Sunday, July 27, 2014

Summer Reading--This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

“The tricky thing about being a writer,” Ann Patchett writes in her memoir This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (HarperCollins, 2013), “is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living.”  She had my attention with that first line in the first essay.  Her work here is a compendium of pieces published in a variety of magazines and journals over the years, and includes what I later discovered to be her most famous essay on the writing life:  “The Getaway Car:  A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life, ” which first appeared in an online publication called Byliner.

Patchett began her life in letters at Seventeen magazine where she published several short fictional stories.  She asked her editor for a nonfiction assignment, figuring that at most she could publish one or two pieces of fiction in the magazine’s pages each year.  However, “A writer of nonfiction, on the other hand, could publish an article every issue, sometimes multiple articles in a single issue.”  She hoped to free herself from the chains of making a living so she could write.  She worked as a teacher tending “to the creativity of others” which left her dead tired and devoid of creativity of her own.  She also tried waitressing, but the job left her so exhausted at the end of the day that she literally fell into bed.  Her work at Seventeen would be the breakthrough however the book review the magazine assigned her had to be rewritten “a half a dozen times,” and in each revision she was asked “to consider another aspect of the novel.”  She realized quite quickly that for every ten story ideas she pitched, only one would be given the go-ahead.  A lucky break comes when a writer fails to meet a deadline on an article addressing procrastination, and Patchett is asked to step in at the eleventh hour as the magazine is going to press.  She trained herself to be the go-to writer, and the discipline pays off.  “Magazine work was an uncertain business,” she writes, “assignments were killed on a whim, checks were late, and there was always someone who owed me expenses—but I never lost sight of how much easier it was than busing tables or grading papers.”

“The Getaway Car” explores her early life as well as her writing process.  Patchett may have decided not to teach, but she makes a clear, refreshing and wise teacher on these pages.  She affirms that sense of awe and wonder in the writer’s life and work, and even though there are disappointments and discouragements, she remains focused on the goal:  good, moving prose.  These are lessons she learns from her mentors, poet Jane Cooper, novelist Allan Gurganus and short story specialist Grace Paley, each of whom gets his or her due in the essay.  She also gives the reader one of the best descriptions of how an idea comes to fruition and in the birthing process, moves far away from the colorfully rich concept that once lived in whatever part of the brain responsible for inspiration.  “Everything that was beautiful about this living thing,” she writes about the completion of the book, “all the color, the light and movement—is gone.  What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled.  Dead.  That’s my book.”  And that is the challenge of rendering ideas into prose.

The title of the collection is about her courtship and marriage to her husband.  She also explains how she came to own one of the most important independent bookstores in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee.  The last two essays, though, are real heartbreakers.  One details her life with a beloved dog, Rose, and how animals deepen our life experiences and make even painful times bearable.  Again, Patchett’s personality is revealed in the details, especially how Rose enters her life.  However, it is her evocation of the end of the dog’s life that sticks in the heart.  “Sometimes love does not have the most honorable beginnings, and the endings, the endings will break you in half.  It’s everything in between we live for.”

In “The Mercies,” Patchett explains her relationship to her childhood teacher, a nun from the Sisters of Mercy order.  Now both of them are much older, and Sister Nena is nearing the end of her life and must, for the first time, move to a small apartment in a dicey area of town and live by herself.  It is a moving and poignant essay that avoids sentimentality and over-wrought emotions in favor of clear-eyed prose.  As they have lunch together, the elderly nun, upon reflecting on the death of a friend, raises the question of where the soul goes after we die.  Here is a woman who has dedicated her life to religious service asking the former student for wisdom.  “Nobody’s sure,” Patchett tells her.  The nun, staring into her own mortality, tells her that her friend was sure.  “I know God made us,” she tells Patchett, “but I’m not sure about what happens afterward.”

“What do you want to happen?” Patchett asks her.

“I want God to hold me…”

“You above all others,” Patchett responds.  “You first.”

I loved the book and found her an exhilarating and wise writer.  I took those novels of hers from the middle of the “to read” pile and put them on top.  So many books.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Wait, What?--Short Attention Span Theater

I’ve been noticing something in class the last few years and it disturbs me.

When I started teaching years ago, I was told by my mentor teacher to change activities every twenty minutes within a lesson.  So, about halfway through the class hour, I would move from discussion to worksheet, from lecture to group work.  Occasionally, if the lesson allowed, I’d change three times an hour, moving from a quick explanation to group work to presentations.  When I did ignore my mentor’s advice and lectured the entire hour, or assigned individual work for the duration, the students became antsy around—you guessed it—the twenty minute mark.

Now what I have noticed is that I must change activities three to four times an hour.  It is short attention span theater.  Often, things move so fast that I feel like we’ve all be inhaling helium or been caught up in a Charlie Chaplin flick.  No more than five complete sentences and we’re off to the races—seat work, group work, group presentation, discussion, wrap up.  Certainly makes the day go faster, but I’m not sure we’re learning more.

The bottom line, there is increasing need for captivating stories or visuals in the classroom as well as shifting activities to keep students motivated and involved in the lesson.  And it takes a perceptive instructor to orchestrate the learning, ready on a moment’s notice to shift the lesson to keep the students focused and on task.

What does this mean for education and teachers in the future?  According to the Chicago Tribune News, “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has poured more than $4 billion into efforts to transform public education in the U.S., is pushing to develop an ‘engagement pedometer.’  Biometric devices wrapped around the wrists of students would identify which classroom moments excite and interest them—and which fall flat.  The foundation has given $1.4 million in grants to several university researchers to begin testing the devices in middle-school classrooms this fall.”  Welcome to performance art as education, with teachers measured the way popular television is rated—by how many viewers they have and how often those viewers want to change the channel in the middle of a lesson.

There is a loss of deep thinking and analysis in nearly every area of our lives and I’ve even noticed attention deficits in myself.  At home, I absolutely cannot read with the television on in the same room.  Instant headache.  I am drawn to the stories on the TV and the dialogue and words on the page begin to intermingle to the point where my mind is overflowing with fragments and nonsensical narratives like some kind of bizarre soup concocted by a schizophrenic cook.  I require sustained focus in a quiet room or face a debilitating headache that will last for hours after the television is turned off or the book is put away.  I simply cannot multi-task, and in our society, those who cannot multi-task are made to feel inept and slow.

This is the point in the essay when I should have some answers.  How can we counteract this problem?  I don’t know.  I’m still trying to figure it out.  But I am switching activities in my lessons more frequently.  I actually try to talk at a lesser length and utilize video clips and photography to enrich the lesson, although I worry that using pictures instead of words to transmit complex ideas might be sending the wrong message and offer a much too shallow rendering of those difficult ideas.  When I do need to speak to my students for a longer length of time, I make sure to prepare what I will say and economize with my words.  If I can, I utilize story to convey the lesson, because I think storytelling is something with which I can hold their attention.  At least I think I hold their attention based on careful observation, which is a challenge given that I am both conveying the lesson and trying to gauge their reaction and focus.  Maybe that pedometer would be helpful.

There are many tools that can help keep students focused, so what every teacher must do is keep up with technology.  Technology is key.  Our students use a variety of methods to communicate and convey information, and we need to be right there with them if we are to keep their attention.

As for me personally, I turn off the television when I am reading, or if my wife is watching and I want to read, I go to another room.  When I am writing or looking at student essays, I limit anything that I know will distract me.  Even song lyrics can pull my attention away, so instrumental music is about the only thing I’ll play when working.

I have also made it a point to find quiet time every day.  I devote at least a half hour to silent contemplation—no music, no noise, no reading.  I sit, preferably in a semi-dark room, drink a cup of coffee, and just think.  I find I emerge on the other side of my brief respite more focused and mentally clear.  It is my version of the Buddhist meditation.  It is a matter of survival, and a way to stay focused in a cacophonous world.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Writing In The Sciences

This summer for the third year in a row I’m teaching a writing workshop for college students called Writing In The Sciences.  My students are all freshmen biological sciences majors who have recently graduated from high school or are transferring to a four-year institution from a junior college.  The program is part of a STEM grant, an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

In previous years, I focused on writing practice.  Since the students come from a variety of educational programs from Advanced Placement and honors to mainstream college preparatory courses, from public high schools to charters, magnets, and private institutions, I wanted just to get them writing every day with drafts submitted at the end of the week for my review.  That way I could respond individually to each student’s writing, and formulate lessons to address specific areas needing attention involving the whole class.  This worked well for two years, but at the conclusion of last summer’s program, I found myself wanting to do more to prepare them for the specific challenges they will face in their coursework.  Having worked with students for several years now as a writing tutor, I know what they will be asked to do as science writers and researchers, so I wanted to structure the summer workshop to meet those expectations more fully.  I had to avoid turning a challenging, fun workshop into an academic exercise devoid of any creativity or spontaneity.  In previous years, I also managed to expose students to good science writing and helped them brush up on their study skills.  I did not want to lose those components when I revised the workshop curriculum.

This year, I decided to specifically focus on research writing because that corresponds to the demands of the program they are entering.  To not address this would mean they could enter the fall semester unprepared.  However, I wanted them to keep a sense of awe and wonder about the world they are studying.  The work must not be a chore or an exercise, but be fun and challenging.  To do that meant that the students must have some control over their own topic selection.

On the first day, I issued a syllabus detailing the plan.  The students would be allowed to determine their own research focus.  I clearly outlined the brainstorming process and used as a guide, Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (University of Chicago Press, Eighth Edition, 2013).  The book focuses on a syllogistic structure for determining the topic of the paper.  The students were asked to fill in the blanks on the following sentences:  “I am working on ________________ (the topic), because I want to find out ________________ (the answer to the research question), so that I can help others understand _______________(the ultimate goal).  The book presents these questions in a few different ways, so there is flexibility.  The topics fall into the categories of concept questions and practical questions, with concepts applying more to humanities and practical questions relating to the sciences.  I asked the students to think about how the topic fit into a larger context on a historical, social, cultural, geographical, functional, or economical level.  As they bounced their ideas off me, I would point them in the direction of recent articles or current events I knew applied to their topics.

Then, we broke down the format of their paper with a rough outline—thesis, overview of the problem, justification for the research, analysis of three source articles from peer-reviewed journals, their thoughts and inferences after finishing the research, and a conclusion.  I stressed that the outline was a fluid structure, and as they researched they should be prepared to restructure the paper, rework the thesis, narrow or expand the topic, etc.

We spent the next hours in the library getting a crash course in using databases and doing digital research.  The librarians helped me with this part of the workshop, and the students quickly acclimated to using the library portal and finding their materials.  At the end of the first week, they submitted a paragraph discussing the topic and thesis of their paper.

At the start of week two, I returned their paragraphs with suggestions about how to maximize or narrow down their topics.  I did not worry too much about writing problems yet as this was a holistic reading.  I did introduce some basic grammar concepts based on errors I often see in student papers.  I had the students use several websites that offer exercises and games illustrating language concepts.  It is always amazing how many students have graduated from high school having had literally no grammar instruction, not in high school or elementary school.

In the next few days, I will be teaching them how to annotate their journal articles and have them brush up on their critical reading skills.  I find that many students lack strong critical reading skills, and this cripples their writing.

So far, the students seem absorbed in their research, and I have already seen some interesting topics.  After turning in a bibliography this week, we will start drafting the paper and after a final draft is finished, the students will present their research to the workshop.  They do many of these presentations during their regular semester courses, so it is important that the process culminates in both a finished paper and a presentation so they get the full flavor of what will be required of them starting in the fall.  I am anxious to see how things develop as the workshop progresses.