Mind Your Business!

Day before yesterday, at the zoo, where I had taken my wife and two sons, I turned to a man—about my size though perhaps a touch older but definitely less round in the middle—and told him—sternly, aggressively—to mind his own business.

 

When the man just sort of stared back, I stood, having theretofore been seated on a bench, the man likewise on the next bench over, and, standing, I told him again.

 

The previous evening, I had given my wife a draft of a story that I had been working on and that I had just finished (or at least had just finished drafting). The story’s protagonist is named Bob Sanders, and I’ve used Bob Sanders as the protagonist in two other stories. Bob Sanders is sort of a version of myself. Just sort of.

 

The story takes place at Disneyland (and we just so happen to be going to Disneyland in two weeks), and early in the story Bob—along with his wife, Linda, and son, Bobby Jr.—is kicked out of Disneyland when Bob gets into a row with another man at Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. Twelve years later, Bob—now along with his wife and three sons (one teenager, two toddlers) plus his aunt—is kicked out again for a row at the Disney Jr. live show.

 

In the first row, violence is threatened. In the second, the story’s climax, it is enacted.

 

Said climax gets going like this:

 

The man behind Bob and Little Stevie and Just Teddy loud-whispered to his wife, “This. Is. Ridiculous.” It was hard to hear what the puppets were saying over Just Teddy’s screaming and gasping. The woman loud-whispered back to her husband, “Maybe he should take him outside.” Then the man touched Bob on the shoulder and loud-loud-whispered, to Bob, “Maybe you should take him outside.”

 

Bob immediately turned back to the man and said, “Mind your business.” Bob had just known that that man or that woman were going to say something, and he had been all ready to tell him or her or them to just mind their business.

 

After telling the man to mind his business, Bob stared at the man, longer than before. The man stared back, then looked over Bob at the puppets.

 

Then it escalates from there.

 

While reading the story, my wife, Liz, said: “I like that he’s you but so much worse.” Which is kind of the point.

 

But she also said, “I’m so nervous for his wife.” In fact, the story and its disastrous events made Liz so nervous about our upcoming trip to Disneyland that she had to put it down for a while.

 

At which point I reiterated, as I have had to do before, that Bob is not me. That they are not us. That it’s all made up. It’s fiction.

 

Then came the zoo, the following morning, where Liz looked up from monitoring a five-year-old and a two-year-old on the playground structure to see her husband standing, looming over another man and loudly (though I don’t remember saying it loudly though it was loud enough for Liz to hear across the screaming-kid-populated playground) telling the man to mind his own business.

 

Here’s what the man had done:

 

So there were all these kids and mostly they were going down the slide and before I go any further let me say that this guy was sort of this Oh I’m so much cooler than everyone else ever and I’m a grown man who wears board shorts to the zoo and uses hair gel so anyway for whatever reason this guy is like making these like scoffing noises clearly directed at all the not-as-cool other parents including at Liz and then at one point Sam our two-year-old stops at the top of the slide and holds up the line and this girl who turns out to be his daughter is behind Sam and this guy does his scoff sound again (the best way to describe this sound is that it’s the sound that the popular jock who actually hates himself makes throughout the preview of the school play that his teacher brought his class to) and then the guy mutters Just go and by the way the muttering-tone of this grown man in board shorts is that of a twelve-year-old girl and Sam ends up not going down the slide and Liz like has to go up and get him and then the guy’s daughter goes and that’s when it started to get weird because this girl goes down the slide and says something to the effect of Didja see, Daddy? and then this guy just announces to who-knows-who “I don’t micromanage that crap” and then a minute later the girl is up there again and shouts something like Watch me, Daddy! and then the guy says “You know the drill; I don’t micromanage that shit” the implication obviously being that the rest of us not-in-board-shorts parents were un-cool micromanagers. It helps if when you’re imagining all of this, if you are, the guy is sort of slouched down on the bench, with his legs spread as wide as humanly possible.

 

And then another dad waited for and caught his toddler at the bottom of the slide, and the scoffer scoffed again and teenage-girl-muttered Just let him go. And I’d heard enough from this jackass. And I turned to him and told him—sternly, aggressively—to mind his own business. And when he just stared back, I stood up and told him again.

 

Was I cognizant of the fact that I had turned to a man and had said the exact same thing that in the lead-up to a violent and climactic fictional moment was also said by Bob Sanders, who I had the night before insisted to my nervous wife was fictional and not representative at all of my own behavior, or potential behavior?

 

No. Not at all. Liz had done exactly the right thing in reacting to the aforementioned image of my looming and had grabbed both of our children for a quick exit.

 

As I followed her off the playground, claiming that it was all fine because the guy didn’t do anything, he just sat there and looked away, I didn’t picture myself as Bob Sanders. A hybrid of Captain Call and Madison Bumgarner, rather, forcing everyone by threat of violence to behave themselves.

 

Liz had to explain the obvious later, in the car.

 

She didn’t get mad, though, about any of it. Which is perhaps more than I deserve.

After the Dam by Amy Hassinger

Last night, I finished reading Amy Hassinger’s novel, After the Dam. It was delightful. Everyone who can read should read it.

It is the story of Rachel Clayborne, who in the first chapter loads herself and her baby in the car and drives all night to her grandmother’s farm—without mentioning it to her husband.

It is also the story of a dam—a dam that, when built, submerged an entire town and that generations later is under pressure and in danger of failing. This dam is a symbol of and a parallel to the novel’s protagonist, whose current life as a wife and mother has submerged a previous life, and who is under similar pressure and in similar danger.

Amy Hassinger is a friend and one of my former teachers. I worked with her during my final semester in the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s low residency MFA program. She was an instrumental hand in the late stages of what would become my first novel.

Amy is an attentive teacher and, as After the Dam demonstrates, an attentive writer. The novel’s structure makes it near-impossible to put down. In somewhat-Morrison-style, Hassinger employs shifts in time and perspective (at all the right moments) to apply tension yet delay its release. Also in Morrison-style, the novel is built of memories—the memories of several characters—memories held up like a dam against the oncoming flood.

CATE Conference 2017: Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature

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Two Fridays ago (February 17th),  Liz and I attended the California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) Conference in Santa Monica, CA, where we led a workshop on creating critical thinkers through the study of literature.

We had a group of 25-30 English teachers from around the state, all of whom were very nice and very engaged (and a bunch of them bought our book, which was super nice).

[We also had a really really great time! And we would have stayed the whole weekend but, you know…babysitters and kids and all that {thanks, by the way, to Liz’s mom, Ellen, for watching our kids}. And we really really want to thank the people behind the CATE Conference for having us! It was great! Thank you!]

The workshop was based on our book, Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature, and began with the rationale for using quality literature to meet the common core standards (and that common core in the English classroom does not mean more informational texts and less imaginative literature). Our premise is that by building units around quality works of fiction, drama, poetry, and creative nonfiction, you can meet all of the common core literacy standards (including the informational text standards).

We then moved on to an activity for introducing close reading (or critical reading) in the classroom. The purpose of the activity (which can be found in Chapter 2 of Method to the Madness) is to help students…

…recognize and identify significant choices made by an author

…analyze and evaluate the effects of those choices (that’s the “So what?”)

…use the appropriate academic language (literary terms) when discussing those choices

…prepare a text for analysis by annotating it.

The activity also helps students recognize that literary terms work together–specifically, in this case, diction and imagery combine to create a particular mood, or atmosphere.

Our next activity was centered on a short story by George Saunders (whose first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, was recently released). The story is titled “Sticks”. It’s just a two-paragraph story, but there’s a lot packed into those two paragraphs. The story was included in Saunders’ 2013 collection, Tenth of December, but “Sticks” is actually an older story that was first published in 1995.

Here’s a picture of Liz reading the story in the workshop:

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Liz and I have been using “Sticks” in the classroom for about a decade. It’s a great teaching tool precisely because it is so short while being so meaty.

For the workshop, we read the story aloud and then put the participants into groups of four. The groups had five minutes to annotate the story and identify as many literary techniques and devices as they could (they were also given a list of these).

At the end of the five minutes, each group was given a piece of poster paper, on which they were instructed to write a statement about the story. The statement had to make a declarative claim and also had to incorporate at least one literary term.

Each group then shared their statement and supported it using specific evidence from their annotated story.

After the workshop, we had a short autograph session, and we got to browse around the exhibition hall for a while (and also pick up swag).

At the KQED booth, we got a selfie stick (I never thought I would ever own a selfie stick) plus a free tutorial on how to use said selfie stick.

Here’re two photos, one demonstrating my selfie abilities pre-stick, and one post-stick (and post-stick tutorial [hey, I just realized: sticks is a motif in this blog post]):

We were supposed to then post the picture on the right on social media with the hashtag on that card. But we’re getting old, and it was already a big day.

Teaching Native Son by Richard Wright (Part One)

[This post was originally published here, on the website for Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature.]

For the past two years, I have had the pleasure of teaching Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, to high school seniors.

I did not choose this book. I “inherited” the senior IB English classes from an excellent, veteran, and now retired teacher (and good friend), Susan Halseth. I also inherited from Susan her reading list, and teaching the books with which she filled her syllabus, Native Son included, has been a delight.

The intent of this post is simply to share some of the strategies and lessons I’ve used the past couple of years to teach Wright’s novel.

PUTTING NATIVE SON IN CONTEXT

With any novel, a good place to begin is helping students place the book in its larger context (where and when).

With Native Son, I start with something rather informal. I write the years 1919, 1929, 1939, and 1945 on the board, spaced out a bit. Then, maybe in a different color, I add in, chronologically, the year 1940, labeling it as the year that Native Son was published. Then, in pairs or groups, students identify and discuss the significant historical events that surround the novel (respectively: the end of WWI, the beginning of the Great Depression, the beginning of WWII, and the end of WWII).

This is a great way to help students make connections between the literature they are reading in their English classes and the content they have learned in their past or current History classes.

GROUP RESEARCH PRESENTATIONS

After this initial discussion of the novel’s context, we move on to something more formal.

Students are divided into groups, and each group is assigned one of the following research topics (each of which includes subtopics):

The Red Scare (in U.S., first and second)

            -Communism

            -Marxism

South Side Chicago

            -Segregation/ghettos/housing policies

            -Hyde Park

The Great Migration

            -The Black Belt

            -The Harlem Renaissance

NAACP

            -origins

            -NAACP in the 1930’s

Scottsboro Boys

            -who were they and what happened to them

            -similar cases or incidents

Richard Wright

            -literary career

            -ties to Communism

Naturalism (literary movement)

-origins

            -characteristics

            -major authors

Each of these topics will help a student reading Native Son to better understand the novel, and each group will spend a day or two (or three) researching their assigned topic and preparing a 10ish minute presentation to the class.

[Note: my students use Google Slides when preparing presentations. Here are some benefits of that: 1) All group members can be working on the same presentation file simultaneously, so everyone has “something to do.” 2) Students don’t need a subscription to Microsoft Office to work on the PowerPoint at home; they just need the internet, and there’s a smartphone app available for free. 3) When the group presents, I’m not seeing the presentation for the first time; I have been able (because the presentation was shared to me) to “check in” on the progress of the presentation as it was being developed, and I’ve been able to give feedback while the students were working on it. 4) No more, “I forgot my flash drive; can I present tomorrow?”—it’s all in the cloud.]

As each group is conducting their research and preparing their presentation, it may be necessary to give the group researching naturalism a bit of extra guidance and support, as it can be a complex topic. For an accessible definition of naturalism, see the quiz below.

Another group that may require extra attention is the group of students researching housing policies in South Side Chicago. This will be a key topic when it comes to helping students understand the naturalist view of Bigger’s character and his actions. In fact, in the third section of the novel, Bigger’s defense lawyer, Boris Max, makes an argument that housing policy is in part responsible for Bigger’s situation.

South Side Chicago in the 1930’s was segregated, but it was not segregated because of explicit segregation policies; rather, segregation was the result of housing policies such as redlining and contract selling—policies that were in place in many American cities and the effects of which are apparent today.

In fact, the city that I and my students live in was redlined, and students have access to a map (from the website of data artist Josh Begley) that shows the housing zones in Stockton at the time in which Native Son is set:

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These maps allow students to make a personal and authentic connection to the novel, as many of them live in or around the redlined areas, and they have first hand experience of the effects of those policies today.

ORAL PRESENTATION RUBRIC

Below is the rubric that I use to score the student presentations (which they are given beforehand). It is a version of the rubric that I use for all such presentations. I made it a few years ago, and it was specifically designed to eliminate things that bothered me about student presentations, such as…

…students going up to present without any idea how they will begin or how they will end.

…the sense that the group copied down information they don’t understand and now are asking the audience to do the same.

…the sense that one or two students did all of the work and then gave the other students slides or cards to read.

…students reading slides instead of talking to the audience.

…the sense that some students, while presenting, are seeing (or reading) these slides for the first time.

Another thing that I like about this rubric is that it requires students to practice citing sources parenthetically and correctly formatting a works-cited page.

oral-presentation-rubric

After the presentations, during which students take copious notes (we use Cornell Notes) and are encouraged to ask questions, the class is given the following open-notes quiz:

NATIVE SON CONTEXT PRESENTATIONS QUIZ

Richard Wright was a naturalist writer.  Naturalist fiction explores the effect of external forces—particularly a person’s environment—on a character’s psychology.

As a result, characters in naturalist fiction often feel a lack of control as a result of their environment.

Discuss the extent to which external environmental forces are driving the actions of Bigger Thomas.  Refer to as many of the following factors as possible in your response:

  • South Side Chicago
    • Segregation/ghettos/housing policies
    • Hyde Park
  • The Red Scare
    • Communism
    • Marxism
  • The Great Migration
    • The Black Belt
    • The Harlem Renaissance
  • NAACP
  • Scottsboro Boys
  • Richard Wright’s own life experiences

In the next post on teaching Native Son, we’ll focus on the effect of Wright’s choices regarding point of view and on themes and motifs in the novel.

Testimonials from Workshop on Teaching Literature in High School Classrooms

On January 9th, we (Liz and I) led a workshop at the University of the Pacific in Stockton on creating critical thinkers through the study of literature.

 

The workshop was based on our book, and focused on the following:

 

  • The rationale for using quality literature (fiction, poetry, drama, and literary nonfiction) in the middle and high school English classroom.

 

  • Strategies and activities for introducing and implementing close reading, using George Saunders’ short story “Sticks” and the lyrics of Billie Holliday’s “Gloomy Sunday” as examples.

 

  • Increasing the quantity and quality of rigorous student writing.

 

We will be conducting a similar workshop at the 2017 CATE (California Assoc. of Teachers of English) Conference, February 17-19 in Santa Clara, CA.

 

The following are some testimonials from our wonderful participants:

 

“Very engaging! I wish more teachers would attend! As an administrator, it is enlightening to see solutions to bringing critical thinking to the classroom through literature.”

 

“So many great things in this workshop. I want to try everything TOMORROW!!! Thank you so much!”

 

“Extremely informative and useful. I found and will implement at least three strategies (close reading, on-demand writing) that I will use right away. Thank you!”

 

“This information needs to be shared with our curriculum director!”

 

“Thank you for all of the methods that I can use in the classroom. As a new teacher with no experience, this information is extremely helpful.”

 

“Really effective and simple strategies. As a first year teacher, I would strongly urge my undergraduate peers to check out this presentation and the Method to the Madness book.”

 

“Informative and entertaining, with plenty that will be useful in the classroom.”

 

“Thank you. Workshop went by quickly and had great, engaging, purposeful information.”

 

“We were offered many examples/useful samples of student work and activities. We can use this material in the classroom for planning—especially how to increase writing.”

 

“Y’all are amazing.”

Upcoming Events

Here are a few upcoming events:

On January 9th, Liz and I will be conducting a professional development workshop for middle and high school English teachers.

The workshop is based on our book, Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literatureand will be held at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA (flier below).

The registration form is here.

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Also, Liz and I will be discussing and signing copies of Method to the Madness at Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills, CA as part of their Teacher Appreciation Day on January 19th.

We will be there from 4 to 6 pm, but teachers can receive 20% off any purchase (plus special treats and gifts) all day.

We’d love to see you there!

 

Finally, we will be presenting a workshop at the California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) Convention.

The workshop is titled “Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature” and will take place at 9:45 on February 17th (the first day of the conference).

http://cateweb.org/convention/cate-2017/

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Married Couple Abandons Parenting for 3 Months to Write Book

Potential headlines for this story:

Married couple writes book.

 Married couple writes book in only 3 months.

 Married couple abandons parenting for 3 months to write book (ultimate winner).

Married couple surprised by how little they come to hate one another while writing book in only 3 months.

Married couple, as side effect of co-writing book in 3 months, becomes those people at Starbucks with all their computers and cords and stuff and about whom you wonder Don’t they have a home?

Parents of infant and toddler who placed ad in search of parents found at local Starbucks, indexing.

 

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post titled, Things that Have Happened Since the Last Time I Posted on My Blog, in which I singled out five things:

Thing #1: I quit blogging.

Thing #2: I had a second kid.

Thing #3: I (we) took first kid and second kid to Disneyland. Twice.

Thing #4: I wrote a book with my wife.

Things #5: I was informed I have high cholesterol.

 

In that last post, I went into more detail about Thing #1 and Thing #2. This is Part 2 of that post and will be about Thing #4, skipping Thing #3 for the time being, just because.

 

Thing #4: I wrote a book with my wife

A full explanation of the book’s intent and the impetus behind it is explained here.

So we (Liz and I) had this idea for a book. We’re both high school English teachers, and it’s a book about teaching high school English.

The idea started out as a book about teaching Slaughterhouse Five, the idea later expanding to a book about teaching Slaughterhouse Five as well as half-a-dozen other books we like to teach.

We batted it around for six months or so, getting serious enough from time to time to draft some chapters and eventually reaching the point at which we began to think about the possibility of submitting it, at which point we learned about book proposals.

So we spent (spent should be precisely defined here as referring to no more than ten to fifteen minutes every few days scratched [into? out of?] an at-home schedule dominated by parenting and grading and Netflix) the next six piecing together a book proposal, which included a query letter and an overview and an annotated table of contents and market research (I say included market research not actually knowing by any degree what market research is and therefore whether or not what we did is it but anyway we analyzed who/what our market is and other books for which the market is the same and how our book was/was not similar and etc.) and a sample chapter.

We sent the proposal out to a handful of education publishers, from which we received rejections, some of which were non-form and encouraging, before finally hearing from a very nice acquisitions editor at Rowman and Littlefield named Sarah (in fact, R&L had been suggested to us by one of our previous non-form and encouraging rejecters).

Sarah asked for some additional materials and some revisions to the sample chapter and then needed to take the proposal to the editorial board. A few days later, she wrote back with an acceptance. We were delighted.

Here’s the said-sarcastically-fun part. Sarah’s acceptance came on July 23rd of 2015. In the same email, Sarah expressed that it would be an advantage for the book—though it would not yet be published—to have an ISBN number and be promotable at the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conference that November, and for that reason Sarah wanted to know if we could submit to her the final manuscript by early September (this would later be extended to the first of October).

Now, at that point (July 23rd), we had the sample chapter and a couple of other very rough and incomplete chapters, all amounting to less than fifty pages.

We also, at that point, had a nearly-three-year-old and a nearly-three-month-old, as well as full-time jobs: me teaching and Liz at home with the kids, Liz having taken leave from that upcoming school year. I also had a part-time teaching job some evenings and Liz also was working on her Master’s degree.

But I had this memory from grad school of one of the faculty members, a novelist who also wrote screenplays, giving the advice, said advice delivered within an anecdote about a screenplay, that the answer is always, Yes! Like, for example, if “they” ask you if you happen to have any stories/manuscripts/screenplays/whatever about bla bla bla, you always answer Yes, and then go write a story/manuscript/screenplay/whatever about bla bla bla, and it was with this anecdote with its embedded advice that I convinced Liz that despite the apparent impossibility of pulling it off we should just say Yes!

So we did.

For the several months that would later follow the book’s release, when people would ask something along the lines of How’d you do it, I would repeatedly give the same jokey answer: “We just quit parenting for 3 months and did it.”

But we didn’t really quit parenting or abandon our children–Liz in fact clutched our three-month-old and declared that we could not let this affect our time with the kids–though we did for a time parent them less.

We wrote early in the morning. We wrote at night after bedtime. And for a rather large chunk of each of about twelve consecutive Sundays we got a babysitter and went to our local Starbucks.

 

Things you notice when you spend 10 or more hours per month at your local Starbucks:

  • Much like Walmart, people will wear almost anything to Starbucks.
  • In any span of several hours at the local Starbucks, a lot of people come and a lot of people go, but the four or five people who remain through all of those hours are pretty much the same four or five people who are also there week after week.
  • If you are one of those four or five people, location is everything, and the ideal location depends upon your purpose. For some, it’s those comfy chairs. For us, it was a balance of table space and access to a power outlet.
  • Though you may not start out there, if you stay at the local Starbucks long enough and if you’re willing to repeatedly pack up all of your stuff and move, you will eventually get your ideal spot.
  • If there are two of you, and you each have a laptop and papers and books, you may very likely need to initially split up, but you will eventually (see above) reunite.
  • Starbucks food seems wholesome and even kind of high-end. And you get the impression that they (Starbucks) don’t even really see it as food people would regularly eat, like at McDonald’s, but food people get to go with their coffee or food people need because they’re starving after waiting in line so long for coffee. It seems more like premium food.

But it’s not. In reality, it’s food taken out of a plastic package and put in a microwave, which is what you get when you eat at a gas station (which I happen to know a lot about), except at the gas station you do the microwaving yourself, and when you eat enough re-heated Chicken Artichoke on Ancient Grain Flatbreads, they just start to taste like gas station food.

My first book took three years to write. All the same things happened with this book—frantic drafting with the recurrent thought that nothing that I am typing right now can ever be in a book in fact it’s so awful it can never ever be seen by anyone ever; never-ending laborious revisions such that one reads the same chapters and the same pages and the same paragraphs and sentences over and over and over again; that feeling that when this is over I never want to read or see or even think about this book ever ever again in fact I’m never going to do anything difficult with my free time again just Netflix and ice cream from now on. All the same stuff, just this time crammed into 3 months.

But it all worked out. We finished. On time. And the people we need to thank are: Sarah; our babysitter, Lizzie; our two readers, Susan and Ellen. And of course our kids, for getting along without us for a while.