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?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Undoing the Work of Other Teachers

It's an inescapable fact of education that what we do as teachers today affects the work of other teachers later in a student's life. That means we inherit strengths a good teacher built, which is great. It also means sometimes we have to fix mistakes other teachers made.

This fact came to mind last week as my classes worked on proportions. Some students referred to something called the "Fish Method." Let's use this proportion:

Start with the number in a fraction with x (in this case, 8). Draw a line from the 8 diagonally up to the 2 (multiply those numbers), curve down to the 3 (divide by that), then diagonally up to the x (your answer equals x). What you've drawn looks kind of like a fish.

To be clear, this isn't a "mistake" I had to fix. Rather, it's a case of students clinging to a method that only works in a limited number of cases. For instance, proportions like these had them flailing.

We had to discuss other methods that had broader scope. This isn't a bad thing—I'm all for discussing multiple methods and their respective limitations. But whenever something like this comes up, I try to tread lightly. I don't want to say that their other teacher was wrong, bad, or not as cool as I am.

There are other situations, though (not like this proportions situation), where that's exactly what I'm thinking. It even happened to me as a student. When I was very young, I was told by a teacher (a student teacher, to be fair) that "it's" always has an apostrophe, whether the contraction or the possessive. Yes, really. It took me a few years to (a) figure out she'd been wrong, and (b) correct my bad habit.

I'm sure it can go the other way, too. A teacher instills all kinds of wonderful things in a student, and another teacher down the line destroys all that work.

Is there a way to avoid it? Maybe not. There will always be human error, whether intentional or not. All I can do is try not to be one of those "bad" teachers, and try to repair damage where I find it.

Have you observed or been affected by cases of teachers working against each other? How did it impact you?

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Teenage Human as Observed in the Wild

... the "Wild" being a local junior high school, and the specimens under study being around fourteen years of age.

This list will be random and undoubtedly incomplete.

  • Teenagers have a dysfunctional sense of auditory volume. No, I don't mean they play their music too loud (because, well, so do I). They talk too loud when they don't want the teacher to hear them and too soft when they do.

  • They have an amazing capacity to disregard (or at least not notice) the needs of anyone other than themselves.

  • They have an amazing capacity to assist with others' needs with no prompting or incentive.

  • They leave messes just like they do at home.

  • They clean up better than they do at home.

  • Most of them can grade their own work on the honor system just fine.

  • Many are happy to read with any spare moment in class.

  • A few are Rubik's Cube geniuses.

  • Some broadcast their emotions from fifty feet away.

  • Some have very non-emotive faces. You have to watch their eyes.

  • They will surpass your expectations.

  • They will live down to your expectations.

  • They will smash your expectations.

  • They see each other differently than we see them.

  • They don't mind geeky adults (as long as the geeky adults care).

  • They laugh at dirty jokes.

  • They laugh at clean jokes.

  • They laugh at dumb jokes that have been retold since they were in first grade.

  • They don't know what to do when they're angry.

  • They don't know what to do when they're sad.

  • They know exactly what to do.

  • They don't want to be treated like children.

  • They don't want to be treated like adults (not 100% full-time, at least).

  • Some already have to act like adults.

  • Some think they're more on top of things than they are.

  • Some think they're less capable than they are.

  • Even the quietest have distinctive, interesting personalities. "Mary Sue" and the bland, empty-beaker persona don't exist ... and if they appear to, you're not looking hard enough.

That pretty much sums up the non-math side of the first three weeks of school.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Name Game: Go Anglocentric or Go Home?

Naming characters is something every writer has to deal with, and every writer has strategies. Some use baby name sites/books to find names with certain meanings, some draw from names in their own lives, and some (hello, fellow sci-fi/fantasy writers!) make up names from scratch, among other methods.

I want to talk about those character names today and ignore the making-it-up situation, assuming we're in some kind of contemporary setting.

First, a day-job detour.

I've heard some people bemoan the lack of time-honored, long-standing names like John and David among YA characters. As I approached the start of this school year, I looked at my class lists. Out of about 200 kids, all around 14 years old, I have no one named John. No one named David. No Sue or Jane. I do have a couple of Josephs (one goes by his initials), and a handful of Annas-or-Anns. A couple of Nathans and Andrews.

You know what else I have repeats of? Braden (or Braeden). Cole. Hunter. Parker. Brianna. And all kinds of variations on McCall, McKenzie, McKayla and the like.

So we can conclude that these names were trendy fourteen years ago. Maybe that trendiness didn't hold, so by the time our books are published, a teenager with that name may seem out of place. In that sense, the advice to use more "tried-and-true" names makes sense.

But here's something else from the day job that happened just yesterday. We were discussing a couple of story problems in class. If you're in education, you probably know that in the last 10-20 years, textbook writers have made a transparent effort to include more culturally diverse names in things like story problems.

One problem involved a girl named Pietra. A student said, "That's not a real name!" I said it was (and a boy named Pieter in the class noted it's the female version of his name). We moved on. Another problem involved a girl named Pilar. Someone said that wasn't a real name, either.

The Hispanic kids in class weren't very amused, and neither was I.

Let's bring this back around to writing.

Regarding one of my early stories, several people commented that I was trying too hard to make "unique" names for my MCs. I wasn't—at least, I didn't think I was. I'd chosen one Hispanic name, and one somewhat related to a Hispanic name. Not quite as straightforward as Rosa or Carmen, but Hispanic readers didn't bat an eye. Both were names I've encountered in real life, so I didn't think of them as rare.

The thing is, I didn't state anything else in the book about the characters having any Hispanic heritage. It wasn't the focus of the story. I'm clarifying some of that in a rewrite, but here's my question:

Should we only use ethnically/culturally diverse names in stories deeply rooted in cultural identity or discovery? Do we stick to Tom, Dick, and Harry otherwise because that's more "comfortable" for the caucasian majority?

Back to those sci-fi and fantasy writers. We have to be careful not to create names that are a reading-roadblock ... the kinds of names that make our readers desperate to either buy or sell some vowels. Similarly, in contemporary settings, we probably don't want to pick names that are difficult for the mental reading voice to get a pronunciation for. It interrupts the flow of the story, and no one wants that.

But is there anything wrong with a character named Pilar? Or Dai-Ling? Or Tiave?

Because those are real names.

(Of course, if we create such characters, making them culturally authentic is another matter entirely ... but maybe one we should think about challenging ourselves with. Myself included.)

Monday, September 3, 2012

Who Sets Your Potential and Decides When You've Met It?

Sometimes I get students who come into my class saying, "I love math! It's my favorite subject, and I'm good at it." It's awesome when I do, but those students are definitely the minority. More often than not, students come in somewhat indifferent about math. Just something they have to get through, most of them with a mix of good and bad experiences under their belts.

Then there are those who come in with "I'm bad at math" oozing from every pore.

Some of them really do struggle, and for a variety of reasons. Learning disabilities, interruptions in their education, a string of teachers who made it impossible for them to learn one way or another ... But several say they're bad at math—loudly—but I don't believe them. Their work on quizzes or answers to questions in class show they have plenty of potential.

Says who? Says me.

Maybe they're holding themselves to an impossible standard of perfection, and anything less means being "bad" at it. Maybe it takes effort, and anything that isn't easy must be something they're "bad" at. Maybe they just don't want the image of being good at math (or anything school-related). Maybe something else.

Whatever the reason, I can't sit back and ignore the potential, just like I can't ignore the potential of kids who do struggle.

Observations like this got me thinking about potential as a whole, though. Like I said, I'm the one who's declaring an unmet potential in many of these cases. Unless I can get the student to buy in and agree that the potential is there, though, it'll probably remain unmet. I can force some small increments at the beginning, pointing out their successes to build confidence, but I can't force the level of self-belief it takes to achieve more.

I can see theoretical potential, but the student has to take control at some point to make it real.

Then I got to thinking about meeting potential. It's kind of a stupid concept, isn't it? Has anyone ever said, "You've met your potential—you're done"?

Maybe some superstar athletes, who've reached the pinnacle of their sport, achieved its highest honors (multiple times), and retire while they're on top. But even then, are they done? Or do they turn the level of potential they've reached to another target?

How do you meet your potential, when it should always be dancing ahead of you, just out of reach?

I may have mentioned before, but when I was in elementary school, everyone said I'd be a doctor. Not any particular reason other than that I was a brainy little thing, and becoming doctors is what smart people do. There are those who thought becoming a math teacher was a waste of my potential.

Was it? I'm the first to admit my academic pathway was not perfect, and there are things I'd like to have done differently. I missed opportunities. I made mistakes. But is the end result a waste? Maybe I just had a ways to go to narrow the gap to that initial potential.

After a few years of teaching, I went off to enter the world of deaf education. It added more challenges, maybe pushed me closer to that initial potential everyone saw in 10-year-old me. In the midst of that, I began writing novels, activating a part of myself that had been quietly lurking in the corners. Definitely a stretch.

I signed with an agent, and now I'm to be published. All while I'm still a math teacher.

Is this enough to equal my original "going to be a doctor" potential?

That's the wrong question.

My potential is what it is. What I do with it can't be quantified and compared to earlier expectations. It's not something for me to reach, but rather something to keep me moving forward.

People in my life help me see my potential, and in the end, I'm the only one who can decide whether I'm moving toward or away from it.

So that's what I'll try to do with my students ... help them see their potential, point them in the right direction, show them that its current position is something that can be achieved. All the while, making sure they know that by the time they get to that mark, their potential will have moved forward even more.

And that the only way to not "meet" their potential is if they refuse to move at all.