Wednesday, November 5, 2014

It's NaNoWriMo Time

November has officially started. That means that it is NaNoWriMo time. 


For those who don't know November is National (Na) Novel (No) Writing (Wri) Month (Mo). The challenge is pretty simple. Write 50,000 thousand words in 30 days. That comes to 1,667 words a day if you write 7 days a week.

I have always wanted to complete the challenge. Well, as long as I have known about it, I've wanted to complete the challenge. I think I heard about it the first time maybe three years ago. I intended to participate in NaNoWriMo the last two years, but I never officially signed up, so when complications arose early in those Novembers I quickly forgot about it.

This year I am determined. I signed up Saturday morning and thanks to the officialness of signing up, I have been able to squeak out the required word count every day.

Since this is the first time I am officially participating, I am being kind to myself. I am not worried so much about completing a novel but more about reestablishing my writing routine. I have several smaller projects that I am working on. Those are going to be the focus of my writing, and my word count, this November.

A routine is what I need more than anything.

I kind of collapsed after grad school ended. My family was in town and I deserved a break, so I took most of the summer off from writing. My plan was to get back into a routine when the school year started. Well, it is now November. The school year started twelve weeks ago and I still haven't figured out my writing routine yet.

There are no more excuses. I am the one who decided to be a writer. I need to start acting like one.

Wish me luck people. And check up on me. Accountability is a writer's best friend.

Monday, November 3, 2014

To Write Academically or To Write Creatively, That is the Question


I was searching thought my computer and I came across this essay I wrote a while back about teaching writing. I am not currently working as an English teacher, but as a child development teacher for teen parents. Still, I think this was a good reminder for my teaching practice. I will have to come up with a few writing exercises for my teen paretns. 



As a writer I find myself drawn to the issues and audiences that are a part of my everyday life. Both my career as a high school English teacher and my faith have had a hugh impact on my identity and, in consequence of this, my writing. One way my career has impacted my writing is my tendency to write about characters in their teens. I find myself drawn to the young adult genre. This is most likely a result of the fact that I interact with teens on a daily basis and on the fact that I have intentionally sought out good examples of young adult literature so that I can make reading recommendations to my students. I also have an propensity to write about educational topics and issues. I have to deal with concerns that face the field of education everyday and it only seems natural that these concerns would influence my writing. The influence of my career on my writing becomes even clearer when you consider the fact the I am currently working on a young adult novel about a futuristic world where "Proficiency" is mandatory in the educational system and dark consequences await those who fail to perform at a proficient level. Teaching is a part of my life and it always will be. I am thankful for the knowledge and experiences the last five and half years have had on my identity and my writing. 

My faith has also had a huge impact on my writing. The themes that regularly appear in my writing are connected to topics such as stewardship, faith and the courage one needs as they endure life's trials. Most of the stories I have written are not obviously religious, but I am always aware of the religious undertones as I work on a piece. I do not believe that writers have to write only what they know, but I have found inspiration from my career and my faith and I plan on continuing to use these influences as I write. 

My ultimate goal as a writing teacher is to push my students to experiment with their writing and to use it to learn something about themselves and the topics they are writing about. What this means is different for every class and every student. I break down writing into three types: academic, creative and reflective process writing. The first, academic writing includes the traditional essays and reports that I am expected to teach. These provide a nice foundation for the organization and structure that is needed in writing and are a necessary part of secondary education. The second, creative writing includes stories and poems written by the students. I include creative writing assignments in my curriculum whenever possible because I believe that such opportunities help my students develop the creative and critical thinking skills that they will need throughout their lives. The third type of writing, reflective process writing, is focused on encouraging my students to explore topics and concepts in writing as a way to help them better understand their opinions and assumptions about life. These include activities like journaling or free writing. I find these helpful in the classroom because they force my students to take a break and think about a topic with out the stress that always seems to be inherent in traditional academic writing. I believe that all three types of writing are necessary in the classroom, any classroom. It is my responsibility, as the teacher and mentor to recognize what type of writing my students need to explore at any particular moment in the curriculum. It is my responsibility to be receptive to their needs and their strengths and to encourage them to push their own writing to the next level. 

I feel that human beings always have the potential for growth. Yes, I expect my students to grow and develop, but I also expect myself to grow and develop. I am always trying to push myself as a writer and as a teacher. That is one of the reasons that I applied to Cal State San Bernardino's Masters in Fine Arts program. In the fall I entered the program as a fiction writer and I have loved the dedicated time I have been able to spend developing my craft. Teaching, however, is still an important part of my life and something that I will continue to develop. I am constantly reflecting on my practice as a teacher, particularly this year because I have transferred to the continuation high school in my district. As I have worked with my students this year I have encountered many who fight against the rigid structure required by the academic essay, and many who shut down academically when required to write an essay. Where possible I have included creative assignments in my curriculum and these assignments have engaged my students much more than essays. 

One of the questions I would like to consider is the possibility that creative writing exercises could make my students better essay writers. I believe that the "rules" of writing, the organizational and logical requirements, are necessary in all types of writing. I believe that if my students can recognize the need to provide enough characterization to develop their character then they can recognize the need to provide enough concrete details to prove their thesis. If they can recognize the value of word choice when describing a setting in their story they can recognize the value of formal word choice in an essay. I want my students to spend time actively exploring writing and developing their written voice so that they can honor themselves with every piece of writing they create, be it academic or creative.

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Mini Lesson about Dialogue and Action Tags

I am currenty leading a workshop called "Talent is Overrated." It is being held in the Pfau Library at CSUSB and is co-sponsored by Inlandia. At our last meeting one of the participants asked me to send out a mini lesson about dialogue in the next group email. This is a pretty basic lesson about dialogue and action tags, but I thought this would be a good place to share it.


One of my goals for NaNoWriMo, is to write a series of lessons about writing and surviving an MFA, so I will have a more expansive lesson about this later. In the mean time, here is a mini lesson about dialogue and action tags. 

(1) Most dialogue tags appear at the end of a sentence.

“Don’t say anything,” I whispered, continuing down the hallway. 

Remember to be careful about what verbs you use. The purpose of a dialogue tag is basic clarification about who is talking. You need to keep things clear for your reader, but the tag shouldn’t distract from the actual dialogue. Sometimes you can get away with he retorted, or she exclaimed. But these verbs can distract the reader. They take the attention away from the dialogue. And to be perfectly honest, the dialogue itself (or an action tag) should SHOW the reader that the character is giving an annoyed retort instead of TELLING them.

In the example above a verb like whispered is more acceptable because it is clarifying the volume. But even whispering can be overused. Once you have established that the dialogue is being whispered, you can return to the basic he said/ she said dialogue tag. 

* Remember, you do not need, nor should you use a dialogue tag at the end of every piece of dialogue. That is when “said” gets so annoying. 

(2) I hinted above that the most common dialogue tag is a simple - I said. 

“It’s fine,” I said.

Again, use them when needed to clarify who is talking. 

Such dialogue tags do not have to be delegated to the end of the paragraph. They can be placed in the middle of two pieces of dialogue as long as the dialogue is from the same person.

“It’s fine,” I said. “Don’t worry.” 

Remember, the larger the number of people talking in the scene, the more dialogue tags you need. If the conversation is between two people, you probably only need a dialogue tag every 4 lines or so. If three/four people are talking you will need them much more regularly. 

(3) Actions tags are a good way of breaking up the repetitive rhythm of too many of the basic he said/ she said/ I said dialogue tags. 

“We knew this might happen, Jenny.” Mr. Thompson’s head fell. “I told you to prepare yourself.” 

An action tag is exactly that. A short description of an action that the character is taking. 

In addition to clarifying who is talking, the action tag has the added benefit of setting the scene and/or developing a character. This is a fairly basic example, but we still learn a little something from the fact that Mr. Thompson’s head falls when he speaks. The dialogue would come across differently if he was running away, or holding someone back. 

Ok, that is my quick little mini lesson about dialogue and action tags. There are tons of articles on the subject all over the internet. Please feel free to research. I encourage it.  Just remember to take it slow. You don’t want, or need, to interrupt your process by worrying too much about the nit picky rules. Mistakes can always be corrected when you start editing. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Those Who Can Do. Those Who Can't Teach

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit one of my fellow teachers in her classroom. I was pleasently surprised when I came across this picture. 


Everyone has heard the cliched insult that "Those who can do. Those who can't teach." The above picture was a refreshing twist on that saying and, in my opinion, worthly of being shared. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Wolves are in the Classroom


During the first year of my MFA, I enrolled in a class focused on creative writing in the secondary classroom. (I just can't get away from the field of education.) 

My English 621 class was taught by Jim (James) Brown, the author of The Los Angeles Diaries


As an educator I have been asked to write teaching philosophy essays countless times. While the exercise can be helpful (taking time to reflect always is), it had become tedious. Instead of writing a tradition essay, I decided to have a little fun. This is what I came up with. Professor Brown was kind enough to accept this instead of a traditional essay. 

Happy Reading.

Creative Writing in the Secondary Classroom "Essay"


The Wolves are in the Classroom

Standing before a crowd of twenty two, the teacher waited. Her breath was held in as she prepared to speak. She felt alone in the cold expanse of her classroom which, on essay writing days, felt like a cave invaded by angry wolves instead of the sanctuary of learning it was intended to be.

She cradled the pile of crisp white papers in her hand, protecting them against the ravages of the angry wolves her students occasionally transformed into.  

The papers stood out against her self imposed uniform, a deep black knee length dress and a long dark olive green sweater, like a flaming torch in an isolated cavern. Their light could not go unnoticed and soon her students would become aware of their scent, hungry not for the nourishment they could discover in the written word but for it's destruction.

After a pause, a quick moment in which she allowed herself to collect her thoughts, the teacher exhaled her breath. The constant rise and fall of her chest became the only obvious indicator of her need for peace. She was determined to meet the day’s challenge. Once again, and despite the lack of enthusiasm of her class of wolves, she would teach them how to write an essay.

The teenaged students before her were squeezed into chairs with their backpacks at their feet. Writing implements and electronic devices were in hand as they hunched over their desks eager for conversations with their friends, musical oblivion or an hour of shut eye, but not for the coming writing assignment. 

When the teacher cleared her throat for attention, almost every eye in the room met hers, silently acknowledging her right to speak. She tried not to imagine them as wolves circling a flame of light, prepared to turn rabid at the first hint of an essay.

The teacher forced herself to smile and prayed for the ability to keep the unlikely predators at bay. She clung to her torch of papers, waving it about in an attempt to distract them and hoped to somehow be able to inspire her students, to be able to explain the assignment in just the right way so that the twenty two teenagers would pause their wolverine inclinations for a moment and make a sincere attempt to write ... something, anything. 

After the directions left her mouth, the prompt followed by words of encouragement and support, the teacher sucked in her breath and began passing out the crisp pages that held the prompt in written form. Immediately, twenty two heads slumped in defeat and dejection, calling out complaints against the teacher for daring to assign an essay and assurances that now they would fail and it would be all her fault.

But the teacher stood her ground. She had to, it was her job. She would rather be teaching her students how to write a poem or a short story, but that was not why she was placed in this cavern of teenagers. 

She was hired to tame the wolves enough that they could produce a sufficiently organized 5 paragraph essay. A literary composition native to the middle and secondary classroom that was rarely seen in the rest of the natural world, but which remained the foundational genre upon which her wolves's writing ability was assessed. 

So, the teacher began frantically searching the depths of her mind for ways to make writing as exciting to twenty two teenagers as it was to the poor teacher who faced them every day. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Neil Gaiman

One of my fellow MFA students at CSUSB, Tracey Dover, recently shared an article/interview about Neil Gaiman on Facebook. 



One of the major questions behind the interview, which was published by "Fast Company," was how Neil Gaiman stays creative in a world full of distractions. I loved this response from him.



“It doesn’t matter what social media you’re plugged into, or what’s going on. At the end of the day, it’s still always going to be you and a blank sheet of paper, or you and a blank screen. My process as a creator is always the same. You write the thing you want to read. And you go on from there.”

The modern world is full of distractions. It is easy to fill your day until there is no time left for writing. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. You have to decide that you are a writer, or an artist, or an athlete. A vital part of making that decision is devoting time to your craft. 


According to Neil Gaiman, his "2 million followers are not going to do anything to get [his] stories written for [him]." He went on to say, however, that when he faces writer's block, "I talk to Twitter, retweet and comment on a couple of interesting things, answer a question, and then feel not as lonely as I did 10 minutes earlier...and I cheerfully go back to work.”


Consider the distractions that fill up the free time in your day. Some of them, particularly the people, deserve your time and attention. Just don't forget to devote time to your craft as well. 


IF you have the time, read the full article. I have included a link below the picture. Then, tell me what you think of Gailman's words and the article's message?


Happy reading. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Few Writing Tips

Writing is a job. It requires passion and dedication. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise I suggest you start questioning any other pieces of "wisdom" they've given you.

Unfortunately I am not at the point where I can make writing my full time job. Don't misunderstand, I love teaching and I will always want it to be part of my life, but I wouldn't mind focusing my teaching hours on creative writing classes. In the mean time, I am having fun working with teen parents.

While I would love to pursue my writing career with the dedicaton of full time hours, that isn't possible at the moment. Because of this reality (we all have something that makes writing complicated), my writing routinees are vital to my success.

To be perfectly honest, I constantly struggle to maintain a writing routinee. Work, family, and a variety of other obligations make demands on my time. Not to mention all the time wasters that are just so tempting. (Check out my post about Writing Serial Killers). Here are a few things that have helped me stay focused when I need to finish a project.

(1) Taking Classes

Early on, I realized that I just work better with deadlines, especially deadlines that have consequences behind them. That's the reason I started taking classes at the UCR and UCLA Extension Centers. It's also the reason I enrolled in an MFA program. I know myself. I know that without the pressure of a deadline, my other responsibilites and my favorite time wasters (television and reading) get in the way of a finished draft.



(2) Personal Writing Retreats

When I have the time, and the money, I pack up my car, check into a cabin or hotel, and hide away for a few days on my own personal writing retreat. I did this for the first time over spring break during the first year of my MFA program. I was exhausted and I needed a few days to myself. I needed to unwind and then I needed to get to work. I had a lot of writing to do.


It was the first time I'd ever gone on a "vacation" by myself and it was fantastic. I spent the first day reading, watching tv and going on walks. Then I got to work. I think I got fifty pages written during those four and a half days and I became even more committed to my thesis project.

I can't recommend this practice enough. Sometimes you just need to get away and spend some time with yourself.

(3) Finding a Productive Work Place

Writing is a choice, and for me that means making a choice about where to work. It's not possible to hide away on a writing retreat all the time. I also don't have a dedicated office for writing, and that's ok. Instead, I try to make appointments with myself to get writing done. Lately I've had success when I go sit in my local frozen yogurt shop. Sometimes a writing friend joins me. The point is that I am away from all of the distractions at home and I am focuing my attention on my writing.

If you haven't noticed already, all of these routinees have something in common. They all depended on my choices. I had to decide that I wanted to be a writer. I had to decide that I would dedicate my time and attention to my craft.

You can do the same thing. Experiment with your own routinees. When and where can you fit in time to work on your art form.

I would love to hear about your process. Leave a comment below and let me know how you fit writing (or whatever your passion is) into your day.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Parable of the Talents

We all have a talent for something, maybe several somethings. Are you working to develop your talents? Or are you hiding them from the world where they profit no one?


Please share your talents with the world. That is the reasons they were given to you. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Visit from the Head Master

I wrote this a few years ago when I was applying for a summer program for writing teachers. I made it to the interview round, but I wasn't choosen. Still, I had fun writing it and I thought English Teachers and Harry Potter fans would enjoy it. I hope I was right.

Happy reading.

A Visit from the Head Master

Professor Fingerson is sprawled across her desk, her arms folded into a bumpy pillow of flesh and bone. It is late in the evening and she has fallen asleep over student papers once again. 



As she slumbers the door of her classroom silently opens. A white haired and worn hand inches into the silence and a single click echoes through the room. Suddenly every light flashes out, zooming into the deluminator clutched by the hand of Albus Dumbledore, Head Master of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. His blue robed figure is hidden by darkness. As he enters the classroom all that can be seen of him are the long tendrils of white hair that stick out of the pointed hat resting crookedly on his head. 



Dumbledore quietly approaches Professor Fingerson's sleeping form, pausing momentarily to watch her ineffective slumber and then placing a single sheet of parchment next to her hand. When he slips out a few moments later the lights flash back into brightness and Professor Fingerson jumps awake, tipping in her chair until she regains her balance.

With an exclamation of surprise, Professor Fingerson discovers the parchment resting on her paper strewn desk. 

Please join me in my office at your earliest convenience. 
- Albus

With a chuckle, Professor Fingerson stands, adjusts her robes and follows after her quizzical headmaster. She is confident that this summons will include an adventure, of one sort or another. She catches up with him just as he is passing the stone gargoyle that guards his office. 



"Headmaster?" 

"Ah, Professor Fingerson. I hope I did not disturb you. No doubt you are quite busy." Professor Dumbledore nods hello. "That was quite a pile of essays on your desk.

Professor Fingerson cannot help the sigh that escapes her lips. It is indeed quite a pile of essays, if you can call them essays. In the past her students' work always read more like lifeless summaries. They have moved beyond that for the most part and now almost all of her students are able to follow the foundational essay structure, but there is still something missing and she has come to dread grading nights as tedious hours reading the same essay over and over again, even if each is written by a different student.

Dumbledore immediately acknowledges the sigh. "That doesn't sound promising." 

"It's nothing for you to worry about Head Master."

"Oh, but I do worry." Dumbledore gestures towards his office before he continues. "Please, join me. We can discuss your concerns."

With a hopeful nod Professor Fingerson follows him up the stairs and into the office. She is immediately surrounded by a barrage of snores. It is so late that even the portraits of the previous headmasters of Hogwarts have all fallen into slumber. 

"So, tell me. What is keeping you up so late grading papers?" 

As she settles into the cushioned chair across from him, Professor Fingerson considers her problem. It takes her a few moments to gather her thoughts together, but not so long that the headmaster offers the use of the pensive glowing in the corner. She has been considering this question for some time and she wants to clearly articulate her concerns. 



"My students don't seem to enjoy writing as much as I would hope. I worry that they are not getting enough out of the writing exercises I assign them."

Professor Fingerson watches as Dumbledore rests his head in his hands, quietly contemplating her concerns. 

"Perhaps we should start at the beginning." He says. "What are your hopes for them?"

"Well, the problem isn't structure. They know the basic requirements for writing an essay. It's more a question of voice and ... self reflection. They don't seem to be able, or willing, to connect with what they are writing about. Their essays are to be honest, boring."

Professor Fingerson watches as the headmaster leans back into his chair to consider her response. After a moment he sits up and stares at her through his rectangular spectacles.  

"Before we make a plan for your students I think it would be wise, and I am usually right, if we think about what kind of writer you are." 

The portraits of the past headmasters are startled awake at the excitement in Professor Fingerson's almost immediate response to Dumbledore. She is on the edge of her seat, gesturing passionately with each new sentence and speaking until the air in her chest runs out and she is forced to take a breath. 



"That's the root of my concern, Head Master. I just love writing. I spend hours and hours lost in the worlds I create on the page. I realized recently that I am so passionate about what I write because it all comes back to the issues and topics that impact my life. I learn something new about myself and the world every time I sit down to write and I want to share those messages, those realizations with the world. I don't expect my students to love writing as much as I do, but I want them to learn from it; to learn about themselves and to learn about their world."

With the gasp of breath that Professor Fingerson releases with her final word, Fawkes, Dumbledore's pet Phoenix, is awoken and lets out a screech of surprise. Amidst the whispers of the portraits and the flapping of wings, Dumbledore continues to meet Professor Fingerson's eyes.



"I guess my next question would be how you have approached teaching writing up to this point?" 

"Well, that depends on the needs of my students. I have always believed that you need to know the rules in order to break them appropriately. So I always begin by discussing the structure of paragraphs and essays. Depending on the needs of the students, we then start discussing the different types of essays: expository, persuasive, compare and contrast, literary response, ect. 

"That sounds like a very traditional and appropriate course of study," he responds, leaning back into his chair and gently petting the Phoenix's red fiery red wings. 

"I know, and some aspects of it are wonderful, but I want to push my students past that. I want them to see the magic in the written word. I want them to understand that every word counts and that they can do amazing things with writing if they are willing to take risks." 

A gruff voice scoffs in disbelief as Professor Fingerson finishes speaking. It is the portrait of Phineas Black, the mean tempered head master from the late 19th century. "And how do you propose to accomplish this?" he barks out of his frame.



Professor Fingerson can't hide the smirk of anger that appears on her face at this response.  But when her eyebrows furrow in doubt it becomes clear that she doesn't know what to expect from Dumbledore. 

"Now Phineas, that isn't fair. Just because you would not choose to teach writing in such a way, does not mean it is not a reasonable option." 

At Dumbledore's words Professor Fingerson instantly lets out a quiet sigh of relief. Perhaps she has a chance of succeeding if Dumbledore is on her side. She leans back into her seat as Dumbledore continues speaking.

"It sounds like your greatest desire is to help your students really reflect on life and the writing process, to really learn about themselves and their opinions as they explore the written word?" Dumbledore pauses once again to meet Professor Fingerson's eyes. "Would that be an accurate assessment of your deepest desire as a teacher?"

Professor Fingerson feels a trail of excitement run up her spine at Dumbledore's words. "Yes, Head Master. I want them to care about the message they are spreading with each writing assignment, to care about whether their message is understood. I want them to use their writing to take risks, to push themselves to a higher level of thinking and self reflection."

"Then, I believe it is time we visited the Mirror of Erised."



The voice of the portrait of Phineas Black echoes through the room once more. 

"Ha, I knew it. He doesn't believe it can work either. Her so called dream is impossible and Dumbledore knows it."

"What makes you say that, Phineas?" Dumbledore asks, still calmly relaxing in the recesses of his chair.

"You said it yourself Dumbledore, to that silly Potter boy. 'It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.' "

As Dumbledore stands he raises a hand toward Professor Fingerson, inviting her to follow him as he addresses the former head master. "True, Phineas. I did say that. But that is only true if the desire is an impossibility." Turning to face Professor Fingerson once more, Dumbledore continues.

"So, you must ask yourself Professor Fingerson, is what you dream of possible?" 

With her eye darting between the two head masters, Professor Fingerson takes a deep breath and rises to a stand. 

"Yes, Head Master. Yes it is."


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Writing Community

When I am in a writing mode I tend to hide away from the world. I get lost in my imagination for hours on end, sometimes longer. Most of the time my teaching career prevents full and multiday writing sessions. But, if the timing is right, I will go away for a few days for my own private writing retreat. I am desperate for one now but its not possible at the moment. Oh, well. 

I cannot, however, live in isolation. Nor do I want to. If there is anything I learned during the two years when I was completing my MFA, it is that community is vital to the process. Poets seem to be more natually inclined to socalize. They host endless amounts of poetry readings and gatherings. Fiction writers, on the other hand, hybernate. 

In an effort to encourage fiction writers out there, I'd like to tell you about the lastest community event I was able to attend. Last week I was able to visit the Ovitt Family Library in Ontario, Ca to hear a presentation by Maurene Goo, who wrote the young adult novel Since You Asked

  

During her presentation, Maurene spoke about how she first found her character's voice (a Facebook quiz), and the events that encouraged her to write and finish that first novel. For me such presentations are helpful because I feel encouraged when I hear other author's stories. I can't help but telling myself that if they did, so can I.

Maurene ended her presentation with a few writing tips.


The picture is a bit small, so I'll list them. (1) Write everyday. (2) Read a lot. (3) Keep a notebook with you to write down story ideas. (4) Turn off the internet. (5) Music. (6) Coffee. (7) Cats. (8) Shut off all the noise. 

If you're looking for another community event, check out the Inlandia website. They organize lots of great events. I host their San Bernardino workshop, which meets at the Feldheym Library. Our next meeting is Tuesday, October 21st from 3:30 to 5:30. 


When I was there last week, I came across this flyer. Hopefully someone reading this can take advantage of this opportunity. 



Happy reading and writing. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Two Hands to Love You


I met Diane Adams a few years ago when I enrolled in a class offered by the UCR Extension Center. The focus of the class was writing picture books and Diane was/is a great teacher. Now she teaches at Cal State University San Bernardino as well. 



Her latest book is Two Hands to Love You. It came out a few months ago and is my go to book for baby showers. It is so sweet, you have to read it, but for now check out her website.


Monday, October 13, 2014

Teaching: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Teaching is one of my passions. Even now, when I am working to further my writing career, I know that teaching will always be a part of my professional life. 

This is a prospect that I look forward to. 

Especially because I feel like I've finally found my educational niche. I am currently leading two creative writing workshops (yea!) in addition to my position as a Child Development teacher for teen parents. It is sooo fun. It's amazing what happens when you can work with students that are actually interested in the subject matter.


I do not, however, look forward to the days when people who know almost nothing about teaching think they have the right to tell me how to do my job. 


After almost eight years in the field of education, I've had my share of bad days. The vast majority of them have not been caused by difficult students. Rather, they have been the result of the laws and red tape created by people who seem disconnected from the realities of the classroom.

The biggest example I can think of is NCLB- No Child Left Behind. This policy led to the demand that every student become Proficient by the year 2014. (It will be interesting to see what happens now that the deadline has arrived.)

Proficiency is a worthy goal, but there were, are, a few major flaws in this law.



First, proficiency is determined solely on a student's performance on standardized tests comprised mostly, or completely, of multiple choice questions. At this point in the debate about NCLB, most people agree that all this does is assess a student's ability to take a test. In my own classroom I only used multiple choice tests to assess basic comprehension of facts, or to make sure my students had completed the assigned reading. The more important, in my opinion, assessments were done with short answer questions, essays, and creative projects. I wanted to push my students to develop their creative and critical thinking skills, not their ability to regurgitate memorized facts. 

Other assessments need to be used if you want to have a clear picture of what a student has learned. You also have to take into account the variety of students your encounter. A multiple choice assessment might be easy for one student, and extremely difficult for another, and not because of their work effort or diligence. Don't get me wrong, multiple choice exams have their value, but that value is specialized and therefore limited.

The second problem is that the math behind NCLB is impossible. The law demands that 100% of students become proficient. No offense to the writers of NCLB, but that is mathematically impossible.

Whenever such demands were brought up in a staff meeting I wanted to project a picture of a bell curve.


Bell curves are natural. Populations tend to follow this pattern. In the terms of education and academic proficiency, this means that some students are going to be high performers and some are going to be low performers. This is natural and to be expected. 

Remember, these scores are based on performance on multiple choice exams focused mostly on Math and English. I don't know about you, but I know plenty of people, high school students included, who are very capable and intelligent but who could care less about Math or English.

But NCLB says this isn't good enough. It says that 100% of students have to be proficient or advanced in Math and English. They have to be the same as everyone else in regards to these abilities and aptitudes. Differences in ability and experience didn't matter. Flexibility is not allowed.

In my opinion, human beings are supposed to be different from each other, we are supposed to have a variety of talents and abilities. This is exaclty what brings us together as a society. If everyone could perform at the same level in everything, doing well in a particular area would no longer have value. All of our uniqueness would be lost.

Maybe I'm too contradictory by nature, but such a world sounds like a boring place to live. I don't think I would last there very long before causing trouble of one kind or another. 

Then there is my third problem with NCLB. 

As a teacher I became frustrated when I saw my students struggling with the demand for proficiency. I saw some of them working hard to make improvements, but then giving up when their movement up the scales was slow. As a high school English teacher I encountered a lot of students who had given up years ago. I had to work hard to convince them to even give English a chance. 

"Proficiency" and the labeling associated with it, underminded every bit of encouragement I gave my students to keep working and learning. It was the go to word and they weren't allowed to join the party unless they were good enough. 

There is a lot more I could say, but this post is already getting long. So, I'll cut myself off now. 

But I would love to hear your thoughts about NCLB and modern testing practices. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

One Writer's Legacy Part 8 (Conclusion)


Conclusion: A Writer in Rough Draft

Now, as I complete my MFA program, I have been asked to explain my purpose as a writer. When I was first given the directions for this assignment, for this Statement of Purpose, I didn’t know what to say. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that the only way I could explain who I am as a writer is to explain who I am as a person. The moments explored here, the events and beliefs and decisions, have changed my life. They have come together to bring me to this place and this moment, when I am sitting in a quiet corner of the PFAU Library, my feet resting on a chair and my fingers typing out words on my computer as I try to explain my purpose for writing.
In a very real way the same hope and joy that Shelby and the rest of my family bring to my life are the reasons I want to write. They are the concepts I want all of my family and friends, all of my students and classmates, all of my heavenly siblings that fill this Earth, to take into their hearts and use to guide their lives. No matter how you describe it, this world is full of hardships. Trials and challenges are a part of life, a necessary challenge that helps us to change and grow. But there can be, and should be, joy and hope amidst those difficulties.
I have found my own source of joy and hope in the gospel and in my family. Their influence on my life has given me my own personal sense of purpose. But I also know that one’s purpose does not stop there. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I believe that I am also on this earth for a higher purpose. Like every other human being, I need to learn and grow, but I also have a responsibility to share what I know to be true. Writing is the way that I am able to share my beliefs and to spread the truths that I have discovered with the rest of the world.
Perhaps one day I will write a memoir, or a nonfiction book about the eternal truths that I have come to know. But for now, fiction is the creative form that speaks to me. It has been speaking to me all along. Josephine March of Little Women taught me that life doesn’t always end the way you expect it to, and that difficult trials cannot be escaped, but that happiness can be found with an open heart. The Box Car Children taught me to work hard to solve my problems. Jane Austen taught me that families need to be protected and that marriage is sacred. Even The Hungry Caterpillar taught me that you can still turn into a beautiful butterfly even if you have given into to your temptations.
As I look toward the future, I know that I will continue to strive to live up to the gospel standards that I love. I know that the reason I have loved reading since I was a child is because books, good books, even if they are fictional, contain eternal truths. Hopefully, at the end of my life, after I have finished a long career as a writer, I will discover that something I wrote inspired others to seek out and live the sacred truths that are there, waiting to be discovered by those with an open heart.

Well, that is the end of my "Statement of Purpose." I hope you enjoyed it. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Why You Should Write A Letter To Yourself

On Monday I came across an amazing article about the theraputic power of writing. I had to share it. 


Click on the link under the picture to read the full article. I'm not sure if the site/magazine is called "Science of Us" or NYMAG. The article is called "Why You Should Write a Letter To Yourself." 


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Writing Serial Killers Part 2: Trolls

A few days ago I came across this amazing video. You have to watch it.

It's creator, Shane Koyczan, used his experience with bullies to make the most impowering video about dealing with what he calls "Trolls."


Don't let the trolls in your life stop you from living.

If this video speaks to you, check out my post about "Writing Serial Killers," and read Kristin Lamb's blog on the subject. It's titled, "Cyberbullies, Trolls, Mobs & Haters- How to Protect Yourself & Others in a Dangerous World."


Happy reading.

Monday, October 6, 2014

One Writer's Legacy Part 7


Moment 6: A Blessing Amidst Adversity

While I now feel, or rather know, that writing is supposed to be a part of 
my life, this was not always the case. Like many artists, I left my craft for many years. Just as I had to be prodded to go to the temple for the first time, at a certain point I realized that I had to bring writing back into my life.
The more I think about my past the more I realize that Heavenly Father has always stood by me. He has watched over me, protected me, and guided me to where I needed to be. I went through the temple for myself in November of 2007, and over the next few years my family was bombarded with so much illness and adversity that I know Heavenly Father was strengthening me for the future when He prompted me to go to the temple. Often, it has felt as if the time I spend in the temple and at church is the only thing keeping me sane and helping me to endure.
So much happened and so quickly over the next few years that I couldn’t keep track of it all. I won’t even try to list everything because I know I will forget something. The huge blessing in the midst so much illness and loss, was my beautiful niece Shelby.
In 2009, my sister made several visits to California because of all of the various health concerns happening in our family. On one of those trips my grandmother, who is especially observant, told my mother that she suspected Stephanie was pregnant. Nothing further was said until shortly before Thanksgiving, when she made the announcement that she was pregnant.
The joy that we all felt on this occasion, and on Shelby’s arrival in June of 2010, was magnificent. My father was actually in the hospital briefly just before Shelby was born, but his recovery seemed much quicker on that occasion than it was for his previous stays. I know that Shelby’s arrival was the cause. That little girl was a needed life-raft to us and our extended family.
Less than six months after her birth, my uncle Geno lost his battle with leukemia and returned home to Heavenly Father. Four months later, after weeks in the hospital, my grandfather followed him. When Stephanie and Heath arrived for the funerals our precious Shelby was passed around to all, a necessary reminder of new life and, for me, a reminder of the sacredness of each life and the love of my Heavenly Father who had brought her to us just when we needed her most.
Children, especially Shelby, help me to remember what is really important in life. It is not about riches or power, or even popularity. Life is about coming together as a family and progressing toward the ultimate goal of returning to live in our Heavenly Father’s presence. Every time I see my niece, or talk to her over the phone I can’t help smiling. She gives me hope for the future and joy in the moment.
After years in the classroom, I only came back to writing after the death of my uncle. In October of that year, he slipped painfully away in the arms of his sons. And the Fingerson family received another early morning phone call. All though we had hoped to have my grandfather for more than the next four months, his health was such that we did not expect to have him for many more holidays after that.
The loss of these two wonderful men, and the concerns I have to this day about my own father’s health, made me realize that my time on this earth, my mortal life, would be short. I had been secretly telling myself for years that one day I would start writing, one day I would take the time to develop the talent I loved and had always longed to share. But it wasn’t until my uncle Geno died, and I was holding my beautiful niece Shelby in my arms, that I felt brave enough to step toward the next significant moment in my life: the decision to go back to school and to take classes to become a writer. In January of 2011, shortly before my grandfather passed away, I enrolled at the University of California, Riverside Extension Center in the first creative writing class I had taken in almost a decade. By the end of that calendar year, I was applying for the MFA at CSUSB.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of "One Writer's Legacy."

Sunday, October 5, 2014

To Read or to Watch: The Danger of Adapting Books for Film

I love books. I just love them.

Reading is one of my favorite things to do. I have to read every day, even if only for a few minutes. Whenever I need a vacation, or just a mental health day, my first instinct is to hide away in my room, or in the bath, with a good book. It can be something new or an old favorite, it doesn't matter.


I feel justified spending time with my nose between the pages of a book. Stories are powerful. They can be life changing.

But balance is everything people. You have to honor your responsibilties, but you also have to honor your mental health. Reading is one way I keep myself healthy.


Books are obviously one of my passions. So, of course, I am very passionate about how they are treated by others. Including how others acknowledge a book by turning it into a film.

Unfortunatly I have been disappointed in the past.



Orson Scott Card is a great writer. I love his series about Andrew "Ender" Higgens, a child military genius, and I was excited when I heard that Ender's Game was being made into a movie.

Unfortunately, the film did not live up to my expectations.

Maybe it was just a case of liking the book better, but I don't think so. Orson Scott Card has a large fan base. I didn't understand why the film wasn't ... well, bigger.

I wish they would have given the story another hour, or even another thirty minutes. So much was left out that I couldn't help thinking Ender was cheated.



Most of my friends, those who didn't read the book, enjoyed the movie. I'm glad they did. Ender's story is great. Hopefully watching the movie will move them to pick up the rest of the series.

I understand that the task of translating a book into the medium of film is challenging. No adaptation is perfect. But as a lover of books, I expect such films to honor the original text.

Given this recent disappointment, I was hesistant to see the film adaptation of Lois Lowry's The Giver. This young adult dystopic novel is one of my very favorite books. I don't even try to keep track of how many times I've read it. It is great. If you've never read it, go buy it right now.


I saw the film on opening night with a friend who is also a huge fan of the story. We were, in a word, thrilled.

The people responsible for the movie took a lot of creative license with the film. (That is a major understatement. The film is extremely different than the book.) The main character, Jonas looks about 16 instead of the 12 he is in the books. They also dramatically expanded the impact of two of Jonah's friends, but the result was more than I could ever have hoped for.


The Giver is not the type of book that could easily be adapted into a film. Jonas' society lack parts of real life that we take for granted. They have pushed themselves to the point of "sameness." Jonas doesn't point out these differences to the reader becasue he doesn't notice them. He wouldn't notice them. He hasn't known any other life.  

One of the many things they have lost, besides their emotions, is the ability to see color. Lowry does not use color in her descriptions for the first few chapters because this loss is not revealed until Jonas realizes that the strange flashes he sees are flashes of color. 

Think about that for a moment. How do you hide an inability to see color to a theater audience in 2014?

It's impossible. 

That revel from the book can't be a reveal in a film. 

This was only one of a dozen changes. But, unlike my disappointing experience with Ender's Game, I loved the film adaptations of The Giver.

There are a lot of possible explanations for why I approve of one adaptation and not the other. I usually come back to the opinion that the film version of The Giver stayed true to the characters and themes, even if the plot line had to be tweaked. 

What do you think? What makes a good film adaptation. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

One Writer's Legacy Part 6


Moment 5: Holiness to the Lord, The House of the Lord

If it wasn’t already clear before this point, I will make it clear now. My faith is very important to me. It influences every part of my life, including my writing. While I am not writing overtly religious work, the themes in my writing are connected to my faith and the eternal truths I wish to share with the world.
I know that Heavenly Father speaks to His children. I have felt His guidance in my life. Often, He has to prod me a few times before I hear His promptings, but once I do, I listen carefully to understand what He is telling me because I know that I can trust Him.
One of the promptings I received a few years ago took a long time for me to understand. In all honesty, it took more than a year for me to know that what I wanted to do was right. Most members of the church do not enter the temple until they are going on a mission or getting married. Neither of which I have done. But I kept on feeling that I needed to go to the temple. I had a Limited-Use- Recommend, which allowed me to participate in one Temple Ordinance, Baptisms for the Dead. But that was all and I could only go when appointments were made for my ward or family to do work in the Baptistry. In the LDS, or Latter Day Saint Church, we believe that Baptism is a necessary ordinance for salvation. However, not all people have the opportunity or inclination to be Baptized during their lives. Since Heavenly Father is both merciful and just, He needed to provide a way for that work to be done for His children who died before they could be Baptized and for those who chose not to be. 
So, one of the ordinances completed in LDS Temples are Baptisms for the Dead. For this ordinance, a member of the church in good standing is baptized in place of another, someone who has been dead for at least one year. This is one of the reasons family history is so important to members of the church. We want everyone, the entire family that is humanity, to be together in eternity and that means that the sacred ordinances need to be performed for everyone.
Before going to the temple myself, I jumped at the chance to participate in Baptisms for the Dead. There is just a special feeling in temples. When I go I am able to find peace, answers to my prayers and the important reminder that I am a beloved child of God. Temples truly are the House of the Lord and I wanted to be able to spend more time there. I wanted to be able to go whenever I wanted or needed to, not just when my ward was able to schedule an appointment to perform Baptisms for the Dead.
When I first had the desire to go to the temple, I thought that maybe I was misunderstanding Heavenly Father. I wasn’t preparing to go on a mission (I considered it for a while after that first prompting but it didn’t feel right) and I wasn’t getting married, at least not yet. It was only after a lot of prayer and scripture study, and a several more of the once a month visits to the temple for Baptisms for the Dead, that I felt confident that Heavenly Father wanted me to go through the Temple to receive my own Endowment, the next covenant that a child of God makes with their Heavenly Father.
Now I cannot imagine not being able to attend the temple whenever it is open. I am even blessed to volunteer there about twice a month answering phones and helping others schedule their time in the temple. My time spent there truly has deepened my understanding of the gospel and strengthened me for even more difficult trials.
Some of you are probably wondering how this moment in my life connects to my writing. The parallel may not be immediately obvious but it is there. I don’t believe I am alone when I say that sometimes it is hard to make a decision, especially a big one. This conflict, this struggle to understand who you are and what you are supposed to do is one that many of my characters face. I believe this it is important for people to use their agency thoughtfully, and then live up to their choices. As such, I tend to write about characters who struggle to chose their path, characters who want to make a decision for themselves and who sometimes need to be knocked on the head, or prodded, a few times before they realize what they should do.
Another connection between my writing and my experiences in the Temple is the importance of stewardship. As I have lived in the church and with my family, I have seen just how important it is for us to take care of each other, for human beings to take an interest in and support those around them. Now, I am not talking about allowing people to rely on you for anything and everything they want, but rather the importance of helping others to do the things they simply can’t do for themselves. This responsibility, which I believe we all have as children of God, this stewardship, is a concept that lives as the center of almost every story I have ever written. And it is one of the messages that I want to share with the world.
Stay turned for part 7 of "One Writer's Legacy."