Friday, August 31, 2012

What is Genius?

I admit, I've been called a genius before.

I also admit this was by young-ish people who knew I controlled their grade. Or who were easily impressed by my mathematical abilities.

As much as I appreciate the compliment, I'm no genius. Not by official standards, anyway. I test well, but not that well. I have moments of cleverness, but too many of them strike me long after the needed moment. I do plenty of stupid things.

You know, I bet certified geniuses do stupid things sometimes, too.

And I bet to some students, I am a genius ... in a way that has nothing to do with MENSA.

So unofficially, what is genius?

It's not about passing tests (and I say that as an ace test-taker ... near meaningless in my opinion). It's not necessarily about book-smarts, though there's nothing wrong with having those. Traditionally, book-smarts is about regurgitating information, re-creating someone else's genius.

To me, a genius is someone whose ideas or works spark a feeling of newness, differentness, freshness in my mind. Sounds a lot like having creativity and imagination, and those may be part of it. But I'm not sure they're required, either.

I think that spark of newness explains why some students call me a genius. I may talk about mathematics (or anything else) in a way they haven't heard before. It sparks a new connection.

Under that definition, genius is relative. It depends on our own experiences, expectations, and priorities. No membership cards, no certifications ... just our own acknowledgement of each other.

I kind of like it better that way. Maybe I'm a genius to some of my students. Many of them have been geniuses to me.

Who are some unacknowledged geniuses in your life?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Real Teens of YA County

Hopefully this is preaching to the choir. A lot of YA writers are great about having textured, nuanced teen characters. Still, sometimes the cast is filled with an overabundance of "the regulars."

The jock. The cheerleader. The nerd. The nondescript average teen.

Wait, there's no such thing as that last one. Never in all my classrooms have I come across one of those. They show up in novels, though. Weird, that. It got me thinking about what I have seen. Here's a sampling of students I have taught or am teaching.

Students who weren't supposed to live past the night they were born.

Students whose parent is world-famous.

Students whose entire family is deaf (and sometimes that student is the most hearing among them).

Students who excel in a sport and qualify as a "geek" in another area (math, music, theater, ...).

Students with such a mix of half- and step-siblings, there are six or seven different last names in their household.

Students whose bodies could break all too easily.

Students with the most spectacular cases of ADHD.

Students who are in foster care because their parents are in jail.

Students who aren't supposed to have much of a life expectancy.

Students who are quiet for a reason ... and very NOT quiet when you get them going. (By the way, this group is never, EVER boring.)

I could go on if I let myself, but you get the idea.

Some of those I see in novels. Some not so much. (Of course, I'm not as super-wide-read in some genres of YA as I'd like to be.) Some only when it's the "issue" of the story. Maybe some things could be incidental to the plot. The MC's best friend is in a foster family, but that's not the point of the story.

Or maybe that's just me and my preferences. Maybe some people would read that and keep waiting and waiting for that fact to become relevant.

What do you think? Are there certain types of teens you'd like to see pop up more in YA literature?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Learning the Hard Way

Sometimes it doesn't matter how many times you tell someone that a surface is hot. They're just going to have to touch it.

In my first math lesson with my new classes this week, I noticed a trend in my first couple of classes. As they worked on their homework near the end of class, several of them got to a particular problem and didn't know what to do. It had three different variables and they were supposed to evaluate it.

Without exception, those who asked had neglected to read the instructions, where it gave a value for each variable.

I figured I'd save myself a little trouble and warn my remaining class periods. A part of the lesson had the exact same type of problem, so when we got to that, I mentioned the issue. I told them that other students got to those problems in the homework and didn't know what to do because they didn't read the directions.

Later, we get to homework time. I walk around the room, helping students when they get stuck.

Invariably, more than one raises their hand. "I don't know what to do here."

I point to a line in their textbook. "Did you see this?"

"No, I—oh! You totally warned us and I did it anyway!"

They felt like idiots. I assured them they weren't the only one to do it, and made a little joke about how they'd never forget to read directions again, right?

I already know there's only so much they can absorb at one time, and which parts stick depends on their own priorities.

Live and learn, kiddos.

Friday, August 24, 2012

"Thank You" Isn't Dead

I'm finishing out the first week of school. It's been a busy week, in an uneventful way. More students to teach than I've had in the last six years combined. Using my voice all the time (and trying to restrict my hand movements).

I remember one thing that struck me back when I started at my last school, working with deaf kids. A lot of them would say thank you when I was handing out papers. Part of me wanted to say, "I just gave you a calculus test—what are you thanking me for?" Really, though, I appreciated it.

Yet this week, it struck me again. Kids getting up to leave at the end of class, several of them thanking me as they walk out.

Teenagers, mind you. Around fourteen years old, most of them.

Yes, teenagers can be cynical. Teenagers can be rude.

They can also be awesome.

Pretty much like the rest of us.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Is There Such a Thing as "Bad"?

From the Department of Uncomfortable Questions:

Is there such a thing as bad writing?

Let's assume we're not talking about misspellings galore, egregious grammar gaffes, and other such technical things that make it about as comprehensible as the typings of Pika the kitten. Let's say we're talking only about manuscripts that have been through the world's best spelling and grammar checks.

Then, is there such a thing as "bad"? When discussing things like voice, style, plotting, character, and all that makes fiction worth reading, is there a minimal level of competence? Some magic line below which is an auto-reject and above which is a "well, it depends"?

Do we do ourselves damage when we assume it's all just subjectivity, rather than making the effort to improve our craft?

Do we do ourselves damage when we assume our writing is crap, rather than acknowledging our strengths and the fact that we can't please everyone?

If there is a line, even a murky one, how do we find it? Our gut? Honest critique partners? I'm guessing "murky" is a key word there. Really excellent writing seems easy enough to identify, whether it's our thing or not. I know I've had the experience of reading something and thinking, "Wow, this is so well-written. I'm just not into (insert genre here)." Likewise, writing that's super-far off the mark is easy to spot.

But that pesky gray area in the middle ... what about that?

Lots of questions and no real answers this time around. What are your thoughts?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Tales of a Tutor

The past couple of weeks, I've been helping a friend's daughters with a college math course they're taking over the summer. I'm geeky enough that this is fun, and getting paid is a nice bonus.

While doing so, certain things have struck me more than they might while working with my own students. So I figure, why not share?

Even math teachers don't remember all the math, all the time. Conic sections ... I've never actually taught them as a whole topic. I'm fine with circles and parabolas, because those come up regularly on their own. Ellipses and hyperbolas, however, not so much. I remember some general things about them, but not how to find the coordinates of the foci, or how to rewrite an equation to the proper form. Fortunately, all it takes is twenty seconds glancing at the right material in the book.

Math teachers don't always agree. When tutoring, I almost always come up against something where the way the teacher showed them is bonkers (in my opinion). I try to determine if there's any good reason to do it that way. If there is, I go along with it. If there isn't, I try to determine whether the teacher will know or care if the students do it a different way. If not, I'll show the kids my way, explain how it relates to the teacher's way, and tell them they can choose whichever they like better.

Math teachers don't always act rationally. Often these college courses don't allow the use of calculators. I understand the idea—with some calculators these days, you could solve every problem on the test without engaging more than a couple of your own neurons. But it's kind of ridiculous when the long division to reduce a fraction takes longer than applying the math concept that's actually being tested.

And the thing is, I'm sure I'm guilty of all of the above in my own math classes. Somewhere out there a math tutor is saying, "Miss Lewis said that? Is she nuts?"

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Comfort of Inertia

When I mention inertia, here's one of the first things that comes to mind.

"An object in motion will stay in motion and an object at rest will stay at rest unless acted upon by a net force."

Generally applied to physics, but so true in other areas. It's so easy to keep doing what we've been doing, and keep not doing what we haven't been doing.

As a teacher, it's easy to teach as I've always taught. As a writer, it'd be easy to write the way I've always written. I've done it before, so I know I can do it. Continuing to do it is no problem at all.

Inertia is so darn comfortable.

You know what isn't comfortable? Growth.

Growth hurts. Growth feels awkward. Growth is trying to put on clothes that were designed for a body type very different from mine.

But if we push ourselves through that discomfort, we stretch. Our shape changes. We mold into something new.

And just as that new place starts to feel comfortable, we find the next new thing we need to put on.

(Now I have this vision of people made of clay. Just roll with it.)

I have new things to try this year as a teacher. I have areas to improve in with my writing. It's uncomfortable and awkward.

It's also necessary.

If I let inertia carry me, what's the point of having a brain at all?

Where do you find yourself getting caught in inertia? How do you push yourself out of those ruts?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Not My Job ... Or Is It?

With a change in location and employment comes the return of an old idea. It's not universal among math teachers—I hope it's not common for even a majority of teachers. But every once in a while, I hear something along these lines:

"It's math class. I don't do English."

I just came from a school with the philosophy that every teacher is a language arts teacher. (Honestly, to such a degree that it could be a pain sometimes ... but a necessary pain.) Other schools likely feel the same way to one degree or another. But not all teachers buy into that.

Does it mean docking points when the math is all correct but there are spelling or grammar errors? No, I don't think so. What, then?

As writers (and particularly YA writers), many of us have considered how our books might be read and used in schools. Visions of curriculum guides, worksheets, projects, discussions ... almost all in English class, right?

How could other teachers use our books? Historical fiction could tie into social studies classes. Science fiction might work in some science classes, at least in portions. But what could teachers do beyond straight-up reading assignments to encourage both interest and skill in reading and writing?

A few things I've done:

  • When a new, strange word comes up, take a few seconds to discuss it ... even if it's not a "vocabulary" word for my unit.
  • Have students do small writing assignments to explain their thinking. I encourage clarity and completeness, and while I don't mark off for grammar errors, I give little nudges.
  • TALK ABOUT BOOKS. Just because it's math class doesn't mean I don't have moments here and there to talk about what I'm reading, what students are reading, what they think of the last book in one trilogy or another, etc.
Okay, I need more ideas. What have you guys got?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Student-Centered, Math-Anchored

There's something in education you may or may not have heard of—the student-centered approach. Here's what some people think it looks like:

Students doing whatever they want, however they want, as long as it has some tenuous connection to the subject at hand. There are no wrong answers. Math facts are left by the wayside.

Basically chaos, with very little education happening.

I imagine some teachers actually carry it out that way, but that's not the philosophy as I understand it. When we hear the term "student-centered," I think we tend to have ideas of, "Let the student lead the way. Let the student determine everything." So I try not to think about student-centered without including something else.


I envision students out at sea, paddling around in the water, exploring to their hearts' content. The earlier illustration would end there, but when I think of it, each student also has a tether. How much rope they have might vary, but all the lines are connected to a stable post. They'll reach that post from different sides and at different rates—of course, as the teacher, I'm there giving gentle tugs to each rope to urge them in my general direction—but they'll all get to the same endpoint.

That destination is the core principle, the major mathematical idea that's the reason we're doing the activity or exploration at all. Students are empowered to delve into the thick of it, really engage their brains to make sense out of a situation. They see the different approaches their classmates took and discuss whether they're equally valid.

Most importantly, they come away with an understanding of that root concept.

Like most things, easier said than done. Even if I set up a great lesson, it can be awfully tempting to forget those "gentle tugs" and just haul each student in by their tether. It's also easy to run out of time before they reach the destination, and then forget the next day that I've left them adrift.

Before we even get started, then, I'd better make sure they all have life preservers. In other words, setting up a classroom environment where they know the expectations and what to do when they're left without the mathematical understanding we're looking for.

Can you tell the first day of school is coming up?

Wish me luck.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Awesomeness of Terrible/Wonderful, No-Good/Very-Rad Days

Remember a couple of months ago, how I had the most hectic day ever, yet it was still awesome?

It happened again recently, where my "real life" had me pretty occupied, yet my "literary life" demanded sudden attention.

Here's the upshot of it, as reported in the Publishers Weekly Children's Bookshelf:

Catherine Onder at Disney has acquired debut author R.C. Lewis's Stitching Snow, a sci-fi YA thriller due out in summer 2014. In the book, a royal teen runaway is scraping together a living in a mining settlement on the far side of the universe, until she is discovered and "rescued" against her will. Jennifer Laughran at Andrea Brown Literary Agency brokered the two-book, six-figure pre-empt.

Mind = boggled ... maybe even scrambled Saturday-morning-egg style.

Thanks to friends who'd been through the process before me, I'd been prepared for the long slog of submissions. More months of waiting, more rejections, maybe some close calls where we didn't quite get through acquisitions. Even when we had whispers of possible good news, my stupendous agent was great about keeping me grounded. Yay, step in the right direction! But nothing's guaranteed.

I was ready for that, I think. But I was very fortunate things fell into place just as they did. Maybe I just shouldn't bother having expectations anymore, because nothing ever turns out quite as I expect.

I'm beyond grateful to Jennifer for everything she's done and continues to do. She pushes me in just the right ways. I also have amazing critique partners. Big group-hug to everyone at AgentQuery Connect. Mindy in particular (Yo, BBC!) has talked me off the ledge more than once. (You know the ledge ... the one every writer visits now and then that says, "I Can't Do This!")

So, what does this all mean?

It means it's time to get to work.

*rolls up sleeves*

*dives in*

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Which Love Do You Write For?

Why do you write?

A simple question. Many common answers, some probably better than others.

For fun.

To entertain others.

Because I must. The voices in my head won't shut up until I set them loose on a page.

Because I can do better than most of the crap that gets published these days. (Not my reason, but I've seen it.)

Because I love it.

I think for most of us, love comes into play somehow. Some kind of love is involved. Is it the love of the writing process? Is it the love of the finished product? Is it desire for the love of readers?

For some, that last one is a solid NO. "I write for myself, not the reader." I think that's valid, but I only fall partway into that category. When I start drafting a story, the first, most instinctive criterion is to write a book I'd want to read. (This is always a good idea, considering the number of times I'll go through a manuscript with revisions and editing passes.)

But I also write for the reader ... I hope I do, anyway. I try to write books teenage-RC would've liked to read, and I know there are plenty of current teenagers who have just enough in common with RC-of-ages-past to enjoy similar elements.

I try to create characters who resonate. Forgive the physics intrusion, but for resonance to happen, you need two things—the sounding tone (provided by the author) and the resonant object (the reader). It's kind of a cool thing to have someone think you wrote in some brilliant symbolism, but you know it wasn't your conscious intention. That reader brought some of the brilliance by viewing it through their own lens.

(And yeah, I think I just mixed sound and optics metaphors there ... turning off physics-brain now.)

Sometimes we get so bogged down in the hard stuff about writing and publishing that we forget the love—whatever love it was that brought us to this art. We fret over query letters. (Guilty) Rejections deject us. (Guilty) We fear our writing sucks so profoundly that no one can put their finger on why, so we'll never be able to fix whatever's wrong. (Guilty-Squared)

If you find yourself in a place like that, stop and take a breath. Remember why you're putting yourself through all the contortions and seeming torture that it takes. I hope on some level, it's because you love it.

Love takes work. Love brings pain. But love is worth it.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Why I Won't Tell You What to Do

This is one of my biggest guiding principles in teaching: I won't tell my students what to do.

Okay, I will sometimes. Like when I tell them to clear their desks before a test, to get out a piece of paper, to work with their partner, or to stop playing games on their calculator when they're supposed to be working (and I know they're playing because no one uses their thumbs that much when they're calculating).

But that's not what I'm talking about.

I'm talking about when a student asks, "How do I solve this problem?" Sometimes I slip, but more often than not, I answer that question with a question. "What do you know about the problem already?" "What are we trying to find?" "How is this similar to/different from this other problem?"

Yup, I'm one of those teachers.

Even when I do "tell" a little more, it's often with options. "What are the tools we've been using? Tables, graphs, and equations. You could try using any of those."

It's easier just to tell students how to solve the problem. Really, it is. (That's why I slip once in a while.) So why don't I just do it that way?

Because it's not about what's easy ... especially not what's easy FOR ME.

It's about getting the student to the point of doing mathematics independently. And before anyone says most people never use anything from algebra or above in "real life," that's not what doing mathematics is truly about. It's about thinking and reasoning and working out what makes sense.

Like so many things from my teaching life, it carries over into my writing life. People ask for feedback, critique, suggestions. In that case it's peer-to-peer, but that makes me even less likely to say, "Do it this way." I try to focus on giving my reaction as a reader, what worked and didn't, leaving it to the writer to figure out how to best resolve any problem areas—if they even agree that the area is a problem.

Some people give feedback by saying, "What if you did it like this?" and proceed to rewrite a whole paragraph or query letter. I can't say it's wrong and no one should do that. Maybe that works for some people. Just me, personally ... it makes me cringe. Once in a while I throw in a "such as" and give a possible sentence to illustrate my point, but I try to keep that really limited with a tone of "but in your own way."

That's the thing. When I tell someone how to solve a problem, they're not really doing mathematics. When someone is writing, feedback is critical. Taking in that feedback, processing it, and deciding what to do about it (if anything) is a necessary skill. It needs to be their work, their writing, their voice. We can suggest and spitball and yea-or-nay ideas, but when it's our writing, we must do the heavy lifting.

And yes, sometimes I slip in that department, too. But I try. I just want to make people think.

But if I said my way of giving feedback is the only way, that would be telling you what to do.

Have you seen or experienced benefits of the direct-instruction approach? Have you seen downsides to being left to puzzle it out, picking and choosing from more general bits of advice?

Friday, August 3, 2012

When the Circadian Rhythms Are Offbeat

I've been told our bodies have a natural rhythm of sleep and wakefulness influenced by the sun (or its absence in the sky). Generally, sleepy when it's dark, wakey-wakey when it's light.

It's never quite worked for me the way they say it should.

My inclination is definitely to be a night owl. I could happily stay up until the wee hours of the morning. I do a lot (but not all) of my writing later in the day and into the night. That makes my choice of day-job problematic—primarily because it happens during the day. I love teaching, though, and I love the age levels I work with. (Yeah, teaching afternoon/evening classes at a college could solve the problem, but it's not what I want to do right now.)

So, I find myself living a hybrid life. During the school year, I force myself to follow a reasonable sleep schedule, although I'll push it a little on weekends. Then during summer break, I'll shift more to night-owl mode.

This works out pretty well most of the time, but it causes problems at this time of year—when I have to readjust myself back to school-mode.

At least this year I don't have to commute.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Never Say "Never Give Up"

First, let's be clear about the title of this post. By no means am I saying anyone should ever tell anyone else, "Quit writing. You suck. You're wasting your time." Sure, only a small number of us will ever have financial success as novelists. But even if we could know with certainty that someone will not be among that number, there are other reasons and rewards for writing, for persevering.

So here's what I am saying.

I frequently see writers pondering whether to set one manuscript aside and focus on another, usually because they've queried upwards of eighty, ninety, one hundred agents and aren't getting anywhere.

I see other well-meaning writers say, "No, don't give up! Keep at it, believe in yourself ..." etc.

My response is different. My response is "Find the right course for you, and shelving this manuscript is a valid choice."

Why? Because I've been there. I took two manuscripts to the point of being queried out. I made some progress with each, but not quite enough.

I didn't give up on those novels. The only "giving up" was on querying them. I've always viewed those manuscripts as being in my pocket, waiting for their time.

Moving ahead to other projects was the best thing I could have done.

I did lots of revisions on those earlier novels, making them a bit better each time, but that can't compare to what writing brand-new stories did for me. They made me stronger.

Lingering on any one project longer than I did would have been a mistake, and wasted time. I'm glad I "gave up" on those. I still love them—my first manuscript is in many ways my favorite. The story is, anyway. The writing ... I can do better now. So I will.

Every writer has to make that decision, figuring out when it's time to put one novel on the shelf and focus on another. A dozen queries isn't enough to throw in the towel. When you get into triple-digits ... well, even then, it depends. Have you had near-misses on fulls? Were the first half of those queries before you really knew how to handle the querying game?

Maybe it's time to move on. Maybe not.

But it's your decision, and no one should think less of you if you "give up."