Monday, January 30, 2012

But ... I WAS Teaching!

Funny thing happened the other day. Less "funny-ha-ha" and more "funny-huh?"

My school has this thing where a collection of administrators and specialists rotate around, observing different classrooms each week. Some look at how we're using ASL, curriculum, or technology while others just look at the general classroom experience.

A few weeks ago, I had one such observation. I had a great little activity for my class. We briefly reviewed what we knew about three different types of functions, and I explained the activity. They'd be making predictions about a list of equations, checking those predictions, and then forming some generalizations. I circulated as they worked, dialoguing with them about what they were noticing. It all went really well.

I didn't think about it again until I got an email from the observer a while later. She apologized for not getting any notes to me sooner, but she'd had a hard time writing up anything because she "really had not observed a 'lesson' so to speak." She wanted to schedule another observation when I was teaching a new concept.

Excuse me, what?

I had taught a new concept. I'd taught my class how to recognize linear, quadratic, and exponential functions by their equations and without graphing them. The students were actively engaged in learning the whole time, doing something, rather than sitting there in a lecture-coma as I told them everything from the board.

Clearly, though, she wants to see something that looks more like a traditional "lesson." So she's coming back this week to observe a lesson in my physics class.

Le sigh. I don't mind being observed again. I do mind the fact that I'm trying to follow nationally recognized "best practices" is being discounted as "not a lesson." If it wasn't a lesson, what did she think it was—busy work? That, I definitely mind.

Is it just me? If you were back in math class, would you rather take notes on a lecture or work on an activity that helped you figure out a concept for yourself?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Teachers Don't Always Like Being the Grown-Up

This is a real shocker, right? Of course teachers take joy in torturing students with mountains of homework and giving detention. They would never want to do anything else. They don't even exist outside of classrooms.

What, you didn't know that? We evaporate if we try to go anywhere the normal public goes outside school hours. Very painful.

Seriously, there are times I think to myself, "I should be more strict and stern. I'm supposed to be the adult in the room." But my students make me laugh too much. (Not all the time, but in some classes, often.) Then I remember that super-strict isn't my style, and in those classes with lots of laughter, the kids are still learning. Laughing while they do it means they often hate math without hating math class. Sometimes that leads to not hating math so much, either. I'll take what I can get.

Here's something students don't always believe: Just like they have days when they'd rather not have to think so hard and work, there are days we'd rather not think so hard and teach. But because we're grown-ups, we suck it up and do it anyway. It's always nice to see teenagers reach that point of realization. "I don't feel good/I'm tired/I'm distracted, but it doesn't matter. I have to get the job done anyway."

There are other times when the knowledge that I'm the adult in the room is a little scary. When a student is upset, or gets hurt, or two of them are spiraling toward a full-out brawl ... I have a split second of "Yikes! I'm the one who has to handle this."

And then I do.

So remember, teachers are people, too. If you're a parent, make sure your children are aware of that little-known fact. And if you're a writer, try not to make every teacher in your writing a one-dimensional caricature. ;)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Tense Matter of Perspective

When I started writing my very first novel, it was in third person. A couple pages in, it was feeling awkward. I went back and re-did it in first person, and never looked back.

From then on, the decision of whether to go first or third (and if first, present or past tense) has been a combination of gut instinct and thinking about what the story needed. In one, I chose third person because I needed that tiny bit of distance from the main character so she could keep some secrets from the reader in an organic (not just convenient for me) way. In another, I chose present tense because it only made sense to be in the moment rather than looking back.

I've even braved the "alternating first person" POV ... just for a novelette I wrote on a whim, but I still did it. (One POV I haven't tried is second person, and I don't see myself trying anytime soon.)

My latest Shiny New Idea has been less forthcoming about what it wanted to be. Or maybe it's just less demanding and could work whatever way I chose, as long as I applied the perspective and tense in an effective way. For the scene-and-a-half I've written so far, I went with first-person/past. Feels good so far, so hopefully it'll work.

On a separate but related note, there's something I don't get. I've seen a lot of people say they hate reading first-person narratives. Maybe it's just a matter of personal preference, like the way I'm not crazy about peas unless they're raw.

I used to feel kind of the same way about novels in present tense. The first time I read one, it felt funny and jarred me for a while. But I figured out I just wasn't used to it. Now that I've read several, it doesn't bother me most of the time. In fact, when I notice the tense and think, "Ugh, this present tense is bugging me," I suspect it's a sign that either the writer didn't handle the tense well, or it was just an inappropriate choice for that story.

But first person in general? Is it possible to not be used to that? (Weren't all the Babysitters' Club books in first from the POV of whichever girl had her name in the title? Maybe I'm remembering wrong.) Is there some other reason I acclimated and adapted to whatever it is about this perspective that bothers some readers?

Or is one person's grilled zucchini another person's boiled peas? (I may have taken the metaphor too far there.)

Just curious. Any of you first-person haters want to share?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Mental Math Tips for Your Kids (that Might Help You, Too)

Every once in a while, I'll try to post some math tips that may or may not be helpful to people. We'll start with a couple of simple ones this time, and you'll have to trust me when I say I'm not using a calculator for any of the examples.

Multiplying By 12

I never memorized the multiplication facts for 12 when I was a kid. Why bother? It's easy to multiply by 11, then just add one more of whatever number your multiplying by. For example, for 12 × 7:

11 × 7 = 77
77 + 7 = 84
so 12 × 7 = 84

In third grade, I was able to do that process quickly enough to still complete the timed multiplication tests, so my teachers never knew I hadn't actually "memorized" those facts. (Do they still do those timed tests in elementary?) Of course, that assumes you can add a single-digit number to a larger number without counting it out.

What if you need to multiply something by 12 that's beyond the typically memorized math facts? It's a little trickier, but in a pinch, you can still do it in your head. Multiplying by 10 is even easier than 11. Then you just double whatever you're multiplying by, and add the two together. For example, 12 × 15:

15 × 10 = 150
15 × 2 = 30
150 + 30 = 180

Maybe that one was too easy. Let's try 12 × 43:

43 × 10 = 430
43 × 2 = 86
430 + 86 = 516

Again, this requires some mental addition ability. So let's look at one of the simplest cases of this to start with.

Adding (or Subtracting) 9

As crazy as it makes me to see teenagers in advanced math classes add by counting on their fingers, it's the worst when they do it for something as easy as adding or subtracting 9. Our base-10 number system is a marvelous thing. It makes adding/subtracting 10 super-easy. To add/subtract 9, just do 10, then move one space back the other direction.

For 27 + 9:

27 + 10 = 37
37 - 1 = 36

For 82 - 9:
82 - 10 = 72
72 + 1 = 73

Yes, pretty much all of us have cell phones with calculators these days. But seriously, for simple calculations, I bet you can do it in your head more quickly than you can take out your phone and punch it in. ;)

I'll see if I can come up with more tips and tricks another week.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Levels of Response in the Publishing Game

As I wade through the waters of Trying to Get Published, I find there are a lot of things the general public doesn't know about the process. Since most of us start out in the general public before moving into Wannabe-Writer-Ville, we come into the process as clueless newbies.

The first thing we learn about is the query letter. That's a tricky beast all in itself and deserves weeks of study. But with the magic of the internet (and cool sites like AgentQuery Connect), we get up to speed on how and why, and work out a query letter that's considered ready to go.

We carefully read submission guidelines, send out a batch or two of queries, and we wait.

As a newbie, we may not know how many possible responses there are. Let's break it down.

First, has it only been ten minutes? If so, chill out. (If the agent promises an auto-response to confirm receipt, check your spam folder, wait a little longer, then try again.) If it's been a few weeks/months, there are questions to answer. Does the agent have a stated "no response means no" policy? If yes, move on. If no, and there was no auto-response, do a little digging to determine whether the agent typically responds and how long it usually takes. (QueryTracker is a great resource for this.) If it's been unreasonably long, and the agent always responds to queries, might be worth resending.

This can vary from a super-brief "Not for me, but thanks," to a very politely worded paragraph that means the same thing. Don't agonize over every syllable. Just move on.

This is pretty rare, but occasionally happens. Sometimes it'll look personalized, but a little research shows it's a form. If you really do get a personalized reply, glean what you can from it, but again—don't agonize. Move on.

Yay, they want to read some of your manuscript! First, a partial typically means three chapters or the first fifty pages. In my experience, agents are pretty clear with what they want and how they want it. Follow their instructions. Once you send it off—don't agonize. Your query seems to work, so send off a few more to celebrate.

Yay, they want to (potentially) read the whole thing! Some agents go straight from the query to this point, skipping the partial in-between. Same advice goes—send as instructed, don't agonize, and send off some more queries.

SILENCE (on requested material)
Ugh. Hold on! Has it only been two weeks? Chill out again.

Many agents state that they respond to full manuscripts within X amount of time. Wait that length plus a few weeks (or an extra month), then try a politely worded nudge. Sometimes you get an apologetic note that things got crazy and you're next on the list, or there's been a technical problem and could you please resend ... and sometimes you get more silence.

FORM REJECTION (on requested material)
Ouch. This sucks, because you often can't even tell how far they read. This is where I most often see the "I just didn't love it enough" wording. Frustrating, because it doesn't really give you something to act on, other than trying to find the agent who is going to love it enough. Check with beta-readers and critique partners to see if they have ideas about making it more "loveable" but ... don't agonize. Send more queries and get back to work on your WIP (you do have one, don't you?).

BRIEF REJECTION (on requested material)
A little better than the form, and may give you a touch of direction on revisions. If the feedback resonates, act on it. But don't agonize. Get back to work.

This can hurt the most but be the most valuable ... maybe. The agent cared enough to type up 3-5 paragraphs on what they liked and didn't like, but ultimately, they don't want this story. Often this type of rejection includes a statement like, "Please keep me in mind for any future projects." Make a note of that. If this story doesn't pan out and your WIP gets to querying stage, I highly recommend starting your new query letter to these agents with: "In (month and year), you were kind enough to read the full manuscript for (insert title)."

A rejection like this warrants a little agonizing. You need to look over their feedback carefully. Let it sit for a day or two until the sting is gone, then read it again. What resonates? What could make the story better? This may be the time to dive into some big revisions. But if the feedback doesn't resonate at all, or contradicts what other agents have said they liked, it may be yet another occasion to move on.

There's nothing relaxing about this type of R&R. This often looks a lot like the Detailed Rejection, but it's actually a hefty step above. It generally includes the same types of feedback, but includes a clear statement from the agent that if you're willing to revise, they'd be happy to look at it again.

Agonize. By all means, agonize.

Again, make sure the feedback resonates on some level. Come up with a game plan for addressing the agent's "problem areas." Take your time (but not forever) working through your manuscript. Run it through your most trusted critique partner(s) again. Polish the now-rough edges where things got cut and scraped.

Send the new version. Then stop agonizing. Send a query, write on the WIP, do something.

And finally ...

I've experienced all of the above levels thus far, except this one. This is where the agent wants to talk to you in real-time, usually meaning on the phone. It may or may not end in an offer of representation. Depends on how you and the agent click, how they feel about other projects you have (old or ideas for new ones), if you both have the same vision for a working relationship and your career, etc.

If/when I get to that point, this thread (and the links within it) will be my guide, definitely.

And as I wait for that phone to ring, nothing will stop me from agonizing. I'll keep some chocolate handy.

Did I miss any? Do you have any advice on handling the various levels of response?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Ooh, Look at the Pretty Numbers!

I'm a little OCD. Have I mentioned that before? Not to a degree that it interferes with my life, just noticeable in a few areas. Like when I leave my class with a substitute and everything's out of place the next day—and that can be something as little as the books on a not-quite-full shelf being shoved to the right instead of the left. *shudder* Annoying.

As a math teacher, it's only appropriate that one of my little quirks relates to numbers. Some are prettier than others. It's not that I can't function when "ugly" numbers come up. I just feel a little warm fuzzy when they're pretty instead.

So, what are some of my "pretty" numbers? Palindromes are definitely way up there. Those are numbers that read the same forward and backward. When I look at a digital clock right when it's 12:21 or 8:18? Love it. Catching when my odometer hits one? Love that, too.

Numbers that fall in order or in a pattern are nice, too. Speaking of my odometer, it recently passed 123,456 miles. (My car is well-loved.) That was awesome.

Then there's my car stereo. The volume increments are pretty small, but anything much over 40 is usually permanent-damage-to-the-hearing range. Within the "safe" range, I get a little weird with settings that are and are not okay ... and it has little to do with whether it's loud or soft enough. In general, prime numbers = yuck. That means even numbers are mostly good, but something like 38 (a prime times two) isn't as pretty as 35. Multiples of 5 are very pretty, as a rule. Multiples of 3 aren't bad, either, which means 39 is slightly better than 38, but why not go the extra notch to 40, which is prettier than both combined?

I'm nuts. I know this.

Funny thing is, none of this matches what I mean by "pretty" and "ugly" numbers in my classroom. Rational numbers are pretty. Irrational numbers are ugly. Simple as that. If my students get a pretty answer, they know they should either write the exact decimal or the equivalent fraction. If they get an ugly answer, they should either round it appropriately, or leave it in square-root form (or as a multiple of pi, whatever applies).

I imagine that definition makes a lot more sense. But it doesn't mean I'm not very much looking forward to twelve minutes after noon on December 12th of this year.

C'mon, guys, 'fess up. What weird little quirks do you have that make you look just a little bit crazy?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Tracking vs. Self-Esteem—Where's the Line?

I don't know about all of you, but when I was in elementary school, they split us up and shuffled us around to different rooms during certain times of day. Math, for instance. Sometimes for reading.

It's not hard to figure out who's who. 'Smart' kids, average kids, and strugglers. And that can be a lousy feeling.

I can see a lot of good cases for heterogeneous grouping. With the right curriculum and solid teaching practices, the strugglers can make up ground, the 'smart' kids can be challenged, and everyone can learn.

On the other hand, there are situations where it just doesn't make sense.

My current school has a full range of students ... and I mean full. Everything from kids above grade level to kids with severe disabilities, and everything imaginable in-between. We don't have them all in the same classes.

We do, however, have workshops.

It's an ongoing frustration. The entire high school gathers for workshops every other week on a variety of topics. Here's what happens:

Half the students can't believe they have to listen to things they've known since they were eight years old.

The other half are lost.

End result: No one likes workshops.

We've talked about splitting them up into smaller groups (size-wise, that'd be better anyway) so their specific needs can be addressed more. Same topic but different levels. For some, the very basics. For others, more of a discussion, letting them talk about what they know and what issues are important to them.

Sounds good, but we haven't done it. There are logistical reasons, but there's also the fact that the kids will know they've been somehow labeled. "Ha, I'm with the smart kids. You're with the dumb kids." Boy, wouldn't that be fun.

Maybe there's a way we can avoid or lessen that effect. Or maybe there's another alternative we haven't thought of. Some way to make sure all the kids benefit, but not making any kids feel more defeated than they already do.

Any ideas?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Telling Teenagers that Revising Rocks

On Monday, I had the opportunity to talk to a writing class in my school about the feedback/revising process. I'd been talking to the English teacher at department meeting last week about some revisions I was about to get started on, and she said, "Oh, please, can you come to my Composition classes and talk about how that works for you?" (I'm talking to the second class this afternoon.)

Turns out some of the kids get very reticent, uptight, and defensive when it comes to criticism and making changes in their work. Some feel like it's not theirs anymore if they make the changes suggested by their teacher. Some say straight-up, "But I want it to sound this way, not that way."

It's always fun to get out of my classroom and say, "Hey, look at me pretending I'm NOT a math teacher!" So I threw together an entertaining little PowerPoint and headed over. (It helped that with my teeny-tiny school, there were only five kids in the class—not so nervous-making.)

The kids were good and engaged, and honest about their feelings. Through the presentation and ensuing discussion, we came to two key points.

She's not the boss of me.

I told them about one of my critique partners (Mindy McGinnis, yo), and noted that just because she suggests something doesn't mean I have to make that exact change. Or any change. And if I choose not to, it doesn't mean she's going to scream at me and stomp her feet and never ever EVER talk to me again.

Same goes for the teenagers and their English teacher. We discussed that some feedback is the Just Fix It kind—errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, or facts. But the really valuable feedback is the Ponder and Figure It Out kind—when passages are boring, awkward, confusing, or annoying. Suggestions on how to fix those issues are just that—suggestions.

And that leads us to the second point:

Find your Q.

This was just part of a little scenario I put together. Mindy notes something doesn't work and offers suggestions X, Y, and Z for fixing it. I go ahead with X, work in Z-with-a-twist, and come up with Q all on my own. When I run it by Mindy, she knows I didn't use Y, but that's okay—she says, "Yeah, Q totally works."

Surprisingly, the group kind of latched onto that concept (teasing me about bringing mathematical variables to English class). Some of the students had been stuck in a mindset that the teacher's word was law, so her suggestions had to be followed to the letter. Thus their feeling that the writing wasn't theirs anymore.

Through the discussion, we kept coming back to, "And there's that situation where you need to find your Q—find a way to modify it to address the problem the teacher pointed out, but that still stays true to your voice and characters and story."

What about us?

These reactions and mindsets aren't unique to teenagers, or to those who write only because they have to for school. Those of us who want to (or do) write professionally go through cycles of the same thing, I think.

I don't care who you are—finding out something you thought was great doesn't work can sting. I think a key part of my presentation was when I admitted to the students that I've gotten feedback where my initial feelings were all, "I suck! The story sucks. There's no way I change that in a way that will work. I'm too stupid."

Feeling that isn't a problem—as long as we take the next step, which is rolling up our sleeves and getting to work.

Like I told them, you don't wipe some mud off a car and call it polished. Polishing takes time and effort.

And like Mindy added, exercise doesn't necessarily feel good (or look glamorous) while you're doing it, but the results feel great.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Math Rant: Yes, Elementary Teachers, Math is in Your Job Description

Yikes, long time, no post. Not the first time it's happened, but hopefully the last, because I've finally figured out a posting "schedule" that I think will work for me. What do you think?

Mathematical Mondays
Writerly Wednesdays
Free-For-All Fridays

You know I love my alliteration. Hopefully I can keep thinking of fitting topics each week.

So, that makes this a Mathematical Monday, and we have another math-rant. First, a disclaimer. Some elementary teachers are awesome. Some don't match anything I'm about to say. I hope we get more of those.

Here are some actual quotes I've heard from elementary teachers.

"I hate math."

"I wish I didn't have to teach math."

"I was lousy at math in school, but I figure elementary math is easy, so I can teach that."

I have yet to hear an elementary teacher say they hate reading, wish they didn't have to teach reading, or are lousy at reading. Many elementary teacher training programs are heavy on the literacy courses, and light (or non-existent) on the math pedagogy.

Don't get me wrong. Reading and writing are hugely important. (Hello, I'm a writer!) But so is math. Even if a student will never have to divide fractions or graph a linear equation once they leave school, the associated thinking skills are valuable no matter what they do in life. They need a good math education to develop those skills of logic, problem solving, and number sense.

And guess what—when the teacher doesn't like math, the kids know it. Doesn't matter if the teacher doesn't explicitly say so. It comes across.

It's socially acceptable to say you're bad at math, but this is something that needs to change, especially with the way technology is developing so rapidly these days. It used to be only the elite knew how to read, and now no one wants to admit being bad readers. (And yes, we need to keep working on ways to help those who have difficulty reading.) It's time for math skills to have the same status, and it starts with those who are role models for the teeny-tiny kids—both parents and teachers.

Okay, rant over. Now I can get back to looking for ways to bolster the math skills of the elementary teachers at my school so they can stop making excuses. ;)

Are you a math-phobe? What led to you feeling that way? If you're a math-lover, how did that happen?