Archive for February, 2016

I write the following as the personal opinion of a citizen.

I’m very conscientious about not criticizing things in my profession. However, my wife asked me about something today that suddenly made me realize that I needed to say something. I realized that I needed to speak as a citizen, parent, and educator about something that everyone knows, but that so many with the ability to change things have ignored. Testing is killing teaching. Testing is killing creativity. Testing is killing a love of learning. Yet, sadly, testing isn’t going anywhere.

My wife asked me if I knew about some sort of international recognition day that had to do with creativity. To be honest, it wasn’t something that would have been likely to come up in my middle school class. It sounded like something that would have been used in younger grades. However, after she asked me, I realized how little creativity I have been making use of in my class over the past several years. It isn’t that my class is intentionally unimaginative. What has become the problem is that the results of the high-stakes testing towards the end of the year has come to be so important that creating lessons that don’t conform to what is likely to be on the tests hurts my students, my school, and myself. When your student’s ability to take part in certain classes, or your school’s reputation, or your own income or job security are based largely on the results of a single test, you don’t dare to try and do anything outside of the realm of specifications for that test. This results in almost robotic adherence to exactly what you see on practice test questions or the precise words of the standards. The wiggle room is gone.

There are lots of political footballs and buzzwords that have dealt with this topic. Sometimes the number of tests are attacked. Other times, people try to blame new sets of standards like Common Core. Still others say that teachers are spoiled or lazy and just don’t want to be held accountable in their job. The truth is that none of these are the true problem. Cutting down on how many tests or practice tests is certainly useful, but it doesn’t get rid of the end-all be-all importance placed on the test results. Common Core isn’t to blame. Teachers have always had to teach from a set of standards, and those standards have never been able to please everyone. After fifteen years in the profession, I can say that any true teacher that I have worked with has never complained about true, reliable accountability for their work. That brings us back to the weight placed on testing and the changes that it has brought to the classroom.

At this point, some of you may be asking what you can do about it. Well, there have been a few things that I have seen that are counterproductive. If you are a parent, trying to “opt out” of testing won’t change things. In many places it isn’t an option and it doesn’t send the right message to the people that can actually change things. If you are a teacher, trying to publicly point out the problems with testing won’t work either. It just looks like employees complaining about their job. The difference can be made by showing that we care long before the tests are put on the desks of the student.

We must get involved early. It starts with elections. Teachers and administrators do not make the tests or give them the weight that they do. Elected and appointed officials are the ones that make the difference. Some of this is done at the national level, but most of the decisions come from the local and state level. Study, get involved, and vote intelligently. After election day, stay involved. Standards, bills involving education, and even the textbooks used in the schools are all open to public discussion. Get involved in those discussions. Something that has happened with educators, parents, and even officials is that they don’t point out the problems with a situation until after it has already been discussed, voted on, and approved. The old horse is already out of the barn when we try to close the gate.

I want to start being creative in my assignments again. I want my students to start being able to use their inherent creativity to enjoy learning more. I want the students to stop feeling the crushing stress that becomes a normal part of their day in the spring. I know that I’m not alone in this. We must act intelligently to bring a love of learning back into the schools and into our students’ lives.

A while back, I found some soaking wet socks in my son’s bathroom. A few days later, I found six soaking wet socks hidden in his bedroom. I asked him what was going on. “I had a dream once about a monster attacking people. I’ve been showering in my socks so that I can throw them at him to chase him off.”

Of course, my response to this was, “Son, you are ruining your socks because of an imaginary situation that is never going to happen.” At least, that was what I said out loud. In my mind, I was thinking How can I possibly incorporate this into my next book?

On any given day, my cat goes also-freaking-lutely insane. For no apparent reason, she will run sprints all throughout the house. She seems to be attacking bugs that no one else can see. She howls late at night at nothing. She figures out precisely where you intend to sit and decides that is the very place that she intends to nap. I suppose that it shouldn’t surprise me that my son loves the cat almost to the point of obsession.

The thing about both of these individuals, my son and the cat, is that they live a lot of their lives in their own imaginations. It’s something that can make each day very difficult for those around them as people that don’t live in their worlds try to figure out what is going on. However, for my son and the cat, it is a perfectly equitable arrangement, and why shouldn’t it be? They might live in their own worlds, but everyone there knows them. The imagination is where they find peace, joy, excitement, and whatever else they are seeking at the moment. Who should deny that?

The truth is that I tend to benefit from it as well. Of course I work to make certain that my son can interact and function in the world. That is my job as his father. However, he as well as the cat, remind me how to make use of my own imagination. They help remind me how to find some of the more simple joys in life that cannot be discovered on a television screen or computer monitor. As a teacher, he reminds me of the youth that I interact with daily, even if that youth left me (chronologically) a while ago. As a writer, he brings me to a place in my imagination that helps me to create the universes needed for a good story to be told.

If you are a writer, or someone that just needs a smile, consider things from the point of view of a child, or even look at the world as a cat. If neither are an option, then think of the last time that you wanted to say, “What the crap was that?” You would be amazed at the direction that this can lead you in.

I remember trying to start my first novel when I was younger. It was unbelievably overwhelming. Coming up with a story idea was easy. Trying to come up with all of the characters, setting up the universe in which the story takes place, giving background, and all of the other details just seemed like more than I could handle at the time. If this seems to be your situation, I have an idea for something that can get you started on your road to developing your skills as a writer. That’s this week’s vlog topic.

 

Today is Valentines Day. A day when many are enjoying expressions of the love of their significant other, or they are expressing their feeling for someone that they have long desired. Of course, there are also those that dread this day and see it as nothing more than a reminder that they are single. Most amusing among these people are the husbands that have failed to buy a Valentines Day gift for their wife. I remember watching a sitcom back in the 90’s where men were fighting tooth and nail to get their hands on the last card and box of chocolates in the store. It was pretty funny. Well, I have a confession to make. I haven’t bought a Valentines Gift for my wife in several year. I’m still alive and still married. Imagine that!

Now don’t misunderstand me. I have always been big on Valentines Day. I used to get roses or other flowers for all of my female friends in high school because I didn’t think that any lady should be without a flower on Valentines Day. Yes, I gave my girlfriend more than I gave my friends. I tried to be creative every Valentines. This continued into my marriage. I was always trying to come up with something unforgettable each year. It started to become a rather expensive and stressful endeavor, especially since my wife felt the need to try and match my creativity. Then one year, and I don’t quite remember when that was, we both started asking ourselves, “Why?”

It would be easy to start thinking that the romance has gone out of my marriage. After all, I have been married now for over fifteen years, we are parents, both of us work full time, and Netflix and chill for us actually means that we watch Netflix and relax. Add in the fact that we don’t get each other Valentine’s Day gifts and it’s easy to think that we are just going through the motions. However, you have to take a look at the other 364 days in the year to see that this isn’t true. I never miss the chance to tell her that I love her. We snuggle together on the couch every night. We are constantly holding hands. One of the reasons that we have stopped getting each other gifts (we often do not give Christmas gifts to each other either) is so that we can save money to go on trips as a family and have fun together in new ways. I can honestly say that I haven’t missed the Valentine’s gifts. I recognize the love that is there for me every day.

Now, if you happen to be someone that enjoys Valentine’s Day, be my guest. I’m not trying to rain on your parade. Have a great time. However, if you chose not to give a gift this year, make certain that you have expressed your love every other day this year. What better Valentine’s gift could anyone ever hope to get?

Persistence can be an absolute necessity for all steps of writing. Where does it come in and why is it important? That is my message in this week’s vlog.

A character from one of my favorite shows once said, “We’ve done the impossible, and that makes us mighty!” Some of the most enjoyable stories and movies that we ever experience deal with a character that is overcoming major challenges. There is something uplifting about cheering on the underdog. Maybe it gives us a feeling of accomplishment to see that someone else can achieve what seems impossible. Of course, cheering on the underdog and being the underdog are two very different things. Do you get that feeling of accomplishment when you are the one having to face the challenges, or do you get a feeling of dread at what might happen if you can’t overcome the odds?

Most of my writing centers around fish-out-of-water, underutilized and disrespected characters. The usually don’t recognize their own potential until they reach some new height, be it on purpose or on accident. Either way, the achieve what would have seemed impossible just a chapter before. I actually smile as I write, revise, or re-read some of those characters accomplishments. It can provide a sense of divine justice. The person most deserving receives the rewards. How can you not love that?

Of course, reality is a lot different from fiction. Many of us face challenges every day. Maybe it is a child whose behavior is slow to change. Maybe it is a job that is trying your patience. Maybe it is the difficulty of getting your finances in order. Maybe it is something as simple as the weather not cooperating with what you have planned. These are usually the challenges that don’t make it into books, movies, or television shows. For all of the obsession that people have with reality television, it rarely deals with true reality. When was the last time that there was a show that followed one of its characters for two hours while they tried to figure out why their checkbook won’t balance? How about an episode that centers on trying to figure out how you are going to get supper cooked, your child tucked in, your take-home work finished, and still have time to watch the show that you have been waiting all week for? Even Seinfeld, the show that famously claimed to be about nothing, never focused on the every day challenges that most people face. Why not?

My theory as to why we don’t see shows, movies, or books that deal with these everyday challenges is because we all already have to. These challenges can stretch us to our limits. We don’t want to see them again because we will either be reminded of how difficult it had been to take care of, or we will see a different approach that we had not considered and be angry because it is too late to change it. This is one of the reasons that I don’t watch reality television. I watch television to get away from reality. I’m sure that most people would agree that they read or watch television and movies to try and forget about the challenges that they feel may have cursed their days.

Of course, in the end, are these daily challenges really curses or blessings in disguise? Well, I would venture to say that they are both. The challenges stretch us to our limits physically, mentally, and emotionally. It’s easy to see that as a curse. However, they also keep us moving forward in our lives, accomplishing the tasks necessary to be the people that we need to be for those that depend on us. That makes them a blessing in disguise. Of course, that disguise is so well done, that we hardly ever see it. That is why we seek out the underdog stories. They motivate us to keep pushing forward in the hopes that we, too, will do the impossible. So, you keep pushing your way through that daily grind (as will I), and I’ll try to help provide that underdog motivation to keep us going. I figure that combining those two things will go a long way towards making us mighty!

I had the pleasure of getting to be there when my best friends became parents recently. I have watched over the last few days as the things that they think are important have changed. It is a great lesson in life as well as a great lesson for writing. Watch my vlog to see why.