Reading, Teaching, COVID-19, and Mental Health

While many of my friends made great headway through their TBR stacks during our COVID-19 stay-at-home time, I found it difficult to read for pleasure. My usual reading time is on my commute. Except on rare occasions, I would not do work on the train; rather, I would read a book for pleasure, usually something that I was not even teaching at the time. Staying at home took that time away from me; so, while there is a definite benefit of not traveling an hour to an hour and a half each way to work every day, there is also the loss of that time to sit (or stand) on the train and be transported to another world. A transportation I found refreshing and rejuvenating even in a crowded subway car.

Additionally, there was the transition to working from home. I teach high school English, and my school lost almost no time in the transition from traditional to home-based learning. We dismissed the students after a half-day of classes on Friday, March 13th (so ominous, yet we really had no idea how much so) and proceeded to a faculty meeting to learn how to use Google Meet and other online learning apps. Then we packed up our things expecting to be out of the building for a week or two and headed home. The subway was eerily empty for a Friday at 5pm. Again, we had no idea…

Monday, March 16th dawned a new day in my educational career, and I took it on. I met with each of my classes for an hour and a half once a week (except for AP English Lit which met twice a week), and during those live Meets, I conducted class almost as if we were in the Classroom together. We read stories together, students either volunteering to read a paragraph or two or being called upon when I hadn’t heard from them in a while, and I asked close reading questions both aloud and in writing on the Google Classroom. I tried to keep it as much like our days in the school building as I could. Our daily warm up activities became Classroom assignments during our off days and our Meets were times of close reading and discussion. And it worked.

But. There’s always a “but.” But, most of my students live in busy households with many people trying to work and go to school from home, so most of the time their responses were on the chat or on the Classroom. And, quick, multiple-choice comprehension quiz before discussion became less valid, so more and more of the assignments were writing based. I mean, this is an English class, so many of our assignments were writing based anyway, but now the discussion was too. And class participation became more and more important because I could no longer see who was drifting away from lesson, both figuratively and literally. Most of my students also kept their cameras off, so I was teaching to their avatars. I found that instead of gaining that commuting time to myself, instead it was folded right into my teaching time. I was working longer hours than ever reading their discussion responses and creating lessons for the next day. When two weeks turned into three, into a month, I was recreating the wheel in some cases as I hadn’t brought all my files home with me in March. No one expected then that we would finish out the school year online. It didn’t help matters any that our school servers had been attacked by ransomware earlier in the year. Only now was I realizing what hadn’t been uploaded to Google Drive before that happened.

After a week or two of online teaching, my husband’s job at a local private golf course was suspended. I sequestered myself in the second bedroom of our two-bedroom apartment which had become my classroom and office while he languished in the living room. When I’d emerge, he was more than ready for human interaction. As was I. I love my students, but it was difficult not seeing them nor hearing from them. And some days, I might have only one or no classes, the rest of my time devoted to reading their work and creating new lessons and researching new ways to keep them engaged online. I was more than ready to turn off the computer and spend time with him rather than open a book–or worse because it is another screen, my Kindle. We’d talk, make dinner together, play cards–one very competitive game of Uno went into the wee hours of the morning. And this was good.

Until it wasn’t. I’m not talking about the time with my husband–that was still great, but I was spending too much of my day on schoolwork and not enough on taking care of myself. I was so worried about how my kids were doing that I didn’t stop to think how I was doing. (See my guest post on Norton’s K-12Talk blog about my solution.) So when a friend recommended a book to me, A Discovery of Witches, I decided to download it from the library and give it a go. It seemed right up my alley: witches, vampires, and the Bodleian library in Oxford. Right away I was drawn into the story. I still didn’t take as much time as I should have to just read, almost forgetting how rejuvenating it is to the mind, but I was starting.

Then, the loan ran out and I had to wait for the renewal, but I did. And I renewed again and again till I finished. And I’m glad I did. It is an excellent adventure of witches, vampires, and daemons, and academia, and love, and loving the “right” kind of person. It’s well worth the time. I’m looking forward (with some trepidation thanks to a hint near the end of the book) to volume two. But what I’ve learned through all this is something I’ve innately known, but, having never vocalized it, perhaps didn’t realize soon enough.

Reading is an important part of one’s mental health. I tend to favor fiction, but it doesn’t have to be, though I think perhaps we’ll leave out current events here. Reading allows your mind to take you somewhere else, to set you on experiences you may never have, and to experience dangerous things safely. It is not something to do half-heartedly; to read something, you need to give it your focus and–here’s the mental health angle–let go of your concerns for the time being. Your subconscious mind can keep picking at that knot, but you give your conscious mind a break, and as a result, your anxiety is lifted, maybe before you even knew you had some. And while you may never be a witch or a vampire, your mind still absorbs the way the characters–in this case, for example, different species in an uneasy, deeply suspicious, and ill-informed detente–interact and eventually learn from and about each other, and adds that to your experience of human interaction. The wider our reading, the more open our minds are to the experiences of others. Think about that in this time of racial unrest.

Many people look on reading as frivolous or selfish, but it’s not. It’s as necessary to a healthy mind as exercise is to the body. And to those who say they “don’t like to read,” I say, you just haven’t found the right book yet. Drop your guard, open your mind, and read. You won’t regret it.

Go Bananas

As many of you know, I am often telling my students about the importance of proofreading. Sometimes when we do not proofread, we convey things we did not mean. Sometimes what we write ends up being nonsense at best and downright wrong at worst. Sometimes we end up expressing the exact opposite of what we mean. And if that happens in a way that many people see it, it can be quite embarrasing.

The photo above is being circulated on Facebook. It brings me joy on a couple of levels as well as chagrin. First, it is just funny; the way people goofed on the network’s mistake is clever and humorous. Second, it reinforces what I’ve been saying ad naseum to certain students (you know who you are ;-). In this stressful time of the pandemic, it is wonderful when we find something that makes us laugh. And I did laugh at this one.

But, of course, it also causes a feeling of chagrin. Here is a very public mistake. This person’s job is to create these graphics for the news. S/he should know to proofread carefully and how important it is to his/her job. Writing bananas instead of bandanas changes the meaning to absurdity and makes the network look unprofessional.

Let’s do one more turn though. It’s a mistake, yes, and a very public one. But we don’t know if errors such as this are regularly occurring or if this is an anomaly. Everyone makes mistakes once in a while; that’s being human. It is unfortunate for this person that the mistake is so public, but that’s all it is, and it does not really put anyone at risk. Surely no one really thinks a banana is a good face covering. If the mistakes are frequent, well, that’s another story that the network itself has to address, but let’s assume that this is a one off. Remember too that we are in the midst of a pandemic and that this person may be working from home for the first time. Imagine this: the program for the remote workspace is new; the person writing up the graphics is sitting at a counter in the kitchen; his/her children, let’s say they are 5 and 7, are sitting at the table nearby, coloring; one looks up and says, “Mom/Dad, can I have a banana?” Boom. Viral mistake. I’m actually laughing again picturing this. It’s so plausible. So today, instead of chagrin and blame, I’m going to enjoy the malapropism (look it up-it’s a good word) and smile.

Now I think I’ll go for a walk. Let me grab my banana.

Salvaging a Failed Lesson (Guest blog post on Norton’s K-12 Talk)

Here’s a link to my second guest blog post on Norton’s K-12 Talk blog. In this one I discuss an online lesson that failed due to both a tech glitch and lack of student engagement and how to make the time together still worthwhile. Enjoy.

TV Show Review: Nancy Drew

With COVID 19 dominating the news and changing our lives, I haven’t had the time or inspiration to write. Transitioning to teaching online hasn’t so much been hard as it has been time consuming. But as I urge my students to write, so must I. Yet naturally with our home-based learning, I am spending much time in front of the computer, so I do not necessarily want to spend more time there after work. When I’m done for the day, I join my husband in the living room, and we watch some news. But then, enough. We need entertainment instead by the end of the day. Yesterday, we finished the first season of Nancy Drew, and entertainment it was.

This is not the Nancy Drew of my childhood. Now she is a high school graduate who has left college and returned to Horseshoe Bay, Maine after her mother dies only to find herself and a few others accused of murdering a socialite in town. They have to work together to clear their names. Horseshoe Bay is a town divided between the wealthy, country-club set and the “townies”, with a twist: there are ghosts. Lucy Sable who was murdered almost twenty years before our story begins, haunts Nancy and others, prompting her to also investigate Lucy’s death.

The show is campy. Horseshoe Bay is dark and rainy most of the time. The Claw, the local diner where Nancy and her friends work, is almost always empty, allowing them to leave it frequently to go off on one clue-chasing jaunt or another. They find long-lost, stolen treasure (and lose it again-to ghosts); they hold a seance to call on the spirit of “dead Lucy,” as Nancy calls her; they explore the seemingly endless supply of abandoned and neglected buildings Horseshoe Bay has to offer; they make wrong accusations and right ones. There are twists and turns I did not see coming, especially the revelation at the season’s finale. In a sense, it’s all a bit ridiculous, and I love it. It was a bit slow at first, but now I’m sorry I have to wait now for the new season to start. If you want to give it a try, you can stream it for free on the CW.

Round and Round and Rondeau We Go

So, last week I told you about my students writing Sestinas and asked what other forms we should try. But no one here or on Twitter offered a suggestion, so I scrolled through some Writer’s Digest posts until I settled on the rondeau. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” is such a masterful example of this form; reading it alone makes the exercise worth it.

But, of course, there’s more. The writing’s the thing. I think my rondeau attempt is better than my Sestina, but it’s not quite where I want it to be yet. I’m having verb tense issues in trying to work the rhyme. In addition, I find that while my students dig deep, I seem to become a bit trite when confined to a rhyme scheme. This is something I want to work on.

However, as it did last week, the exercise warmed up my writing muscles. I followed up my writing session with a stint at a coffee shop with my novel in progress. It’s a good reminder of why we do these exercises and that I should do them even without my students. Just as musicians often begin with scales before going on to their new pieces, so too should writers exercise before composing new work.

So try a rondeau (follow the link here for instructions) or some other form if for no other reason than to warm up your writing muscles. If you like the result, share it here. And if I find a way out of my tense problems, I’ll post the result too. Good luck.

Sestina

Today I offered my creative writing students a challenge: write a Sestina. We briefly went over the “rules” of the form and looked at an example. (link below) Then I set them free. Our time together is short, and I wanted them to get to the writing part of the session as quickly as I could. One of the girls moaned as we began writing, “I don’t even have a topic yet.” But write they did. In fact, they finished before I did! I will not publish my attempt here–and it was simply an attempt, a not-very-successful attempt. The end words are there, but the poem is clunky. Maybe one day I’ll revisit and revise, who knows. For me, that is not the point. Rather, there were two greater victories today.

First and foremost, my students amaze me. Two high school ninth graders and one junior showed up today (this is an after school activity). One of the ninth graders is painfully introverted, yet she lets me read her poetry as long as I promise not to read it aloud to the rest of the girls. And it is powerful. Very powerful. Even within the restrictive form of the Sestina, she finds the vein and goes deep. The other ninth grader prefers to write prose, sci-fi/fantasy to be exact, but she’s game to try new things. She essentially wrote the bones of a fantasy story about a witch banished to the forest by her father who comes to live in harmony and peace with the animals until the villagers go to the forest in fear and kill her. But she did this in Sestina form!!! And it’s really, really good, like I want to find somewhere for her to publish good. I am blown away. I’m encouraging her to perform the poem at our annual Poetry Café at the end of the month.  (I’m still waiting for the junior’s submission as she had to leave early to get to her extra, after school physics class, but I’m sure it will be good. I also expect that she will have broken the rules at some point for effect.)

Secondly, in addition to the inspiration that my students give me, there is the benefit of having stretched my creative muscle. I tried a new form. The result was not too good, but it is finished. (That in and of itself is an accomplishment sometimes!) And I can try again, maybe choosing better words this time or having a clearer idea (dare I say theme?) when I start out. Even though the poem is a bit of a dud, the brain power is not. Words are churning through my mind searching for the right part of the puzzle in which to land. (Hmmmm…might use that line in a poem one day even though the metaphor is mixed. Perhaps break it up into two images…see what I mean?…Hey, I was even inspired to write this blog post!) It is invigorating. It is gray and wet here in NYC today, and the last week before Winter Break. Everyone is dragging. But my writers and I are leaving today with a bit more bounce in our steps and active minds.

Have you written a Sestina? Want to give it a try? Here’s a link to Writer’s Digest‘s Robert Lee Brewer’s blog post from January 17, 2008 about Sestinas. Give it a read and Sestinas a try. If you like the result, share it with us here in the comments or on your own blog (give me a pingback so I know when it goes up!). Or just share your experience. Or perhaps you have a different form to recommend for my students. What should we try next? What is your favorite poetic form?

Happy writing everyone! Keep at it. 🙂

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“What you would seem to be, be really.”

What you would seem to be, be really.Yesterday, I had my students free-write on a saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin in his Poor Richard’s Almanack. They were directed to choose one from a list of twenty-three aphorisms and explain what it means to them, why they chose it, and if they have any experience to which the aphorism applies. Being a free-write, they could address all or only a few of the topics as long as they explained what it means and wrote for ten minutes straight. I wrote alongside them. The one above is my chosen aphorism. I think it speaks to us writers and crafters, especially for the former in this age of Twitter (etc).

So, what does Franklin mean? Don’t just dream it; make it happen. This is the basis of many motivational posters one sees in teacher catalogs and the like, and for good reason. Many of us dream of being something (or someone), but unless we work to make it happen, it remains but a dream or desire.

20170827_004952When it comes to writing (or any kind of creating, more on crafting later), it is easy to go on Twitter and proclaim oneself a writer and join the #WritingCommunity and hashtag #amwriting. We ask each other questions about style, motivation, main characters, setting, etc. And this is all good, to a point. However, if we don’t get off Twitter and actually sit down and write something, we are just seeming, not being, writers. Joining a community is great, but eventually I (and you, each of us separately) have to sit down in my chair alone with my thoughts and wrangle them into some semblance of meaning.

There are days, many days in fact, when this is easy and exhilarating. The words flow and the story or poem or essay falls into place. There are other days, however, when this is hard. The ideas either churn in your brain but resist flowing out through your pen (or keyboard), or they go on vacation altogether, leaving your brain a temporary tumble-weed town. And it’s the memory of those rough days that can make us reticent to sit down again; they seem to stick to us more powerfully than the wonderful days. Sometimes the anticipation of the hard work involved in writing is worse than the experience of it, and so we talk about our writing rather than do it. We seem instead of be.

20170715_232938When it comes to crafting (I told you I’d get to it!), I think perhaps it is even easier to seem rather than be. Maybe this is because the world at large views crocheting, sewing, quilting, knitting, etc. as hobbies rather than professions. Though some can and do make a living from them, most of us, even those of us with Etsy shops, don’t rely on our crafts for income. And we are not expected to. (Of course it is not easy to make a living as a writer either, but it is more accepted and expected.) If I say, “I’m a writer,” then others ask about the product. “What have you written?” If I say, “I’m a crafter,” then others either say very little. “Oh, nice.”

Additionally with crafting, we run the risk of building our stash without building our stock. Being a crafter, it is hard to resist the allure of the fabric store, the craft store, and the like. And once there, it’s nearly impossible to walk out without purchasing something—often many somethings. To justify the cost, we tell ourselves that we’re going to make something for our Etsy stores, but more often than not, we’ve been to the craft store three or four more times before we get around to making one item. And the stash piles grow. All over the web, there are articles, blog posts, and Tweets about them and how to use them. Our stash piles are lovely things, full of possibility. But, unless we make something with them, they profit us little, and may actually oppress us with their untapped potential.

What we write on a given day may need much editing or may need even to be discarded as we start again (this piece itself has undergone several revisions), and what we craft may or may not be a success in either construction or popularity, but we did it. We tried. If we are writers or crafters, or both, let us be them, not just seem so.

Don’t Get Mad, Get Writing

Today I had a conference to go to for work. We met at work and traveled together to the Bronx where our conference day was held. It took about two and a half hours from home to the school. If I had driven, I could have been the in 25 minutes, but there was nowhere to park. But my darling husband offered to pick me up at the end of the day to save me two hours on the way home. And then, he made a little mistake and went to my school instead of the one where I was.

I was mad. Everyone else left on the bus back to Manhattan. I had to sit around for 40 minutes in a large, nearly empty auditorium in a school I didn’t know, in a neighborhood I didn’t know.

And then I glanced at my bag and saw my notebook. Forty minutes later, I was still writing when he called to say he was there and significant strides were made on my story. Time well spent.