Writing is More than Class

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Source.

As I prepared to give my final student teaching presentation, my friend — there for moral support — came up to my cooperating teacher’s desk where I stood fixing the dongle, tapped the wooden sign there that said “I’m silently correcting your grammar,” and whispered, “I hate this.”

I gave her a tight smile, muttering back that it was the worst. We had had previous conversations about how grammar instruction and the mythos of standard English oppressed native languages and dialects, and this knick knack suddenly represented all that was wrong with traditional instruction.

First-Year Composition put this idea into concrete terms: native languages and dialects need to be valued and validated in the educational system, and, when they are not, this is a contribution to the promotion of cultural assimilation (xviii) This is especially important in composition classes where the focus is primarily on how we write and use language.

(SAE is a language of privilege, but that’s a conversation for another day. My friend mentioned in the anecdote, Rachel Wright-Márquez, presented at a conference on Navigating Linguistic Hegemony in the Writing Center: The Mythos of Standard American English and its Implications, and her best practices information can be found here.)

As my undergraduate education was in English education, I have the advantage of entering graduate school with methods, content, and pedagogy courses under my belt, as well as practicum experiences and an entire semester spent student teaching high school freshmen. That said, I know that helping high school students understand Romeo and Juliet will be much different than helping college students understand how to write a rhetorical analysis. This previous teaching experience was very traditional in that the curriculum that needed to be followed was primarily crafted in order to prepare students for NWEA testing, even if that meant emphasizing standard American English (SAE, sometimes referred to as Edited American English).

I had my phase, as have most English majors, where I declared myself to be a “grammar Nazi” (and given our current political climate, I hope even more fervently that this phrase has died out), but as I began running a classroom, I realized that a lot of my students didn’t understand the importance of reading and writing skills beyond school’s emphasis of SAE; the importance of NWEA for their high school careers was not something that mattered to them, and quite a few of my students thought “English was dumb.” They didn’t care whether they were engaging with the ideas we were talking about, as “First Time Up” says this is the “help” students need most (and this is probably the help we should provide most frequently in our classes), but instead just cared about doing the bare minimum to get by (16).
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Source: Pinterest (although here is some basic information about the rhetorical triangle)

My experience with rhetoric and composition as fields of study are limited in comparison to what I feel I know about the field of education; I can whip out phrases like “scaffolding,” “ZPD,” and “pseudo-concepts” like they’re no big deal, but my understanding of tools like the rhetorical triangle is shaky at best (and as such, a lot of my primary questions about composition come down to what define it as a discipline).

The common ground between my educational background and composition, however, comes down to Adler-Kassner and Wardle’s metaconcept that “Writing Is an Activity and a Subject of Study” (4).
This was something a lot of my freshmen didn’t understand — how was writing important outside of helping them to earn a good grade in English 9? They didn’t want to be English majors or authors, and they didn’t revise, just as Teller argued of his students, although I loathe to say something similar to Teller.

As a had a one-on-one moment with a student, praising him for his use of simile in a paragraph response, he seemed stunned that I was proud of him for that, and I tried to use the opportunity as best I could to emphasize that strong writing like that would get him far in life, as writing is something we’re always doing, even if it’s not scholarly writing.

Of course, writing is hard, and many students will always struggle with it, whether that’s because their brains are better wired for math or because English isn’t their first language and they have to write in English as their teachers don’t speak Bulgarian or Spanish or Pushto (three of the languages some of my freshmen spoke). Writing and communication are important outside of the classroom, though, and it is our duty as teachers to help students strengthen these skills.

What’s important and what will always be a concern to me in both teaching and in composition is that students be able to communicate their ideas in ways that are easily understandable but in ways that respect their identities.

This is what I want for my students, whether they’re studying English as a discipline or whether they want to be construction workers or go into the military or be stay-at-home parents. Composition may have started as remediation, but it can be so much more than that.

Sources:

Adler-Kassner, L., & Wardle, E. (2015). Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies (1 edition). Logan: Utah State University Press.

Coxwell-Teague, D., & Lunsford, R. F. (Eds.). (2014). First-Year Composition: From Theory to Practice. Anderson, South Carolina: Parlor Press.

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Shadows Are No Longer Enough: Review of SHADOW WEAVER

I received an eARC of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Ever since Emmeline was a baby, she has had the ability to control shadows—and ever since Emmeline was a baby, she has had Dar. Dar is her only friend, her shadow, the voice that she speaks to when others, including her own parents, are terrified of her ability to shadow craft. Her parents’ fear of their daughter’s ability lead them to accept an offer from a noble family—to take away Emmeline and cure her of her talent. Dar agrees to help Emmeline keep her talent by changing the noble’s mind about taking her away, if Emmeline will help her turn from lost soul to the human she once was when the blood moon comes in just over a week’s time.

She agrees, but the next morning, the nobleman doesn’t wake up—found in a coma—and Emmeline is to blame, as a witness saw a long shadow near his body. Afraid of the punishment she might receive, as the only one capable of doing such a thing, Emmeline runs away with Dar to help her become human again. As Emmeline explores the world beyond her family’s estate and woods for the first time—and makes her first real friends—she begins to wonder if she can trust Dar. Would Dar lie to her? Emmeline is unsure, but she has to figure that out soon as she works towards helping Dar become human—that’s what friends would do, right? Especially for friends who have always been by your side—literally?

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WOW, OKAY. Time to gush, now that the summary is out of the way.
I was super intrigued by the premise of this book when I saw it on Netgalley. The ability to control shadows gave me a Darkling vibe (from the Grisha Trilogy), and I was fascinated to see how that power would play out in a middle grade fantasy setting instead of a young adult fantasy setting. Needless to say, I was quite pleased. Paired with Dar, Emmeline’s narrative voice is strong, as she talks to her throughout the novel, even though the book’s set up was a bit slow. Once Emmeline and Dar ran away (this happens fairly quickly, too), the book really picked up speed, and the world building was impressive for a middle grade novel in how the book handled other people with talents.

What I didn’t expect from this book was a rich exploration of a toxic friendship, but that was what I got. The toxic friendship in the book is clear from its summary, as Emmeline wonders whether or not she can actually trust Dar, and this snowballs throughout the plot, as Emmeline is able to depend less and less on Dar for friendship. This was the most impressive part of the book for me, especially as we see Emmeline’s friendship with Dar juxtaposed with the kindness she receives from a family she meets on the run from the noble’s soldiers.

The sequel seems like it will hinge on the world building that was crafted here, with the talents that some characters have, but this first novel was really about the relationship between Emmeline and Dar and how that worked in combination with the magical elements of the book.

Overall, this was an impressive start to a middle grade duology, and I’m definitely excited to see how Connolly resolves everything! This is a book I wish I’d had in middle school, if only for the message that sometimes friends might not actually be your friends (but also for the fantasy, because I really did love it and think a middle grade audience would love it as well).

Preorder the book from any of these places before it comes out in January: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound

New Dreams

Heart palpitations are not an unfamiliar feeling for me.

I went through my “socially awkward” phase in high school (and certainly into my first few semesters of university, if I’m being honest with myself), but it took me years to realize that, perhaps, at the root of that phase was anxiety.

The word anxious is a double-edged sword. It can refer to perpetual worry, to nervousness, but also to the kind of excitement that sets hearts pounding. My grin is quick to take over my face, my laugh obnoxiously loud, but when it comes to feeling anxious, I more frequently associate myself with the first definition, with the addition of the heart pounding from the latter.

Summer vacation should not be a time of heart palpitations, but for summer vacations following graduation? It certainly is that time.

As an English education major, I always had a response to the question of “What do you want to do?” When I began to doubt that response, to wonder with a sprinting heartbeat whether or not I wanted that response to be my future, I tried to ignore my anxiety.

These feelings are normal, I told myself. Every future teacher has that moment when they question everything and question whether or not they actually want to teach, surely.

If I had trusted those feelings, trusted that those heart palpitations were simply trying to save me from future pain, where would I be? The idea that everything happens for a reason is meant to be comforting, but I live in the realm of what-ifs.

There is no comfort in what-ifsWhat-ifs are infinite and are the number one cause of heart palpitations. I have lived twenty-two years of scientific research devoted to the study of this.

I have vague answers to the “What do you want to do?” question now. Publishing is my buzzword for these ears as I try to settle my heart that has no idea that life isn’t actually a series of one-hundred meter dashes. I am certain this is how my heart views life, at least based on the number of palpitations I count like stars in the sky. Publishing feels like the finish line, like I’m running for the same finish line that everyone wants to reach.

I have never enjoyed running.

There was a time when I thought that this made me quirky. That liking reading more than running made me special, but the last four years of my life have shown me that this is not the case—to assume otherwise is to live a life in ignorance of other people’s intelligences and interests.

I defined myself by books and still do. I define myself by the things I like (and have agonized for weeks over which stickers to buy for my laptop—how many Pokémon stickers is too many? What will Legend of Korra stickers say about me compared to Sailor Moon stickers?), and, recently, I have begun to define myself by what I write.

When I was an English education major (I type “English education major” with the same cadence I spoke this phrase in for years—to be anything but an English education major is living where dragons lie), I could easily define myself. I was a future teacher.

I am no longer a future teacher, at least not as far as I can skip a rock into the future.

(If only I could skip rocks into the future—if only they could return to me with messages from times yet to come. Perhaps these rocks would settle my heart palpitations. Perhaps these rocks would cause new heart palpitations.)

How should I define myself? is the question I currently face. I am a wannabe essayist, an accidental and anxious poet. I am an amateur, self-taught graphic designer.

I am an artist? I am a writer? It feels wrong to call myself these things.

I am a reader of books. I am a defender of Disney princesses. I am a student. Being a student is comfortable—I have lived the life of a student for twenty-two years, in as many guises as being a student comes in. I know how to be a student (the Ravenclaw in me is happiest being a student—the parts of me that long to be defined by facts other than my interests pinch me for letting something like my Hogwarts house define who I am).

I am a student of creative writing.

This feels like one of the truest iterations—or at least one of the easiest labels—of who I am, if I attempt to boil myself down like sugar and butter can boil to make caramel.

As a student of creative writing, I must read. Within the past month, I have been to two library sales (one twice) and no longer have room for all of my books on the shelves in my room. At these sales, I attempted to stretch my definition of who I have thought myself to be through books I would never have bought four years ago.

As a student of creative writing, I must read and write. The old adage of “you are what you eat,” in the world of creative writing, frequently becomes “you write what you read.” But what am I if I struggle to pin myself down to a genre? I devour young adult literature, have just begun to dip my toe in the water of reading nonfiction and poetry, and yet I would hesitate to call myself a fiction writer.  Must I pin myself down to a genre? I feel as if must, as someone who’s thinking of the possibility of MFA programs, as someone who’s had her one-allotted quarter-life crisis at the end of her undergraduate program.

What am I? A fraud?

Who am I?

I am someone who is discovering their new dreams, and these dreams no longer include teaching at the secondary level.

This is palpitation inducing, but I find comfort in the fact that these palpitations will ease as I exist within the world of a student once the fall semester starts. Surely they will ease. I feel as if I need them to ease in order for me to begin to truly shift my perceptions of who I am.

One new dream—stop attempting to so frequently define myself and just exist.

The Day Rick Riordan Retweeted Me

My love for Percy Jackson and the Olympians has never been a secret.

I mention it frequently in blog posts, I’m so obsessed that I’m writing my undergraduate honors thesis over how the series makes mythology accessible for reluctant readers, and, although I love Harry Potter, I’ve always considered PJO one of the most formative book series in my life for a few reasons:

  1. It was one of the first book series my brother and I both enjoyed. Jacob has never been a particularly avid reader (with a few exceptions), but he got me to read the first book and I spent the night cackling over Percy’s narration.
  2. Annabeth Chase is, to this day, all that I aspire to be. I live for intelligent female characters who tell the boys exactly what to do, and, for some reason, Annabeth always stuck with me more than Hermione ever did. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re both blonde.
  3. Most of my lasting friendships began over a shared love of PJO, and it was these friendships that helped me get through my first few days of college.

So when I had the chance to see Rick Riordan in person, you better believe I jumped on it, especially when I saw that a few of his Hammer of Thor tour stops were going to be over my fall break.

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Uncle Rick in the flesh! I was too afraid to buy tickets in the very first row, so I bought them for the second row after refreshing the tickets page at the exact minute that were available.

After over nine hours in the car (although blessedly broken up) from Indianapolis to St. Paul, we arrived, and I fidgeted with anxious excitement as I saw staff unpacking all of the signed books that we were to receive after the event.

And there, right by the tables with all of the books, was the standup sign for the event with Hammer of Thor cover art, a little picture of Mr. Riordan, and the event information. Being the obsessed honors-thesis-writing person that I am, I have Rick Riordan on tweet notifications, I’d seen him retweeting people taking pictures in front of that sign over the past few days, and had my dad take a picture of Jacob and me in front of it too, thinking it would be a cute little picture to post on Instagram/Facebook. Then I thought, Hey, why not post this on Twitter, too? That’s an act of literary citizenship, right?, decided that that was a great idea despite the fact that my CHB shirt is so obviously homemade, and tagged him in the tweet without a second thought.

Just a few minutes later was when my world exploded. After posting it, I went to show Jacob something on my phone (I can’t even remember what), and then that little Twitter notification popped up and, with shaking hands, I checked to see if it was the kind of notification I thought it was. I about screamed, “RICK RIORDAN RETWEETED MY PICTURE!” to my dad and Jacob as I practically curled into a fetal position while standing, trying not to cry. My phone was blowing up with notifications, and I realized that this was actually happening, I was actually one of the people that Rick Riordan retweeted.

I spent the rest of the time before they opened the doors nervously laughing to myself as my phone kept buzzing, telling me that someone had liked my tweet. I saw a few of my friends from Ball State liking it (y’all are the real MVPs), but for the most part, it was people I didn’t know, and it was incredibly surreal.

The rest of the event was such a delight, as Mr. Riordan talked about what he had been working on and what we could look forward to, told jokes, and otherwise lived up to his reputation as Uncle Rick – there were so many more kids than I would have expected, but as someone who’s going to spend her life as an English teacher, I was thrilled to see so many young people enthusiastic about reading. I didn’t get the chance to ask my question during the Q&A (about what his research process is like and how his background as a teacher influences how he adapts these ancient figures; I was simultaneously simply curious and trying to do thesis research, what can I say), and neither did Jacob (about how he goes about writing the diverse characters that are now at the forefront of his books, more so than they ever were in PJO, e.g., a deaf elf, the most badass Muslim valkyrie you’ve ever seen, and others, both in Magnus Chase and in Heroes of Olympus), but I got great sound bites recorded on my phone of Mr. Riordan talking about how he was a reluctant reader until he was in eighth grade when his teacher changed his life, about a deleted scene from The Last Olympian, and about the homeless kids he had in his classroom that inspired Magnus.

Mr. Riordan, if you read this, thank you for your books. They’ve changed my life and countless others’, and if you’re within driving distance for your next book tour, I’ll be there.

REVIEW: Sold by Patricia McCormick

Mumtaz is a monster, I tell myself. Only a monster could do
what she does to innocent girls.
But I wonder. If the crying of a young girl is the same to me
as the bleating of the horns in the street below, what have
I become?

Patricia McCormick is a two-time finalist for the National Book Award, and in Sold, nominated in 2006 for the award in Young People’s Literature, it is easy to see why.

Readers are immediately taken beyond what most are familiar with to thirteen-year-old Lakshmi’s village in Nepal. Here, Lakshmi lives in poverty with a gambling stepfather, a loving mother, and a younger brother who might not survive the year, hoping that one day, her family might be able to afford a tin roof for their home. Their situation only worsens when a monsoon destroys their crops, and, in order to support her family, Lakshmi is forced to take a job as a maid in the city.

Or so she thinks.40577411

In what is a stunningly poetic, but still simplistic, novel, drawing upon stories from real Nepalese survivors, Lakshmi is instead sold away into sexual slavery, taken far from her village to India, where she quickly finds herself face to face with the reality that in order to pay off her family’s debt, she must work as a prostitute. What does not become clear to Lakshmi until it is too late, though, is the fact that Mumtaz, who runs the brothel, is cheating her of her earnings by charging her for rent, for food, and is keeping her trapped.

While Lakshmi bonds with the young women also trapped in this life, she still conspires to pay off this debt so that she may leave — but how can anyone survive this nightmare?

The nightmare of sexual slavery is an abhorrent reality. McCormick excels in using quantifiable information as well as imagery to convey this reality in lines such as the following:

Thirty rupees.
That is the price of a bottle of Coca-Cola at Bajai Sita’s store.
That is what he paid for me.
Then I catch sight of a girl in the mirror.
She has blackened tiger eyes and bleary chili pepper lips.
She looks back at me full of sadness and scorn and says,
You have become one of them.

Readers will hope against hope for Lakshmi’s survival and escape, will be stunned with anger with the realization that 30 rupees is less than 50 cents, and will be rocked emotionally in ways they never thought possible.

To learn more about survivors of sex trafficking, look into the documentary The Price of Sex by Mimi Chakarova, which details the horrors in Eastern Europe.

Sold has also been adapted into a film directed by Jeffrey Brown and executive produced by Emma Thompson. Click here to watch the trailer.

Here are the U.S. State Department’s 15 ways we can help fight sexual trafficking.

But above all — if Lakshmi’s story moves you, champion the novel, support survivors, and start researching.

Reacting to Reacting Out Loud

Last fall, I took a class called “Teaching Writing in Secondary Schools.” While that may not sound exciting to some, it’s obviously quite crucial for someone who’s going to be an English teacher.

This semester, I’m the TA for that very same class, and in both of those semesters, one of the first activities is to make a list of our writing territories.

Translation? We compiled our own lists of topics we’d like to write about, genres we’d like to try, and audiences we’d like to write for. As I was looking through my old notes from the first time I was a part of the class, I saw that for genres I’d like to try, I wrote “poetry.”

This semester, I also wrote “poetry” on that genre list.

On Sunday, not only did I have a completed poem waiting on my Evernote, but I read that poem out loud and tried to control my shaking hands. I did what I set out to do, and, goodness, it was simultaneously the most thrilling and nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done.

“But Rachel,” you’ve started asking, “You’re going to be a teacher — you must be a good writer. How could you be scared of sharing your writing like that? And you know you’re going to have to share your other writing with your students, right?”

Whether or not I’m a good writer is a question I find myself frequently agonizing over, but it wasn’t a matter of whether or not I thought the poem was good (side note — poetry is hard; I struggle more with poetry than any other kind of writing) — it was a matter of the content and the delivery.

My poem (which might make its way to Reacting Out Loud’s YouTube channel if the audio came through; open mic night without a mic was certainly an exercise in projecting, but it made the night infinitely more intimate, I think, as I found myself really listening to the many talented poets that read and shared their work) was about fatness. And mermaids and the goddess Aphrodite, but primarily about fatness.

This was what made the night so nerve-wracking.

I rarely call myself fat because the term scares me. I have heard the word thrown around like a curse, like something to be whispered because obviously this person isn’t aware that they’re bigger than you, and like something to be screamed as an insult. I had never heard the word used positively and without judgment until this year.

The content, here, the very word “fat,” is something I agonized over. I have always used the word “overweight” to describe myself, and I found myself using the word “plump” in my poem, but the word that was repeated most in the poem was “fat.” I called myself fat and described what it feels like to be fat, but not that fat and not that skinny, while standing on a stage, on a little platform where people could see exactly how big I was.

There, the delivery becomes terrifying. I could not hide behind my words because I was my words. This was me on the page (um, app, really, since I didn’t print out my poem) and I was asking people to accept that.

And they did.

One of the key components of Reacting Out Loud is, simply, reacting out loud. Vocalizing when you hear lines you like, snapping and showing the poet that you appreciate their craft and appreciate what they’re doing.

I was petrified that Two Cats Cafe would be deadly silent as I read, but instead, I was so supported that even as my hands were shaking so violently that I was afraid I’d drop my phone, I knew that I had to keep going because people were listening to me and cared about what I was saying. They were snapping and hollering and I had to continue onwards.

When I stepped off stage, the applause was thunderous, and I almost collapsed in on myself in relief. I had made my way back to my table and yet still people were clapping. People came up to me afterwards and said that they loved my poem; I received hugs and handshakes, and I was still shaking, but I was the good kind of shaky.

I had entered a world that I had previously only admired from afar, and I felt welcomed. I felt as if I was one step closer to becoming a goddess.