Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Good News Travels ... Slowly Sometimes

You know how when you have some big news, so you tell people in a few ways/places, and then you feel like if you mention it more, it'll just be obnoxious, and surely word has spread by now to everyone who should know?

You know how that doesn't always work?


As most of you know, I had pretty big writing-life news a couple of times this year. I posted here and on Facebook, I tweeted, and AgentQuery Connect spontaneously combusted both times. I also told my immediate family (obviously) and the parts of my extended family that I see on a regular basis.

I got to that point where I thought word had spread. Naturally, though, there were gaps.

Some were inevitable, like fellow writers who have too many friends on Facebook to keep up with everything. Occasionally, someone will drop me a line and ask how things are going, so I have to pull out the, "Well, I don't know if you heard about this, but ... uh, yeah."

With others, I just didn't do a very good job. Family in particular. I don't see my mom's side as often as my dad's, but I figured my mom would tell her sister, and word would get around.

Well, that didn't work, judging by my aunt's announcement and everyone's surprise at Christmas Eve dinner. I guess my aunt didn't find out until much more recently, so the cousins and their kids didn't know until we all got together.

I think there's a lesson buried in here about self-promotion.

We've all seen self-promotion gone wrong. The authors who spam your Twitter feed, who are a constant stream of "Buy my book!" We don't want to do that.

At the same time, we need to make sure word gets out, so people who want to know will. It's a balance, like everything else.

With that in mind ...

Yes, my debut novel is coming out with Disney-Hyperion in Summer 2014. It's even listed on Goodreads now. Feel free to add it to your To-Read shelf if you have an account there.

It's also on some lists. If you feel like voting for it, awesome. If you don't, no worries.

But at least I let you know.

Monday, December 24, 2012

To Get Kids' Attention, Sometimes You Fast-Forward

A simple fact of life is that sometimes you have to learn basic, not-so-exciting stuff before you can move on to the really cool stuff. It's certainly true in math class. I have to get my students used to handling variables and exponents (basics of algebra) before I can teach them cool stuff like revolving functions around an axis and finding the volume of the solid formed.

What? I totally thought that was the coolest thing ever when I was in calculus.

But just because students aren't ready to dive into something yet doesn't mean I can't give them a sneak preview of things to come.

My classes recently did some activities with graphing calculators. Mostly stuff that looked like this:

Hi, we're linear equations, and we're a little boring.
While they were thrilled at using the calculators instead of graphing by hand, it wasn't all that exciting. In several classes, I put something like this on the projector while they were all working on their assignment:

Flowers! Using math! So pretty!
Trust me, even the most macho teenage boys think it's mind-blowing that you can make flowers using equations.

They're not going to learn rose curves this year. It's either next year or the year after (I need to check) that they'll cover polar functions. But kids who really wanted to know, I gave them a quick overview of how the polar graphing system works.

It got their attention, and got them asking, "What else can we do with graphs?"

And when they're asking questions, I'm happy.

Friday, December 21, 2012

What's Up With the Name of the Blog?

Admit it—some of you have been wondering about "crossing the helix" for a while.

The name originally goes back to the series of novels I was working on when I started the blog. It ended up being a trilogy—the first three novels I ever wrote. If you read those stories (and a few of you have), the name makes sense.

However, that's not the story I'm debuting with. I have hope that someday I'll get them out there (after some re-tinkering—see Wednesday's post). At this moment, though, it doesn't appear to have much to do with anything.

I've kept the name anyway. Here's why.

For one thing, sentimental value. Those first three novels got me on this road to being an author. I went from "Hey, I wonder if I can write a book" with the first one, to "You know, I think I really have a shot at this" by the last one.

More importantly, I think it can still have some meaning, if very abstractly. It's all about a journey ("crossing").

A helix is generally a spiral, and more specifically a three-dimensional one. Think of the thread of a screw. To travel on such a path, you would typically walk along it like a spiral staircase. You're moving upward, but not in the most direct way. It's a little meandering, but it'll get you there.

And once in a while, you make a leap. You "cross the helix" to a higher point by a shorter route. I made some leaps this year. I signed with an agent. She sold my book.

There's still a lot of "helix" left to travel.

So, for now, the blog name will stay.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Starting From Scratch, Kind Of (The Mega-Rewrite)

A lot of publishing is about waiting. We send out queries and wait. Get requests for partials or fulls and wait. Our agent submits to editors and we wait. We revise, send to our editor, and wait.

Best thing to do with the waiting is work on something else. One thing I've been chipping away at (on an off-and-on basis) is a near-complete rewrite of my very first manuscript.

(Some of you remember Fingerprints, right?)

Can someone coin a term for the writerly version of beer-goggles? I've revised and re-revised this thing so many times I've lost count. It got better each time, and I don't think it was ever terrible.

I still believe in the characters 100%. The world, too. Even the plot, largely.

But the execution ... ugh. Very "what was I thinking?" in places.

I think this is okay. It's not beating up on myself. It's acknowledging the skills I've gained and developed over the past three years. If I weren't capable of writing better now, I'd be worried.

So, the solution?

A blank document. A different opening scene. The same general story, but with new ideas for added tension and conflict. And yes, here and there, some words that are worth keeping.

This is kind of intimidating in some ways. I really hope I can get it up to snuff, so there are lingering worries that maybe it still won't cut it. Hopefully I can just let those doubts motivate me to silence them through sheer awesomeness.

It's also tricky because the original is so cemented in my mind. I want to change enough without changing too much, and there's no telling whether my internal gauge is calibrated right on that count.

Thank goodness for critique partners.

(Yes, Mindy, this means that someday you'll have to read the darn thing AGAIN.)

Have any of you ever done a from-scratch rewrite? Any advice for making it work?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Just Because They're Behind Doesn't Mean You Have to Keep Them There

Math teachers in my department have had a significant challenge this year. As part of implementing the new core standards, nearly all students at each grade level have been placed in the same math class. (The main exceptions are the accelerated classes, which account for 20-30 students in each grade, 7th-9th.)

This means some kids have had to learn material at a condensed rate, while others have had to endure a ton of review to start with.

We're nearly halfway through the year, and I can't count how many times I've heard that it doesn't work, that we need to get the "low" kids back in a class of their own. For instance, the 9th graders who took Pre-Algebra last year and are now in class with mostly kids who already passed Algebra 1.

I understand where they're coming from. Truly. I see students in my class who haven't quite grasped solving for X yet (simple linear equations), and we're doing exponential functions and recursive sequences now. I have plenty of students bombing tests and quizzes.

But part of me says that the way we've been doing things only perpetuates the problem. These kids are behind grade level in math, and putting them in a slower or repeat math class will only put them further behind.

Then again, does this way just set them up for failure? Some seem to think so.

Something happened the other day that makes me think that may not be true. One of those "shoved into the fast lane" kids came in after school. He has the supplemental "math lab" period that many of these kids do, to give them more time and support to learn concepts, yet still hadn't been doing too well.

He said, "Miss Lewis, can you help me with this Chapter 5 and 6 stuff? I need to retake that test, but I just don't get it."

(He also apologized, asked if it wasn't too much trouble, etc. I'm thinking, "Dude, what do you think I'm here for?")

We started at the beginning of Chapter 5 (inequalities) and I wrote a few examples on the whiteboard. We talked about the process, and I got him working through them himself. (He mentioned it makes sense when I explain it, but then it crumbles when he tries on his own.) Moved through that and on to Chapter 6 (systems of equations).

He picked it up quick.

He said, "Now it seems so easy."

I've seen this before. I had students at the deaf school who couldn't reliably solve simple equations when they were all the way in Algebra 2. I kept pushing them forward, kept supporting and reviewing and reinforcing. When I taught them Calculus, they still had to work at it, but they had some serious math skills.

We could've said, "They can't solve basic equations. They need to repeat this course." We chose not to.

When we don't make falling (or staying) behind an option, and when we give the right support, they can catch up. But there's a key.

That kid came in after school to work on math instead of going to the basketball game. The kids need to be willing to put in the effort.

The best we can do is try to convince them that the effort will be worth it. Saying they're destined for "low" math classes doesn't seem to do that job.

What do you think?

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Teen Type Missing in YA Lit (Thank Goodness!)

Young adult novels (contemporary and otherwise) manage to fit a lot of different types of teenagers. Artsy types. Bookish types. Sporty types. Loner types. Popular types. Aggressive types. Passive types. Sometimes characters who are more than one at the same time.

I always appreciate the variety. I like finding novels with characters similar to students who don't seem to be represented so much in pop culture. A particular type stood out to me this week, though, and I realized I don't recall ever reading a character that quite matched up with it.

The whiners.

And please, my fellow YA authors, don't feel any need to change that.

I'm not talking about teens who get whiny now and then. That happens, both in fiction and in life. Part and parcel of being not-quite-kid, not-quite-adult. No, I'm talking about teens who do nothing. But. Complain.

All. Day. Long.

I can barely take it for an hour at a time with those students. If I had to read it in a book, that book would get put down and never picked up again.

And from a math teacher standpoint, let me just say that complaining that it's hard and you don't get it before I've even started explaining anything isn't conducive to learning. It doesn't endear the student to their more open-minded classmates, either.

If you know someone like this in real life, please find a way to rehabilitate them. When you find a successful method for doing so, drop me a line.

I could use the help.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Thoughts on the Common Core Standards: English Edition

There's been a lot of chatter about the new Common Core Standards. We have a set for English and a set for mathematics. As a math teacher who writes novels, I have thoughts about both, but I'll focus on the English standards for this post.

The big attention-getter for these new standards is that it calls for more reading of informational, non-fiction texts, going from 50% of reading material in elementary school and gradually increasing to 70% in high school.

That's where the chatter comes in. Many are upset about the units on classic literature, beloved favorites, and poetry getting cut from the curriculum, as noted in articles here and here.

I have thoughts on both sides of this. I've seen personally that students are definitely lacking in their ability to read text for factual information, to reason through technical material. I agree that more focus on developing these types of reading skills is necessary.

I also agree that nurturing a love of reading for pleasure is important. Reading fiction has boundless benefits, especially for children and teenagers.

I've heard some say that technical reading is for science class. Basically, let the science teachers handle all that, along with the social studies teachers for historical documents. Leave the English teachers to focus exclusively on the fiction side.

On the other side, content area teachers say they don't teach reading and writing—that's the English teacher's job.

Which side do I fall on? Both, or neither.

From my time working in a school for the deaf, I have it ingrained in me that all teachers are language arts teachers. We don't all cover all aspects of language equally, but we all have parts we can build up, develop, and reinforce. I see no reason that shouldn't carry over to non-deaf education.

At the same time, English teachers are in more of a position to focus deeply on the nuances of non-fiction, informational writing without splitting as much attention with the concepts and other skills to be mastered. They also have more training in the teaching of reading and writing.

So ideally, a balance between both. Teachers brainstorming about texts that fit within their curricula, including English class. Working together. Supporting each other.

As much as I love fiction, it's not the be-all, end-all.

As much as I love math and science, they're not the be-all, end-all.

So my first step? Try to open some dialogue with the English teachers at my school ... because without Twitter, I wouldn't have even known as much as I do about these new standards.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Another Contest? But Wait, This One's Weird!

If you're anything like me, you probably find it easier to rave about your critique partners' work than your own. Maybe even easier to pitch theirs than ours. To explain how that skill could come in handy, we interrupt our regularly scheduled blog posts for a message from Mindy McGinnis.

I know what you're thinking.

Another contest? Seriously? But I absolutely despise all these chances to expose my work to agents!

Well, don't worry. Because I'm me, when I decided to do a contest I knew I had to make it Mindy-Style, which means it had to be different from everyone else and slightly offensive. I wracked my brain about how to do this, as there are a plethora of writing contests out there. And I came up with something that I think fulfills the Mindy-Style requirements.

Introducing the Pitch-A-Partner Festival! Yes, that's right, it's the PAPfest. Coming at you during the month of February 2013. Why February? Well, because you want to show your partner you love them, and also because I have a badly timed reoccurring annual exam that makes me think February = PAPfest.

When it comes to my writing I value my Critique Partners above all else. My CPs deserve a lot of credit for helping to improve my craft, and I'm sure there are a lot of aspiring authors out there who feel the same. So what better way to show them you love them than to pitch their project? Don't worry, there's something in it for both of you.

I dragged my CPs, MarcyKate Connolly and R.C. Lewis, into the PAPfest as co-hosts, because it's only fitting. In our model, writers will pitch their critique partner’s project, and our team will decide whose pitching abilities are so strong that we’re interested in seeing their own project. And of course, if the premise of the partner’s project is so enticing that we can’t help ourselves, we’re free to request material from them as well.

The blogging team will narrow the final hopefuls down to 30 entries, at which point we’ll ask our participating agents to cruise our blogs to bid on projects that catch their eye. We've got an excellent team of agents lined up, both established and brand-new hungry types.

  • The PAPfest is open to completed MG & YA projects of any genre
  • Be sure to have your CP's permission before pitching them
  • If CP-X successfully pitches CP-Y, then CP-Y gets a query critique, and we ask for the first 5 pages of CP-X's ms to use in determining who moves on to agent judging
  • 100 initial entries accepted
  • 30 finalists move on to agent judging
  • Finalists will provide query & first 200 words for agent judging

Are you confused? That's OK. We're planning on walking you through the process as February gets closer. All kinds of fun things are in store to clarify all your questions. I mean that. I intend to amuse the hell out of you while explaining this contest.

Why am I telling you this now? Because I want you to stress over the holidays.

Not really. I'm telling you this now because it's important that you have your CP's permission to pitch their project—they'll be getting a query crit out of the deal (and possibly a request for more if we're hooked by their concept, pitched by you). And of course in order for you to pitch something in the first place, you need to have read it. So polish off your WIPs or breathe new life into a trunked novel and get that ms in front of your CP!

Stay tuned to Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire for more details! And feel free to ask questions, always. Comment on one of the participating blogs, email Mindy, or tweet using the tag #PAPfest.

And yes, I'd love to see that trending. :)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Laser-Guided Ears and Conquering Copiers

When we think of talents, we often think of the obvious. Someone's good at drawing or writing or singing or playing an instrument. The arts come up a lot. Or they're an amazing runner, swimmer, or basketball player. Sports come up a lot, too.

I have some of those. I imagine many of you reading this post do as well. But I have other talents that are much more rarely acknowledged. My secret superpowers.

In my years of working in schools, I've yet to meet a copy-machine paper jam I couldn't unravel. And in a classroom with nearly forty teenagers, I can hear a student use an inappropriate word from twenty feet.

I know, I should get Lynn Phillips to draw me as a superhero, right?

Okay, maybe not so much.

My paper-jam and other tech-related powers mostly come down to an ability to read directions. Or in the case of copy machines, the ability to decipher cryptic diagrams that think they're showing you what to do under the ridiculous assumption you can tell which portion of the machine is represented in the drawing.

I really doubt my hearing is all that good. In fact, given the volume I've been known to set the music in my car to, I'm pretty sure there's at least a little damage in my cochlea. It's just often the kids whose voices carry best (and who have a natural tendency to loudness) who go blurting things they shouldn't.

But the kids sure seem to think it's amazing that I can hear them. And the other teachers definitely don't mind when some of us know what to do with the new machine. So I'll bask in it a little longer.

Do you have any uncelebrated "superpowers"? Go on and brag and a little.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

'Tis the Season for Good News from Friends!

It's been a good week for several of my friends on AgentQuery Connect.

First off, MarcyKate Connolly finally got to shout from the rooftops about news she's been sitting on for-e-ver. (At least, I imagine it feels like it to her.) Her debut Monstrous will be published by Harper Children's in 2014. Oh, and in the process, it's going to morph from young adult to middle grade. I read and critiqued for her before she started querying, and I'm looking forward to seeing the changes. MarcyKate definitely has the chops to pull it off.

The same day, Stephanie Diaz announced her own book deal. Extraction, the first book of her YA sci-fi trilogy, will be published by St. Martin's in 2014. I read some of this early on in a critique group, and I'm RIDICULOUSLY excited to read the whole thing.

Why do we have to wait?! (Yeah, I know, you have to wait for mine, too.)

Speaking of waiting, we also know exactly how long we have to wait for Mindy McGinnis's debut, Not a Drop to Drink. She has a release date of September 9, 2013. If you haven't heard how her editor describes it, think Little House on the Prairie ... on steroids.

As for someone who doesn't have to wait much longer, Robert K. Lewis (no relation, a.k.a. Thrownbones) got his very first ARCs for Untold Damage. (Those are advance reader copies.) They're real, tangible objects with pages and covers and everything!

If you're on Goodreads, you can add the books to your To Be Read list using the links below.

Monstrous by MarcyKate Connolly

Extraction by Stephanie Diaz

Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis

Untold Damage by Robert K. Lewis

Who's going to be next with some good news?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Mathematical Constipation

Have you ever had some kind of information you were trying to take in, but your brain just clenched up and would NOT let it in?

Yeah, I think I'm going to create some interesting visuals in this post.

I have students who go through this all the time. They've decided they don't get math, so they won't get math. Sometimes it's because someone (even a previous math teacher) told them they couldn't.

Excuse me. Must calm down the rage.

Other times, the mental block is self-inflicted. I have one particular student who spends so much time and energy declaring she doesn't get it and complaining about how hard it is, her brain forms a rubber wall my words bounce right off of.

Once I get her to slow down, take a breath, and listen, she gets it fine. I'm trying to get her to stop "clenching up" ... to relax and believe that even if she doesn't get it instantly, she will get it eventually.

Sometimes the old, trite sayings are true. Try this one on:

If you think you can, or you think you can't, you're probably right.

Habits are hard to break, though. Getting students to loosen up their brain cells isn't easy. Building confidence in people who are at a stage of life where they're hormonally inclined to beat up on themselves is ... well, not impossible, but there are days where it almost feels that way.

I'm not into blowing sunshine at kids. I'm not going to tell them they're a math genius when they're not. I will tell them honestly that math doesn't come easily to them, and that's okay, because they CAN get it. They just have to let themselves. And put in a little work (or a lot).

Anyone have other ideas on getting this through to kids?

Friday, November 30, 2012

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

No, I don't really believe that.

There are times, though—like this week—when it feels like there's some truth to it.

Earlier this week, a woman was shot and killed, allegedly by her adopted teenage son. I knew this woman because she was also the foster mom of a boy I taught for several years, who's now attending college.

I didn't know this woman well. I saw her and her husband and talked to them maybe half a dozen times during the years I taught that boy. They made a strong impression, though. Loving people with some cowboy flavor who opened their home to several boys, such as my student.

They even kept him on until he graduated from high school, by which time he was nineteen years old. I'm pretty sure they didn't have to. But they did.

This woman wasn't perfect, I'm sure. Who is? But I often marveled at my student's character, despite some hard circumstances throughout his life. His work ethic, and his positive outlook. If you looked at his history on paper, you probably wouldn't expect him to be the kind of person he is.

Much of the credit goes to the young man himself, but I think he'd agree his foster parents' influence played a role. And I know he's heartbroken by what happened this week.

Maybe it's true that no good deed goes unpunished. If it is, maybe it doesn't matter.

We'll keep doing them anyway.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why I Don't Review Books

In the past week, I've read two books. This is very exciting, considering how little time I've found to read lately. I'm hoping to dive into more from here on out (and you can take a peek at what I've read and what's on-deck over here).

I use Goodreads to keep track of what I have read and want to read, but if you take a look over there, you'll see I don't post reviews. I don't even assign stars, generally.

Why not? It's something I've struggled with a bit. As a reader, I definitely have opinions. Maybe too many sometimes. And I've seen how it can look when authors get super-critical of other books—not pretty.

But authors should be allowed to voice their opinions, right? We're readers, too—maybe first and foremost. At the least, most of us have been reading longer than writing.

There's validity to that, and I would never tell others what to do on that front. Here are some of my thoughts that led me to just refrain from public reviewing.

Who would I be writing the reviews for? If my friends know I read a book and ask what I thought, I'll tell them. So I would post for strangers, for the random internet shopper. Why should a stranger care what I think of a book? (I admit, this is a weak reason, but it speaks more to my lack of motivation about writing reviews.)

Writing thoughtful reviews takes time. I can barely find time to read the books in the first place.

But giving stars on a site like Goodreads hardly takes any time, right? True, but if I hate the book and give it a low star rating, I wouldn't want to click one star and leave no reason why.

Maybe I could only give stars/reviews to books I really like. But I have a lot of friends with books out—everything from self-published to Big-6-published. If I review some and not others, it's easy to infer I didn't like those others. It gets iffy from there.

These reasons probably don't hold much water for anyone other than me, but it comes down to something simple for me. I'm a book-writer and a book-talker, but I'm not a book-reviewer. At least, not for now. I imagine I'll make some exceptions, and maybe I'll change my mind someday. Until then, this works for me.

How do you feel about authors reviewing books? Do you have a policy of your own? What considerations went into it?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

If I Say "Voice," You Run Away Screaming, Right?

Today we have another installment of "RC attempts to sum up an AQC chat for those who couldn't make it."

The topic this week was Voice. When it was suggested, Mindy McGinnis (BBC) said, "That's pretty much impossible to discuss. Okay, let's go for it!" (I may be paraphrasing.) She also shared an experience that pretty well encapsulates why it's such a maddening topic for writers.

Mindy was watching an agent/editor panel at a conference. A writer asked for a definition of voice, and not to say you know it when you see it.

The agent grabbed the mic and said, "I know it when I see it."

So what is this elusive thing called Voice? Mindy did some leg-work and found this from agent Natalie Fischer:

Language is diction: the word choices, the literal language of nationality. Style is the form: short, choppy, flowing, poetic, lyrical. Voice is the personality, the person behind the words that makes the reader forget about the author, and dive into a life. It’s what you remember about the characters long after you’ve forgotten their names.

And then there's this from agent Rachelle Gardner:

It’s the unfettered, non-derivative, unique conglomeration of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears and attitudes, coming through in every word you write.

Okay, that's all well and good. How do we do that? Again from Ms. Fischer, her thoughts on what not to do:

I think the biggest mistake is to try and show voice through style or language. Using heavy slang or methods like “Southern dialogue” are annoying, not effective. Voice is a point of view, a perspective that is unique to only one person. It has emotion, history, a sense of place, and senses. These things are shown in unison with style and language, but not reliant on them to be clear.

Those are some words from the experts we used as a launching point. As usual, we went in a lot of directions from there. I'll try to hit a few highlights.

Character Voice vs Authorial Voice
Characters each have their own voice (should, anyway). Here you're primarily talking about dialogue. Then there's your voice as an author. That shows throughout the whole work (and to varying degrees, across works). Narrative voice can be a combination of the two, particularly when you're writing in first person.

Good vs Bad
This is tricky. Personally, I think there's a somewhat objective level of has/doesn't have distinctive voice. Beyond that, there's the more subjective voice you do/don't find engaging/enjoyable/compelling. Several times in chat, someone said, "I read this bestseller, and it had NO voice." Or, "This book had no voice, but I still read because of the plot/characters/something else."

I haven't read the books they're referring to, but I strongly suspect those books have distinctive voice. That reader just didn't like the voice.

So is it possible to have a story without voice? Tricky, but I think so. I've seen it, primarily in some student writing. Nothing technically "wrong," but it reads dead. The words are getting in the way of the story's life. That's okay—they're still learning.

Should We Worry?
One AQCer posited that we don't need to worry about Voice. We need to worry about everything else—grammar, structure, plot, characterization, etc. If we do all that, the voice will be there.

Some of us had a hard time deciding whether we agreed or disagreed with that. Certainly all of those things play into establishing the voice of a piece. But personally, I believe voice is greater than the sum of its parts.

Worry isn't all that productive, though. So worry? Not so much. Be mindful of? Definitely.

Can We Learn It?
This is an argument that goes back to my Authonomy days. There are those who believe voice can be taught, and thus learned. Others (and I tend to fall in this camp) think voice is innate.

So you have it or you don't, and if you don't, too bad? Not exactly. I just think of it less as a taught/learned thing and more a matter of development. We all have "voice potential" inside us. We need to develop it, find out how to uncover it. How to get those pesky words out of the way and let the story live.

As usual, I probably missed several salient points, but that's the gist of the discussion. Do you have any further thoughts on voice?

Monday, November 19, 2012

How Does a Math Teacher Tell a Kid How to Write?

I know, it's Mathematical Monday and this is only loosely mathematical, but it's the question on my mind at the moment.

I like showing my students that people don't (and shouldn't) fit into neat little pigeonholes. I like encouraging them to be multifaceted and be their entire selves in my math classes. But there's a drawback. Kind of.

As my students find out about me being an author, a few will ask me to read something they wrote.

That's cool, in theory. At my last school, we were such a small, tight community that it wasn't really a problem. But now, I find myself unsure how to respond.

After I read it, what do I say?

"That's great! Keep at it."

"I like how you describe the forest. Just watch your run-on sentences."

"Great start. Here are some things you might consider to tighten the narration and give us a stronger point-of-view."

Do I just give general encouragement? A tip or two? Or deeper feedback? Sometimes I just don't know, because I'm not the English teacher.

If I were the English teacher, I'd know what kinds of things we'd already discussed in class. The things kids want to show me aren't always for class assignments (some are actually doing NaNoWriMo at the direction of our librarian—which is awesome). But when it is an assignment, maybe there's something specific they're focusing on. As the math teacher, I have no idea.

Perhaps I'm worrying too much. With so many students, it's hard for me to get to know individuals well enough to know what kind of feedback they want/are ready for. Not like my last school, where I had super-tiny classes and often taught specific students for up to four or five years.

If anyone out there is an English teacher, can you answer this question? If you had a novel-writing math teacher in your school, how could she best support your students' writing efforts, without undermining any methods you're using in class?

Friday, November 16, 2012

Hating on Hate

It's really frustrating to feel like I'm being blasted on one front and trying to keep students from blasting away on the other.

Election season seems to put people in one of two camps—the excited camp, and the "Is it over yet?" camp. (I imagine a lot of people flip-flop between the two.) I definitely fell in the latter this time.

My school is in an area that leans heavily to one side of the political spectrum. Then there's the too-typical teenage response to the "different"—tell them they're wrong or stupid, or just make fun of them. (I went on a bit about that not long ago.)

Some kids were able to reasonably say why they supported one candidate over another. That was always great to see. But others were more, "This one's evil, that one's stupid, you're an idiot for supporting him." So I did the usual putting out of fires, making it clear that people are allowed their opinions, and you don't attack them for it.

At the same time, I found myself feeling (indirectly) attacked, particularly in my online life. Vocally supporting your candidate? That's cool. Describing how you don't agree with the other guy? Also cool.

But throughout and after the election, lines were crossed here and there. Lines between "this is what I believe" and "anyone who believes differently is an idiot and should jump off a cliff." Not usually in so many words (although some came close), but often with a clear undertone.

One statement from the Walls of Facebook, by a so-called "Friend":

"Who would want to make a Mormon the most powerful man in the world?"

Let's imagine we replace the word "Mormon" with one of the following:









Should I let my students get away with saying any of those things? Yet when adults are the ones spreading such hate throughout social media, is it any wonder kids don't see a problem with doing the same?

By the end of election night, I felt beaten down, torn up, and truly sad. Not because of who won or who lost, but because of the hate I felt ... even from some (not all) of those who were spouting "Let's all work together (by being more like me)" hours later.

I know these attitudes aren't true of all, or even most, on either side. But there are enough of them to really get me down sometimes.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to think of new ways to convince a certain fifteen-year-old that calling girls sluts is never, ever okay.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

'Fall'-ing for Apocalyptic Fiction

As some of you may remember, last spring I mentioned the release of a short-story anthology titled Spring Fevers. Elephant's Bookshelf Press has put out their second offering in their seasonal series—The Fall: Tales from the Apocalypse. I just did some tech work on the first anthology, but this time, I have a story included, titled "Trust."

Apocalypse? Sounds kind of dark and depressing, right? Nope. At least, not always. There's a full range of stories in this collection. Some intense, some twisted, some hopeful, some bittersweet ... and wait 'til you see Mindy McGinnis's one-act play. Ever wonder what would happen if God got His hands on an iPhone? Mindy has.

It's available in both Kindle format and paperback. Hopefully more eBook formats will be available soon. (If you don't have a Kindle, remember that you can read Kindle books on many electronic devices—tablets, smartphones, computers—using the free Kindle app.)

We'd love to know what you think. And when you think of the end of the world (literally or metaphorically), what kinds of stories come to mind?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Grades Aren't Given—They're Earned

"Ugh, Mr. Peabody gave me a D-plus."

"Miss Lewis, you should just give me an A."

These are among the more annoying statements I hear in my classroom, and it's a particular word that sets me off.


A lot of students have this attitude of teachers giving grades. One student said a teacher ruined their sibling's high school graduation because of the bad grade a teacher gave that sibling in ninth grade. (It meant not qualifying to wear the fancy gold cord with the graduation regalia.)

What? Really?

Okay, I'm sure there are teachers out there who are spiteful and mean and evil. I'm even more sure there are teachers who are really difficult to learn from.

But by and large (and certainly in my case, I hope), teachers don't give grades. Students earn them. I just do the accounting, verifying what they've earned.

Part of me hates that I have to grade at all. I like looking over student work to see what they understand, but I hate assigning a numerical value to it, figuring out what all those numerical values together mean and assigning a letter to that.

The students who think I give grades are part of the reason we have to use them. They only care about that letter on the report card, and in their minds (much of the time), it's arbitrary. If I could rely on every student to learn for the sake of learning, and to commit to doing the work necessary, there'd be no need for grades.

In a perfect world ... maybe someday.

For now, I'll keep with the response I've been using.

"Miss Lewis, you should just give me an A."

"Okay, I will ... as soon as you earn it."

Friday, November 9, 2012

I Need a New Category for Myself

I'm not particularly girly. While I wear makeup and the occasional skirt and high heels, I've never had a manicure. I don't get excited over things like shopping sprees and spa getaways. I'm not crafty, and I don't knit. If people are coming over (I can't say I'm having a party, because I can't think of the last time that happened), the last thing that occurs to me is decorating or making a cute centerpiece.

But I'm not a tomboy, either. I played soccer when I was a kid, and I don't mind watching football games with my mom now and then. Like I said, though, skirts and heels and makeup aren't foreign to me. I never had that comfortable buddy-buddy relationship with guys that goes along with the tomboy stereotype.

Yes, I just answered my own question. These ideas of "girly" and "tomboy" that I'm working off of are stereotypes. That doesn't change the fact that I see/meet people who seem to fit in with one or the other, and I don't quite identify.

What do I identify with? Seems to depend on what group I'm with at the time.

When I'm hanging out with authors, I often feel like the math-geek. At least, that's the role I seem to play. And that definitely plays into my author side, with the whole science fiction angle and everything.

When I'm with other math teachers, I feel like the weirdo who actually knows how to spell and talk about things like "tightening prose" and whatnot. (Doesn't mean there aren't others who know, too ... but they tend to keep it to themselves.)

Am I normal in this? Is that what we do? Feel like the trait that most defines us is the one least like those around us at that moment?

What does all this rumination imply for the characters I write? Hopefully that even when a character has some traits that fall solidly within a stereotype, they also have other layers adding nuance and complexity.

That's what people are, right? Complicated and hard to categorize.

In other words ... I'm normal and can stop worrying now.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Primer on Critique Partners ... and Maybe Dating

Last Monday, we had one of our weekly chats on AgentQuery Connect (9pm Eastern, come for great writerly conversations). The topic was critique partners—choosing and using them—which seems to have been popular around the blogosphere in the last week. Nevertheless, because some AQCers missed the chat, I'm going to go ahead with a revamped recap.

Being critique partners is a lot like establishing and maintaining other relationships. In fact, it's a lot like dating, when you think about it. Here are some Dos and Don'ts.

  • Don't commit to marriage before the first date. Swapping full manuscripts when you hardly know someone? Maybe it'll be a match made in heaven ... or maybe you'll be stuck in a 300-page pickle. It's not a bad idea to get to know someone and their writing before making a big commitment. Try swapping a chapter or two. See how it goes.

  • Do communicate your needs/expectations. Chances are, your new critique partner isn't a mind-reader. If you don't mention that you don't want grammar nits pointed out, you can't really complain if that's all your partner focuses on. Worried about plot holes and consistency? Character development? Historical authenticity? Say so.

  • Don't tear your partner down. This can be a tricky one, especially in conjunction with the next. The point of a critique partner is to help us improve our work. But if it's all, "Fix this, fix that," we can get discouraged to the point of not moving forward. When something works well, be sure to let your partner know.

  • Do be honest. In my opinion (well, all of this is my opinion), if all we want is cheerleading, there are other ways to get that. Critique partners need to do more for each other. That means pointing out when we feel there may be issues in the manuscript. Pretending problems aren't there won't make them go away.

  • Don't feel locked in. If the relationship isn't working, you can walk away. There's nothing saying that great writer-friends will necessarily make great critique partners. Amicable break-ups are possible. It's okay to play the field until you find the right match.

  • Do have an open relationship. Er, I guess I could mean this in a couple of ways. It can be good to have more than one critique partner—long- or short-term. Some might be more suited to certain manuscripts. Some you might rely on for their particular strengths (which likely match up with your weaknesses). But also, within a single relationship, be open and receptive to what your partner says. If a critique is a little hard to hear, step away for a bit, then come back to it. Your partner may be right or wrong ... or their feedback might trigger something entirely different in your mind that'll make your story better.

Another thing to remember is that the early days of critique partnering are like the early days of dating. You'll likely need to be on your best behavior as you get to know each other's styles of critiquing, figure out what works for you.

With any luck, someday you'll be like Mindy McGinnis and me. I'm pretty sure we're at the "old married couple" stage where we can pretty much say anything as bluntly as we'd like. We know the love is there, and we know our own weaknesses, so there's no need to tiptoe around. ;)

What tips do you have for making a great critique-partner connection?

Monday, November 5, 2012

If You Need Help, THEN TAKE IT!

I started something new last week. After I finish the lesson portion of class and it's time to start on the homework, I have the kids move around. Those who feel like they've totally got it, ready to rock head to the back and work quietly. Those who are still feeling a little (or a lot) fuzzy come to the front, and I work with that smaller group on a few select problems from the homework.

The first day I did it was interesting. My A1 class had several takers who were like, "Dude, yes, help!" Most other classes, I had to twist some arms to get anyone to join in.

Second time around, though, more people joined in. I think some kids were like, "Uh, yeah, that actually looks helpful. Might be a good idea."

It's nice, because in those smaller groups, the struggling kids are more likely to ask questions, stop me when they don't understand. I'm liking it. I think I'll stick with it.

Still, some kids who I know really ought to join in are heading to the back and working with their friends instead. That'd be fine if their friends were helping them understand, but based on the daily quiz results and homework scores, it's more likely their friends are breezing through the assignment and distracting them with random chatter instead.

It makes me mad at the struggling kids for not prioritizing. It makes me mad at their friends for not recognizing how much harder they're making it.

I mean, I get it. Social pressure and all ... not wanting to "look stupid." I wish they'd notice that several popular kids are joining the extra-help group. Then again, an outward self-confidence often coincides with teen popularity. (Comes with its own problems, often under the surface, but that's another post.)

I've only been through it two times with each class so far. I could force it, telling specific kids they have to come to the front. I'd rather not. For now, I give a strongly worded suggestion that if they didn't get the homework done, struggled on the daily quiz, or got a bad grade last quarter, they really ought to join us.

Hopefully the more we do it, the less stigmatized kids will feel.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Slangifying Your Story

In the realm of YA writing in particular, slang of any kind is tricky, tricky business.

Slang and common expressions can make a teen voice feel more authentic. As someone who spends every workday listening to teenagers talk, I guarantee they're not pulling exclusively from an official dictionary.

Then again, slang is—by its nature—fleeting. A few bits and pieces work their way into the long-term vernacular, but most are solidly dated. Just think about "groovy," "bodacious," and "fresh." You just had certain decades flash through your mind, right? Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe that instant association is what you need.

More often, I'm thinking that's not a good thing.

Let's go back to my students for a minute. There are some who spout a near-constant stream of "totes obvi" and "YOLO." (The one who says YOLO the most keeps doing it out of context. I'm not sure he really gets it. Or he likes to be annoying.) And here's the thing about super of-the-moment phrases. It only takes about two minutes for the kids to sound like they're trying too hard.

And it's even easier for an author to sound the same way.

So how do you deal with it? Stick to the more long-standing forms of teen-talk? Use a strict rule like one super-trendy term per fifty pages? Only let a side character use them, make it their "thing"?

Honestly, I don't know. I'm curious what you've found works, either from a writing or reading perspective.

I tend to work around it by writing science fiction and making up my own slang. Mindy McGinnis thinks I'm good at it. Hopefully others will agree.

Monday, October 29, 2012

One Term Down, Three to Go

First quarter ended last Friday at my school. Naturally, the past two weeks have been filled with kids desperate to get their F to a passing grade ... or their A-minus to an A. And in order to keep on top of the late work, make-up work, and occasional piece of extra credit, I set aside the quizzes that won't count until second quarter.

This means now I have large stacks of quizzes to grade. I knew this would happen. I was aware of the consequences for my decision.

Still ... it kinda sucks.

It's okay, though. I think at least a few kids figured out that desperately trying to raise their grade at the last minute is a lot more work than just keeping up through the term. As we start the new term, I'll try to get the message through to a few more.

Now that I've got my feet under me, I'm also hoping to keep things a little more organized from here.

Here's hoping.

Friday, October 26, 2012

"Teasing Your Friend" Doesn't Make It Funny or Okay

Warning: A rant is about to ensue.

It's nothing new. I imagine people have been tossing "joking" insults at their friends since the dawn of time, and especially boys. You've probably heard the type:

"Joe, you're such a girl." (Having two X chromosomes is an insult?)

"Hey, Larry likes guys." (Besides it being untrue, what's your point?)

"You're so gay, Jeff." ("Gay" as a vague catch-all synonym for stupid, clumsy, goofy, or whatever would actually fit the situation? ... Must not kill the children with my laser-eyes.)

That's when it's tame, and I'll let your imagination fill in when it's not. I'm sure there's some psychological/sociological explanation about male posturing, establishing dominance, or some other testosterone-fuelled phenomenon.

It drives me nuts.

What can I do about it? Probably not much. I try to take the extra moment for a stern "None of that in my classroom," but it's always met by the same thing:

"I'm just playing. Joe and I are buds. He knows I'm kidding."

The kidding aspect of it doesn't make it okay. I try to get that across (and get the class back on track with math, please-oh-please). It's very trying-to-empty-the-ocean-with-an-eyedropper. When I briefly mentioned it on Twitter the other day, I added the hashtag #CallMeSisyphus.

Super frustrating. I'm not stopping anytime soon, though.

Here's one reason why, aside from the fact that such "insults" are offensive, annoying, and unintelligent.

I know a guy, former student, now an adult, who's come out. I imagine him sitting in my classroom years ago. I imagine those stupid comments getting tossed around every single day. Back then, I was a new teacher who barely knew how to keep thirty teenagers from killing each other for forty-five minutes, much less having her ears tuned in to the random banter. So, I really don't know if it's gotten worse, or if I was just too stressed about not knowing what the heck I was doing to notice.

But even assuming such comments weren't lobbed at him directly (best-case scenario), I imagine how hearing it over and over made him feel.

Possibly he would have felt a little like I do when I hear that first type of insult: "You're such a girl," etc. Kind of like I feel when someone tells a guy they throw like a girl, and I want to respond with, "Yeah? Let me show you how to kick like a girl."

The feeling is that even if it's in so-called teasing, it holds an inherent assumption that being female or being gay or whatever is automatically inferior. Not worthy of respect.

Never mind that we're human beings. All of us.

And I know I've said it before, but I don't like this "looking-down" attitude on any front. Not Republicans talking trash about Democrats. Not atheists saying the religiously inclined are idiots.

You don't have to agree with someone to show them respect. And it's really not that hard.

Now, if only I could convince a few fourteen-to-fifteen-year-olds of that.

Any ideas?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Don't Make Readers Take Your Word for It

Has this ever happened to you? You're reading a book, there are a lot of good things going for it, you're even enjoying some things ... but you're just not feeling it. You're not even sure what "it" is. You just know you're not feeling what you're supposed to.

More specifically, you're not believing what the characters feel. Something about the story as a whole isn't authentic.

That's the best word I can think of for it. Authenticity. It's quite possibly one of the most difficult things to establish in our writing.

Or maybe it just is for me.

The thing is, it's a characteristic of the piece as a whole, with a mix of different variables going into it. You can't deconstruct it completely any more than you can break a baked cake down to its constituent ingredients.

We have to try, though. We can't just learn from CPs and beta-readers that the gut-feeling authenticity isn't there and throw up our hands. "Oh, well! So much for that story. Guess I'll try another one." We have to think about what might be factoring into it.

So I've pondered, and here are the first three that occurred to me.

  1. Show, don't tell. I know! How dare I trot that tired thing out? But think about it. "Telling" is, at its root, asking the reader to take your word for it that your character is angry or heartbroken or whatever. You can't show everything (even trying would be a pain), but try to show enough.
  2. Motivate actions (and reactions). If you've been reading my blog for a while, you might remember my little theory about Front-End/Back-End Motivation. (If not, may I shamelessly suggest you read that and see what you think?) Lack of authenticity may stem from readers not buying into your characters' choices.
  3. Voice, voice, voice. If the voice is (or becomes) jarring, stilted, or otherwise not right, it knocks the reader out of the story. It becomes just words on a page, and the characters lose their realness.

Okay, that's what I've got, but I'm sure there are other things that contribute to the problem. Any ideas?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Parental Priorities

This one's not exactly about math. It's kind of about math, but more education in general.

I'm not one to judge right and wrong ways of parenting. A lot of things have to depend on the individual child's needs, the family's background and values, etc. But I have some observations about different types of parents.

There are parents who apologize profusely for their kids missing school for legitimate reasons, like medical issues. Then there are those who check their kids out of class to go get smoothies.

It's not like either extreme is always great or always terrible. Sometimes the kids who miss for doctor's appointments aren't great about getting caught up on what they miss, and sometimes the smoothie-getting kids are.

Still, I wonder what message the smoothie-run parents are trying to send. That they're a cool parent? That sometimes you have to give yourself a mental-health break? (I can agree with that on occasion.)

What message are the kids getting? Like I said, those kids are often okay with making up what they miss. They're usually kids who clearly believe school is important, at least to some degree. But what about other students, who know why their classmate misses a class or two in the middle of the day? What does it say to them about where their priorities belong?

I don't know. I do know that with math in particular, if you miss a component or two and don't catch it up, you risk being very lost on concepts that follow. If you don't solidify basic equation solving, for instance, you'll have a very hard time with most other topics in algebra.

Most parents do the best they can, especially considering the bull-headedness of some teenagers. Some teens already understand the importance of their education, even the parts that don't immediately seem relevant. Others take a while to figure that out.

I just hope parents aren't delaying that understanding.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Epiphany of the Week: Hot Girls Can Be Smart

Not my epiphany ... that of a 9th grade boy. A very girl-crazy 9th grade boy. ("Aren't they all?" you say. No, not really. Not like this.)

The student in question was in my room, discussing with another student how astounded he was to discover this older girl (cheerleader, no less) is super-smart and able to help him with his math homework. I said (uh, pretty sarcastically), "Incredible, isn't it? A hot girl and she's smart?"

He could've really dug himself into a hole then, but he managed a save. "I know! But then I thought about it, and there's [names several girls in his grade who fit in the cute-and-popular category and have high academic achievement]."

It struck me that teens can be a little one-dimensional in their thinking, but they can also add dimensions to their view pretty easily when they let themselves.

It parallels the experience I often have when students find out I write fiction. "But you teach math!" Like they're these mutually exclusive things. Like I have to fit neatly into a stereotype.

Then there was the time a student reported that one of the English teachers had said English is harder to teach than math. (I hope she was joking around. I wasn't there, so I don't know.) I teased back that he should tell her we can switch places for a day and we'll see what happens, because I know a thing or two about English.

Really, though ... why must we try to fit people into these boxes? The analytical side of me can see the appeal of simple categorization. It keeps things organized. Much easier to split things into hot blondes (in the blonde-joke sense) and ugly nerds, math people and English people, jocks and band-geeks.

Real people tend to have overlap somewhere, though. More often than not, a lot of overlaps. That's trickier to wrangle with, but makes life a lot more interesting.

On a quick writing note ... I'm always glad to see characters that reflect the kind of multifaceted-ness I see in real-life teens. Sometimes, though, I find that one or more of those blended aspects lacks authenticity. The cute, popular girl who reports she loves math/science and is good at it ... but doesn't show any of the thinking processes that go with skills in those areas. Not that she can't still make stupid decisions—all humans do sometimes. But saying she's "that kind of smart" isn't the same as behaving like a person who really is, with all the complexity that includes.

I guess that makes another case for "Show, Don't Tell."

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Spell-Check is Your Friend. Seriously.

Long before I ever thought I was creative enough to write any kind of fiction, my relationship with the written word held a particular distinction. I was English Student of the Year in 9th grade. That was the year of sentence diagramming (among other things).

Let me tell you, I diagrammed sentences like nobody's business. I don't remember a lot of the specifics now, but it did give me a pretty solid hold on some tricky grammar, comma rules, and the like.

That was me and English for a long time. The Technician. I wrote perfect essays that were exactly what my history teacher wanted to see. I wrote killer research papers and aced my technical writing class in college.

These skills still come in handy now. Just ask Mindy McGinnis, whose comma splices I've helped hide from her editor.

In the effort to develop my inner novelist, though, I try not to dwell on those technical aspects. I even make a conscious effort sometimes to let them go, allow myself to make "mistakes" for the purpose of flow and voice. (This was easier once my linguistics professor taught me the difference between Prescriptive and Descriptive Grammar.)

That aspect of my journey has helped me ease up on the "Fix It!" button every time I see a grammar or spelling error. (Okay, the reaction's still there. But not as violent as it used to be.) I'm sure other novelists are very in-the-creative-moment, especially when drafting, and leave those things to be cleaned up in editing/revising. To stay in that creative zone, they may even turn off the spell-as-you-go feature that pops up with those red/orange underlines when you misspell something.

Awesome. Whatever works for the individual writer.

But some seem to forget that we do need to run a spell-check eventually.

I know, spell-check isn't perfect. It's annoying when it dings every one of your proper names, or made-up words for another language, or even perfectly spelled calculus vocabulary. And it won't catch misspellings that happen to be proper spellings of other words. It won't save you on a "phase-vs-faze" debate.

I've heard some say they don't worry about such things, because that's what editors are for. Sure, editors should be able to catch the errors so subtle, your eye glides over them. But leaving flat-out wrongly spelled words that five minutes with spell-check could catch?

That makes it look like we don't care. It doesn't look professional. It doesn't look like we respect the agent/editor/other human being we're sending our work to.

So, my plea for the week. Save someone a headache. Show them you care.

Run a spell-check. :)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Catching Your Glitches

We all make mistakes. Ideally, we learn from the mistake and don't make it again. Realistically, there's a certain type of mistake that we make over and over again. I'll refer to that as a glitch.

Some glitches we're aware of. I have plenty of students who see "three squared" and automatically think the answer's six. But they know they have that tendency, so they catch themselves and say nine before I say anything.

Other glitches sneak around, leaving us oblivious until someone else points them out. Sometimes they turn into the first kind after they've been pointed out. But sometimes they stay rooted, refusing to be corrected.

Students who continue to combine unlike terms no matter how often it's marked wrong. Or who say X plus X is X-squared.

It's not just in math, I'm sure. We fail to shift from second to third gear properly with our manual transmission. We mix up "lay" and "lie" or "affect" and "effect."

With the math, at least, I suspect part of why the glitches keep happening is because the student doesn't understand the foundation of why it's a mistake. Attempting to memorize arbitrary rules without understanding their basis is rarely effective.

Unfortunately, students are often so used to thinking of math as a matter of memorizing arbitrary rules, they don't shift into looking for meaning. At least, not easily. All I can do is try to open their eyes to the hows and whys behind the what-to-dos.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Transition from Cooties to Couples

Yes, I'm back with more observations from Project People-Watch: Junior High Edition.

For the last several years, I've been at a school where I've mainly been working with the older high school kids—anywhere from 16 to 21 years old. Even when I had 8th and 9th graders, it was such a tiny school that the dynamics weren't always what most teenagers would consider typical.

Now I'm back in a large public school. I have one 8th grade class (smaller, honors) and five 9th grade classes (large, full spectrum from overachievers to strugglers to I-don't-cares). Those 9th graders are top of the heap at this school, but would have been among the youngest I taught previously, so it's an interesting perspective.

The most interesting thing, regardless of class, is to watch what various students (and groups of students) do during a stretch of free time at the end of class.

The 8th grade class has The Great Wall of Gender Divide running down the middle of it. They chose their own seats, and it's girls on the right, boys on the left. During free time, the girls will talk—about play practice, homework and events in other classes, whatever. The boys will play cards.

One exception is a girl and boy who sit next to each other on the divide. The girl will alternate chatting and joking around with him, and chatting with the other girls. Don't know the history there, but the pair seem like they've been friends for a long time.

The only further mingling is a type I saw just this week after they all finished their tests. Several girls asked if they could draw on the whiteboard. (Last day before break—why not?) One of the girls favors the in-state rival over the more local college team. The boys take exception to that. So when she drew her team's logo on the board, it turned into a bit of a battle.

The rest of the girls continued doodling funny faces and writing names in fancy scripts.

Then there are the 9th grade classes. During free time (or even homework time), there are four major groups, with a few people who float between them.

First there are the girls sticking with girls, much like my 8th grade class. They gravitate to their friends in the class and chat about things from the silly to the serious.

Then there are the boys who stick with boys. Again like my 8th graders, card games are often popular, or some of the puzzles I keep in the classroom. They chat, too ... more likely about sports, video games, and such.

The other two groups are those where girls and guys intermingle, much more commonly than with my 8th graders. My gut tells me there are two distinct groups here, but the difference is hard to describe.

I guess I'd say one group is the Flirts, and the other is the Friends. That's not to say there isn't flirting and crushing going on amongst the Friends, but it's somehow less obvious, not the be-all end-all of their interactions. With the Friends, I see more genuine talking, less posturing.

With the Flirts, one glance tells me this guy is trying to be clever or smooth as a way of showing off, trying to impress the girl. The girl is laughing and acting cute as can be to keep him at it.

At any rate, I don't see anything like the Flirts in my 8th grade class. Aside from the one exceptional pair, I don't see the Friends there, either. Maybe because of its size? Just the dynamics of the people in there? Or the age, and what a difference a year makes?

Some possibilities to keep in mind if I ever write characters quite so young.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Yes, You Can Love Books TOO Much

Heresy, you say?

Hear me out before you brand me a traitor to writer-kind.

With a lot of kids, I'm thrilled when they want to read something that's not required by a teacher. At my last school, we had a small amount of dedicated reading time every day, regardless of what class they were in at that time. Sometimes I had a class of reluctant readers, and any time they didn't put they books away the second reading time ended, I didn't mind letting them carry on a bit.

There are kids at the other end of the spectrum, though. Kids who always want to read. Some of them know how to prioritize. They pay attention to lessons, work hard to get their tasks done so they'll have a bit of free time to read at the end of class.

That's fine by me.

But some kids don't have that self-control. Some will read straight through class unless someone steps in and stops them.

That someone would be me. The big, mean, book-closing teacher.

Forgive me, my fellow bibliophiles, but kids need more than books ... they need math, too. Among other things.

Any suggestions on helping certain students see that need for balance?

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Power of "I Think I Can"

I have several students who struggle with math. That's okay. Perfectly normal. My job is to work with them and help them improve anyway.

By the time they get to me, these struggling students have often come to the conclusion that they can't do math, period. So a big part of my job is to undo that damage.

Not. Easy.

I'm not a magician, so it doesn't always work. But if I can find one thing they're successful with, reinforce it, and find another ... sometimes that sets off a chain reaction. They think maybe they can do a few things in math. They're a little more willing to try, a little more patient with their own mistakes.

They stop saying, "I can't." Instead, they ask questions.

And that can build momentum that'll take them far, long after they leave my class.

Other times, the barrier remains. They've given up. They refuse to believe. (So I try a little harder, try other ways. Jury's out on whether it works in a lot of cases.)

How often in our own lives do we let "I can't" become self-fulfilling? Not that saying, "I can," instantly makes all possible ... but it certainly doesn't hurt as a first step.

What helps you get past that, to begin to believe it might be possible?

And when the larger obstacles come, what helps you keep going?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Doting on the Doodlers

A while back, I posted a piece of "fan-art" that was included as part of a beta-reader's feedback. More recently, I touted the awesomeness of my former student Lynn, who draws awesome things like Mindy McGinnis's Hatchet Cat.

Today, the two are combined. Lynn read the manuscript for Stitching Snow several months ago and offered this marvelous depiction of the main character, Essie.

That's my girl.

And I continue to be in awe of people who can draw.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What Do You Call Your Writerly Acquaintances?

We writers are connected in many ways. Some have pretty straightforward labels.

The Writer-Friend. Not that they need to be set aside from friends in general, but they meet extra qualifications. They know the lingo like "querying" and "form rejection" and the accompanying angst.

The CP (Critique Partner). Like the Writer-Friend squared, they don't just wish us well in the trenches—they help us get the right gear, find the best paths.

The Author-with-a-Capital-A. The rock stars of the writing world. The multi-published, best-selling authors. Those people the rest of us can't quite bring ourselves to equate as being in the same profession we're trying to weasel our way into.

Then there are other connections, a little more nuanced, and that's where the labels get a little head-scratching for me. Most specifically, writers with an agent or publishing imprint in common. I often see such writers referred to as agency-sisters, for instance.

But what about the guys? My agent represents several male writers (and illustrators!), but I've never seen anyone say anything like, "Yeah, Jimmy's my agency-brother."

Is it because as females, we're more likely to establish and define relationships in this way? For guys, are we just all writers and that's enough?

Does it matter? Probably not. But this is the way my brain works.

I guess I'll just stick with the labels for myself ... a happy AQCer and member of the Literaticult.

Monday, October 1, 2012

What Your Math Teacher Probably Didn't Tell You

First off, this isn't about the ubiquitous question every math teacher faces: "When are we ever gonna use this?" (The answer: You may not use an individual skill from class. Then again, you might. Few of us end up doing exactly what we thought we would as kids. More importantly, while learning the skills, you're developing the problem-solving, critical-thinking part of your brain, and THAT you will always need.)

With that out of the way, here's what it is about. Sometimes math teachers or textbooks make us do things in an overly demanding way, or using arbitrary rules. It's not always the times students think. There are good reasons for doing things the long way before learning shortcuts.

Here's one example where I think we get away from the spirit of mathematics. "Put your answer in the form of a fraction unless there are decimals in the original problem." Um, okay. Why?

What if I have a problem involving money, using only whole numbers initially, but the answer isn't a whole number? It only makes sense to give that answer in a decimal. That's an obvious case, but what about regular bare-numbers equations? What's so wrong with saying 0.5 instead of 1/2? They're equivalent.

So I've gone for a rule that's a little tougher. It means I have to watch for multiple correct answers when I grade work, and it means students actually have to think a little extra. I want the exact answer, not approximations, except when (a) the instructions say to round to a specific place value or (b) the context dictates an approximation is the only way it makes sense.

The reason? That's how answers get used in the real world. You use the form of the number that makes the most sense for the situation.

Kids need to know how to think, how to reason, how to work something out. When they get used to memorizing arbitrary rules ("Do it this way because that's how the teacher said to do it"), they don't delve in for deeper understanding.

That's what I think, anyway. Are there other rules your math teachers made you follow that didn't seem necessary to you?

Friday, September 28, 2012

Cool vs. Not-Cool—More Relativity

We already know this: What is "cool" varies from person to person. We knew it in school. Some kids thought drugs and partying were cool; some disagreed vehemently. That's more extreme, but there are grayer shades.

Which kids in your class did you think were cool? I'm not talking jocks and cheerleaders vs. geeks and nerds. More like which cheerleader—the queen-bee who seems to have it all under control, the sweet one who seems happy all the time, the hard-working one who's all about perfecting her handsprings? (Were they all the same person in your case?)

Who we individually think is cool is entirely subjective. Collectively, though, there's generally a majority agreeing on one person/thing or another being cool.

When I'm teaching, most of my time is naturally devoted to the whole "teaching" part. Still, there are a few minutes in every class near the end where I fall into people-watching. Some students are obviously the "cool" kids (and there's usually more than one distinct set of them). Some are obviously on the outskirts of Popularity-ville. Many are somewhere in-between.

I should know better, but it still surprises me sometimes to see who some kids are (or aren't) friends with.

The whole thing is such a game. Even as adults, we don't escape it. And yet, as an adult, it twists a little.

Not all my students think I'm cool. Some don't even like me a little bit. But I can guarantee I'm "cooler" and more popular as a teacher than I ever was as a student.

The students who do think I'm cool often strike me as those who wouldn't have noticed me when I was in school.

On the flip-side ... I see those "popular" kids in a way I never could back in those days.

Perspective. Relativity.

We're a bunch of complicated creatures, aren't we?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Secret Society of Writers—We're EVERYWHERE!

My new/old classroom has a couple of bulletin boards—a long one along the side of the room and a square one next to the whiteboard at the front. It's been a while since I've had that kind of wall space, and I've never really been skilled at fantastic bulletin board design, so I was kind of at a loss.

I ended up putting some math stuff on the long one and decided to make some color print-outs of book cover images for the smaller one. It makes the kids ask questions—"Uh, Miss Lewis, why do you have a bunch of book covers up in math class?"—and gives a good excuse to talk to them about not pigeonholing themselves or others.

I'll probably change it later, but for now, it works.

The other day, our librarian/media center coordinator/general queen of awesome stopped by to see when I wanted to come in with my classes to get our new textbooks. She caught sight of the book covers and said, "Oh! I want to read that steampunk but haven't gotten to it yet!" (Incidentally, The Unnaturalists by agent-mate Tiffany Trent!)

She already knew about my publishing deal from one of the other math teachers. One thing leads to another and ... she says the magic words:

"Then there's me, still at the querying stage."

She knows what 'querying' means.

We speak the same language.

She is one of us!

We launch into talk of how she writes contemporary YA and has her ms out to an agent. How she uses QueryTracker and how I think she really ought to stop by AgentQuery Connect and check it out (because really, every writer should). How we're both on Twitter and she thinks my agent is awesome and hilarious (because @literaticat is awesome and hilarious).

Meanwhile, the other math teacher I'd been planning with thinks we're both a little crazy.

Well, let's face it. We are a little crazy.

We're writers.

And we find each other at the least-expected moments sometimes.

Monday, September 24, 2012

So, You Want Me to Undermine My Colleagues, or What?

We had our first parent-teacher conference this past week. Overall, a great experience. I love the chance to talk one-on-one with students' parents. They see what I'm all about, and I get new insight to the kids I teach.

The last encounter of the night was a little strange, though. It wasn't a parent of one of my students. It was the parent of another teacher's student, in the grade below the one I teach.

She was concerned about the teacher her child has (but I didn't entirely get why). She was concerned about the new standards. (She's not the only one, but guess what—I kinda like them.) She said she'd talked to the principal before school started, and then again that night. He'd pointed me out to her (I'm not sure why).

Bottom line, I have no idea what this mother wanted from me. Just hoping that I'll have the same class assignment next year and will get her child? Just wanting to vent and have someone tell her they understand?

Did she want me to say, "You heard right. I'm awesome. Sorry my colleague sucks."

On what planet would I ever do that?

On what planet would it ever be acceptable for anyone to do this?

That's my gut reaction. On the other hand, I understand how frustrated parents can be when a teacher isn't working for their student. There often isn't much they can do about it, and I really know the kind of impact a bad (or good) math teacher in particular can have on a kid.

On the other other hand (the third one, right?), I've already been dealing with teacher reputations a ton this year. I'm the "new" teacher, so kids who didn't want the other option (whether by past experience or by reputation) transferred to me just for that. The "other option" is not a bad teacher, nor a bad person. We plan our units together. As far as I know, we don't teach that differently.

Try telling that to the people who figured even an unknown quantity had to be better.

Then again, I agree that sometimes certain personalities don't gel in a great way, so one teacher might be more effective with certain types of kids than another.

But the end effect is that my classes are all bigger than the others in the grade.


Is there a solution to any of this? Probably not, other than to do what I plan on doing ... continuing to do the best job I can in my classroom, and maintain my professionalism at all times.

I'm not going to cut down good, hard-working teachers. I hope no one else would do so to me, either.

Friday, September 21, 2012

People-Watching, Junior High Style

This Friday, a few more random observations from the teen-trenches, post-Parent-Teacher-Conference edition.

Sometimes when two teens don't get along, it's mega-obvious. Like, their proximity to each other includes a DEFCON 1 alert. When two such teens are put in the same class, it's my lucky job to keep it from coming to blows. (One such crisis averted yesterday ... I'll save the sigh of relief, though.)

Sometimes when two teens don't get along, you'd never know it to look at them in class. One parent said something about one friend of her child hating another friend in the same class. I never, ever would have guessed, so I guess they're good at faking it. Whatever's behind it all, I appreciate the lack of drama.

Some parents will tear down a good kid. No, the kid isn't perfect, a few things can be improved, but on average, the kind of kid you'd want to have.

Some kids try to tear themselves down, and it's up to the parents (and me) to talk them off the ledge, convince them there's nothing wrong with having an A-minus at midterm.

Popularity is a weird thing. So are cliques. I have a good rapport with a lot of kids who are similar to me at that age (so, the shy/quiet, slightly awkward, not-so-confident geeks). I also have a good rapport with a lot of kids who are at the highest echelon of the social system (this includes some geeks of a different kind). I am much more popular as a teacher than I ever was as a student, which kind of warps my brain.

Some of the most awesome kids are those who cross those social boundaries as though oblivious to their existence.

Most parents are on the teacher's side, because they know the teacher's on the kid's side, whether the kid thinks so or not. (At least, that's how it should be, though of course there are bad teachers out there, just as there are bad parents ... as noted above.)

Most teens know what they should and shouldn't do. They know all the great reasons for such things. That often doesn't stop them from doing what they shouldn't or not doing what they should. And they know that, too. Knowledge may be power, but it's no substitute for willpower and self-control.

One of the saddest things is to realize I have more faith in a student's capability than their own parent.

One of the greatest things is to see the relief in a parent's eyes when they realize I share their belief in a struggling student's potential ...

... and it makes me wonder if they had teachers in the past who wrote that student off.

I hope I never get to that point. Even on the days when the student tries their best to convince me they're a hopeless case.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why Casinos Aren't Publishers

That's right, ladies and gentlemen, it's another math-centric spiel on probability.

We all know why casinos work and make money, right? It's because they know the odds are stacked in their favor. They go to great lengths to safeguard against cheating. As a player, some games have better odds than others, but the numbers are what they are. You can't change them—all you can do is know the parameters, consider your choices within them, and take a chance.

As writers, we talk about trying to increase our odds of getting an agent, getting published, making a bestseller list, etc.

It seems a natural statement, but we can't do it. There are no odds. Odds assume all things are equal—the dice aren't loaded, the roulette wheel isn't rigged. In the writing and publishing world, nothing is equal.

We're all have different strengths and weaknesses. We're all at different stages of progression. Some have a story agents/editors want right now; some have a story they might have wanted a year or two ago; some have a story agents/editors won't want for a year or two (or five) yet.

Seriously, no probabilities or odds out there at all.

I can understand the urge to think of it that way, though. Just like the casino, much of what happens is out of our control. And like the casino, there is some luck involved, if only as far as timing—getting the right agent's (or editor's) attention at the right time with the right project.

When things aren't within our control, we tend to think of them in terms of chance, odds, hoping the cards fall our way.

When we think that way, we may forget things that are within our control. Working hard to continually improve our craft. Looking ahead to the next project (and the next, and the next) when the stars don't line up for one, rather than staying stuck on that one, never moving forward. Educating ourselves on the industry and our options within it.

There is no magic bullet or shortcut, no counting cards or rigging the machines. We can do everything right and still not "win."

Because there are no numbers to work. There is only work to be done.

Well, there's one number out there. If we quit—or never get out there in the first place—our "odds" of success are precisely zero. As long as we avoid that number, we're on the right track.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Teachers Making Do, Like It or Not

We're a few weeks into the school year, and I admit, I'm not entirely teaching as I'd like to.

I'm not teaching badly (I don't think), but I'm doing things pretty traditionally. The circumstances added up.

I didn't find out exactly what I was teaching until just before school started.

We don't have textbooks yet (supposed to finally arrive this week).

My classes average 38 students each.

More importantly, due to the way our math lab classes for struggling students work, the other 9th grade teacher and I need to stay in lock-step with each other. The same sections covered on the same day, the same homework assignments given.

I'm still free to teach the material any way I want to. But there's no time for that kind of planning. Not with all the grading that has to be done. And not with counselors still letting students transfer from one teacher to the other.

In the end, though, I feel like I'm making excuses. I could spend every hour outside of school developing my own curriculum (or at least modifying the one I've been given). But what about writer-me? What about having free time to keep my sanity intact?

Selfishness or self-preservation? Maybe a little of both.

Despite these reservations, I think I'm off to a good start this year. A few things need tweaks and adjustments. The kids are learning, regardless of how I feel about the style of instruction.

I'll see what I can do moving forward, and if nothing else, make sure I'm ready to tackle next year more thoroughly.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Mockery—The Permissible Form of Bullying?

Working against bullying is a big deal in schools, as well it should be. I've seen workshops, policies, text hotlines, and more. Some efforts seem more effective than others, and for some, I really have no idea whether they work or not. When teens already know they shouldn't do something, does telling them it's wrong again really stop them if they're so inclined?

Not sure. The main things I feel I can do are make it clear that I won't tolerate bullying in my classroom, and more importantly, set a good example.

Sometimes I wonder what kind of example we set amongst ourselves, though. Especially in this age of social media.

As I browse through my Twitter lists, it's mostly fun, games, and good information. There are also opinions, which are great. What's not so great is when opinions are of a type akin to "Anyone who thinks this way/votes this way/belongs to this party or organization is an idiot AND a lesser human being."

I'm nowhere near perfect, but whenever I disagree with someone, I do try to come at it from an angle that isn't judging them as a person. It takes a lot of effort—sometimes a crap-ton of effort, sometimes more effort than I can manage—but often I can get myself to the following head-space:

Their view on this is the total opposite of mine. We couldn't disagree more on this. But I see where they're coming from, and coming from there, what they think is reasonable for them. I still believe what I think is reasonable for me. We see it differently, and that's okay.

I have friends all along various spectrums—political, religious, whatever—so this mindset is very important to me. They're fabulous people—even the ones who hate math!

If a student vocally, stridently denigrated (for instance) people who buy into creationism, or gay people, or people who own guns, or people who have a live-in boyfriend ... if they did that in the middle of class, knowing there's every likelihood that someone in the room falls into that category, would we let it go?

Why, then, is it okay to watch a political party convention (either one) and go to town with mocking tweets, declaring the utter stupidity of everyone associated with that party?

Because we're adults and should be able to take it? Isn't that the old response to bullying? "You need to toughen up and just take it." Because we're free to fight back? That always goes well.

My opinion (and yes, just my opinion, so you can disagree): The way forward is in understanding. Not necessarily agreement. Definitely not homogeneity. But understanding where other views come from, and trying to find common ground.

Mockery closes doors and raises walls. My hope is that we all (myself included) will remember to think before we tweet (or post, or whatever). Who will be on the receiving end? Might I be actively insulting them by saying this?

Are my words hiding hate behind a veil of snark?

And what kind of example am I setting for future generations?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"But My Writing Teacher Said (or Asseverated) ..."

Speaking of undoing what other teachers have done ...

Did anyone else go to school and have a poster or handout with 75 or so alternatives to "said"? Bellowed, whispered, mumbled, hissed—ooh, that last one sparks fights. Can you actually hiss words?

Enter the world of aspiring novelist and you're told to only use "said," if you must use a dialogue tag at all. Maybe "asked" if you really think the question mark isn't doing its job.

There's another one I see all the time when students ask me to look at their writing assignments. I'm not sure what their English teacher's stance is on it, which makes it hard to know what to say.

Descriptions. Extreme overuse of adjectives. Since I don't teach English or creative writing, I don't have a volume of teenage story samples, but from what I have seen, it's near impossible for a character to enter a scene without making their hair and eye color known, at minimum.

Thing is, they're kids. They're learning. Maybe their teacher wants them to be more descriptive and develop that skill. If their own character/setting visualizations are too transparent on the page, maybe that's all right for now. Maybe they need to lay it out there in black and white as they practice, working toward more nuanced ways of painting pictures with words.

Weaving description into a narrative is an art all its own—one I'm constantly working on improving myself. Getting characters to speak (or whisper or mumble or even hiss) for themselves is another one.

How do you take students (or writers in general, at any age) from these school-days practices to more seamless techniques?

How did any of us get there? Personally, I find it hard to pinpoint where/how I learned specific things about writing. I can tell you how I learned about differential equations. I can't tell you how I learned about writing dialogue that works, creating multi-dimensional characters, or even most grammatical conventions.

That's always made the idea of teaching something like language arts mind-boggling to me.

Any such teachers out there who can share how they approach teaching creative writing in their classrooms? When students decide they want the math teacher's opinion (because word of her "other job" got out), what kind of feedback might I want to give?