Sunday, August 30, 2009

Reading for Pleasure for Kids?

Yesterday's New York Times online has an interesting article on giving students more choice in what they read, an idea I can really get behind. I teach freshmen, but a few years ago I stole a unit plan from a senior teacher, tweaked it very little, and started using it. Now almost every teacher I know does some variation on the Independent Book Project.

It starts with a visit to the library. The students are given the parameters: they must choose either a novel or work of literary nonfiction (for example, the memoir of a race car driver is ok, but a picture book about cars is not.) It must be at least 150 pages long, though I tell them if they find a shorter book they really want to read, come talk to me. This gives some leeway to "differentiate" instruction for special needs students.

For the next three weeks, approximately 33% of class time (classes are 88 minutes long) is devoted to this project. As they read, they are writing study guides for their books. They are creating vocabulary lists and forming opinions. Their goal is to imagine that they will be the teacher, leading a class of their peers through this book. They write quizzes and a review, make recommendations as to why or why not this book is worth reading. Who would enjoy it and why, why, why? etc.

Finally, they select three items from a list of enrichment activities such as: Interview a character from the book, draw a map of the book's setting, create a soundtrack for the book and write a brief explanation for each choice, draw a chapter in your favorite graphic novel/manga/comic book style, write a new chapter or rewrite the ending. . . you get the idea. Guided choices offering the opportunity for each student to show off her skills and tastes. Empowerment.

I love doing this project with my students. With the new district-imposed timing, however, I'm not sure where I can fit it in, but I'll find a way.

Not everyone agrees that this is a good idea. For example, a Bush Education Expert:

“What child is going to pick up ‘Moby-Dick’?” said Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University who was assistant education secretary under President George H. W. Bush. “Kids will pick things that are trendy and popular. But that’s what you should do in your free time.”

Right, you should. But will you, if reading has been a dull, punishing experience? I read Moby Dick, voluntarily, when I was thirty--a transcendent experience--but I'm so grateful no one tried to force me to read that in high school.

From Students Get New Assignment: Pick Books You Like:
But literacy specialists also say that instilling a habit is as important as creating a shared canon. “If what we’re trying to get to is, everybody has read ‘Ethan Frome’ and Henry James and Shakespeare, then the challenge for the teacher is how do you make that stuff accessible and interesting enough that kids will stick with it,” said Catherine E. Snow, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. “But if the goal is, how do you make kids lifelong readers, then it seems to me that there’s a lot to be said for the choice approach. As adults, as good readers, we don’t all read the same thing, and we revel in our idiosyncrasies as adult readers, so kids should have some of the same freedom.”

My goal has always been to instill a love of reading in my students. I tell them that no matter what path in life they choose, Art will enrich their lives, and I believe it. I'm still going to teach Shakespeare until they pry it from my cold dead fingers, but if it takes Twilight to build a bridge to Romeo and Juliet, I'm good with that.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Found: First Person

All I could think about this morning was the noise, but another cicada rant, nobody needs. So I'll spare you that and share this instead. Interesting article at Poems Out Loud about the use of the first person, specifically in poetry. A good read.

Notes on the First Person by April Bernard

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

In Defense of the MFA (and Praise for Low-Residency)

So over at the Rejectionist the other day, a guest post by one Cherie L'Ecrivain (clever!) gave me a little bit of brain rash, and always in search of a topic, I decided to take it on.

First, a confession. I used to harbor my own prejudices about MFAs in writing. I assumed (and unlike the author of this post, had no actual experience to base this on) that most MFA programs were groovy, rich-kid playgrounds, factories churning out pasteurized products every year, each bearing the stamp of the latest trend in literature. I wanted none of it. I would be a unique voice, raw and untamed. It had nothing to do with how those grapes were dangling so high above my head or that I couldn't jump that high and was afraid to climb. There were bugs on those grapes, yuck, phooey.

I dibbled and dabbled and dribbled for years, feeling always the lack of the community that M. L'Ecrivian skewers in her post. I wanted writers in my life. I wanted feedback. Having found a project that inspired passion in me, I toiled and spun in a vacuum for almost a decade.

At the tender age of 48, I finally admitted I needed help. Despite my debtanoia, I applied for student loans. Following the advice of a poet friend, (yes, I had some poets in my life, but I am not a poet, really, and knew no prosers, so) I applied to the University of Nebraska's Low-Residency MFA in Writing. It fit my lifestyle. Five nine-day residencies at Nebraska City's beautiful Lied Lodge, one in the middle of the summer and one during winter break, each followed by four intense months of reading, writing, and regular correspondence with a mentor.

I worked closely with four amazing (yeah, an adjective; I debated, but I'm sticking with it, and if you knew them you'd understand) mentors over the two years, and each of them contributed immeasurably to my growth as a writer. Sometimes I disagreed with their suggestions, but usually I went ahead and tried them anyway. Sometimes I decided I was right (can't think of an example right now so this may be a big lie) but usually these suggestions led to me breaking through a fear.

During the residencies, the days and nights were full of lectures, readings, and workshops. Nine days of hard work and camaraderie, then you go home for more hard work.

The blog post I'm responding to said, in part:

Beyond actually acquiring the physical diploma, it’s difficult to gauge the success of your tenure as an MFA student. It’s not like the degree is meant to help you land a well-paying job.
This I agree with. Sure, we all want to be published, but anybody seeking a fine arts degree because they want to make money is dangerously naive. That's what jobs are for, silly.

Then Cherie swerves off into less informed territory:
Most of the workshops are heavily focused on short stories and then once a semester an agent visits the class and tells you that story collections are completely unmarketable and no one will even consider publishing yours until you have a novel to back it up. At least this way when you graduate without a book deal or salable manuscript it is only partially your fault. However, your time in an MFA program can be considered a triumph if you clock more hours actually writing than you do vomiting up your student loan money in the bathroom of every bar in Park Slope.
I think she's writing memoir here. Speaking of memoir, in my workshops (of eight or nine people, and each residency I was with a slightly different group; the Boss Lady threw our names in a bowl and let her cats fish us out) there were almost as many essays and excerpts from longer works as there were short stories. And let's face it, short stories are a wonderful form and efficient for learning craft. Unless, yeah, you're in it for the money.

Cherie also had trouble with her playmates, and I can see how that could happen in a traditional MFA program, where you workshop weekly with the same people. Especially if you are young and have not yet spent decades paying off that first round of student loans you squandered in saloons all over Montana or wherever.

With low-residency, this is more easily avoidable:
You will also know how well you have done based on who you are still speaking to when school is over. All MFAs are composed of people who are used to being the standout writer in any workshop they’ve ever attended. So, take twelve to forty people who are equally good at something but accustomed to being the best and put them in a situation where they are required to critique one another and compete for praise and prizes. Have fun navigating that obstacle course of loyalties and animosities, particularly when the participants are perpetually steeped in sleep deprivation and alcohol. In any workshop you'll be lucky to find one or two people who are good readers for your “work”—yes, you will call it that, eventually—and that's nice and all.
I do feel lucky. I graduated three weeks ago. I am proud of the work I did, and I'm grateful I had to keep my day job and write when I used to be sleeping. I'm grateful for the discipline I learned and the tools I've acquired. Most of all, I'm grateful for the relationships, both online and face to face, with writers of every genre-- poetry and prose, literary fiction and nonfiction and fantasy, multi-media-melange and memoir. These are people I've watched grow over the last few years, and they've watched me. I have a community now, and I guess that's what I'm defending.

I'm sorry that some people have had such bad, expensive experiences with higher education, but in this brutal business, all I can say, Cherie, is better you than me.

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Look at This While I Stall

A few days ago, in the wee small hours of the morning, when I should have been doing a number of other things, (like trying to shower, dress, and get to work on time at least once in the first week of school) I read SOMEWHERE, (where? I can't rebut until I find out) a bitter diatribe against MFAs.

Yeah, yeah, I get it. There were some valid points. Yet, as I so often do myself, the writer went over the top and tipped a metaphorical hand full of sour-grape-stained small-digit cards. So, I am working on a modest defense of the MFA, specifically the low-res variety of which I am a recent and grateful graduate. But while I get my thoughts together, please to enjoy these useful McGyver tips from Lifehacker.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Friday Zombie Love

Made it to Friday, first week done. As usual, having the kids back energized me this week, and though I know I'll never be the Super Teacher that some of my smart, organized, creative colleagues are, today I'm liking my job.

Took my classes to the library yesterday. Their assignment was to check out a book. Since they're ninth graders, our wonderful librarian and her assistants gave them the intro spiel and cut them loose.

In each class,as usual, there were the boys insisting they didn't read. There was nothing they were interested in that would be in a book. I love the look on their faces, when we steer them to the horror section, or find books on graffiti or skateboarding or gangs. I love to be right. When I tell them that the librarian can get them a book on almost anything they could want, but then it turns out she already has it, I try hard not to be too smug about it.

This book trailer, via Prairie Schooner's blog, made my morning complete. Avoid if you are sickened by or scared of haiku.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

For Book Lovers

Via moonrat at Editorial Ass.

Pretty cool art:

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The Kids Are Alright

Well, every year I think this is the year I've lost it, and every year the kids come back and I find myself loving my job again.

Things are still a little crazy with the schedules due to the district's rapido reassigning of administrators this summer (the assistant principal in charge of student schedules was given like five minutes to move to a new school.) Some of our students were floating around like lost tribes during 2nd and 3rd block today, but hopefully we'll find somewhere to put them tomorrow.

Meanwhile, our new principal is a ROCKSTAR. During the assembly he was sitting with the kids up in the bleachers, and he is so visible in the halls and dropping into classes that they definitely know who's boss. I heard he was using zip ties to hold up the pants of certain individuals who didn't believe him when he said he'd have no sagging. Wow-- a principal who means what he says. It's a whole new ballgame.

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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bloody Sunday

Just spent 3 hours in the emergency room with my dad, watching arterial blood* spurt out of his head whenever they tried to take the pressure off. Not sure if it's from the skin graft they gave him when they whacked off a chunk of cancer a few weeks ago or if it's from the haircut he tried to give himself, but I'm proud I kept my mouth shut. Trying to get up the gumption to watch my favorite Sunday night show, but my stomach tells me I've had enough True Blood for one day. Must muscle through somehow.

*arterial blood--and I did not really know this until today--is a very bright, pretty red, and pumps out in tune with the heartbeat.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Femfest 2009- Heat Lightning

August 4, 2009, 4:19 a.m.

About a half hour ago I woke up thinking there was a fire in the corner of the room, and knew at the same moment that the fire was not hot. The light of the fire was white and cool as it flickered in the corner at the foot of my bed. I remembered that my sister had left her phone charger plugged in on the floor, sans phone, (and why hadn’t I unplugged it two days ago, when I arrived at the cabin? I’m usually pretty good about being obnoxious about stuff like that.) (FACT CHECK: K says she would NEVER leave her phone charger plugged in-- it was her booklight charger, my bad.)

I sat up. Sure enough, the corner was flashing with light, but it was coming from under the thick brown curtain. It was coming from the sky.

It looked like aurora borealis on meth. Nebraska heat lightning sparked and flashed across the horizon, and from my window the view is full-throttle horizon. I stumbled out to the living room for my camera and tried to take some shots on every setting, including video, but the light show wasn’t making much of an impression on—well, not film, whatever it is in a digital camera that takes impressions. This is one of those things you just have to see for yourself.


Yesterday we were trying to figure out how long we’ve been coming here. Sheila M, who is 23 years old and who took it upon herself to design and print goddess t-shirts (purple on lavender, Artemis with bow, a phallic quiver slung over her shoulder and a mellow deer beside her) for the Femfest this year, says it’s been going on since before she was born. All we can remember, those of us who were alive at the start, is that back then it was more of a “grab your sleeping bag, I’ve got some good bacon” kind of thing. Those mid-eighties getaways were much closer to actual camping, with all activities—cooking, eating, sleeping, etc— happening outside, or in a tent, and we felt a little lame even then, a little ashamed that we hadn’t had to schlep our gear over hills and bogs to get to our campsite. Still, it was grand, and whenever it was that first one occurred, we decided that it should be a tradition, a sister campout every summer for the rest of our livelong days.

And we did it, every summer after. Except for Michelle (Sheila M's mom,) we were all single back then, and bosses were the only people in our lives who might hinder us. If someone couldn’t get off work for the full couple of days, we were still close enough to town to commute. I saw this proximity to town as a plus, enabling the hard-working and over-employed among us (insert modest throat clearing here) to enjoy a summer getaway. My sister K, though, believed leaving for any reason other than more ice, more wood, more s’more stuff, was a spell-breaking, bliss-busting violation of the rules that she had not and would not write down.

When the sisters started to breed, we began to desire amenities. With children came the perceived need for plumbing, shelter, refrigeration, and climate control. We changed venues, from the charming sub-roughing it of Fremont Lakes to the poor-woman’s “summer place” at (redacted) State Park. Our annual summer getaway has evolved from the spontaneous summer campouts of our late youth (I was in my mid or late twenties, and the oldest) to a highly organized and civilized outing.

After trying several settings here at (redacted) River over the years—some low-lying, primitive cabins, and two years at the Big Red Barn—just what it sounds like, dormitory style, with bunk beds and an unfortunate proximity to the horse corral and its attendant fly population— we have settled on our summer homes: (redacted). Reservations are made a year in advance.( Sorry about all the redacting-- I've been informed by a secret person who does not and will not make rules that these are secret locations.)

“Our” two cabins here atop the hill share both a fire pit and a grill. I’m in the nice cabin, the one with an actual living room and fireplace. The dogs and I have a room to ourselves, and Cary is in the other bedroom with her two dogs. In the other cabin are three bedrooms, and one has two bunk beds. This is deemed the boy room, and it holds the male children until they’re twelvish and their testosterone levels get too high to hang at the Femfest, whereupon they are harshly banished to the care of their fathers.

We set up our lounge area beneath the shade trees in a breezy spot with a view down into the meadow. From this fine location we watch wild turkeys and deer in the morning, and horses sometimes, and turkey vultures up above; this is also where we read our magazines, and where we take our breakfasts and our lunches, which can occur at any time. These meals are made up of Michelle’s homemade salsa on chips or her zucchini bread, Sheila’s tuna salad or fruit salad, the artisanal cheeses and chocolates that by tradition must be provided by Cary, Kathleen’s pesto pasta (if Grace hasn’t finished it,) and her everything cookies that have everything, really, that you could want in them, you need only think “pecans” or “oats” or “coconut” or “chocolate covered dried cherries” and that very flavor will dominate your next nibble. There will be peaches that cover you in juice, and watermelon, and smoky leftovers like roasted corn or eggplant, all washed down with coffee, hot or iced. It’s all the abundance we can muster.

Dinner, a more organized affair, is taken at the picnic tables, and occurs in the evenings. There is usually a steak night and a BLT night. Other than that, and the unwritten prohibition against leaving, there are no rules.


There is much to say about the evolution of our sleeping arrangements, but it is after 7 a.m. and I feel a nap coming on. (We nap whenever we want, for as long as we are able.) Let’s just say Kathleen, Sheila, and Michelle sleep outside most nights now. The heat lightening that woke me a few hours ago eventually led to rain around 5:30 and they had to drag their air mattresses inside. The sisters are spread out in the living room now, and if they can sleep, they will sleep for as long as they can.

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