Monday, October 31, 2011

We do much more than teach

Midterms are here and it occurs to me that as a teacher, I do so much more than teach my students. Yes, teaching comprises the bulk of my time and effort with my students, but I also play other roles in their lives. Lately I have had to confront students about poor effort and late work. I feel almost like a drill sergeant, urging them to work harder, step to it, get the essay handed in, one, two, three. In this role I am not compassionate, but I'm tough. If you do not get this work done, you will not pass the class.

Another role I play is one of counselor. My students have myriad issues and often their circumstances prevent them from achieving success in school. Many of my students are parents, many work, and some have difficult family situations they are dealing with. For these students I need to listen, show compassion, and care for them, while not altogether abandoning my role as teacher. One of my students emailed me today; her babysitter could not come and she already has two absences. What should she do? Thankfully, I teach another section of Comp 1, so I encouraged her to attend that class if possible, and avoid racking up another absence. Problem solved.

Then there is the comedienne. After all the serious work, sometimes we teachers need to lighten up the class a bit with some humor. Nothing soothes a tired, stressed out student (or teacher) like a little laughter.

Drill sergeant, counselor, comedienne = teacher.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Survey - read an online book or a physical book?

Here is the question. Would you rather read a book online, or read a physical book? Please reply in the comment section to let me know what you think. I have my preference, which most of you reading this probably can guess, but I'd rather not reveal all until I have the results of this informal online poll.

My son Ben is reading Great Expectations for his 8th grade honors English course. The teacher has put a link online and asked all the students to read the book online. If you have ever read Dickens, you know that he writes very long, complex books with dozens of characters. Personally, I enjoy Dickens very much, but he is not an 'easy read.' There are benefits to reading online. You can search for a name, and see every instance of that name, or go to a specific place where that name is mentioned. There are drawbacks as well. Yesterday I walked to the library to check out Great Expectations. Oops - there goes my bias.

I'll reveal the results of the survey in my next blog.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Creating characters

One of the best parts of writing fiction is the freedom to create characters. In the case of historical fiction, certain restraints limit what an author can do. What is known about a person cannot be altered, I believe, but within the framework of what is known, there is still a lot of freedom to flesh out the person, to breathe life into her or him, to make them real. In my case, Joanna Vassa was a real person. Visiting her gravesite was a moving experience for me. Since I've been writing about her for about 5 years, she is real to me, but even characters I have made up have become real to me. Joanna lived. She married. She loved. She lost. She died. I hope, through inspiration and prayer, I am creating veracity as I imbue her with life on the pages of my book. As you read other works of historical fiction, think about what the author had to work with, and how they created a character, not out of nothing, but out of something.

Then there are the fully imagined, fictional characters. I have come to love and admire my main characters, but some of the minor characters, who were not even in my original outline, have really brought a smile to my face, and sometimes I laugh out loud as I'm writing their lines -- the novel is dialogue-heavy. Near the end of the book, you have to read almost to the end to find him, is Abner. He says what he thinks. There are no filters, no barriers, no judging whether something would be appropriate or not. Abner is a shoeless, illiterate 10-year-old boy, with freckles sprinkled across his face, a single mom, an abusive dad, and two little sisters. He says whatever he thinks. For instance, he asks Joanna "Why're ye brown?" Or, when asked about his pa, he tells Joanna his pa died, and adds, "He weren't such a nice person no'ow. He liked the drink."

Kids tell the truth. And then, at some point, they learn to think about what they're saying, and how it might affect others. They learn to dissemble, and they learn to lie. When they are small, and they ask out loud "why is that woman so fat?" we tend to try to shut them up. We want them to be honest, but not that honest! And then, much later in life, we tend to re-embrace that honesty kept to ourselves for most of our lives. Have you noticed how older folks feel the freedom to say what they want, and are not as cautious about how it will affect others? The best characters are so lifelike because they remind of us real people. That's the art, the challenge in creating characters.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Don't disparage the sparrows

I like birds. I feed and watch the birds in my yard, I go birdwatching -- by myself, or with my son Ben -- and I go on birdwatching walks led by experts. A few weeks ago I went kayaking with a friend and we saw a yellow crowned night heron and a great blue heron, up close and personal. They are big, beautiful birds, and though not rare, not entirely common either.

So I just put some bird seed down in my backyard, and within minutes a common house sparrow landed and began to eat. My dad used to feed the birds in our backyard growing up, and he would coo at them and talk to them. The scrub jays came right up and took peanuts out of his hand. He treated each one with tenderness. So when this sparrow landed in my yard I thought, don't disparage the sparrows. It's so easy to disregard common one -- birds, even people. In the city we see hurting people all around us; it's common. And it becomes easy to disregard them. I pray that I will not disparage the commonplace - whether they be birds or people. May I instead, notice the common ones and thank God for them.