Friday, February 25, 2011

Who do we really write for?

So, I just passed the one year mark on getting the news from my literary agent that all of the publishing houses where she submitted my YA paranormal/suspense manuscript said, "No thanks."  I remember the call vividly.  I was watching my son try out for Little League in the middle school gymnasium.

His tryout was going about as well as my phone call.

Of the ten houses where the manuscript was sent, only two even replied back.  Little Brown was the most gracious, sending a detailed critique.

My agent remained upbeat, even while I sat there like a puddle of goo watching my son take grounders on the wood floor.  We'll just rewrite and resubmit, she said.  It's a normal part of the process. Don't give up.

She was right, of course.  But I couldn't help but feel like one of those kids trying out for a baseball team.  Three years and still the answer was, No.  So, I clicked off the cell and resolved to make the changes necessary to get published.

Therein lies the rub.  What changes does one make to ensure publication?  What's the balance between an author's satisfaction with a piece of work and the acquisition committee in some board room collectively nodding its head that my words will leap off the page and hit the right demographic?

My agent had a few people read the manuscript and give me feedback.  The problem was, those individuals took me in very different directions.  One critique was a 45 minute phone call with suggestions ranging from making my adult characters carry some secret sin to the protagonist's mother having an affair with the town sheriff. At one point during the call, I wondered if this person had even read my novel.

The story had become muddled in my mind, characters walking in circles, listlessly waiting for me to give them a new direction, a new life.  It wasn't long before I became as listless and aimless as them, hence the one year anniversary of rewriting the book.  So, now I would estimate that I'm 75% through the manuscript.  Some days the words flow out, others, it feels like concrete hitting the page.  But my characters are responding, making new decisions, taking new chances, and there are even some new faces born.

In the end, I went with my gut, and traveled back to the one paragraph critique sent by Little Brown as a starting point.  The advice from the editor made the most sense to me.

But it was my wife, Beth, who really set me straight:  It's your story, just tell it the way you want to tell it.

Words to write by.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Despised on a Grecian Urn

If my sophomore English students could lay hands on some clay, fire up a kiln, and forever capture their enmity for me at this moment, I would probably be depicted on the side of an urn plastered with a large target on my chest, Greek soldiers armed with sharp spears bearing down upon me.

"I hate you," one student said, half joking, half not, as I moved about the room monitoring the small groups as they annotated the John Keats poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn.  The room grew quiet, some uncomfortable laughter emerged, all eyes peeled on me for some response.

Another student chimed in, "C'mon Mr. A., that's probably not the first time you've heard that." More laughter followed by a chorus of "ooooh's" and "aaaahhh's."

True that.

But in my heart, I could feel their pain.  After all, I was asking them to think for themselves, and at nine o'clock in the morning.

They were stripped of Google, SparkNotes, Facebook, I-Pods blaring in their ears.  They were forced to talk to each other, to converse, to think, to wrestle with words....and initially, most of them felt it was an impossible task.  But as the minutes ticked away, conversations about the poem hummed along, pens found paper, questions flew around the room, and in the end, the kids felt good about their accomplishment.

Who woulda thunk it?

A recent NPR report focusing on a new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, focuses on the steady decline of students' high order thinking skills at the college level.  One suggestion asserted by the co-author of the book, Richard Arum, is the lack of academic rigor.  According to the NPR report, Arum asserts that professors are more interested in receiving favorable student evaluation reviews by students, than slamming them with a hefty term paper.  It seems popularity transcends raising the bar.

Interesting thought when one scans the high school landscape.

Rigor is a word thrown around at my school, but I'm not sure the current academic atmosphere is conducive for raising the bar.  I don't think it has much to do with a teacher fearing his or her popularity, but there are other contributing factors.

Here's a quick list:

#1-  The school culture says it's the teacher's fault. The message from on high is that it's the teacher's responsibility if the student is struggling.  We will leave no child behind, every student will have a success plan in place, pass the CAPT to graduate, etc., and the teacher will ensure that this happens. To a degree, I suppose this is true, because we are responsible for teaching, assessing, reflecting, etc., but it also seems as though less accountability is placed on the student to rise above expectations, grab that educational brass ring and run with it.  Students seem to want to complete the bare minimum and expect to receive top grades for it. 

#2-   Shrinking budgets.  Raise your hand if you still have an enrichment program at your high school.  Anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?  Bueller?

#3. Soaring class size.  And I'm not just talking about a student's waistline (see Michelle Obama leads fight to make kids healthy as they melt into the couch whilst playing X-Box).  Hard to assign those hefty term papers when you've got 120 of them to grade.  Studies show that narrative feedback and conferencing are the best methods of improving student writing, but with student class loads spiraling upward, it tends to curtail such practice.

Essentially, schools are stuck in the "tread water" mode.  With the economy in such a dismal state, school districts are slashing budgets resulting in fewer teachers, resources, and programs.  It's hard to build up academic rigor when schools can barely meet basic needs.  Pretty dismal outlook, eh?

My solution has been to close the classroom door and design lessons that work within the classroom, without the expectation of outside completion when it comes to the higher order thinking part.  This seems to run counter-intuitive because we strive to create lifelong learners, but when kids can Google a scholar's interpretation of a poem, they tend to cut and paste, blindly accepting what the "expert" states.  It's much easier than thinking on their own.

I try to emphasize the analytical skills, the importance of rhetoric, pose the questions, stress the value of thinking and questioning ideas.  Hopefully, some of it will take hold, and if they hate me for it, I guess I can live with that.