Saturday, November 6, 2010

Writing a novel

How many of you ever sat down to pen a few words and found that you had much more than a few things to say about...whatever?  That's what a few of my students have undertaken for the month of November.  Nanowrimo is National Novel Writing Month and my personal goal is 50K words.  (That's about 1700 words per day.)  My students meet in the library computer lab a few days per week and we write...and write and write and write.  Their goals are supposed to be reasonable, yet challenging.  Most have goals between 5k and 20k, but two of my students have set 40k as reasonable and challenging.  Rock on!

What I've noticed about this process is that it's hard.  I've started and stopped more times than I can count and some of my ideas are nothing more than a few lines that are thoughts that I needed to write down for no other reason than to see them written.  Beyond that--nothing.

Now, I have a number of students--a majority, actually--that are engaged in learning.  Many participate in various extracurricular activities like chess club, drama, and art club.  My writing club certainly isn't the most exciting and the students have to show up early.  Not kinda, but very early----We open the doors to the computer lab in the library at 7:30 and school begins at 8:45.  So, they're committed.  Each has an idea for a story that brings them to the keyboard and causes fingers to move across keys and little clicking sounds to issue forth throughout the lab.  If you were to walk in, you'd hear only this frenetic clicking and wonder what they were doing that was so serious and exciting.  They're writing.  They're writers.  They don't have to be perfect or spell everything correctly (sorry, Jen).  Editing comes in December.  They're committed to this project and each student is owning their little part in it.

Go Hecksters!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Arrival...or The impact of art on the soul.

The video above if from a production of Shaun Tan's The Arrival by a Red Leap Theatre in New Zealand.   When I saw this video of scenes from the play, I sat transfixed.  I've been wanting to devise scenes from The Arrival since reading it.  Now I'm doubly inspired!

I discovered The Arrival by Shaun Tan a couple of years ago while teaching.  It was added to the 7th grade approved list.  Copies were ordered and I introduced it to my first 7th grade classroom in the fall of 2009.  I fell in love with this book.  It's an immigrants journey and describes the joys and sorrows of leaving one's family to seek a better life for them in a strange new place unlike anything he'd experienced.  Although there are many possible directions this post could go--immigration rights, English as a Second Language, the fence being built along our southern border---I choose to focus on the artistic.

This book is a graphic novel.  The only words contained within are the title and certain foreign characters created by Shaun Tan that you, the reader, learn to decipher.  As a novel, The Arrival is beautifully illustrated and although the story contains no words, the stories told within are profound.  From returning from war to fleeing an unnamed genocide, each character Tan introduces to us is one we've met or at least heard about--and maybe even been at one time in our lives.

Tan's artwork captures the essence of why I believe art can impact one's soul.

I was discussing art with one of my classes recently.  I'd asked them to journal about a trip they'd taken and how the adventure had changed them.  I reflected on my own journey to Europe a few years ago and how art became more tangible to me.

I'd always had a fondness in my heart for Michelangelo's Pieta', but until seeing the seething masses of humanity pressing to get closer to the masterwork, I didn't fully understand the impact that art could have.  Although many were angling for a good photo--as I was initially--most were transfixed by the sculpture of the Virgin cradling Christ in her arms.  This was at the heart of their faith.  Art had provided something tangible for them to see and experience with others sharing their faith. 

I saw many such masterpieces while traveling.  Michelangelo remains forever dear to my soul.  How can a man take a block of stone and chisel it into something so radiant?  Even his unfinished pieces, The Prisoners, though lacking the finished smoothness of the Pieta', have a life the makes us weep wanting to help free humanity from its bonds.

In a time when arts budgets are cut in favor of more testable subjects, I think about the impact art has had on my soul and wonder why we spend so much money on a single standardized test that won't matter to an employer in five years.  I know we must measure---there's no getting around it, but to sacrifice art is to sacrifice that which makes us more human.  

My thoughts...Brien

PS---Happily, my school district saw fit to retain not only our award-winning art teacher, but also our brilliant drama teacher when other districts were slashing left and right!  Thank you for recognizing the necessity of art.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


I just finished reading a blog post by Aprilynne Pike.  She's a YA author from right here in Phoenix, AZ.  In it, she poses an interesting plan to thwart censorship in at least one forum--book festivals.  I've included the link for those interested.  The author Ellen Hopkins is uninvited from the festival due to the nature of her literature--which, by the way, kids eat up!

I met Aprilynne  and a couple of other YA authors at a dinner hosted by a local bookseller about a year ago and had the pleasure of chatting one-on-one with her about YA lit and life in general.  I have a few students who've read or are reading her best selling novel, Wings, and I recommend her when I can. 

Give her a read. 

This past school year, I served on our middle school lit committee.  Other teachers, librarians, and myself get the pleasure of reading books and submitting them for inclusion on our approved novel lists for 6-8th grade.  In many cases we read a fantastic work, but due to certain content, we choose not to submit.  It may be that one panel of a graphic novel is too edgy or suggestive or that a novel contains one scene that is just too mature for a 13 or 14 year old. 

Working as we do for a school district, we attempt to adhere to a stricter level of acceptability than what we would deem as such for ourselves.  We are making decisions for students that are not our children and we're careful and responsible.  Does this mean that we won't offend a parent or two with our selection?  Nope.  Someone's always offended no matter how diligent you are. 

A couple of personal experiences...

I didn't read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee until I was an adult.  Where I grew up, it was banned.  Lee's novel wasn't approved for high school consumption until 2001.  (I graduated in 1988.)  Of Mice and Men is another favorite of mine that I taught to my 8th graders four years in a row.  Some of the language is harsh and there are allusions to adultery, but when it's finished, my students understand personal responsibility and human dignity.  They treat others with respect and compassion that didn't exist for many of them before reading the novel.

This is the power of good literature.

What's your favorite banned book?



Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Day #12: Early morning

Well...not too early.  Just wanted to check in with a quick blog.  Today, we're testing.  In our district we give benchmark assessments three times during the school year.  Today, my students will be completing math.  Depending on your view of standardized testing, this is either good or not so much.  I don't mind it.  If it's used as strictly a benchmark to assess current knowledge, then it's okay.  Our scores will be used to determine part of our evaluation for career ladder, though.  It's only one component, but we're closer and closer to retaining teachers based on testing.  Our district has always seemed fair to me--maybe more so than they needed to be.  I'm a reflector by nature--especially when it concerns my teaching--so when the end of the year is here, I tend to be fairly tough on my teaching year.  To this point, I've done okay in the district.  I've set the bar high for myself this year and confirmed the high bar with colleagues over drinks.  In the end, student success is the goal, but I'd really like to set the standard for achievement just once in my career!


Monday, August 23, 2010

Day #11: Heat Advisory

Have you experienced summers in Arizona?  For many of my friends who live here, 3-digit temps are common place through September and sometimes well into October.  The app on my computer says it's currently 107° in Phoenix proper.  This is fairly hot in my opinion.  While most of my teaching time is spent indoors enjoying a well air conditioned room, the few minutes between classes when I'm awaiting my students is downright nasty!  In addition to the 107° heat right now, we are the proud recipients of humidity.  Fellow Okies, we feel your constant pain.  At least it cools off when the sun goes down in Oklahoma.  Not so here in Phoenix.  I have experienced a temperature of 113° at 11:00 PM.  That was the 1st full week I lived in Arizona.  It took almost three months for me to acclimate.  I'm not sure how anyone lives here in the summer.  Sure, it costs money to live elsewhere, but isn't it worth it for nicer weather?  Maybe we could have a reverse school year that mimics my lovely reverse commute to work.  Our winter break could be for 2.5 months between December and February.  Maybe then we could afford to do something.  It's so much cheaper to live here in the winter.  Our utility bills are less than half what they are in the summer.  Imagine that!  A teacher who can survive an extended break, pay all the bills ahead of schedule, and travel!  Maybe I should propose this to someone...Hmmmm...

Anyway--We have suffered a heat advisory all but a couple of days this school year.  Our kids are required to stay inside for lunch.  I have to practice soccer in the gym tomorrow in order to practice at all.  They might just go a little crazy in the next few days. 

Bring on the cool weather!!!


Friday, August 20, 2010

Teaching Tip #2: Make nice with parents! seems simple enough, but many teachers struggle with this.  We are here to do a service for the community.  Some don't get it, but many do.  We may complain about money or the size of our classes, but ultimately, we are in charge of little minds that must grow.  I know many teachers that have made education a career.  I have heard the complaints from these same teachers.  I've also heard that if you don't like it---do something else.  Wouldn't that be great if it were that easy?  Just up and change careers?!  Maybe it's just a job.  I know it is for some.  Sometimes it even feels like it to me--and I really like what I do.  Sure, there are paperwork headaches and the occasional disrespectful child, but all-in-all, it's a pretty good gig.

Of course, many of us have families of our own and live in some of the same communities that we work.  We want something for ourselves that is meaningful and enriching.  Why wouldn't we?  This is a good thing.  Meaningful?  Enriching?  Yeppers...This is reasonable.  I'm very much into reasonableness.

One of the toughest things about our jobs is working with parents.  Not that this is a bad thing at all.  It's just that oftentimes, our plates are loaded with one dinner roll too many and that full ear of buttery corn on the cob is gonna put our plate in a bit of a bind.  We get that email and think:  "What now?"  Our tone sounds dreary.  Our eyes look to the heavens for some divine intervention to take our parent emails and make them magically disappear. doesn't happen.  We put down our plates, hit reply, and begin hammering out a polite electronic letter to the parent.  You wanna know why?  Deep down, we know that parents are our allies.  Parents want many of the same things we do and the majority of them love their children deeply.  It is this love for their sometimes nutty offspring that can lead them down a path to the psycho ward.  We're teachers...we understand...this wing looks familiar.  Is that institutional green on the walls?  Parents sometimes get angry with us.  They yell.  They can be unreasonable.  What's a poor, underpaid teacher to do?  Complain that we don't get paid enough to put up with this $%&#?  Nope.  Make nice.  Say it with me---Make nice.  Again:  Make nice.  Mantra this to yourself when you're feeling overwhelmed by parents.  Make nice.  You may not want to or even feel like it, but so what.  Make nice.  You've chosen a career that isn't about ego.  If you think it is, you're in the wrong field.  Make nice.  Welcome parents with open arms.  Make nice.  Celebrate their child's successes.  Give honest feedback about negative behavior.  Make nice.  Parents will walk through fire if you let them.  We don't have to agree with how they raise their children (There's always CPS), but it's our responsibility to give them our best while their children are entrusted to our care.  Make nice.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Comic Books saved my life!

In prepping the last post, my Heinlein comments prompted my to think about books in the genre that I've really liked over the years, but I couldn't tell the story of science fiction craziness that is my life without giving props to comic books and the impact they had on my love of reading. The following is a brief depiction of how it happened:

Walking into Johnson's Grocery, I immediately went to the comic rack.  I'd never purchased a comic before, but my friends read them and I wanted to know what it was all about.  I can still remember the smells in the store---mostly clean waxy floor (dirt along the edge seams of the wall), newsprint from the comics, and yeasty bread from the bakery.  Mom had gone on to her shopping and I stared at comic-after-comic with their bent spines where others had pulled the tops down to see what lay behind.  I was immediately impressed with the many colorful choices of .60 comics published by Marvel and DC.  I knew Batman and Superman from Saturday morning cartoons and television, but most of the titles were unknowns.  I didn't even know enough to pick anything good, necessarily, but I figured a 1st issue was a good place to start.  So, I reached for Red Sonja #1---a bit of scantily-clad red-headed barbarian warrior woman goodness.

Yeppers!  This is the one that started it off.  I had seen Conan the Barbarian in 1982.  This comic debuted in 1983.  So, of course I wanted something like Conan. Why not someone like Red Sonja?  I didn't find out until later, that Red Sonja actually made her comic debut in Conan the Barbarian #23 in 1974 and was created by Roy Thomas. (I have issue #24.  The 2nd appearance.  I'm a geek!)  Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan, actually created a character named Red Sonya (with a Y), but she's not connected to his Conan stories. 
Anyway---that was the beginning.  A little later, I began reading the Uncanny X-men and the rest is history---well...that and about a dozen long boxes to drive my wife nutty!

From comics, I moved into chapter books (as many of my students call novels).  Dune was probably the first real scifi I attempted to read.  I'd seen the film in 1984--didn't really get it, but was willing to try it 'cause a friend of mine had read it and said it was good.  I was unsuccessful.  It was hard for me to read even though I liked the genre of scifi---I stood in line in '77 for Star Wars and thought his name was Dark Vader after all!  Dad and I were always watching science fiction---Star Trek was a staple in my home growing up.  I've even read a great many Star Trek novels--my favorites being those written by Peter David, a comic book writer!  (Q-Squared is one off the top of my head)  Dune was just the first of many that required me to step up my reading game.  To date, I've probably read it at least once a year since 1990.  My cello teacher was a Frank Herbert fan as well and I thought that was pretty cool as a young musician trying to figure it all out one day while practicing Bach in his studio and noticing a well-worn copy of Dune sitting on his shelf.  That's when he told me that he'd made a habit of rereading it once yearly as well.  It must be good stuff if John's rereading it every year.  So, I gave it another try---more than the old college try--and have never looked back. 

Since this will probably be an ongoing conversation in my blog, I'll end it for now with a few of my favorites in no particular order.


SciFi recommendations from me:

Stranger in a Strange Land--Robert Heinlein
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress--Robert Heinlein
The Cat Who Walks Through Walls--ummm...Heinlein
Snowcrash---Neal Stephenson (Brilliant!)
Cryptonomicon--Neal Stephenson (Historical Fiction?)
Metaplanetary--Tony Daniel (Oooh!  A recent favorite!)
Dune--Frank Herbert (How many times have I read this?)
Feed--M.T. Anderson (YA Title---interesting take on where we are headed.)
Legacy of Heorot--Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Stephen Barnes
Beowolf's Children--Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Stephen Barnes