Monday, March 25, 2013

Less than the Best Can Be AMAZING

The third quarter of the school year just ended for me. Predictably, I spent much of last week staying very late after school with kids desperate to get their grade up at the last minute. If they're willing to do the work, I'm willing to put in the extra time.

A few different groups of kids come in. There are the kids who've been failing since the beginning of the YEAR, and when they find out they've just gotten it up to a D, they break out in the Hallelujah Chorus. There's a similar group who get it up to a B from a C, say, "That's awesome!" and carry on with their lives. Both groups could've been a whole grade higher if they'd just applied themselves more earlier.

There are also kids I've been working with a little longer than the past week. They get it from a D up to a B, and want to know if they can get it any higher at the last minute. In those cases, I have to try to convince them that their B is awesome, because I've already bent as much as I could to help them.

Then ... there are the A-minuses.

Some A-minuses are easy to deal with. They're one percent from an A, and one of my usual culprits (i.e., retake a quiz) is easily enough to bump them over.

But others are tougher. These are students who may not get math easily, so they work their tails off to get that A-minus. They should be SO PROUD of that A-minus. A line I heard more than once last week:

"It's not good enough for my dad/mom/both parents. I'll be in so much trouble."

Sure, some of these kids might just be using the "blame the parents" line to get me to feel bad for them and help them nudge it up to an A. But I've met some of the parents at Parent Teacher Conferences, and I suspect those kids are telling the truth.

I get that parents want their kids to reach their utmost potential. I get that some kids slack off (those Bs that could've easily been As) and need motivation/pressure from home to get it in gear. I get that there's pressure for getting into a good college.

I also get that if a kid works really hard, and the result of that hard work is an A-minus, that A-minus should be celebrated. It's not "less than perfect." It's an amazing accomplishment.

The whole idea of grading has issues. I try to be as fair as possible, but there's still an almost arbitrary nature about it. Should grades reflect effort, actual mathematical understanding, or a combination of both? If a combination, in what proportion? What earns an A in one class may only be enough for a B in another.

It sucks.

I hope some parents will help it suck a little less by acknowledging when less than the "best" is more than good enough.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Edit Letters and Ending Terms and What's Up With Referrals?

As usual, when it rains, it pours.

I have arrived at the next stage of The Book Deal. First came the offer. Then waiting. Next came the contract. Then more waiting. Now the edit letter has arrived.

No waiting. Just working.

Between all the revising I need to do and the term ending this week at school, I'm a bit busy. So it might be quiet here at the blog for a while. I'll try to pipe up now and then.

One word of advice for the savvy aspiring writer. Remember that a referral to someone's agent is not typically something you ask for. It's something that's offered. And you definitely don't ask an author who doesn't know you from the crossing guard down the street.

I had a referral once from a writer who knows me (and more importantly, my work!) very well. It went as far as an R&R (revise-and-resubmit) but didn't pan out. The referral was a gift—something I didn't ask for, but was very grateful to be offered.

Be professional. It always looks good.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

My Fellow Perfectionists, Let Us Embrace the Suckitude

I admit it. I've been struggling with perfectionism pretty much my whole life. (You'll have to ask my mom how much of it manifested when I was a two-year-old, I guess.) There's a particular aspect of it that sticks with me. If I couldn't do something perfectly, I'd rather not do it at all.

No settling for "okay." No such thing as "good enough." All or nothing, a hundred percent or zero.

If I were still full-throttle in that zone and trying to write novels, I think I'd be dead already.

Don't get me wrong. Striving for excellence is great. It's something we should do, and something I still do. But writing is never going to be perfect, and it's going to be very unperfect for a long time before we get it as close to perfect as we can. If we lock onto the flaws during the process, we're never going to move forward. So here's what we can do:

We can let our first draft suck.

It's okay. We have permission. It's allowed.

If we're coming up on a fight scene, and we know we have a hard time with action descriptions? That's okay. Write it badly. Let the words come, because then we have something to work with.

I'm not saying editing/revising as you go isn't allowed. Personally, I tend to do that as I draft. Others, like Mindy McGinnis, prefer the first draft to be "word vomit"—just get it all out there and tidy it up on the first revision pass. When I feel my perfectionism creeping up, though ... when I get those doubts saying I can't write what I need to well enough, so I may as well not bother at all ... that's when I know I need to just let it spill.

Once it's out there, I can see how bad it really is. Maybe it's worse than I thought, and I need to educate myself on how to fix it. More often than not, though, it's not nearly as bad as I expect.

For me, the fear of sucking is much worse than actually giving something a shot. So I'm trying not to fear it. I'm trying to embrace that suckiness, knowing at worst, it'll only be temporary.

A crappy scene can be revised and fixed. A blank page is just a blank page. Great for origami. Not so great for telling a story.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Why Do We Do "Pointless" Things? (Hint: They're Not)

The other day, an English teacher at my school emailed the faculty with the link to this piece in the New York Times about literacy (or lack thereof) in Mexico. It makes me want to yell at someone, hit someone, and just scream and cry at the same time.

Here's part of what set me to tearing my hair out:

A few years back, I spoke with the education secretary of my home state, Nuevo León, about reading in schools. He looked at me, not understanding what I wanted. “In school, children are taught to read,” he said. “Yes,” I replied, “but they don’t read.” I explained the difference between knowing how to read and actually reading, between deciphering street signs and accessing the literary canon. He wondered what the point of the students’ reading “Don Quixote” was. He said we needed to teach them to read the newspaper.

Because if they read thought-provoking novels, they won't be able to read the newspaper? We should limit them to only achieving the baseline?


And then this:

When my daughter was 15, her literature teacher banished all fiction from her classroom. “We’re going to read history and biology textbooks,” she said, “because that way you’ll read and learn at the same time.”

I'm all for using literacy in the content areas, but throwing out fiction in literature class in favor of textbooks?

There's learning to read, which is generally what happens in elementary school. Then kids transition to reading to learn, which is what we're doing when we read textbooks or essays. We take the knowledge someone else has and absorb it by reading.

Then there's what I'd call reading to create knowledge. I'd say that's what happens when we read fiction. We can make our own discoveries about human nature, about ourselves, our own understandings about the world. The job of a novelist—as I see it—is not to teach but to explore. The reader explores with us, yet may not discover the same things or arrive at the same destination. That's why it's amazing.

This idea that we should only learn things that we'll definitely, absolutely use in a concrete, practical way mystifies me. As I mentioned a month ago, it's certainly turned up in my classroom. While I don't hear students ask what the point of reading novels is (maybe the English teachers get that from the kids who don't like reading—I have to threaten to take books away from kids who'd rather read than do math), I get it about almost everything else we want them to learn.

My school just sent out a survey last week, and one of the items was to vote on whether we want to institute a mandatory free-reading time next year. Twenty minutes a day, three days a week. No matter the class, everyone will spend those twenty minutes reading, including the teachers, administrators, everyone.

I haven't had a chance to ask the other math teachers what they think of it. Or the science, art, PE, music, history, and tech teachers.

My vote: Absolutely, yes, without question.

Because the only pointless thing is limiting ourselves to the concrete little nothings. What kind of life is that?

Friday, March 8, 2013

When It's NOT "Just Jealousy"

News Flash: Not all teenagers love and adore each other. (They're just like younger kids and adults that way.) When one teen hates another, there seem to be two routes. The hater makes no secret of their hate, broadcasting it to the world, or they act extra-super-sweet-and-nicey-nice around their hate-ee.

The second is just about as obvious as the first.

Then there's the response from the hate-ee's friends once the hater moves on, particularly when we're talking about girls:

"Forget it, she's just jealous."

It's true at least some of the time, I'm sure. Envy gets ugly easily enough. But it's become a sort of default response to being hated, or even just disliked. "It's not my problem—they're just jealous."

What if they're not? What if someone's beef with me has nothing to do with my possessions, my status, my accomplishments? What if it has everything to do with how I'm conducting myself? I see kids who really don't like other kids, and have really good reasons for it. Boys who disrespect girls, students who disrespect teachers, kids who try to cheat or cause trouble. And I've seen those kids brush it off with the "jealousy" excuse. Pointing fingers at the hater distracts me from what I need to see—my own face in the mirror, my own actions and character.

That doesn't mean we need to beat ourselves up every time someone has a problem with us. But taking it as a prompt for some quick self-reflection couldn't hurt.

This is part of why I don't feel inclined to celebrate my successes in a sense of "Ha! Take that, haters!" If there are haters out there, I'm not always sure of the reason behind their hate. My success stands on its own. Separately, I'll celebrate when I manage to knock down any of my own tendencies toward bad conduct ...

... leaving the haters to worry about their own selves.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Going Off-Topic Can Be On-Topic

When I was in junior high, there was this one English teacher. I never had him, but I heard stories. Stories about the stories. My classmates talked about how all they had to do was make one comment or ask one random question to get him going, and they could keep him talking through all of class. As in, never getting to the lesson. As in, no homework.

Not something I aspire to as a teacher.

At the same time, I find I can't be totally rigid about sticking to the agenda and only the agenda. That likely comes from my years in deaf-ed, where kids often have gaps in their world knowledge, and if I don't allow a tangent to fill them, who will? I have a curriculum to stick to, but that doesn't mean there isn't time for other conversations.

Here's what I've learned: Kids want to know things. Since my students have heard about my publishing deal, they want to know a lot of things.

How long did it take to write the book?

Why is it going to be so long before it's published?

How did you get the book deal?

What's an agent?

Will it be in bookstores or will we have to buy it from you?

Will there be a movie?

I get particularly in-depth questions from students who want to write and publish novels themselves, but some of the most intense curiosity comes from students who aren't into writing at all. Often who aren't even into reading all that much.

Indulging those questions gives them insight into something that certainly isn't on the curriculum in any of their classes. It also reinforces one of my favorite points—don't pigeonhole people. Yeah, I'm a math teacher. Yeah, I'm a novelist. Yeah, I know ASL.

Hopefully it gets through to them that they can be as multi-faceted as they want, too. Especially in the adolescent world of "What's your label?"

And you know what? Sometimes tangents like that work in writing, too. It might seem like wandering off aimlessly, but if we do it right, it can actually play right into our point.

Of course, the trick is the "doing it right" part. But isn't it always?