Thursday, December 20, 2012

Think About the Fragility of Life

Twenty-one years ago today, one of my high school classmates was murdered. I was a 15-year-old tenth-grader sitting in la clase de español when the principal made the announcement over the PA system. It was the last day of school before the holiday break. 

I can feel the moment as if it were yesterday, the way the news hung in the air, the silence and shock that followed. I remember my fear and the sleepless nights. I remember the well-intentioned sentiments of those who told me I had no reason to be afraid because the suspects (one of whom had sat next to me in band the previous year) were in custody. But what they didn't understand (which I probably didn't understand either) was that my fear wasn't so much for my own life; my fear was at the finality of death, the suddenness of it. The then. The now. I remember the lump in my throat when I went back to school after the break and saw the empty seat next to me in the one class I had shared with the victim. 

You don't forget certain things. For me, it's usually the emotions of a moment and the clarity (or lack thereof) of thought that I remember. Sounds (certain songs, especially) and scents provoke memories and feelings. It's like time travel (for example: whenever I hear a Guns 'n Roses song, I'm suddenly in 8th grade again). My mind goes back and forth between the past and present. 

It's hard to believe it's been 21 years since my classmate was murdered. In fact, it seems impossible that it's been that long. But it also feels like it was a lifetime ago. And it was--it was more than a lifetime, in fact, for my classmate, who was only 16 when she was killed.

Whenever there is a tragedy--be it a school shooting, a natural disaster, or other loss or trauma (either personal or public)--I think of the survivors who will relive the event hundreds (or thousands) of times; it will shape the rest of their lives. They will grieve indefinitely and will keep progressing through life, remembering. Even if they forget momentarily, they'll always remember again. But how long will people not directly affected by the tragedy/loss remember? 

I wonder why it sometimes has to take devastating events to remind us to think of and help others; to remind us of what/who is important; to remind us of those who are suffering all over the world; and to remind us, ultimately, of life's fragility. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Think About This...

Every time I read a quote on Facebook (well, almost anywhere on the internet, actually), I'm skeptical about its attribution (and its accuracy). I don't expect people to cite their sources on social media (though it wouldn't hurt...); but, realistically, how does one, in fact, find out who actually said/wrote a particular statement? Is it even possible? (I know there are books of quotes (for every occasion!), but who's to say that those were documented properly to begin with?)

In the book Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution, one of author Derrick Jensen's epigraphs is thus: "If they give you lined paper, write the other way." He follows it up with this "attribution": "(I don't know who first said this. It might have beeen [sic] Ray Bradbury, William Carlos Williams, e.e cummings, or Juan Ramón Jiménez.)" I commend him for covering his bases: He lists all the options that come up if you google the quote. (Also, if you google it, there's a version which comes up as "ruled paper" instead of "lined paper.")

Then, there's the current flurry of Facebook activity around the Morgan Freeman statement (regarding the Sandy Hook tragedy), which apparently he didn't say. Or...did he? What if the hoax alert is a hoax? And maybe it matters, and maybe it doesn't. I'm certainly not going to believe something or agree with something just because a celebrity says it anyway.

These are the thoughts that keep me up at night.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Think About How You Know What You Know

I've never taken a creative writing class.

Still, I consider myself a writer. A poet. A creative writer. If you ask me what I write, I'll probably say, "Poetry, mostly. Some prose...when I have time."

Don't get me wrong: I've taken plenty of writing courses. I have a degree in technical/professional communications; and I could probably write any number of informal essays, critical essays, or research papers in my sleep (although they probably wouldn't be very good...). I even make a little extra money from freelance technical writing...yet I tend to call myself a creative writer first. A poet.

And I've never taken a creative writing class.

This fact had never dawned on me until yesterday. This weekend I attended a writing festival at a nearby university. I go to writing festivals not just to learn new writing techniques, but also to get inspired and rejuvenated--to get the creative juices flowing. (Between work, grad school, and my on-the-side technical writing, my creative juices have all but dried up in the last few months.) It had been more than a month since I signed up for the workshops I would take this weekend, so it was kind of like opening a present when I checked in at Registration on Friday afternoon and received my personalized itinerary. Ah, yes. Not surprisingly, I had chosen a couple of poetry workshops--specifically, ones to help generate new ideas. But I also had chosen a workshop with the title "Creative Approaches to Teaching Grammar" and one called "The Overlap: Teaching Creative Writing and Developmental English."

As expected, I found inspiration from the poetry workshops and even wrote a couple of (still rough) new poems, but the two aforementioned workshops also proved delightfully beneficial for me--energizing me with information that I can use for a school project I will be working on intensely this week (since I have time off for the Thanksgiving holiday...and since I've been procrastinating way too much for the last two months...). I learned about a teaching strategy called RAFT, which lends itself nicely to my school project; and I learned about the fascinating similarities between teaching a creative writing class and teaching a developmental English class, both subjects that I am drawn to. (Literacy, in particular, is a subject I am passionate about; and my school project is about integrating reading and writing into teaching across the curriculum in order to develop fluent readers, writers, and critical thinkers.)

As I sat in the Creative Writing/Developmental English workshop, the realization that I had never taken a creative writing class hit me. I wondered: So, how did I learn creative writing? Why do I (or, even, how can I) consider myself a poet/a creative writer when my formal education has all been on the other side of the writing spectrum?

I started writing as soon as I was able to form sentence fragments (who are we kidding? I was five--I'm sure there were just as many fragments as sentences). At six, I declared I would be a writer. My first published "story" was a pleasant little number about how my dog threw up every time we took him for a ride in the car. I was in first grade, and my teacher "caught" me writing and asked if she could submit the piece to our elementary school "journal" (xeroxed pages stapled together, the desktop publishing of the early '80s). I went home and spent the evening revising and editing (I probably wrote three drafts!), thrilled out of my mind, adrenaline pumping. I can still feel the rush I felt, sitting at the dining room table, reading my piece over and over to my parents to make sure it was just right.

And I never stopped writing. I still have all the notebooks I filled throughout elementary school and junior high, story after story, unfinished novel after unfinished novel, splatterings of poetry. Since my early twenties, I've immersed myself in writing communities, have attended various writing festivals/workshops, have read about writing extensively; and now I, more or less, rightly or wrongly, consider myself to have a strong creative writing base of knowledge.

I've become a writer because I've written. I picked up tidbits along the way; I've learned from other writers. Apparently, I've learned by "doing" (proving John Dewey's theory?). One similarity (among several) between a student in a creative writing class and a student in Developmental English is that both will only improve their writing by writing. Good writing, bad writing, grammatically incorrect writing--it doesn't matter. Everyone has to start somewhere, and students learning to write--no matter what their interest or skill level--must write.

I was surprised to realize that I had never taken a formal creative writing class, the kind where the teacher grades you; but, in many ways, I sort of have--I've just stretched it out over many years (and will continue to stretch it out, as knowledge and improvement do not have an end point...), and I've done it a little more unconventionally than some (as I tend to do many things).

I think I'll give myself a B+.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Think About [insert trite catch-phrase here]

This post is a mini-rant based not on political or religious leanings but, instead, on humanist logic. Everyone has a different meaning to attach to the phrase "family values," based on his or her own experiences. Thus, it is, more or less, a meaningless term. No one is going to sway me to believe a certain ideology based on the term.

Here is something that has long bothered me: People throwing the term "family values" around as an argument against same-sex marriage. I am not gay, but I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to pledge an official commitment to another person. And that's what marriage is about: Commitment.

What desecrates the sanctity of marriage is not same-sex marriage; what desecrates the sanctity of marriage is divorce. Don't get me wrong--there are definitely some legitimate reasons for divorce: abuse, for one. But I believe that the reason most people get divorced is because they should not have gotten married in the first place.

To be sure, my own childhood and upbringing were ideal in many ways, and this has certainly influenced my opinion. My parents are still married (46 years so far...), and they provided a loving, secure, and stable life for my siblings and me. It is that loving, secure, stable environment that I would want my future family to have, too. While it is certainly true that my views are shaped by my experience, I believe that same-sex couples can offer that same loving, secure, and stable environment to their families. Again, it comes down to commitment. If commitment is being honored, then marriage's virtue is safe.

Assuming I get married some day, I intend it to be for life. That is what that...that...(that horrible phrase)...means to me.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Think About Measuring Standards of Knowledge

I recently read an interesting article called "The SAT and the Assault on Literature" by David Ruenzel. The author--both a parent and a teacher--opines that, while preparing for the SAT, students stop reading books that are unrelated to schoolwork and unrelated to studying for the exam. Essentially, they stop reading for pleasure. His assertion is backed up with his experience. Without agreeing or disagreeing, I might take it a step further: Perhaps it's the whole atmosphere of the American education system--which has become what I would call a "testing nation"--that is creating the assault on literature (and reading and writing).

I took the SAT because I had to. I didn't know--and didn't really care--what it was supposed to say about me or about my intelligence. In the long run, it probably didn't say much; and whatever it did/didn't say doesn't matter anymore anyway (if it ever did). In high school, I knew kids who studied for the SAT, and I knew kids who fretted about it. But I didn't do either. At least, I don't remember studying for it. Perhaps I did the weekend before or, half-heartedly, for the month before, but I don't remember it being a focal point in my life. I know I never attended any SAT prep courses. But, when all was said and done, I did well on it. A decent score. Nothing out-of-this-world-great, but I did better than several of the people I knew who had taken the prep courses and/or studied intensely for months. So, does that measure my knowledge? My problem-solving skills? My aptitude? Or, does it just say that I was lazy and could have done really well had I put any effort into it? Does it take into account that I was in mostly all honors courses, spending hours a night on homework, juggling several extracurricular activities--drama, band, and soccer--and that, for me, studying for another test seemed pretty pointless at the time?

If you study just to take a test, what are you really learning? This is how I feel about the standardized tests that many teachers are required to teach to. "Teaching to the test" does not--in a lot of cases--help the student learn how to think critically or read closely. It is my understanding, though, that the SAT now has an essay component to it. This could be progress; I don't know enough about what the essay part entails to form an opinion, but certainly it measures at least a little more than how well you can fill in a little bubble with your #2 pencil. Because, the thing is, essays are a lot harder to study for: You really have to know the most cases. (I actually B.S.'d my way through a number of essay exams in high school, getting "A"s and "B"s when, in reality, I had very little idea of what I was talking about. But perhaps writing B.S. skillfully is a measure of aptitude, too?)

Generally speaking, though, essays require, at the very least, the ability to be able to form words, sentences, and thoughts. And, to me, being able to communicate effectively (and correctly) is crucial to a person's success (whether the rest of society thinks so or not).

The one test I did care very much about in high school was the AP English exam my senior year. David Ruenzel asserted in his article that the SAT ruins literature for students? Well, our small class (6 or 8 of us) spent the year preparing for the AP exam by dissecting every inch of every piece of literature we read. It didn't kill literature for me; on the contrary, it made me appreciate it even more. (I'm not sure, though, if anyone else who was in the class would agree with me, so Ruenzel might have a point.) We had to read carefully and with understanding, and we had to think critically about what we read. We had to be able to carry over everything we'd studied all year--all those poems, all those stories, all those novels--to the exam and be able to write coherent essays, backing up every thesis statement with proof and, then, backing up our proof with proof.

To me, there's a big difference between an essay exam and a filling-in-a-bubble test. When you're required to take information and pose it into an essay, you need to have some grasp--no matter how weak--of the subject matter (even if all you're going to do is B.S. your way through it). I remember what I learned in my AP class, and perhaps I never want to read The Great Gatsby again (including both high school and college, I had to read it for three different classes), but I did very well on the AP exam; furthermore, very few college (including grad school) classes I've taken have ever matched that class in difficulty.

I don't have any least, not any that can be neatly filled in with a #2 pencil. I can assert that essay exams are better than the standard standardized tests, and I'm sure I could find enough articles and books to back up my claim. But, ultimately, what does it mean?

We still have students graduating from high school who can barely read and write. What they need is not necessarily a way to be tested and measured; what they need is a way to be taught. Does it really matter where we rank, how we compare to other students, teachers, schools? Yes, I'm sure it does, but maybe it shouldn't be the focus. And...if a student fills in all the bubbles of a standardized test correctly but cannot write an essay, how is that student's aptitude measured?

Yes, there needs to be a way to assess students. But should the focus be on what they know or on what they don't know?

If you have any further interest in this subject, I'd recommend checking out Rethinking Schools' blog.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Think About Challenging the Status Quo

There's something to be said for tradition--it holds a feeling of comfort, of knowing what to expect; additionally, some traditions have specific purposes and special meanings. Tradition exudes stability and reliability. These are good qualities.

One might say the same thing about the status quo.

The saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," comes to mind. It's certainly not a bad motto, if applied to an appropriate situation. There's a TV commercial, though, that states (this may or may not be a paraphrase...) "if no one had ever questioned the status quo, the Earth would still be flat." While I couldn't tell you the product being advertised (I think it's a car...), that sentence sticks with me constantly, its bitty wisdom knocking at my brain. (I'm guessing that this was probably not the intent of the marketers.) 

How often do you question a tradition? How often do you question the status quo?

How often do you ask "Why?" Do you accept that which is, simply because it's always been that way? Because it's safe?

I read Andrea Batista Schlesinger's book, The Death of Why?: The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy, last fall, and it got me thinking. It spurred me on a mission. I want to combat illiteracy, and I want to rouse the critical thinking skills that sit dormant in safe minds. I have ideas; I have thoughts. Mine is not a safe mind: I question. For instance, I wonder why there are so many high school graduates who cannot write a coherent paragraph, let alone an essay. I wonder why and I wonder how that happened. When my grandmother was in high school, she learned more than most people know even after they've graduated from college nowadays. She knew Shakespeare. Silas Marner. Latin. German. And her grammar was impeccable. I have many of her old grammar and literature books--notes written in the margins--and I'm in awe of the knowledge she possessed. Even in her 80s, she could still recite poems she had learned nearly 70 years earlier. She questioned. She thought critically. I know she did those things because they are evident in those notes in the margins of her old high school books.

I had a number of teachers throughout my primary and secondary education who started the first day of class with this statement: "There's no such thing as a dumb question." (In actuality, I think what they really meant was that there is such a thing as a dumb question but that they wouldn't judge our questions openly.) It seemed standard practice to me. I learned to question; I learned to ask why. And when people approach me with, "This is a dumb question, but...", I tell them the same thing. Because even if it is a "dumb" question (which I've certainly asked plenty of in my life), questioning should be rewarded (especially in young people). In her book, Schlesinger's cause is to create educated citizens--people who understand that they have a civic responsibility to question policies and laws. People have a responsibility to question the so-called status quo. People have a responsibility to ask questions.

The questions can start simple--questions about traditions, about society's expectations, about what one sees on TV, reads on the internet, or hears on the radio. For instance, why do people create New Year's resolutions that they'll inevitably break? Every January bookstores prominently display self-help books, weight loss books, and healthy cooking cookbooks. Why don't people just resolve daily to strive to be a better person? Why do they have to wait until January?

Why do people give chocolates and/or flowers on Valentine's Day? Is it because society tells them they should? Is it because they're putty in scheming marketers' hands? Is it not enough to tell someone you love him/her? Is it not enough to show that person your love and respect with some other kind gesture...and not in the way that society dictates you do it?

Do you question why you follow the latest fashions, buy the newest gadgets, or shop at certain stores?

Critical thinking skills are on the decline. Many people rely too much on what they read on the internet--without questioning, without fact-checking. There is so much information available. Retrieving it, though, is not the same as interpreting it. If people don't interpret, analyze, and assess what they read (or hear or see), what will happen with the future of the world? What is already happening? Schlesinger writes, ". . .having access to an infinite amount of information is meaningless. What matters is how we use the information that we happen upon, seek out, and are taught" (72-3). How do we (as a society) use this information?

Questions beget curiosity. Curiosity begets creativity. Creativity is essential for coming up with possible solutions. "[W]e need. . .people to do more than vote and buy and click; we need them to question the systems that govern their lives. . ." (Schlesinger 153). Assuming that the world was flat wasn't harming anything or anyone, but look what we've learned since then.

Knowing an answer does not give a person intrinsic power, but asking the questions that can lead you there might.

Work Cited
Schlesinger, Andrea Batista. The Death of Why?: The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009. Print.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Think About Social Media

I was a reluctant neophyte to the social networking scene.

I like to consider myself a non-conformist, but so do a lot of other people, which effectively defeats the point. It's just another label, anyway, and I'd prefer not to place a label on myself. I'm just me.

Generally speaking, though, if the proverbial "everybody" is doing something or seeing a certain movie, I refuse to. I don't necessarily think everyone else has poor taste, but I want to form my own opinions and do or see something based on its merit, not its popularity. I've too often been disappointed when I've seen movies that multiple people told me I just "had" to see.

There are exceptions, of course. I had refused to see Forrest Gump for a long time because "everybody" kept raving about it. I've always enjoyed Tom Hanks, though, and I also have a lot of respect for my parents' taste in movies. When they told me that I'd like the movie, I trusted them. They were right; I loved it. (Incidentally, I prefer not to see movies that have been adapted from books, unless I've read the book first. In this particular case, though, I read Forrest Gump after I saw the movie. The book, though, is so different from the movie that it neither affected my view of the movie nor tainted my enjoyment of the book.)

So, before I joined Facebook, I mulled it over for months, with this singular thought running through my head: Am I being duped into joining? As silly as it seems now, I was so afraid that I was giving up something of myself. Like my dignity or my self-respect.

Joining Twitter was easier. In my research of that medium, I read a number of articles about how essential Twitter is for a writer. Sure, you can connect with other writers/publishers/editors on Facebook, but certainly not in the same way you can on Twitter.

As with most ideas, I like to take into consideration the views of someone "external" whom I respect, someone who carries weight as a kind of mentor. Yesterday I watched a short video clip of author Margaret Atwood expressing her views of social media. She offers an interesting perspective, as she sees social media as just an "extension of the diary" and as nothing different from anything we as a society were already doing, like sending letters to people. She even compares a tweet to a telegram. I found her point of view fascinating. She is, especially, an enthusiast of Twitter and actually sees it as a chance to boost literacy. I must acknowledge that what she says makes sense. Much more than on Facebook, "tweeps" (Twitter peeps) read and share articles and information, regularly exercising their minds and entering into discussions. (I realize that this is not the main purpose of Facebook, so this is not meant as a negative comment. I know that each form of social media has its own motivation.)

While I realize many of the merits of Facebook, I'm still hesitant. One part of me wants to ask, "Why do so many people want to share all the personal and often mundane details of their lives with the world?" But, the other part of me answers, "You idiot, that's exactly what YOU'RE doing." Touché.

When I first joined, I checked Facebook religiously. It's addictive--you sit on pins and needles waiting for people to post what they're going to eat for their 3 o'clock snack, how long it took them to shower that morning, and whether or not they've recovered from yesterday's root canal.

For me, it quickly lost its luster, though, largely because of the poor grammar, punctuation, and spelling I kept witnessing (In case you didn't know, my nickname in both high school and college was the "Grammar Nazi." Dude, I take this stuff seriously!) It doesn't bother me as much on Twitter because when you only have 140 characters to work with, you have to give a person some slack. Same goes for texting.

What really inspired this particular post on social media, though, was an online discussion in one of my classes (Teaching Literature). After muddling through 50 pages of a chapter on literary theory, I learned that literary theory, by definition, might not really exist. And, what about literature? How is it defined? As much as I love literature, you'd think that this would have been something I'd thought a lot about. I hadn't. My answer (in (very small) part) was: "Like Justice Potter Stewart on the definition of pornography, I say about literature: I know it when I see it."

So, how does this apply to social media? Any learning, in my opinion, in order to carry weight, has to have some relevance (personal relevance, political relevance, social relevance, whatever, as long as it has relevance for the student). When we teach literature, perhaps we need to start with a prompt (intuition-based or not) and see what a particular piece means to a large scope of people. If relevance is what we need to get at, we need a broad (and diverse) scope of people to look at it. To this point, maybe social media/forums are the best ways to teach (and learn) literature. You get a wide variety of responses under the guise of anonymity. You reach outside of the classroom. Isn't that the fad nowadays anyway? (And I'm not using fad as necessarily a negative term here.) Learning doesn't (and can't) take place in a vacuum.

So, my now-definitive conclusion about social media is that it is, in no uncertain terms, good for something besides displaying one's poor grammar and lack of proofreading skills: it's good for prompting discussions about "real" things in the the social implications of literature!

Perhaps this is precisely what Margaret Atwood was getting at.

And that's all I have to say about that.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Think About Courage

It's hard to say good-bye. Even to an abstraction of time, such as a year. What does it really mean to say that 2011 is over and 2012 has begun?

I'm not one for New Year's resolutions. I don't need to wait until the beginning of a new year to try to better myself. For me, it's a daily process, a weekly process, a forever process. As it happens, though, 2011 was a tough year for me for a number of reasons, and the unpleasant whirlwind began in January. Consequently, for most of the year, I struggled to center myself again and it seems that the end of December is when I started to find some sort of balance, or, at the very least, some kind of peace for myself. It's not solidified yet, but these things rarely are. So, despite my aversion to New Year's resolutions, it seems that as the new year has begun, I am also beginning again.

Still, it's hard to say good-bye to a year that seemingly passed me by, as I merely went through the motions much of the time...just trying to get through each day. In my haze I often forgot to be thankful for all of the positive elements and people in my life, of which there are many; and I'm remembering to be thankful now.

I see, in my memory, a collage of the many new friends I met this past year--smart, creative, unique people whom I'm fortunate to have crossed paths with. These new friends (along with my other already "established" friends...and family, too, of course) mean more to me than they probably even realize. (It's also amazing, by the way, how some small words of encouragement from people you've never met--but feel like you know anyway, merely because you're experiencing (or have experienced) similar situations--can make such a difference. My Twitter friends--you know who you are--I thank you as well.)

And here's something I've learned: it takes courage to heal; it takes courage to live your life the way you want to live it, the way you need to live it.

In October I signed up for a Grand Canyon hiking adventure trip for the week between Christmas and New Year's. I couldn't easily afford it, but I knew I needed to do it, so I dipped into my savings. I needed to start the new year in a different way, in a way that would help me shake off the pain and sorrow of 2011. But signing up for a trip three months in advance is different than the looming reality of it when it's two weeks away. By mid-December, I was nervous. Taking a trip with a bunch of people I didn't know? What was I thinking?

But I had also started reading a book called Only Pack What You Can Carry: My Path to Inner Strength, Confidence, and True Self-Knowledge by Janice Booth. Although it may sound like it, it's not a self-help book (I don't read those, on principle). Published by National Geographic, this book is part memoir, part adventure story, part geography lesson, and part history class. Booth, a travel writer, writes about her adventures as she combats her fears and finds the courage to be an active participant in her own life.

Booth refers to courage as a muscle that gets strengthened with use. As a teenager I made a rule to myself not to avoid activities that I really wanted to do just because the prospect seemed scary. Shy and awkward back then [as now...], I convinced a friend to audition for the junior high play with me. I landed a part. I had always loved acting but, at the same time, I was terrified. Of what? Of being judged by my peers? Probably, but after I got the part, that supposed judgment didn't even matter. My courage muscle became stronger.

Once you do something that's somewhat frightening, the next time it is not so intimidating. I acted in plays throughout high school; it was as natural to me as breathing. When I went out for roller derby a couple years ago, I was petrified. I loved it, though: the fast-pace, the danger, the intense workouts. I'm not dissuaded by physically demanding exercise: if you can do roller derby, you can do anything!

After spending this past year just trying to keep up with the day-to-day, my courage muscle needed strengthened again. My trip to the Grand Canyon (just over a week ago) was amazing, possibly the perfect antidote. Five million people visit the Grand Canyon each year, and less than one percent make it down to the bottom (a smaller amount actually hike down, since some ride the mules), and now I am one of that small percentage of people who have hiked down to the bottom and back up again.

And I'm ready to do it again.

My courage muscle is flexed; bring on the next adventure!