussion of the villanelle as a form. I'm not a poetry expert, so I am truly learning with them.  We talked about the form and structure that makes a villanelle and we looked at two awesome examples:  Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," and Sylvia Plath's "Mad Girl's Love Song."  Read it, if you haven't:  http://structureandstyle.tumblr.com/post/30905701054/mad-girls-love-song 

From there, I threw in another Plath poem just for fun, even though it's not a villanelle: "Metaphors."

I'm a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
Money's new-minted in this fat purse.
I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I've eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there's no getting off.

Did you guess the riddle?  We analyzed each line, but I mostly held back and let them figure out the imagery, the metaphors.  FINALLY, they got it! 

..............

She's pregnant!

Here's the funny part, though...  We had a surprise classroom visit by head of school right at exact moment students were *enthusiastically* discovering the meaning of the poem.  I mean, not that that doesn't happen EVERY DAY, haha (not), but they were REALLY into this poem and it was really perfect timing.  Whew.

So that was one class today.

At lunch time, Lillian and several of her friends came to visit me, asking for money for snacks and asking for sleepovers.  The room is filled with high schoolers studying and talking during lunch time.  One senior wants to sit at my desk to talk about the Hamlet homework questions because he's struggling with reading the text on his own.  He's working hard at it and so I am THRILLED to discuss with him.  He's using my copy of the text and a stack of my notes fall out.  He hands them to me and apologizes - I tell him that these were my notes from over the break, when I decided to write down all of Ophelia's lines from the play because I wanted to understand her better as a character. He is more shocked at my nerdiness than anything else and kind of just stares at me, but I think it's important to let students know that teachers do things like that. I'm not a literary dictator just demanding that they "engage" with things - I am truly invested in getting something new out of my own reading or re-reading of each text and in being a continual and habitual student myself.  :)

My 10th graders had a double English period, so we continued our reading of Hawthorne's short story, "The Birthmark."  The language is really difficult for them, though the concept or theme of the story is pretty simple.  But I want them to appreciate the *language.*  So we read it slowly, and together.  Then I decided that, even though they aren't having formal poetry study like the AP class, I would have them read the Thomas and Plath poems, too.  The villanelles.  Poetry is still new to them.  Their favorite poets are Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss, though one student mentions Pablo Neruda and another shows me he is looking up Shakespearean sonnets on his phone.  They want to know what "forked lightning" is.  They want to know what makes two non-rhyming words "count" as a rhyme (Plath rhymes "again," "insane," and "men," for example, and this really bothers some students). They want to know what "counts" as a poem in the first place and we talk about epic poems and prose poems and song lyrics.  You never know where the discussion will lead.

I had a big plan to start reading the Book of Job with the 9th graders today.  It is next on their curriculum and it is something that I've had to do some pre-studying about because I was really not sure how to approach it with them.  But yesterday for Creative Writing they started class-produced stories (one person starts a story and each person in the class adds to it) and today they wanted to finish reading them.  They were having such a blast that I put Job aside for another day.  The stories got a little bit out of control, though, so probably good that we didn't get any head-of-school visits during that period, haha.

I didn't have the 12th graders today.  They have an elective or college advising period on Tuesdays.  I have assigned them an essay to read for tomorrow: "How Should One Read a Book?" by Virginia Woolf.  It came up in a review essay I read via facebook the other day and I'd never read the essay, so I found it and decided to discuss it with the seniors.  The main point of the essay is how to be an active rather than passive reader, and that reading and writing must go hand-in-hand. I hope it speaks to them on some level. One of them already sent me their required short response to the piece.

The seniors are not yet college students (as I would like to treat them), but they think they already know everything they need to know from high school.  I don't care *what* specific thing we are reading together - there are a million combinations you could put together for a class syllabus - my goal is just to make them THINK about literature and to encourage them to be SEEKERS.  But still, some are reluctant to expend the effort. They want to do the minimum - they are put out by any  expectations on my part. Not joking - when I handed out this essay yesterday, one of them said, "But we're already reading Hamlet, we're not supposed to read anything else."  I try not to take it personally - I know they are the class that misses their regular teacher the most, but, unfortunately, they are the oldest students and should be the most adaptable.  Life post-high school is going to be about adaptability. They are going to have a lot of different teachers and different expectations in college. They are not going to have their hands held the entire way.  In a small school and a small class (18 students) the expectations are high - for the students and for myself - but everyone feels entitled to express their opinion, for better or worse.  Because it's a small class, it is a struggle to NOT let such vocal students set the tone for the entire class or interfere with those individuals who have a more open attitude to learning.  Because there ARE those seniors who recommend literary articles TO ME (love that) or email me with their assignments before they're actually due or volunteer to read parts in class or silently turn in brilliant writing or who come in at lunch to discuss the readings. Those things make my day. :)

Sometimes I start to doubt myself and I start to panic. Am I teaching them the right things at the right time? Are we doing enough?  Am I working with them enough on their individual writing skills?  Do they know enough vocabulary?  Will they all succeed on the AP, the SAT, and in college?  Of course, that's not all my responsibility right now, and it's not the definition of "education" that any of us subscribe to on the surface, but I still think about it.  Other times, I trust I am just a guide and if I have good resources and follow the students' leads, the only definition of success is that they take responsibility for their own learning journey. And some days I just have a headache or can't think of what to make for dinner or have too many emails to respond to and if I don't record some of these little moments of fun and discovery, they'll be gone forever.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Career Reflections and Plans

I usually take some time at the end of one year and start of a  new to reflect on all the things I did NOT accomplish, all the ways my career has fallen flat, all the books I have NOT published, all the ways I am not living up to my potential or my expensive degree, haha.  But I am ending this year content and surprised at where 2013 has ended and hopeful about 2014.

 I spent the first half of the year ramping up my freelance editing and writing business. I took on numerous dissertation clients (thanks to word of mouth, more than I could handle, actually!) and wrote a dizzying number of textbook chapters, study guides, lesson plans, course curricula, and don’t even remember what else. I also indexed a friend’s fabulous history book, finished up editing a 4-volume encyclopedia on the history of women’s rights in the U.S., and signed on to write/edit a 2-volume work in the history of technology and inventions. I also had the incredible experience of being invited to post a short piece I had written about same-sex marriage that received an overwhelming and stunning number of views and reblogs and retweets.  As the numbers piled up and the responses (good and bad) flowed in, I was sure this was the start of my new career as a blogger, but perhaps not, ha. Still, it was an awesome experience, the largest audience I've ever had, and I loved writing it.  Lastly, I was (still am) determined to find an agent for my historical novel manuscript, and tried not to be discouraged by the rejections, focusing instead on the fact that *several* agents asked to see the full manuscript, at least. I sent the last big round of queries in July.

 Even though my work plate was filling up, I needed something more regular (especially if we were going to be able to send Lillian on to middle school at Mount Madonna School), and so I also spent many months (in 2012 and 2013) looking for a full-time editing or teaching job. I finally broke into the pool to teach an online college course and completed that training over the summer, but I also sent my resume to local charter and private high schools, hoping to find a full-time position and really wanting to do something different than return to adjunct college teaching. I did not rule out the latter, though, as bread-and-butter work, and in late August I was offered two courses at two different local colleges. Surprisingly, I said No. Here I was trying to drum up work for all these months and now I had too much of it. Besides, something told me that the effort (the driving, the prep for new courses) would be more than the benefits. I always hate saying No to paying jobs, but also hate saying No to colleagues in need and to opportunities, as you never know what further doors will be opened. I said No, though, and planned to focus on my writing projects as the kids prepared to start a new school year (7th and 10th grades).

 Another factor in my saying No to the local adjunct jobs was that David started a new job with a medical device company on September 1st. The offer came somewhat suddenly and he agonized over leaving his long association with the skateboard company, as they had been good to us, but besides being a positive career move for him as an engineer and allowing him to revamp his workshop and work at home full-time, the new job brought an increase in salary that relieved some of the worry about keeping both kids at MMS. Things seemed to be smoothing out.

 Everything changed in September when I was asked to step in as long-term sub for the high school English teacher at MMS. I had subbed for this teacher a few times in the past, but now she needed to go on medical leave for at least 6 weeks. I was (still am) completely honored that she asked me and that she and the head of school entrusted me with the English and Creative Writing classes for the entire high school, grades 9 through 12. I felt that everything had come full circle in a weird way. Taking two years to write my novel and to continue my own literary education. Stepping away from the college classroom and writing high school textbooks and curricula and study guides. And being completely invested in the quality of instruction at MMS, for the sake of my own kids. I have brought all of this to the English classroom in what turned out to be not only a longer-term job than originally planned, but just a BIGGER job than I could have imagined. 

 When I got the call in early September, it was not that I was simply "available," or wasn't doing anything else. It was that I knew immediately that this was what I was meant to do for now – that it was what *I* wanted to do, more than any other job I had been looking for, but also that this teacher needed me and I would (hopefully) be setting her mind at ease about leaving her job and her students on such short notice. And once I showed up in class on the first day, I knew this would be more than a "sub" job and more than a full-time job. I did not hesitate to tell my women’s rights editor that I couldn’t work on any of the finishing details of the book (timeline, intro, bibliography) and that they would have to do it in-house (this was huge for me, too, as I am such a perfectionist about work that goes out with my name on it – but my priorities had shifted). I immediately emailed my technology and inventions editor that the book would have to be postponed until next year or that they could feel free to find another writer (this was a big deal, too, because if they cancel my contract, I will owe them advance money I’ve already received, but so far they haven’t cancelled it or rescheduled it). I said No to a couple of other freelance offers that came up, but I have continued to teach the online college course because it’s a very flexible schedule and it was difficult to break-in to online teaching in the first place, and I don’t know how long I’ll be at MMS.

 Even though the teacher was telling everyone she would be gone for 6 weeks, the message I was getting from the school was to be flexible and, in my mind, I knew I would be there at least through final exams and winter break. Indeed, the original six weeks came and went without anyone really commenting on the date, as her medical condition was raising more questions than answers. I still don't know exactly how long they will need me, perhaps through the school year now, perhaps off-and-on if she plans to return at least part-time.

 YES, I would like to stay at MMS through the year as I am very invested in the work I’ve done with these particular students and have loved every day of it! I wish I’d kept a blog of it all, but I HAVE, at least, kept a really messy handwritten notebook of what we’ve done every day. It’s been very emotional at times, filling the shoes of a very beloved teacher who is out due to difficult circumstances, but the head of school, the other faculty, and the parents have all supported me 100%. And what an amazing opportunity I have had to put everything else aside and not only get to know all of these students and get new insight into my kids’ school, but to be forced to read (or re-read) an amazing list of novels, plays, short stories, and poems. That is just what writers always wish for – more time to read – and I do not doubt that, working side-by-side with the students, my own literary education will continue to unfold and enrich my own writing in new and unexpected ways.

 The one thing I do miss, then, is my own creative writing. So my goals for 2014 include revising my historical novel manuscript and reviving the agent search. I also have 25,000 words of a Young Adult novel that I am feeling deserves some new attention. I started this novel last year, in 2012, but is it too much to say that it has been a fortuitous happenstance that I have had the privilege of spending the past three months in the daily company of teens, talking about books and their lives?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, 'O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless--of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?' Answer. That you are here--that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?" Who said it? Watching Dead Poets Society with juniors. Robin Williams as Prof. John Keating. The play's the thing. Our dynamic Performing Arts teacher came to senior class and gave us ALL some new tools for accessing the text. Gift of the Magi and Creative Writing with the 10th graders. They are writing (you guessed it) parables.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

a-MAZE-ing rats!

Today Miles has a spelling test, a Spanish test, AND an oral presentation to do... and he was STILL excited to go to school. Such a good boy.

Lilli has a spelling test today, too. She also completed a fabulous science project on.... rats! You would have guessed it, right? She made a cardboard maze:




Initially, the rat was not too interested - in fact, she jumped out the top of the maze, but mostly she just sat at dead ends:



BUT THEN... we saw a show on TV called "Rat Genius" or something like that - just by coincidence - and the MIT rat researcher explained how rats need "landmarks" to help them create a map in their heads and memorize a route - just like we would use landmarks (turn right at the yellow house, etc.).

So, Lilli put some toys along the maze route as landmarks and... the rat did it! She went through, slowly, smelling & climbing on & even biting at some of the toys, until she finally, for the first time, found the treat. THEN, the truly amazing thing happened.... we put the rat back at the beginning of the maze and she ran through, briefly looking at or smelling each landmark that she had apparently memorized and she reached the end treat in record time!! The landmarks worked!

Oh yes, I remember now... the carrot is just past the bunny & around the corner by the penguin:



Now tell me you didn't learn something new about rat brains today.



(Don't laugh at her shirt - it's her mother's fault.)

The moral of the story is that, if I hadn't let my kids watch random TV instead of studying for their spelling & Spanish tests, the science experiment would have been a bust.