Saturday, September 20, 2014

How Being A Teacher Kind of Made Me Crazy (But Taught Me A Lot About Adulthood)

Approximately one million years ago, I taught high school. Yes. That's correct. I was licensed by the state of Minnesota to teach Spanish to grades 7-12.

Was I good at this? Probably. I wasn't good at Spanish; it was a subject I could handle but it wasn't one I loved. I wasn't a natural at it, which might explain why I had a lot of empathy for kids who didn't love it or even hated it.

Most people don't understand their own language as a system with rules in the first place, so learning a foreign language is like having to take two classes at once, for some kids.


There I was, teaching six classes per day, with one prep and one hour of computer lab supervision. I was 24 years old and newly married. I didn't have children. I didn't have a mortgage. I made 700+ bucks every two weeks. My husband was still finishing his undergraduate degree in Physics.

I wore khaki skirts and boring shirts. I tried to wear white so the chalk dust wouldn't mess up my outfits. I got up every morning and ate a bowl of cereal while  my stomach roiled  in anticipation of whatever bullshit would get thrown at me during the day: a fire drill, a kid who wouldn't shut up, a faculty meeting where we all had to pray out loud (it was a private religious school), some long-ass voicemail from some irate parent about my grading policy or how I'd given her kid detention and she didn't want to have to pick him up late (by the way: fuck you, lady, from here in the future).

The problems of teaching are not anything like the problems of writing, though both are highly creative and require quite a bit of mental sweat (teaching involves physical sweat, as well). Yet I liked the problems of teaching. I like taking a group of people and a mass of data and trying to figure out how to download that data to the people in a way that's artful.

What I didn't like was being An Adult. I didn't like the idea that I was now looked at as some Eternal Killjoy. That when I walked into the bathroom to pee, all the girls shushed up quiet like I was going to hit them with a fucking ruler. (Also, there was no faculty bathroom. Which is TERRIBLE.)

I loved my students, though. I loved how inclined they were to derail any sort of academic inclinations I had. Thus my job was deflecting their efforts to derail the learning. This involved trickery and deceit and manipulation on a level that I came to admire, from both sides. I imagined them, 7 periods a day, doing their worst to every instructor in the building. I shouldn't have been on their side, but I was. It was sort of charming, this Resistance To Learn. I enjoyed thwarting them back; it was a fun game,

I hated their parents, however. I mean, some of them were nice: "How can we help you? Do you need any classroom supplies?" And some of them told me that their kids liked me, so that felt good. But a lot of them were pricks. Busy, hovery, annoying pricks. One couple didn't care about their daughter's grade, but how she was coming along in her "faith journey with Christ" (answer: how the fuck should I know, I teach verb conjugations). One woman tried to get me to change her son's grade - a solid 29% for all four quarters - by asking me to stay late on a Friday night, and then showing up late (poor tactic, lady: fuck you from here in the future, as well).

So this is a problem. You are on Team Adult. And you hate it. You hate the uniform, you hate the mission, you hate the rules and the yelling and the sending kids out of the room for being interrupting idiots and you hate the other faculty, who are clearly happy busting everyone's balls for a meager wage while you find it demeaning and horrifying.

Where this put me, I guess, after I quit and decided to become a writer (literally, this was the plan, nothing more elaborate than that), was in a position to loathe authority. Loathe established notions of adulthood. Loathe the idea of "saving" people. Loathe the prospect of being a role model.

Because while I was competent at my job, I wasn't a role model. I ate bad food, I was lazy on weekends. I watched TV while I graded papers and I smoked cigarettes on the way home from school (never on the way to school, that shit reeks and everyone would have known in a second) and I didn't give a shit if our school teams won and I was way too tired to care about how I was influencing anyone, which I doubt I was. I worked like a damn dog, really long days, and by the time our much-touted long vacations rolled around, I was usually sick as a damn dog, too.

So fast forward, over a decade later. I'm now a teacher, at a school for writing. It doesn't meet every day. It doesn't have homework. My students all WANT to be there. And I teach what I love, which is writing (not English - how in the hell do you relate to people who don't love to read? I could never do that).

I don't smoke anymore. (Much.) I still watch tons of TV. I have my own kid, who I sometimes know what to do with and sometimes I don't. I swear a lot and don't feel bad about it. I wear whatever I want, I don't own pumps or a trenchcoat and I believe in nothing supernatural and I feel pretty good about life. Even though a lot of the time, I don't have a clue about what I'm doing and what's going on.

Adults, teachers: does anyone really know what's going on around here? Or are those just people who THINK they do? Pretenders, hoping that there's some kind of guideline or guardrail to grab? That's how I feel. I just turned 40 and that's how I feel: still clueless and uncertain as ever.

The lie we tell kids is that we've got it dialed, under control, fully comprehended, this insane life on earth we lead. This is a lie you unlearn as you come of age. Sometimes slowly, sometimes all at once. But finding out that the inmates really run the asylum is definitely a hallmark of adolescence.

I know; I was an inmate in charge once myself.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Teachers: The Good, The Bad and the Ones That Wore Yellow Eyeshadow

by Alissa Grosso

I was never the kid that got excited about school. Don't get me wrong, I was a complete and total nerd who read educational books for fun and who decided that one summer she would read the American Heritage Dictionary cover to cover. I only got as far as the B's, but the fact that I would even attempt such an undertaking pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the sort of child I was.

But school seemed to be all about a slavish devotion to routines. There's a touch of OCD that runs in the Grosso family genes, and it means that I eat my Pop Tarts in a very particular way (crust first, if you must know) and can never use the seashell shaped cat food dishes for serving my cats anything but seafood variety cat food even if these are the only clean cat food dishes in the house. (I will wash a sink full of dishes before I even think of spooning turkey cat food into a seashell dish.) You would think I would like routines, but I hate them. I especially hate doing the same thing in the same order day after freaking day, which I'm pretty sure is the definition of school. I'm not sure since, as I mentioned, I never did make it past the B's in my dictionary reading.

I can't believe that the first time I'm taking a photo of a meal, it's a half-eaten Pop-Tart.

Enforcing those dreaded routines were these authority figures called teachers. I'm not big into authority figures either. (Likely, it's now becoming clear to you why I'm self employed.) Teachers, like people in general come in a wide assortment of varieties. The best and the worst of them leave an indelible impression on you. As for the rest of them, it's a challenge to remember their names, let alone, what they looked like.

Good teachers are the ones that actually taught me something no matter how unconventional their methods like G.M., my high school biology teacher, who understood that there's a difference between actual learning and the mindless regurgitation of facts. Did he throw formaldehyde soaked earthworms at us on lab day? Yes. Did he allow his honors class to have open book exams? Yes. Did we spend one whole class period watching the final episode of Cheers on the VCR and another watching The Year Without a Santa Claus? Yes and Yes. Yet somehow I learned more in that class than I did in countless more traditional classrooms.

Maybe they were the teachers like Miss Ange my high school cross country coach whose passion could be seen in both her psych notes and her fury at our laziness and who I still hear shouting "In your pockets!" (a reminder to drop those tired arms to about pocket level) every time I go for a run.

They're English Romantic Poetry professors whose course I took in my junior year of college to fulfill a graduation requirement, prepared to suffer through an entire semester of (ugh) poetry, and instead found myself enthralled by the first teacher to ever teach me how to read a poem. We spent the first three class periods on a single Wordsworth poem, and I was surprised to find myself looking forward to my poetry class.

Even after my formal education was complete, I continued to come across good teachers, whether they were a boss (back before I decided self employment was best for anti-routine, anti-authority-figure me) or the countless YouTubers who have selflessly shared their instructive videos with the world.

I've probably had just as many bad teachers as good ones. My eighth grade math teacher used to deliberately mispronounce my name because he "preferred to say it that way." No surprise that he's the only teacher I knew who got into a fist fight with a student. That they went and made him principal a few years later, on the hand, was one of those disappointing surprises.

Speaking of disappointments, there's Professor Baker. English Drama to 1642 Not Including Shakespeare (yes, that was the official name of the course) was another one of those classes that I had to take to meet a graduation requirement. It was my final semester of college and it was the only course that semester that fit the bill. I was bummed because it meant I couldn't take the Alfred Hitchcock course being offered at the same time. But I was even more bummed when I learned that my hard earned money was paying the salary of a man too lazy to teach or even grade papers. Our final exam was a joke, that literally took less than five minutes to complete. I remember walking out of class after turning in my exam, shaking with anger. If I'd had the temper of my eighth grade math teacher things might have gotten ugly.

Which brings us to Miss Marble. My second grade teacher, was not exactly what you would call beautiful. She was old with a head of dyed rust red hair and a weird affinity for yellow eye shadow. Appearances aside, she was something of a witch. I recall her as mean, nasty and someone who seemed frustrated that they had banned corporal punishment. I Googled her recently, and found this on Reddit under the heading worst/meanest teacher you've ever had:

So, this was not personal opinion coloring my memory of her, even if she did tell my parents I should see a shrink since I clearly had psychological issues (and she didn't even know about the method in which I ate Pop Tarts!) On the plus side, I'm pretty sure that I owe my neat handwriting to Miss Marble who had strict rules about posture and leg position during penmanship lessons and who, when it came to printed letters, could not abide an unhooked 't'.

With my eclectic literary tastes (that same summer I was reading the dictionary I was also reading classic literature and pulpy science fiction) I probably would have fared pretty well on my own, but I suppose teachers, even those that are slavishly devoted to routines, taught me a thing or two and led me down some paths that I might have never explored. I've even learned a thing or two from the bad ones, things like be nice and don't be a lazy bum. 

So, as I sit here in my home office gazing out at the kids waiting at the bus stop, I feel bad for them and the monotony of school and routines that they are subjected to, all too aware that for every G.M. there's a Miss Marble. Then, I pick up my dictionary and do some light reading.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

BLOG TOUR: Kristen Lippert-Martin’s Debut Novel TABULA RASA + Giveaway!

Kristen Lippert-Martin (whose debut TABULA RASA releases Sept. 23) is joining us today as part of her blog tour.  Today, she's discussing revision and recovering from rejection:

When to Revise and When to Give Up
If I didn’t read the obituaries column on a regular basis, I would have missed one of the most inspiring stories I’ve ever read.
I’ll link to the full obit here, and you really should read it, but I’ll also summarize for you: Maynard Hill, amateur aviation enthusiast, spends his retirement attempting to be the first person to fly a model airplane across the Atlantic.
Why did he do this?
This is beside the point.
We, as writers, should all be familiar with the pursuit of endeavors that others consider a little whack.
For Maynard Hill, his goal was figuring out a way to fly a model airplane across the ocean and by golly, after five years and twenty-four—TWENTY-FOUR—different versions of his plane, he did it. He managed to fly that little airplane from Nova Scotia to Ireland on less than a gallon of gasoline.
Imagine doing twenty-four revisions on your novel before getting it to the point where it works? It seems almost unfathomable. Crazy even.
But let’s look at what our inventor friend, Mr. Hill, did. What if each time he got that model airplane off the ground and it subsequently crashed, he realized what caused the crash and also had a pretty good idea about how to fix it?
Then he’d have been crazy to give up on his dream, no matter how many prototypes crashed and burned. He figured out what was wrong and he remedied it. That’s called progress.
I wouldn’t say I did twenty-four versions of my manuscript before I got my “yes,” but maybe I did half that many. My book went out on submission for the first time in May 2012, and it didn’t sell. This was the second book I’d written that didn’t sell, and I had that déjà vu all over again feeling and it was not a bit fun. I’d spent the previous year revising and revising my first manuscript before ultimately deciding, you know what? I AM DONE WITH THIS. I can’t figure out how to fix it and more importantly, I don’t want to figure it out.
So here I was again, in the same position, having to decide whether to keep working on a manuscript or move on. At some point in every writer’s life, she will face this conundrum. How do you know if you’re just around the corner from a story that works, one that will get you to that “yes,” or wasting time on something destined to fail?
After a crushing round of submission, yes, of course I felt like giving up. I didn’t want to put myself through that pain again. Rejection hurts. It hurts your heart, your mind, your liver (especially if you’re drowning your sorrows at the far end of the bar), but ultimately I realized that that was the reason I wanted to give up on it. It was the fear of more pain that stopped me, not cluelessness about how to fix the manuscript’s issues.
When I recovered well enough to look at my story again, I tinkered and tinkered and finally made enough minor adjustments to get it working right. And then it flew—er, I mean sold. (I was deep into that metaphor just then, wasn’t I?)
Sometimes the difference between a no and a yes is just a whole lot of small tweaks. Sometimes it’s a major change.
The only two questions you need to ask yourself if you’re hearing no is: Do I want to keep trying and do I have an idea about how to fix the story’s problem(s)?
Keep in mind that sometimes the answers to those questions are temporary and resounding NOs and maybe you need to give it a little time. But if you can say yes to either of those questions—preferably both simultaneously—you should keep revising until you get to your yes.
And here’s a reminder of why we do what we do:
“It used to be we said we wanted to be famous,” Mr. Hill told The Washington Post in 2001, in the midst of his five-year marathon effort to build an ocean-crossing plane. “Now, it’s just the actual joy of putting it together and making it work and knowing that you had the brains to do all that.”
Read the obits every day, man. I’m telling you. That’s the best stuff right there.
(Here’s another article on Maynard Hill. Did I mention that he was legally blind at the time he was building all these model airplanes? Yup.)


Be sure to follow along through the rest of the TABULA RASA tour.  And get in on the giveaway (below) of a signed copy of TABULA RASA!

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Best Bad Teacher (by Jody Casella)

By many accounts my third grade teacher was a bad teacher.

Her main method of teaching was handing out dittos. Math sheets still smudged with purple ink from the ditto machine. Lists of vocabulary words. The main project most days was to flip through dictionaries. We were supposed to copy the definitions exactly.

While we did our busy work, the teacher sat behind her desk. I don't remember her walking around or talking to us or... teaching. Even my third grade self got the feeling that maybe our teacher didn't like to teach all that much.

To take a break from the monotony of dittos, she took us on field trips.

Each month we visited a different place. Like a Sesame Street "These Are The People in Your Neighborhood" tour, we paraded around our town to the post office, the police station, the newspaper, the library, an ice cream parlor.

Then it was back to the dictionaries and the dittos.

That year was the Bicentennial. The teacher decided our class should put on a musical to celebrate. She taught us patriotic songs and dances. She wrote a script about the history of our country and assigned each of us a part. (I was a pioneer girl.) The rest of the school joined our class and it grew into a huge production with costumes and elaborate painted sets and musical numbers.

When we weren't touring City Hall or painting a back drop of the purple mountains majesty, those days when we were sweating through another ditto, the teacher gave us a fun incentive for working quickly.

She stacked a bunch of paper on a table in front of the class. This was special paper that we had never seen before, with lines on the bottom and open space on the top.

It was for writing and illustrating stories, she said.

I got to be a damn fast definition copier and I'd turn in my completed dittos and head straight to the front of the room to get my hands on that awesome paper.

My first stories were weird. For some reason they were all variations on the "Girl Becomes Crippled, Must Be in a Wheelchair, Miraculously Learns to Walk Again" genre. All of these with carefully drawn pictures at the tops of the pages.

So maybe this teacher did get out of her seat occasionally, because one day she looked over my shoulder while I was writing one of these nutball stories, and said, "This is good."

She scooped the story up and she walked with me around the school because she wanted to show it off. "Look at this," she said, flashing the story around. "Isn't Jody a good little writer?"

It was my very first book tour of sorts and I was beaming.

I've had many teachers. A few truly horrible. The majority just kinda meh. A handful who were brilliant and inspiring.

My third grade teacher doesn't seem to fall into any of these categories, but she is the one I would most like to thank.

Thank you, Mrs. Simmone, for teaching me about dictionaries, for giving me my only glimpse of a giant newspaper press and a mail sorter, for making me learn all the verses of the song "I've Been Working on the Railroad."

And thank you for giving me reams of free time to write anything I wanted and for praising it up and down the halls of my school.

Monday, September 15, 2014

My Teacher, My Mentor, My Friend (Amy K. Nichols)

A number of years ago -- six, maybe? -- I signed up for a novel writing class at a local community college. It wasn't the first writing class I'd taken, but I quickly realized it would be the best. In fact, despite my debut novel coming out in December, I continue to sign up each semester, all these years later.


The teacher.

His name is James Sallis. He's an award-winning novelist, mostly known for his crime fiction. He writes poetry and science fiction, too. When he's not writing or teaching, he plays in a folk band. He's über talented. You might have heard of his novel, Drive. They made a movie of it starring Ryan Gosling.

I'd only just started my writing journey back when I first enrolled in Jim's class. I was a wide-eyed innocent, my head a jumble of dreams and ambitions. I had no idea what I was doing. And my writing needed a lot of work.

I wrote unwieldy, fragmented stories and poor attempts at novel beginnings. I made all the rookie mistakes. Jim read each submission. Took time from his own busy writing schedule to line edit and critique. Then he workshopped my pages with the class, always handling the discussion with the perfect combination of frankness and encouragement. In time I made less of those rookie mistakes. He taught me how to step back and catch those trouble areas before they got out of hand. He taught me how to move beyond cliché. He taught me that it always, always comes back to the writing. To doing the work. Writing is how we learn.

A couple of times I mentioned to him that I was thinking of applying to an MFA program. Something low-res, so I could still be home with my husband and two young children. He had an unusual response. Save your 40-plus thousand dollars, he said, and have coffee with me before class every other week. I'll teach you everything I know about writing.

A "latte MFA" with an award-winning novelist. How could I pass that up?

Soon, Jim became my mentor. Every other week, we'd drink coffee and talk about writing. I asked him questions about whatever I was tackling at the time. POV. Worldbuilding. Character development. How to start a story. How to end a story. Sometimes I'd bring something for him to read. Sometimes we watched the people around us in the cafe. He taught me how to observe. He taught me how to write. And he taught me how to become a writer.

Not just a writer. An author.

My first novel will be published in December, and I can say without a doubt I wouldn't be where I am now if it weren't for Jim Sallis. I tell him this as often as I can, usually when we meet for coffee. Our conversation has changed a bit from when we first started out. These days, instead of discussing craft we're more apt to talk about the industry. Most of the time, though, we just watch the people around us in the cafe and talk about life.

That's what friends do.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Girls Are No Good At Science (by Nancy Ohlin)

Growing up, I had bad teachers all over the place.  Like:

*Miss Scott, my fourth-grade teacher, who asked me and the two other “foreigners” in our class—this was a super-long time ago in a super-small Midwestern town—to pose in "traditional costume" for a local newspaper article.  Me in a kimono, the Italian American girl in a grandmotherly peasant dress, the Guatemalan American boy in a poncho and enormous straw hat—we all felt like freaks, and Miss Scott seemed oblivious to the teasing we got from the other students. 

*Mr. Hunt, my advanced chemistry teacher in high school, who told me that “girls are no good at science,” which led me to drop out of that class and join the regular chemistry class. 

*Mr. Parker, the regular chemistry teacher, who was unfortunately no better than Mr. Hunt.  One day in class, he called on me and asked me why I’d missed a week of school.  I replied that I’d had pneumonia.  His reply: “Ah, yes, pneumonia … a great disease of the chest.”  He said this while leering at my boobs and clearly enjoying the laughter his comment elicited from the other students.  
There were other bad teachers, too, whose pedagogical crimes were less extreme; their badness consisted simply of sucking the love of learning right out of me.   They somehow managed to turn what should have been thrilling and inspiring—Shakespeare plays, Faulkner novels, American history—into dry, boring sound bytes and Stuff I Had to Memorize.

So by the time I got to college, I’d pretty much decided that school was a place to coast through quickly and with my head down.  Get in, get out, no one gets hurt.  I’d long given up on the idea that I could actually gain something from an education.  As far as I was concerned, teachers were ineffectual at best and pervs/sexists/racists at worst.   On top of which …  I was smart enough that I could get A’s without trying very hard.   Therefore, my plan for college was to phone it in for four years, graduate with a solid GPA, and get a job doing whatever.   Not very exciting, but not very risky, either. 

You know where this story is going, right?  In college, I discovered good teachers.  Amazing teachers.  They whipped my cynical attitude into submission and made me believe.  There was the creative writing teacher who encouraged me to be a writer.  The Irish lit teacher who introduced me to Yeats and Joyce.  The gender studies teacher who sparked my interest in politics and social change.  The Japanese language teacher who made me remember what was so awesome about being Japanese American.

In the decades since, my life has been likewise filled with wonderful teachers, including many friends and also my husband.  The teachers I meet at book festivals care so, so much about their students that they make me weep.   (I carry a lot of Kleenex at these events.)  And I can’t say enough about my son’s high school teachers, who fostered such an enlightened, supportive culture—of kindness, tolerance, courage, and stepping up—that he decided to come out at a morning assembly there, in front of hundreds of people.

Oh, and, hey, Mr. Hunt?  If you’re reading this, I want you to know that my daughter eats science for breakfast.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

My Greatest Gifts (Stephanie Kuehnert)

Randy and me on my wedding day
While I definitely had some memorable teachers when I was younger--Mrs. Leadford, my first grade teacher, who transformed me from the kid who cried through the first day of school to the kid who helped other kids with their reading; Ms. Walden, our grade school librarian; Mr. Goldberg, my high school philosophy teacher, who was brilliant, entertaining, and taught me how to think critically and argue really, really well--I actually met my greatest teachers in the last decade or so.

The first was Randy Albers, the chair of the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. I started there in September of 2000 when I was 21 years old. This was my second go at college. The first time around, I'd attempted to major in sociology and push my desire to write to the side, but that didn't work and my creative writing teacher at that school was awful, his feedback basically amounting to "You write about drugs. You're like a female William Burroughs. Have you read William Burroughs?" I thought I would be better off teaching myself how to write, so I dropped out and um... drank a lot. (Maybe I was the female Burroughs or Cheever or something...) I went to Columbia College to get serious about fiction. I took my first class with Randy in 2002. At that point in time, I wrote a lot, but had a very shaky grasp on revising and polishing. Randy and I had a one hour conference wherein we completely dissected about five pages of my work. We talked structure, line-editing, all of it. My story suddenly clicked in a way I'd only dreamed about and I fell in love with revisions that day. I also enjoyed working with Randy so much that I decided to stay at Columbia for grad school and I begged him to be my thesis advisor. He and another one of my favorite Columbia professors, Patty McNair, got the first chapter of that thesis into the hands of a visiting agent, and when she said she'd love to see the manuscript when it was finished, Randy was there to help me whip it into shape. He worked with me over the summer AND while he was on sabbatical and provided me with detailed, handwritten notes (I should have received and honorary degree in the deciphering of handwriting). He is my greatest mentor and one of the main reasons a book called I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE exists.

IWBYJR and BALLADS OF SUBURBIA would not exist at all if it weren't for Jennifer Heddle. She was the editor who bought those books and whose notes made them great. Randy taught me very well, but there was still a lot of "purple" and "awk" that Jen had to break me of as well as my habit of using all caps instead of describing emotion. And speaking of emotion, my books are often described as "raw" and "unflinching" but the thing is, I definitely flinched, especially when I had to get into Louisa and Kara's heads. Jen was the one who made me go there. She's also the one who helped me fill in the gaps at the end of BALLADS and write an ending that I'm truly proud of. I'm forever indebted to that woman and thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with her.

Our latest Rookie Yearbook! Out Oct 21!
There are a group of editors/mentors/goddess who are still helping me stick my endings, narrow my focus, and dig deep into the hard emotions. Those would be the woman I've worked with at Rookie over the past three years: Phoebe Reilly, Danielle Henderson, Lena Singer, Amy Rose Spiegel (whose thoughtful and skilled edits made "Heart Labor," my latest piece for Rookie about working through emotional abuse more powerful than I even dreamed of) , and above all, Anaheed Alani. I write extremely personal essays about my real life for Rookie. A lot of times I peter out at the end and draw obvious conclusions. These women don't let me do that. They ask the difficult questions and getting me really thinking about what I'm trying to say. We'll go back and forth sometimes six or seven times--Amy Rose and I spent hours working together in Google docs to nail every single word in "Heart Labor". I regularly refer to working for Rookie as Grad School Part II. That's how much I'm learning, how hard I'm working on my craft. But my Rookie editors aren't just teaching me about writing, they are helping me to make deep personal discoveries. Case in point, this essay, "Stranded Soldiers," which Anaheed actually pitched to me based on what she'd noticed about my writing and my life. I know I'm  not the only who Anaheed has worked so closely with--all of the Rookie writers adore her and she has mentored all of the other editors. I don't think there's even a word for what Anaheed does. It's more than teach, mentor, edit, it's more than therapy or life coaching. It's all of those things...

Oh wait, there is a word. She is a gift. And so are Randy, Jen, Phoebe, Danielle, Lena, and Amy Rose. I am so lucky to have them in my life.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Not Really An Essay About My English Teacher by Yvonne Ventresca

As a high school parent, September means Back-to-School-Night, signing lots of forms, and ordering  expensive wrapping paper for the annual  fundraiser. Each September also brings back memories of my own high school days.
One teacher I adored was Miss Scher, who taught Modern Literature. I wasn’t originally supposed to take her class. I was a geeky kid on the “honors track” and that meant taking Advanced Placement English during my senior year. I checked the curriculum for the AP English class and it looked incredibly boring. But the stories in Modern Lit, “regular” English? I really wanted to read those books.

The conversation with my mother went something like this:

Me:  I don’t want to take AP English. I know I’m supposed to sign up for it, but I’m going to take tons of English classes in college anyway. Can I replace it with the regular class instead? Look at what I’ll be reading. *Waves list* This is all good stuff.

Mom, silent, considering for a minute, then: Yes, honey.

And that was that.

I could go on about what an amazing teacher Miss Scher was, about my first writing contest success because of her encouragement or the lunch we had together after graduation when she answered tons of questions about authors and books and majoring in English.

But looking back? The real hero of this situation was my mom. She listened, respected my research and let me do what was best for me. She didn’t feel compelled to make me follow what I was “supposed” to do. As I watch my own daughter begin her senior year, I can only hope I’m that wise.

Yvonne and her mom

I’m new to YA Outside the Lines – this is my first post here! My debut YA novel, Pandemic, was published in May by Sky Pony Press. You can learn more about me at
Besides back-to-school month for many families, September is also National Preparedness Month. I’m hosting an Emergency Preparedness Giveaway through September 30. One winner will receive an Emergency Preparedness Kit and a signed hardcover of Pandemic. You can enter the giveaway on my blog. Good luck!

Emergency Preparedness Giveaway

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Another Tough Teacher (September theme)

by Tracy Barrett

Mrs. McGerr, my eleventh-grade English teacher, was said to be inflexible and stern. True to every cliché, her iron-gray hair stayed rigidly in place, and her glasses, which of course perched at the end of her nose, had none of the glitter or color that were popular in those days. She wore dull shades and sensible shoes.

And the first few classes of the school year did nothing to raise anyone’s hopes. We were required to define parts of speech and sentence structures, not just nouns and adjectives and the passive vs. active voice, but participial phrases and dependent clauses and other slippery things. We had a crash course in rhetorical devices, and soon we were taking quizzes where we had to identify underlined phrases in snippets of text as (a) litotes, (b) hysteron-proteron, or (c) chiasmus.

Things didn’t look good.

Then we started the study of literature and everything changed. The first time I saw one of Mrs. McGerr’s rare smiles was when she read aloud a few lines of Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” and one of my classmates asked her to re-read them—not because she hadn’t heard, but because she wanted to savor the elegance and humor of the words. Mrs. McGerr was delighted with her enthusiasm and happily complied. Through Shakespeare, John Donne, William Blake, all the way to recent writers, her passion for literature infected us.

Some people say that analyzing literature is like tearing apart a flower. “Why not just appreciate the beauty?” they ask. “Why destroy it?” And it’s true; clumsy analysis can be destructive.

But far from tearing the flower apart, Mrs. McGerr held a magnifying glass up to literary blossoms and showed us exactly what made them beautiful. We learned to appreciate how the skillful use of, say, hyperbole makes a particular passage more effective, the way an artist might appreciate how the color of a stamen makes a particular flower more beautiful. Or—mixing similes—she opened the back of a well-designed clock and pointed out the way the gears and levers and coils work so we could admire the clock’s beauty even more with our new understanding of the work and skill that went into it.

We hadn’t just been learning esoteric terminology when we’d had to say if a phrase was an example of metonymy or of synecdoche; knowing what these devices were and studying how great writers used them gave us tools for our own writing.

Of course when I’m writing I don’t think, “I’m using too much hypotaxis in this dialogue,” but I still use the toolbox Mrs. McGerr stocked for me almost forty years ago to repair broken prose.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Tale of Two Teachers by Sydney Salter

Mrs. Muth was long beyond retirement age when I first took her senior-level Great Novels class as a junior at Reno High. Other than Moby Dick, I can't remember what we read, but I remember the feeling of those lovely afternoons listening to Mrs. Muth speak about writing--and life. I took her classes again as a senior. Oh, how I loved her. Some of my friends found her old and forgetful, but a misplaced name here and there or a repeated anecdote never bothered me. Mrs. Muth pushed me to be a better writer, but mostly she believed that I could BE a writer. And she actually told me that! No one had ever voiced my deepest, most secret dream to me before.

Tardiness and spelling continued to be an issue for a few more years...

At the same time, I took junior-level Honor's English from another teacher. WOW! That woman did not like me. One day she slapped down my well-written paper and said in a snide, awful voice, "Wonder Woman strikes again!" BAM! That comment continues to sting and hurt--I can still hear the exact intonation of her voice today. A few years ago, I bought myself a necklace repurposed from an old Wonder Woman lunchbox in an attempt to claim that wrenching experience for myself--and hopefully, exorcise the pain of that moment from my mind.

I didn't understand why a teacher would root AGAINST me. I now have a better inclination about why… *saves plot for future novel* But what matters more than the actual truth is the story we tell ourselves. I told myself that this teacher resented the fact that I succeeded in a more advanced class--that she thought I was overstepping my bounds and wanted to punish me. I learned to fight for my dreams, no matter what other people do or say to discourage or hurt me. I don't need to believe in other people's limits for me.

I'm almost as grateful for that mean teacher as I am for Mrs. Muth. Both taught me lessons vital to my writing life today. Also, I never stress about my daughters' teachers. I know that they'll learn just as much about life from the bad ones as they do from the good ones.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Of Teachers and Captains (Jenny O'Connell)

Every time I read something about how influential a teacher has been in someone's life I picture that scene in Dead Poet's Society where the students all stand on their desks reciting Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" to show their support for Mr. Keating. Pretty powerful stuff. And then I wonder why I can't think of a single teacher who made me want to defiantly stand on a desk for him/her. And I wish I could.

I think it's so awesome when people talk about a pivotal teacher. I had some very good teachers, people I learned a lot from. I have to say, the teachers I remember as challenging me, as pushing me and making me really think, were not the most popular teachers or the ones who were the most fun. They did their job, they wanted critical thinkers, they wanted me to learn. Now that I think about it, the three that I remember best to this day all taught literature - perhaps not a surprise coming from a writer. I remember the books they taught and how I can still remember the stories and characters and devouring the pages even if I look back and wonder why. Ethan Frome? My teacher made me love it. Too Late the Phalarope? Wow. The House of Mirth, The Awakening, The Bell Jar. Still my favorite books thanks to Ms. Blackwell.

Sure, it's great to be able to pinpoint a single teacher who left a lasting impression, but I'm okay with my compilation of a few. And even if I never felt compelled to stand on a desk in solidarity with them, the books they introduced to my life have lasted way longer than I could have lasted four feet off the floor on a school desk.

And for those of you who also get chills watching Mr. Keating's students make a stand, here it is again.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The One Teacher I Hated: Kimberly Sabatini

Today I thought I would talk a little bit about my 6th grade teacher. I had a series of hardworking, caring English teachers over the course of my childhood. Seriously, they were all great, but I’m going to tell you about the one teacher I hated.

I was scared to death of Mrs. Mignault. At the time, I was convinced she was Satan’s handmaiden. Perhaps this was just an unfortunate side effect of spending too many years in Catholic School. Or maybe it was because she was strict and grouchy most of the time.  Or perhaps it was because I adored my 5th grade teacher more than I’d ever loved a teacher before. I’m sure the truth is a jumble of all those things, but for the record, I was not optimistic about the 6th grade. 

But people are rarely exactly what you think they are. I specifically remember the English class where Mrs. Mignault wrote a poem on the black board. (Yeah, I said black board, I’m old school.) With her thin lips pressed tightly together, she made us copy the poem down and commit it to memory. *groan*  

The poem was titled In Flanders Fields and it was written by John McCrae, May 1915. Mrs. Mignault began to recite the words. She walked us through each line. And we were quiet. We were listening. Instead of yelling at us, she was talking to us. It was the moment I realized she had poetry in her soul. The subject and the words moved her—she felt them deeply. It was about war and loss and I could picture it all so clearly.

From that moment on, I never looked at her or poetry the same way again. She taught me that words had the power to transform people. Hadn't she changed right before my eyes? I never told anyone what a life altering experience I had that day in 6th grade. I suspected they would have laughed at me. Even so, I’m sorry I kept it a secret. I wish she would have known--that from that day on—a piece of me loved her.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.
Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

     In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, May 1915

Perhaps Mrs. Mignault is watching me. Maybe she was there the day I held my book in my hands for the first time. I like thinking she knows I’ve taken what she gave me and I hold it to the light.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Mr. Hart, here's dime. Call Your Mother and Tell Her There's Serious Doubt About You Becoming a Lawyer

Like those who have already posted, my best teachers were my toughest ones, the one who made us stretch our minds: Mrs. Bernsohn in 2nd grade, who had us create our own weekly class newspaper and put us fully in charge, was the teacher who told me that I was destined to be a writer. Ms. Simmons in 7th grade, had us reading and analyzing 1984 and Lord of the Flies—and with such guidance that we felt ready for the experience. The substitute teacher in English class the year our teacher had some sort of break down and was gone for months. That woman who replaced him—she could teach! We all adored her. We worked our 10th grade butts off to please her. And Mr. Markowitz, my World History teacher. That man brought history to life. And always saved the good disemboweling stories for the end of class, right before most of us tottered off, gagging a little, to lunch.

But here’s the thing: Until I was fortunate enough to make it into Northwestern University and have (mostly) professor after professor who just blew my mind in the best of ways and made me work for every grade point, every positive comment on essays, there weren’t many more in my earlier education. Some of the others were truly bad. Most were just okay. I’m sure I had a role in this: As a student I had a tendency to do very well in the subjects I loved (English, history, the humanities in general) and was rather lackluster in those I didn’t like. But I always wondered: If the teachers in those other subjects had been dynamic and crazy wonderful, wouldn’t I have cared more? I think I would have. 

The good ones – they had two things: they knew their subject matter intimately—this in depth knowledge that came from passion and years of study and most likely from good teachers who had instructed them. And they knew how to make us feel a passion for it, too. Mr. Markowitz--he of the detailed torture stories—taught without a text book. He WAS the textbook. We took copious notes. We listened. We laughed, because sometimes in the face of the horrific things humans do to each other, you have only two options: tears or laughter. At age fifteen, laughter was easier most days. There would be time to cry later. He had this amazing memory and amazing capacity for both the big picture and the small human details. I knew I was learning about real people who were living their lives and were doing the entire range of human experience from the good to the bad to the terrible to the small and petty and the large and generous and everything in between.

The less good ones—they relied on the textbook and the teacher’s guides and worksheets and on endless days of grouping us together under the guise of being ‘facilitators of our independent learning,’ which sounds all educationally sound but is in the wrong hands simply a guise for lazy teaching. Because if I could learn it all from reading and watching film clips and talking to my group members, then why would I need a teacher? What would be the point?

Teachers don’t have to be martyrs to the cause. They don’t have to let the job consume them, ala Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds or Freedom Writers, although often the job does consume us simply because the workload is so great and the need of those we work with is so pressing.

I became a teacher myself for a number of years because of both the good and bad teachers I had. I hope I’m in the good category for some of the students who have come my way.

And in a related observation, did you ever notice how many movies (besides the ones mentioned above) there are about teachers and school?

Here’s an awesome clip from one of my favorites, The Paper Chase, to take you through the rest of this Sunday. Oh Professor Kingsfield. You are the best: