Monday, January 19, 2015

Station Eleven - a Review (With Spoilers!)

Warning: plot spoilers ahead...

It's funny. Sometimes, the films and books I enjoy the most are the ones that I initially approached with hesitancy or ambivalence. Having recently finished the second book in a row for our book club that I found merely mildly entertaining, I had no real hopes for Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, which I had not even heard of prior to the suggestion by one of our club members. With no expectations in mind, I skimmed the comments on the back cover and inside flap, but they didn't give much away. Thus, I started reading with almost no information about the book, its author, or even its genre. I knew it was post-apocalyptic, but was it dystopian? Was it similar to Cormac McCarthy's The Road? Would it feature a teen love story as depicted in both The Hunger Games trilogy and the Divergent series? I had several post-apocalyptic stories in mind as I began to read; boy was I surprised to find one that was different!

Typically, authors envision the worst of humanity following a calamity on a scale large enough to restructure governments and whole societies. Rape, murder, cannibalism, slavery systems, and a totalitarian government are often the hallmarks of such narratives. Readers can learn much about human nature by exploring these texts. After all, evidence abounds that parts of both Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World, though different, are simultaneously coming to fruition. Are we being watched by Big Brother? Check. Are our thoughts manipulated by an omnipresent media? Check. Are we distracted from the more serious issues by entertainment? Check. I've always admired SF (science fiction) writers' ability to assess the human condition and shed light on the best and worst of us by placing characters in extreme conditions. In many of the greats, this ability to gauge people results in prophetic views of the future. Not convinced? Research how many inventions and world events Jules Verne envisaged.

The future that Emily St. John Mandel proposes following the effects of a new super-flu in Station Eleven offers a different potential for a post-apocalyptic world (at least in North America). While she provides clear indications of chaos and crime at the outset of the epidemic - when people are the most frightened and desperate - Mandel also reminds readers that people are inherently social. We rely on each other for strength, resources, companionship, and survival. While villains like the Prophet take advantage of the lack of law enforcement, others are willing to do the right thing, to stand up to tyranny, and to help others despite personal risk. Mandel's future is largely optimistic. Characters believe that order and civilization will be restored, and they work to keep civilization alive by sharing music and Shakespeare in the interim. They believe that city lights will once again illuminate the night sky, and meanwhile, they look to the stars.

I would love to think that any community that suddenly discovered itself comprised of survivors of a catastrophic event would band together, divide duties based on skill, find food and shelter for everyone, and set up its own set of governing rules. Anyone who's read Lord of the Flies knows how important these steps are. I would also hope that kindness and compassion were the rule, and not the exception. Both Mandel's Travelling Symphony and her airport residents offer believable models for how collaboration could exist in a ruined world. People get on each other's nerves, sure, but they work together anyway to ensure survival. Isn't this just a microcosm of what we should be doing anyway? However, a carefully selected quote from Star Trek: Voyager (incidentally, another optimistic SF vision in which humanity is explored under conditions of duress) states that "survival is insufficient." I will leave it to fellow readers to explore the complexities and truth in that phrase, both in the context of the novel and without, for it is profoundly true.

Just one more note on Mandel's writing style (I know my blog posts are always too long): It is difficult to weave non-linear bits of storyline together seamlessly in a way that not only makes sense but also adds to the enjoyment and meaning of a text. In Station Eleven, Mandel has done both. I absolutely adore this book, and I look forward to reading it again to pick up the gems I failed to notice during my first read-through. Please share your thoughts on this book below once you've had the opportunity to read or reread it.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Incorporating Writing Workshop Practices in the AP Classroom: The Reality, 6 Months Later

Six months have passed since I had the opportunity to participate in the North Star of Texas National Writing Project’s summer institute. Even while I was still working through that process – researching, practicing, and writing – I knew that it was a life-changing experience. I saw how the chance to write freely, in an atmosphere of mutual respect, resulted in beautiful, rich prose that we often didn't believe ourselves capable of writing. I vowed to incorporate true writing workshop strategies into my classroom so that my students could experience the same feelings of success and camaraderie. More than anything, I wanted them to understand that they are writers. Everyone who writes is a writer. With practice, writers become good or great.

Yesterday, students wrote freely for about 10 minutes. During freewriting, students do not write to a prompt, and the only rule is to keep writing without stopping to edit. What if they can’t think of anything to write? They write something like: “I can’t think of anything to write” or “I can’t believe Mrs. Counts is making me do this.” Then the ideas come. In even my most skeptical students who claim to be incapable of writing, I have never seen one hesitate for more than a few seconds before continuing. At first, even 10 minutes seems like an eternity to students. Hand-cramps are widespread, and since most are used to performing tasks set to rigid standards, most anticipate the announcement to wrap up with eager anticipation. But the more they do this, the more comfortable they feel. They know that the ideas will come – even ideas they didn’t know were there. After writing, I gave students time to go back and read what they had read. In an age of the quick pecking of letters on a bright screen, a reliance on phones to auto-correct, and the rush to post without thought given to revision or editing, students rarely take the time to actually read what they just wrote anymore. Next, I asked students to “make it better.” Revision and editing are technical terms that a lot of students tune out, but they have no problem with casually making it better. Questions came naturally, and peers collaborated with neighbors about word choice, punctuation, and sentence structure without being prompted. I couldn't have asked for more.

Today, my students selected words and phrases from yesterday’s writing that stood out to them and then chose one to inspire a new piece. “You are your own inspiration; how cool is that?” I asked. Students dove into writing quickly, a result of new confidence and interest from the previous day’s successes. After writing and a short period of revision, I gave students the opportunity to share all or part of either day’s piece. I read mine first to model the author’s chair experience, and then I asked for volunteers. Thank goodness there were volunteers! Though in some classes of more reserved students it took a bit longer for someone to muster the courage to step forward, it did happen in each class. And when it did, the results were magical.

Students shared such a variety of beautiful pieces. They ranged from hilarious to thoughtful to angry to really, really sad. Many stories were deeply personal, and the fact that students felt comfortable sharing meant that we have successfully created a safe and supportive classroom culture. Of course, after someone shared an especially touching or well-written piece, someone would inevitably mutter something like “mine’s not that good” or “mine is funny, not serious.” I reminded them that it would be extremely boring if everyone’s writing was the same, and after brief encouragement, another volunteer would prove the point by sharing something different yet strong in its own right. My students blew me away today and proved that they are, in fact, writers. Now, my goal is to help them apply the unique writing voice that they’re developing to other applications such as analytical essays. This is no small feat, but through writing workshop practices, I know we can get there. Six months after completing the NSTWP, I am not only still inspired, but I am also confident that the writing and teaching practices we learned there work in the classroom. 

**I should note that I wrote with my students in each of my 5 English classes. I let them see me struggle to find the best word to convey my intended meaning, and I let them see my happiness when I figured it out. I have seen the difference it makes when I write with them, and I don’t know why any writing teacher would want to miss the opportunity. I also want to properly credit Dorothea Brande, Jeff Anderson, Penny Kittle, Peter Elbow, and the other inspiring educators and writers whose ideas have been studied, practiced, and adopted by writing teachers like me. Several of the ideas listed above can be found in books by these authors.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Of Bumper Stickers and Façades

In the Dallas area, we spend a lot of time in traffic.  It’s a drivers’ city, where destinations are spread out. Thus, we can be found navigating high-fives, wondering if every new highway will be a tollway (and wondering what happened to freeways), and sitting at red lights. As curious as I am about people, I don’t often look at the people seated in the cars around me at stoplights. For some reason, it seems invasive. I don’t know why I feel that way; perhaps it’s because of all the leering men I noted staring back beginning at far too young an age. I simply don’t look, and I don’t like it when people look at me. What’s to see? I’m sitting there, waiting for the light to turn green. Just like everyone else.

I do, however, note everything about the cars around me. I often pass my time taking in the subtle details that tell far more than many people realize. The location and size of dings, which door handles are worn the most, Louisiana plates dated prior to Hurricane Katrina, enough clothes in the back seat to fill a closet, or a pristine car with several coats of wax all tell something about the life of the car’s owner. Some experts (though admittedly I can’t remember which experts) say you can tell how clean someone’s home is by the condition in which they keep their car; some even say that a cluttered car reflects a cluttered mind. That’s what “they” say; I’ll leave my own opinions on that out of this particular post.

Instead, I would like to focus on the fact that people know that their car, to a large degree, reflects who they are. This is why they purchase stick-figure family decals, Jack-in-the-Box antenna balls, and Christmas wreaths for their cars. Perhaps most importantly, an entirely new means of communication was invented prior to WWII to transmit messages from one car owner to another: the bumper sticker. They’re incredibly interesting and genius, if you think about it. Limited by size of sticker and ease of reading a font, a select few words must be chosen carefully to communicate the intended message. Think Twitter messages, only shorter! Some popular choices include names of political candidates, “My Child is an Honor Student at _____”, and 1-800-Baby-Due. In the 1980’s, “Sh*t Happens” was a popular choice. I laughed when that one was immortalized in the fictitious account of its inception in the film Forrest Gump.

I was not laughing the other day, however, when I read a vanity license plate before taking in the other messages on a car that had me rolling my eyes and judging the person in front of me. Have you ever just known that you probably didn’t like someone based on his or her car décor? Be honest. Whatever you hold as your core values, someone is driving around right now with messages that challenge them. What finally irritated me enough to write this post wasn’t a political message, a stance on abortion, or the claim that “My dog is smarter than your honor student.” No, it was something far sillier. A vanity plate read “DIVA69” while the message on the plate-holder exclaimed, “If it don’t make $$$, it ain’t worth it.” As I waited for the relentless red light to turn green, I thought hmmm: this person considers herself a diva. Why would you want to be thought of as a diva? Is it empowering, or is it spoiled? Willing to give the benefit of the doubt on that part, I moved on. “69.” Was that just for shock-value? Really? So middle-school. But wait – I really shouldn’t assume. Maybe this person was born in 1969. Maybe her last name is even “Diva.” Maybe. But what about that license-plate holder? To me, that was a clear message to the world that said, “I’m materialistic. Money matters more than anything to me, perhaps more than people do.” That was when I became pretty sure that this woman and I would probably never be friends. I teach, so I’m obviously about people much more than money. I, too, have a vanity plate, but it’s named after a literary character. We are just different people. As I reminded myself not to judge too harshly, that I don’t know anything about her life, really, and that even if we are vastly different, there is something to learn from everyone, I noted the type of car she was driving. Truly expensive. Okay, I thought. She might have had to fight tooth and nail to get what she has, and she is proud of her accomplishment. As I imagined this fiercely independent woman who rose to the top despite numerous obstacles, the light turned green. It turned out that she needed to turn left but wasn’t in the turn lane. Clearly, she didn’t want to wait in the long left-turn lane and had planned all along to force her way in. So much for not judging. I admit to not taking kindly to people who don’t wait their turn. Life has thrown obstacles in all of our paths, but some of us choose to be nice.

So what would my car say about me, and would it irritate people? As a Star Trek fan, one of my early favorites was “Beam me up, Scotty – there’s no intelligent life down here.” I haven’t seen that one in a while, but I’m sure I could find it online – if I wanted to send that message out about myself. You see, that early favorite does say a lot about me; I was (and still am) part of a nerd culture that embraces science fiction. More specifically, I identify with Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful vision of the future, where all people live in peace on Earth, and the focus is on learning, exploring, and protecting life rather than conquering societies and petty bickering. Hunger, war, and homelessness have been eradicated in that vision, but there is another, darker side to that sticker’s message. “There’s no intelligent life down here” reflects the SF community’s tendency to think itself superior to many other people who just don’t “get it.” As insightful as I deem myself to be, and as much as I strive to learn on a daily basis, I do admit that I still have problems relating to people who just don't "get it” – who don’t want to learn, to improve, to be kind. So while I think that the message I loved as a kid is a bit harsh, three decades later, it still resonates with me more than I’d admit by placing it on my car.

The one identifying feature on my car is its plate. Though named for a literary character who offers protection, support, wisdom, and healing, it shares its name with a historical figure. I’ve had people come up and ask why I have that name – a name associated with rebellion – on my car. This is a clear reminder that we really can’t assume much based on all of these messages, as the reasons behind why people chose them is as complex as the messages themselves.

We shape how people perceive us with what we wear, what we post on social media, our words and body language, our actions, and yes – through bumper stickers. Not privy to our thoughts, others must look at these cues to get to know us. How do we want to be seen? What façades do we have in place? Do our messages match what’s in our hearts and minds? I’d love to read your feedback on what messages you’ve chosen to share with the world, especially via your car. Please respond with a bumper sticker or decal you’ve owned, or just one you see that you find amusing or irritating.

P.S. – More research to consider: “People who opt to exhibit their individuality through these decals may take part in more acts of road rage. Colorado State University social psychologist, William Szlemko, found that aggressive driving is linked to the number of markers a person has on his/her car, regardless of the messages portrayed.” Source: