Tonight I got to shake hands with Ursula K. Le Guin!

About a month ago, Sherman Alexie swore at me. Tonight I got to shake hands with another of my literary heroes, Ursula K. Le Guin. It's been a pretty amazing time, and it makes me wonder what's next. Will Margaret Atwood slap me? Will Cormac McCarthy kiss me on the forehead? Will the ghost of William Shakespeare appear in my room and command me to kill one of my uncles? I hope not. I love my uncles, but it would be hard to refuse an order from William Shakespeare. At the very least, I would dither, Hamlet-style. UrsulaKLeGuin1For those of you who are unfamiliar with her work, Ursula K Le Guin is probably most famous for her novels Lathe of Heaven and The Left Hand of Darkness, as well as her Earthsea fantasy series. She's won the Hugo Award twice and the Nebula Award four times (those are the biggest prizes for science fiction authors). She's won the National Book Award. Tonight I learned that the Library of Congress named her a "Living Legend" for her contribution to American literature. Not too shabby.

She's also an Oregonian, or, at least, she has been since she moved her in 1959. I think that qualifies her sufficiently. She came to the Civic Center in Dallas, Oregon, as part of the Literary Arts & Lecture series. This last year she won the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction, and part of the prize if that authors go around and give lectures throughout the state. I could imagine some authors resenting an award that came with an obligatory lecture tour, but if Ms. Le Guin resented it at all, she hid it masterfully.

Ms. Le Guin writes more than just science fiction and fantasy, and she showed off her range tonight by starting with some poetry, beginning with a poem written in sapphic stanzas (a 2500+ year-old form) followed by modern free verse. Then she read us a short story. As much praise as Le Guin has received for her novels, personally, I think her short stories are even more impressive. After the story, she answered questions from the audience. I selfishly asked two, both of which she answered generously, though with a bit less flair than Sherman Alexie. She was funny, sharp, and insightful about the writing process, her tastes, and the industry.

I managed to get a few of her quotes word for word:

  • On archetypes: "It's not like you go looking for them. They come looking for you!"
  • On her writing education: "I read a lot of good books. You learn what's worth imitating."
  • On why she doesn't like complicated thrillers: "I finally learn who done it, and I hardly knew it was done."

After her talk, I made my way to the front and shook her hand before she could get mobbed by people who wanted her to sign their books. She probably thinks I'm a cheapskate, but I would have purchased another copy of Lathe of Heaven just to have her sign it if I'd brought the checkbook or they'd taken credit cards. I fought off the urge to tell her that I do have copies of her books in storage. That would have sounded like a back-handed compliment as much as a desperate defense, anyway. Instead, I just shook her hand. I'm sure she's already forgotten the moment, but I will treasure it and brag about it to anyone who will listen or read a long and frustratingly inconclusive blog post.

Poem: The Kind of Teacher

I was inspired to write a little poem during school today. I'm sure it would have been much better if I hadn't been forced to wait until my prep period to write it down. This certainly is not about any great lesson I taught today, but I wish it were.

The Kind of Teacher

When class begins
I can see the skepticism
The loll of tired heads
Eyes rolling
Maybe a sneer.

At my best,
I can earn a nod
Acknowledgement of time well spent.
Maybe a thoughtful “Huh.”
Occasionally a “Whoa.”

Of course the class ends with
My obligatory thanks for their attention
Wishes for a good day
Reminders about pending assignments

But if I were the kind of teacher I want to be
All the classes would crescendo
With that moment of realization
Where a teenage skepticism is breached
Punctured by some uncool grownup insight.

And I would look them in the eyes
Unrolling eyes
Attentive, expectant eyes
And shout,
“So There!”

Okay, so I know it's not the greatest poem in the world. But then, the greatest song in the world isn't the greatest, either (see below). I guess this poem is a tribute to the poem about teaching I wanted to write. I think teachers will get it, though.

Study the Tiger

Study the tiger

Circling its prey

Every sinew curves

Into a winding path

While it’s burning bright.

There’s comfort in its trajectory;

Lives don’t move in straight lines.

Perhaps I too will come round to where I want to be

Through bends between trees in the darkness.

Or is this just a fantasy I choose,

Solace in my own winding path

Before the weight of the world

Lands on my back?

Fun with Words from Twitter, Part II

A couple weeks ago (wow, has it been that long?) I posted an idea I thought I might use in the poetry class I'm teaching. I made lists of the nouns and verbs I found on my Twitter news feed with the intention of making a found-poem out of them, then had the students do the same with their Twitter/Facebook/Myspace (okay, not even the kids use Myspace anymore. Google Plus? Too soon). I wrote mine while the students worked on theirs. The lesson was a hit. Here's what I came up with:

8 Hours of Twitter

In my Newsfeed
Butterflies sing commandments.
Cyberpunks apply for immigration,
And farts retweet pain.

Accountants weigh corruption.
Insects transform islands.
Families prolong their vacations in sandboxes,
While cookies threaten leadership.

Photos forget portraits.
Music gropes for affairs.
Paper-dolls tote cancer.
And sluts prefer reading.

All the babble googles gibberish,
While dementors smooch sleep.

Fun with Words from Twitter

When I sat down to do some writing tonight, I thought I'd get a little help from the various folks tweeting using the #amwriting hashtag. I asked for each person to give me their favorite verb, or the first one to come to mind. Only one generous soul offered; she gave me "Smooch." I was going to follow up by asking for a list of nouns, but one fellow had already tweeted "#amwriting shit" and "#amwriting gibberish," so I decided he was offering those before I'd even requested them. It seems the folks on #amwriting today are actually, well, writing, so I didn't get any other replies (yet). Instead, I scrolled through my own newsfeed and copied down two lists, the verbs and nouns that jumped out at me from each tweet. I avoided proper nouns, generally, but somehow two slipped through: "Starbucks" and "Shaq." If someone has a theory about why these two words seemed like common nouns, I'd love to hear it.

These lists turned out to be really fun to play with. As you scroll through them, you'll notice that a huge percentage of the words from either list can serve as both nouns or verbs. I placed them in the lists as they were used over the last few hours. Two words that made both lists ("Retweet" and "Google") were used both ways. Two others ("Fart" and "Sleep") were used once, but in such a way that I couldn't tell if they were being used as nouns or verbs. It's great English-teacher-geek-fun to plug each word into this formula and see how many work: A _______/ To ___________.

Also, as you read through the lists, your brain will naturally want to connect the words and make a story out of them. On the one hand, this is a marvelous demonstration of just how creative the human brain is. On the other hand, it illustrates the way we can deceive ourselves because we're compelled to create a narrative where none exists. These were all from different tweets, and even when two are connected, a reader couldn't possibly imagine how without context. For example, the noun "Dementor" is included because I follow a very funny person who tweets as though he is Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. (Or maybe he really is. Who am I to judge?) But could you guess which of these words went with his tweet mentioning Dementors? Try to guess. Similarly, One of my verbs is "shampoo." Not only does it meet the aforementioned noun/verb test, but it was connected to a word on the noun list. Can you guess which one? I'll put the answers at the bottom.

I'm teaching a class on poetry a couple days a week for the Upward Bound Program, and I think I'll have them do an exercise with these lists. Feel free to use them, or the same activity, as you see fit. After all, these words aren't mine. Enjoy!





Answers: "Dementor" went with "Sluts", and "Shampoo" went with "Crotch".

@Lord_Voldemort7 tweeted:
"Dear Sluts, Nobody wants to see your public groping. The only way I'll support your PDA is if you're french kissing a dementor."

@iimaniDavid tweeted:
"'People who speak in mixed metaphors should shampoo my crotch' -- Jack Nicholson in the film As Good As It Gets"

James Henry

I just heard the news that my friend, James Henry, passed away.

I met James at last summer's Oregon Writing Project at Willamette University. James was an amazing man in many ways. He was remarkably social, engaging everyone immediately with his warmth. He was so open that his humility took you by surprise; just when you felt you were starting to get to know this unassuming, kind man, he surprised you with the kind of detail most people would lead with, like the fact that he'd won a silver medal at the Paralympic Games in Barcelona. Walking down the streets of Salem on some of our writing field trips, Jim would run into a stunning number of friends. It seemed everyone knew him, and for good reason; James could make a friend in an instant, and then would maintain that friendship. He continued to correspond with me after the OWP, sending me some of his writing and critiquing mine. James was hit by a car while riding his bike some weeks ago, and suffered sever injuries. He was in a medically-induced coma, but, last I heard, it seemed like he was going to pull through, and I looked forward to many more years of friendship. I'm shaken by this sudden loss and surprised by how much Jim came to mean to me in such a short time. Here's a poem Jim read last summer at the OWP. I liked it so much that I had him email it to me, and now I'm so glad I did, so I can share this little treasure he gave me:


Because I have one arm, people stare.
Because people stare, they remember me.

Because I have one arm, swimming is difficult.
Through difficulty I’ve learned the patience of fish.

Because I have one arm, strangers ask how.
Because they ask, I turn strangers to friends.

Because I have one arm, people judge.
Because people judge, I don’t judge people.

Because I have one arm, some things are impossible.
Rather than quit, I master the possible.

Without my left arm, my body has limits.
My body has limits, not I.

--James Henry

My Greatest Professional Triumph is Anonymous

Perhaps it's a bit hyperbolic, but among an English teacher's dreams, the idea of having a student become a published author or poet ranks pretty high. Well, thanks to one of my creative writing students, I've now accomplished this dream.

Note the focus. She has an accomplishment. I talk about myself. This is intrinsic to the profession; her accomplishment is mine, even though I played a tiny role. A whole lot of other teachers taught this student to read and write, and clearly she has a great deal of innate talent, but when she becomes a published poet, I get to brag.

After hearing about her publication from a colleague (who deserves just as much or more credit, but this is about me here, right?) I asked the student if I could brag about her tonight. I hope she felt proud in that moment, because I'm certainly proud of her.

But she chose to have the poem published without her name! When you read the poem, you'll understand why. It's quite personal, and though it might not be her actual experience that she's expressing, it must hit close enough to home to make her hesitant to share her identity. Fine. I still get to claim my little piece of credit. I do wish she'd put her name on it though, because, separate from her emotional experience, it's a fine work of craftsmanship. When I link to it, you can see that she has skill which goes beyond the considerable power of the content.

My other reason for wanting her to get credit is that it messes with my own. Instead of being able to say, "I taught ---- --------, the one who had that powerful poem published a few years ago," I have to say, "I taught Anonymous."

On second thought, that's plenty poetic. So, thanks Anonymous. Thank you for the inspiration to me, as a teacher, and thanks for your courage in sharing your work, even if your name isn't attached. You'll be known (if only to the few readers of this poem, but they will remember you) by your work alone, and there's a special dignity to that which is rare in our world of people obsessed with taking credit. I'm glad you didn't learn that particular impulse from me. Your poem is wonderful.

So, without further ado, I give you Anonymous' "No Lollipop."

Now just try and tell me that didn't kick you in the gut. Yeah, she was one of my students.

The Revenge of the Great Spam Message

I got another winner. Check out this... whatever it is:

"Fastened, they fastened to be taught that filing lawsuits is not the settlement to outshine piracy. A substitute alternatively, it's to tell something in the most timely sphere than piracy. Like placidity of use. It's unqualifiedly a bulky numbers easier to indispensability iTunes than to search the Internet with threat of malware and then crappy sublimity, but if people are expected to a swarms loads and stick-up permissible of ages, it's not affluent to work. They straight would sooner a squat sooner in impetuously people dream up software and Springe sites that construct it ridiculously tranquilly to infringer, and up the quality. If that happens, then there compel be no stopping piracy. But they're too sharp and horrified of losing. Risks easy to be tickled pink!"

You know, now that I think about it, it is kind of like the placidity of use. And here I'd expected a swarms loads and stick-up permissible of ages. Hmm.

Great Spam Message

The spam filter on Blogger catches most of the spam messages posted to the comments, but I do get an emailed copy to see if they are real and should be posted. This one is certainly spam, but it's just too good to keep to myself. Check it out. In fact, read it out loud. It's like some brilliant nonsense poem. Paige's response: "Is that pro-piracy or against it?" I don't know. Maybe it's not really about piracy at all. Any interpretations?

"Resource, they fundamental to be taught that filing lawsuits is not the run to a precise piracy. Measure than, it's to develop something mastery than piracy. Like ingenuousness of use. It's even-handedly a fortuity easier to rush down the twist iTunes than to search the Internet with jeopardize of malware and then crappy sublimity, but if people are expected to a trough loads and linger yon seeing that ages, it's not paper money to work. They a guy be subjected to a low-lying on without note down unpropitious on people beget software and Springe sites that interchange it ridiculously fragile to picaroon, and up the quality. If that happens, then there in particular be no stopping piracy. But they're too prudent and appalled of losing. Risks fasten to be bewitched!"

Yes, that's an excellent reminder to us all; risks do, in fact, fasten to be bewitched.

Teaching to the Test

Since it's Christmas break, I've had the luxury of embroiling myself in a couple minor online skirmishes regarding the state of public education. One friend wrote, "And don't get me started on teaching to the test!" I've written before about my ambivalence regarding testing. Tests are not all bad. They are a useful mechanism for a teacher to learn where his/her students are at regarding specific content. They are less effective at measuring the teachers of a large group of students, or of a whole school, or of an education system in general; you can only test what you can clearly define, and since we haven't agreed upon a succinct and measurable definition of "successful teacher" or "successful school" or "successful education system," all a test tells us is that kids did well on the test. The more pressure we put on that circular definition, the more we'll push teachers to become "successful" by getting kids to do well on the tests that define "successful".
It would be like me assigning you an 8 out of 10.
"I've tested you, and you scored an 8 out of 10. Not bad," I'd announce.
"At what?" you'd say.
"At getting an 8 out of 10."
"Well, I guess that's better than a 7 but not as good as a 9."
"Yes. You should work really hard at being a 9 out of 10."
"Okay, but at what?" you'd ask.
"At being a 9 out of 10."
"This seems a bit arbitrary."
"Just wait until I make your paycheck dependent on being a 9 out of 10 or better."
"At what?" you'd scream. But you'd work hard to get ready for that test, regardless of your thoughts about its validity, wouldn't you?

Christmas Break has also allowed me to step away from my classroom and think a bit more deeply about some other things I teach. I think about these while I play with action figures with my six-year-old. We've also been reading a lot of books and watching a lot of movies, which make me think of other books and movies, as you'll see. I find myself hoping his teachers do not limit themselves to the material on the tests. But then, how would I know? If their ratings are published, as the ratings of the teachers in the L.A. Unified School District were this last year, I'd only know how his teachers rated based on test scores. I thought about what he might miss if I could shunt him off to the teachers with the best ratings in such a system. This poem is my first draft of a conclusion:

Teaching to the Test

I am supposed to teach to a test
But I keep losing my way
And teaching other things.
I suppose I am the reason that public education is failing so miserably.
What if my poor students face lives filled only
With choices ranging between a,b,c, and d
And I’ve filled their heads with lessons like these?

Don’t read books just to find the right answers.
And don’t watch movies to find out what the books say.
That’s like a seventh grader asking out a girl
By passing a note to her best friend.
Movies often get the books wrong,
But books sometimes get life wrong
So make both and see if you can do better.

Fall in love.
It will hurt sometimes.
Maybe so much you’ll curse the stars.
But do it anyway.
Chance meetings can be the starts of great romances.
Of course, they can be the beginnings of horror stories, too.
That guy might be perfect for you
Or he might be a hundred-year-old pedophile with skin as cold as ice and a burning desire to drink your blood
Or maybe just knock you up on the honeymoon when you’re just eighteen.
That’s why you need to learn to read people as carefully as you read books.

Don’t shoot Mockingbirds
Or destroy innocence for no good reason.
If you see a mob with torches and pitchforks, don’t join in; you’ll regret it later.
Sometimes witches have the answers you need
If you have some leverage.
And others are beautiful women who want to keep you on their islands and pamper you for a while.
You should let them.
When you see a piece of cake and a note that says, “Eat me,”
You should.
But don’t break in and steal food from bears.
It’s unwise.

Rich people aren’t all evil and greedy.
Poor people aren’t all stupid and lazy.
Women are not weak, and if there is an alien on your spaceship you’d better be one.
Snap decisions and stereotypes kept our caveman ancestors safe from saber tooth tigers
But now, that categorical thinking mostly makes people look ignorant or worse.
Skin color doesn’t really tell you much about a person
But culture and religion and family history are important.
If you ignore them or disrespect them, you might end up
Getting crushed by a Golem
Or accidentally marrying your own mother.

Also, not all step-parents are evil
And if you obsess about them, it can turn out very badly
Especially if you are a prince in Denmark.

If you are the extremely jealous type
Or have a weak ankle
Or are missing one scale of your impenetrable hide
Don’t be too arrogant, because someone will figure out a way to exploit your weaknesses.

One king sacrificed his daughter in exchange for a safe journey
And his wife killed him when he got home.
More often, people sacrifice their marriages while they are away.
It can have the same result, so be careful.

You cannot love your children too much
Even if it means protecting them when it seems the world is a pointless place
So hold them close in the darkness
And keep them safe, even if you can’t see where you’re going.
But you can love them the wrong way
So don’t make their girlfriends sleep on 13 mattresses
And certainly don’t send their boyfriends on quests to get the Golden Fleece
Or any other twelve crazy tests
Because that will end very badly for you.

Sometimes the world will seem simply absurd.
Learn to laugh about it.
That way, when the world is about to be destroyed
You’ll know how to hitch a ride on a passing spaceship
Or at least have grace to say, “So it goes.”

You will face battles that seem insurmountable.
Sometimes the opposing army will be so great in number that you believe there is no hope
Or the evil you confront will seem too powerful to contend with
But if you draw your sword
Or wand
Or fill your sling with small stones from the riverbank
You may just find that your friends are better than you thought
Or that you have a strength that you didn’t know you possessed
Or you are raised up on the wings of eagles
Or the Dark Lord of the Sith is really your father
And used to be played by a far less intimidating actor
And can be redeemed in the end.
People can be redeemed in the end.
But there are times when your world will be filled with every kind of misery
And it’s best to clap down the lid on false hope and hide it in the jar you’ve been given
Because, in the last battle between the gods and the Frost Giants
The gods may lose.

You can leave home
And reinvent yourself
And despite what some people say, you can come home again.
But be careful what you become while you’re away
Because you could become your enemy
Or a sad, broken man staring across a lake at a green light
Or the ruler of a powerful empire
Whispering the name of a childhood toy.
So think about the way you want your story to end,
Revise your life story. Revise, revise, revise,
Pay attention to the way that it’s told,
And care for the other characters you include.
Because, whether you go away or not
There is a sea that can only be crossed once
And an undiscovered country
That cannot be mapped by any test.