Teaching writing is a minefield

In simpler terms, I’m restructuring how I teach writing which starts with thinking about why and how we write, with synthesizing all the things I’ve read about writing or learned about writing.

It seems redundant and a little silly to lay this out, but until you know what you want to say and who you want to say it to, you don’t really know how to say it. The audience and purpose should shape your actual form of communication. Many of these forms have rules specific to them. For example, when you are writing something academic, you should be able to pull information from a variety of reliable sources in order to support your message—it’s also important to have something to say about or with those quotes and paraphrases so the piece isn’t just a collection of someone else’s thoughts. In fact, academic writing also requires an academic voice which is basically writing as a third-person expert on a topic avoiding contractions, use of you, and limiting I-statements to specific, relatable anecdotes.

People who want to get better at writing need to read a lot—read books, short stories, essays, articles, poems, fanfic, blogs, and everything else. As you read look for what makes a story or piece good (or enjoyable) and what makes a piece not work well.

Find a comfortable place that encourages your writing and a time you can frequently set aside to write or read or think. Every day be in that place at that time and just write. In the beginning whatever you write will be awful, because you will be “cleaning out” your mental “closet.” As you continue to write, you will improve—your ideas will flow more naturally, your words will come. Some days you will hit a serious writer’s block and the options are a) keep writing even if it’s terrible or b) go take a walk, come back, and try again.

Essentially, anything you write has a purpose and is meant for someone to read. (Ok, once in awhile what you write is meant for no one to read, so rip those out and throw them away where no one else can ever read them).

In most academic classes the writing revolves around teacher-specified topics or reading-related questions. For these pieces, the student-writer needs to be aware of the teacher’s expectations and basic American usage and grammar. Most quotes or paraphrases will be taken directly from information related to the class or topic under discussion.

When students are given the freedom to choose a research topic, they should really consider coming up with a research question. What do you really want to know about the topic? I’ve seen too many students choose their sources and resources in order to fit what the student already want to say—this can be problematic as it leads to patchwork plagiarism or an unethical use of sources (when a quote or piece of information is taken so far out of context that it is used to support the side opposing what the original text was about).

People who write for fun in blogs or fanfic or original short fiction can choose their own topics. This can be as crippling as it is freeing. Some people make their blogs very specific in nature which nicely limits the topics they will write about—The Simply Luxurious Life focuses on fashion and blending French sensibilities with a modern American life; there are whole sections on food and on local places of interest along with book suggestions, a podcast, and a video series for cooking. Another blog I follow is Bloggin’ Con La Reina which a student of mine started to explore life as a minority teen who is on the cusp of stepping out of her safety nets and into the big, bad world; her topics are varied as she tries to find her footing and I can relate to that on all levels (my blog is pretty eclectic, because I can’t quite settle on a theme).

For a brief moment (1998-2000) I participated in writing Sliders fanfic. I didn’t edit anything before I posted it and my stories were more character studies than plotted stories. Still, it was a good experience for me. I read a lot of fan fiction nowadays—some of it makes me envious and some of it makes me appreciate my student’s writing. Whatever other people think, I still feel like blogs and fan fiction are great ways for people who want to write, to practice writing. I can look back on my own blog and see how much improvement I’ve made as a writer. It’s important for writers to be able to see that they have improved, to get positive feedback when they do something well, and to remember that there is always room for improvement.

Basically, you can make any topic your own depending on what you want to say about it. Find out how it needs to be formatted, understand the expectations of teachers/professors/employers, and make your voice heard.

Winter always does this to me

I have a long list of things I’ve never done. Mostly they are things I don’t think about or I thought about and didn’t want. I genuinely care about all of my students (past, present, and future)—I want them all to find some measure of peace or happiness, but I know some of them never will. I accepted years and years ago that for some kids high school is a peak (which will always make me a little sad), for some high school is a stepping stone, and for some high school is a federally mandated sentence.

Most of my students. Most of my friends. Everyone I can think of in my family. They have all risked their hearts in love. The one or two chances I’ve had, I shut down before more than a fleeting thought could exist let alone love or companionship. It’s not because I’m aromantic (I don’t think I am); it’s more because the thought of physical intimacy scared the everliving everything out of me.

I suppose touch-starved would be an accurate assessment of me and any sort of physical affection. I long for it, sometimes dream about it, but I don’t know how to (or who to) initiate even deeply platonic physical affection. It makes me feel like I’m still a bit broken.

I know I’ve come a long, long way in the last 22 years. I’m much more emotionally stable (thanks to medication and writing). I’m a better teacher thanks to my myriad mistakes and failures and understanding that there is always room for improvement. I have friends who are so dear to me that I count them as a family of choice even if we go a few weeks or months without really getting together.

However, there are things about me that make entering a romantic or affectionately platonic relationship difficult. Part of that is the 22 years I’ve lived independently which have allowed certain bad habits (laziness and a true enjoyment of spending money that should be put in savings) to calcify. I’m not sure how good I’d be at balancing my needs and desires against another person—I’d like to think I’d compromise, but I don’t actually know that to be true.

I’m also not a terribly pretty, attractive, in shape sort of person. I tend to look in the mirror and think, this is as good as it gets or wow, this is a new low. I just know that my extra weight (aside from making me physically unhealthy and so, so hard to lose) makes me less attractive to other people. I may not feel like I have quite so much fear or quite so many defenses, but that’s years of ingrained behavior.

Part of the reason I spent so much time shutting down opportunities before they happen is this belief that I would choose the wrong person and end up making a spouse or child’s life more difficult than it had to be. Part of it is that I actually need to know someone and trust them before I can even think about sexual attraction or romantic possibilities (does that make me demiromantic and demisexual??).

I don’t miss the opportunity of being a parent. I do miss the opportunity to share my life with someone else. I would like to fall in love or find a true companion. I just don’t think I ever will and it makes me a little sad some days.

I Hate Money

I actually make a decent amount of money. I should be able to pay all my bills (even my outrageous mortgage which is only outrageous compared to what my rent was) and manage to build a savings account. The truth is that I am bad with money. I could blame the examples of my childhood, but it wouldn’t be fair to them. My money issues are my money issues and cannot be blamed on other people. I like to buy things—presents for myself, presents for my friends, things that I think I need (and sometimes actually do), tattoos (that’s a new expense though), clothes…

You get the idea, I’m sure, that I like to spend money. I have been making reasonable and awesome budgets for fifteen years; I have also been ignoring those budgets for fifteen years. The only smart choice I’ve ever made regarding money was starting two retirement accounts that weren’t Social Security or PERS in my mid-twenties. I’m going to have to put in a full forty years teaching before I can even think about retirement and even with my extra accounts, I still worry about whether or not I’ll have enough money to enjoy retirement or to just exist in retirement.

I also spend money when I’m sad or when I’m anxious or when I’m depressed or when I want to celebrate.

This means I have debt—so much debt. I’m well on my way to catching everything up within the next five years if I can stick to my totally reasonable budget. Again, I can’t help but look at my friends and family who have made smarter financial choices. I also can’t help but think about my students (those who have graduated and those who will) and how difficult earning enough money to make ends meet while paying off student loans is going to be.

To be fair many of my former students make more money per year than I do by working at skilled labor jobs and I am a huge supporter of their choices and their successes. These were often kids who just needed to get through high school so they could go on to apprentice in a specific field or take a technical program. These are kids who spend their first ten years going to where the jobs are which means they learn a lot about what makes someone a good manager or a poor manager of others. They get ten years of good experience, so they can land a job close to where they would like to settle down.

I think the only people that think money doesn’t matter are people who genuinely don’t have to worry about money. If I’m being real, a windfall would solve many of my current problems. Instead, I get to hold to my budget and admonish myself for my mistakes and remember that I alone make the choices that mean eating peanut butter sandwiches for a week or eating like a “normal” adult.

The American Dream?

I never really thought about the American Dream until I started teaching. I’m weird. I didn’t ever envision my future wedding, my future life, my future anything. I knew I wanted to teach and I knew that teaching wasn’t lucrative. Money didn’t matter as long as I had enough to pay my bills. Once I started teaching American Literature, I had to think about the American Dream—it seems to be this idea that everyone can reach for the stars as long as they are willing to work hard. It’s a pretty bullshit thing. Most people work hard their entire lives and barely have enough to get from paycheck to paycheck.

My American Dream was having enough money to pay my bills, a place to live alone, and a job that I enjoyed more than I dreaded it. I am blessed enough to have those things. My students will not really be so lucky. All my college expenses (1991-1995) were $35,000-$40,000; my parents kicked in $12,000-$15,000 (I hope I’m low-balling my parents’ contribution) over the four years I attended college and I worked 25-hours a week during the school year and full-time in the summers and on breaks. Between those things, I had enough to make it through college without any student loans. This is totally unrealistic for any students I teach who choose to attend even a small four-year state school—all the expenses for four years at my alma mater now are around $100,000 (and I am underestimating it). No one is going to be able to get enough FAFSA grants or scholarships to pay for that without some heavy loans. So, for my students the American Dream has to be different.

I don’t know what it is for them—maybe it’s simple like my version or maybe it’s just the hope that they can enjoy their lives while paying off outrageous student debt. Maybe it’s that they’ll find a job they mostly enjoy that gives them enough money to live on and have a little fun with. Maybe it’s getting married and only needing a combined sixty hours a week to keep all the bills pain and manage a little something something in savings.

Or, maybe the current American Dream is just getting through each day with enough money, enough to eat, enough to take care of those they love.

Personal Icons

I’ve written about them before, probably with more poetry and thought. On the anniversary of my paternal grandmother’s death, I want to take a moment to pay respect to the many women I admire.

Elizabeth Thouvenel lost both of her parents at a young age and helped raise her younger sisters. She ran a boarding house for several years while going to school and raising her sisters. She ceded official control of the boarding house to her middle sister when Grandma went to work for a local real estate company. She invested her savings well, made sure her sisters married well, and then met the love of her life. She live nearly thirty years before meeting an Oregon State Trooper, they were married for thirty years before he died, and she lived a full, fully independent life for nearly thirty years before she needed to turn to family for help.

My maternal grandmother was blessed in wholly different ways. She grew up with an often divorced, often single, mother in a time where no one wanted to admit single mothers existed. She and her younger sister grew into women who loved helping others and turned that into marketable skills. Darlene Reese Fletcher has two great loves in her life and found a way to be happy and fulfilled after more than sixty years of marriage to two men who really understood and loved her. She raised children, influenced a brood of grandchildren, and still finds ways to keep her circle of friends (new and old) vibrant and full of love.

My mother developed gestational diabetes with me; and, it exploded on her between my and my younger brother’s birth. It started to affect her health dramatically the same year I started teaching. I’m impressed by the constant renegotiation she and my father have weaved through for 46 years; I’m amazed by her ability to deal with declining health, and a declining quality of life, with grace and faith. [My father loves her to the point that he would rather be her caretaker than see her taken away, and , luckily, they both have enough mobility to make this continue to work.]

My closest female friends amaze me with their resilience, their willingness to love and lose and love again, their passion for their work. They have raised or are raising (or are helping to raise) some pretty amazing human beings. They are strong and passionate and kind.

Even with the humanity and flaws each of these women acknowledge and deal with, they work hard to be the best versions of themselves just like the women before me in my family.

I just want to thank every woman who does her best with what she has, every woman who tries to teach the children in her care to be true and to be kind and to be their best selves, every woman who stumbles or falls and rises again. They each play a part in who I aspire to be whether it’s risking their hearts, their financial security, or letting go of the plan they thought they had for their lives. Thank you all.

This Morning’s Meditation


Say what you will about the NYT, but this article lays out the growing culture of hate. It also makes me think back on all I’ve learned through books, classes, others, life, and my faith—all three of the sister faith (or People of the Book) actually have love/submit to God and love in action as the cornerstones of their belief systems.

There is no excuse for the cruelty taught by some individuals or denominations of any faith; and the history of The Church is bathed in blood and hate rather than love in action.

This was an act of terrorism.

This was another act of domestic terrorism. And this is another reason for devout people to live their lives showing their love for others in whatever ways they are able.

This was evil.

Yes, my heart breaks for every person who has been harmed or in any way affected by acts of domestic terrorism; America’s long history of hate towards citizens and immigrants has to stop.

Yeah, my thoughts and prayers are with this weekend’s victims and their friends and their families. My acts of love toward others—teaching my students kindness, personal responsibility, forgiveness, the importance of doing what is right, and critical thinking—will continue. I will do my best to seed the wind with love in action. And when I have a bad day or I am thoughtless or I am cruel, I will take responsibility for my actions and I will work to not make that mistake or choice again. When I see acts of petty cruelty, I will step in to stop them and try to turn them into teachable moments.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

I have a ton to do. This weekend instead of doing anything I would get out of bed, look at the projects that needed doing, and go back into the bedroom where the cats were sleeping, curl up, and read. I tend to call these lost weekends or lost days. They aren’t lost so much as given up. It’s no surprise that I woke up on the salty side of the bed—I don’t even dislike Mondays, I’m just salty today.

Fortunately, I teach teenagers. I’m lucky and blessed and sometimes pushed to my breaking point, but I’ve grown into this vocation. I’m much better at teaching than I used to be. I still have areas of weakness, but I love talking to teenagers, teaching them, getting them to think or to open up their minds a bit.

I have come to loathe articles and headlines and rants about “kids today” or “millennials” or “generation z.” Kids have always had variations on the same issues adults deal with except their voices go unheard in many situations. They aren’t always allowed to enjoy being in transition because we are pushing them forward or they are running ahead, ready for that next step.

I’m not sure gen-x ever did a good job learning to balance peace & quiet with a strong work ethic. We tend to see-saw back and forth, so how can we really teach the next generations to find balance?

Writing is my meditation. I don’t know why I keep trying to find other ways. I have a thirty minute break today between periods two and four; I have grades to enter into the computer and assignments to grade—I am sitting outside in one of the courtyards and breathing and writing and letting my thoughts wander. Do my students know that sometimes it’s okay to stop and breathe? Have I ever taught them that writing isn’t just about communicating with others, that sometimes it’s about communicating with ourselves?

I suppose I should go back inside. I’ll look at the grading that I have to stay and do this afternoon. I’ll appreciate my students. I’ll be a little salty. I’ll have housey chores to do at home.

I’m not broken

Growing up the mechanics of sex always grossed me out. My parents told me “that will change when you find the right guy.” I faked crushes on lots of boys, impossible boys, boys who would never give me a first or a second look. And, I was fucking awkward about it. I came across as creepy and about as subtle as an Acme anvil, because I was playing pretend. Whatever I told myself, my friends, or my family–it was only ever half the truth. Besides being unobtainable, but never anyone with a steady girlfriend, I chose boys who had a spark of kindness. They may have been popular or athletic or smart, but they also had a core of kindness to them that came out in little ways. I respected that. I respected that a great deal. I figured if I couldn’t like them the way I was supposed to, I could at least like something about them besides their looks.

At least fifteen years ago I got horribly offended when a friend and fellow teacher, TS, told me he thought I was asexual. I had no idea what he meant by the term and only a few years later I was in a place where I would’ve asked before getting offended. At that point in time though I was try so hard to be normal (and failing on all fronts) that I heard the word and assumed it meant I was broken. We are still in a culture where many people look at those of us who aren’t into sex as broken.

I inherited some wonderful qualities from both sides of my family–generosity of spirit, faith in God, inherent kindness–and I inherited some less awesome qualities from both sides of the family–migraines, panic attacks, depression, quickfire anger, and nuclear slow-burn anger. All on my own I picked up spending money and eating food to mask my pain which put me overweight and in debt. All on my own I embraced laziness which means my house is rarely as clean as I would like it and I’m perpetually behind on all projects. But, I’m still not broken.

Six or seven years ago, I stumbled across a tumblr post (yes, I was a 35+ woman who read and still reads tumblr) that talked about sexuality and sexual attraction as more of a spectrum than the Kinsey Scale and it was a revelation. A handful of times in my life I have felt a glimmer of sexual attraction to someone I know well. I never lasts, but it has happened. I’ve never been in a romantic or sexual relationship with anyone. Sometimes I wish that I had someone I could be physically affectionate with. Sometimes I wish I had someone that wanted to spend a lot of time with me. Neither of those things has happened yet which makes me doubt either of those things will happen ever.

I understand my flaws. I’m overweight and out of shape which doesn’t seem to attract people to me. I sound judgmental and sarcastic far more often than I am judgmental or sarcastic. I can be truly annoying. I sometimes just shut down and hide. I spend money irresponsibly. I’m lazy at heart. I love naps and books and my two cats. I love my students. I love being a teacher, not because there’s nothing else I can do, but because I get to shape the minds of some of the next generation and it’s awesome. I get to teach people how to decode what they read or hear, to determine the value of the information they are given and the source of the information, to communicate effectively in a variety of ways–that is just so much fun.

Sometimes I’m cranky and it’s not always because of my chronic migraines. Sometime I snap and I instantly regret it. Sometimes I give too many chances and then get metaphorically kicked in the face. Sometimes I say or do things without thinking at all and I offend people.

We all have flaws.

We all have strengths.

Appreciating someone’s kindness, appreciating someone’s aesthetic value, appreciating someone’s talent–those are all normal things. And I’m lucky I have them.

I’m also lucky I live in a time where more people are talking about depression and anxiety. I’m lucky I had parents that forced me to learn in regular classrooms despite mild dyslexia. I’m lucky to have been born middle class. I’m lucky to have been born white.

I suppose if there’s one other lesson I want to teach my students, no matter when they were my students, is that different isn’t broken. Living a non-traditional lifestyle is an okay thing to do. What we feel will change over time. What we know to be true will change as new information becomes available. We owe to ourselves and others be respectful of others and their experiences.

For a long time my classroom rules were: be smart, be safe, be kind, be true, and try to be legal. Now they are: be respectful of others and their things; get consent ahead of time and respect someone’s choice to say no or to change their mind.

Midnightish Meditations

Sharing too much?!?

Lydia, my elderly cat, decided to come chill on me when my migraine woke me up thirty minutes ago.

Beau, the newbie (relatively) is snuggled right against my legs.

I’m so tired of this.

Not the cats. The cats are perfect little Agents of Chaos.

I’m tired of the pain.

I’m tired, so tired, of afternoon migraines, of middle of the night migraines, of how tired the pain makes me, of how cranky I feel, of the nearly everydayness.

I’m so grateful for medical professionals who believe me, of medications that help.

My problems are small.

I’m lucky not to suffer from something worse. I’m lucky to have health insurance. I’m lucky the cats will set aside their rivalry for a bit. I’m lucky I have a job that pulls at me to show up do the best I can.

But sometimes, I’m just so tired.

Sometimes, I have to remind myself that my pain is valid. That it’s okay to have a bad day.

Sometimes, I overshare my pain and it makes me feel small and whiny when I know people who suffer…who really suffer.

It’s raining today.

Actually, the first sounds I heard last night were the crackles and pops of my backyard neighbor’s fire–they have fires a lot and small parties. Six years ago they were louder and more obnoxious and I wasn’t yet on year-round anti-depressants so I may have reacted irrationally to their constant and late (like past one a.m.) and loud parties. Even a year later I found myself less bothered even though the only concession they made to having neighbors was no more live bands in the back yard (yes, that is a thing that totally happened). Now, I close my back door and my bedroom windows if they are too loud for my comfort–I love having my doors and windows open on summer evenings and summer mornings. I have learned to put it in the same category as neighbors who park in front of my house: so what?

Back to last night, it was kind of soothing to hear the fire, then to hear the rain as it started and picked up. I’m not a huge rain person, but I do like seasonal transitions. There’s something wonderful about the first few days of rain or the first snowfall (the first ice storm will never be a thing I love). I admit that I worry a little about how icy last winter was because I lost my beloved Honda to black ice on the way to visit the folks for Christmas and I have real concerns about driving my used Prius through windy Gorge days or icy conditions anywhere. The gas mileage may be great, but it often feels like a breeze could knock the car off the road.

It’s not the first of the month, my birthday, New Year’s, or any other day that most people would look at as “hey, I should set a goal and stick with it.” However, the randomness of October 6 fits my aesthetic. Once again, I am going to try to write (and publish) more. I’m shooting for at least three days a week. I’m also trying to remind myself that in five years I can buy a new car because my retirement funds will be repaid the down payment which will free up a lot of my disposable cash. I don’t stick to budgets or plans very well, so I’m trying to remind myself that a little less frivolity now will be better for me later–then I can buy my Subaru or my Honda CR-V. I’m also hoping that publishing my random writing might lead to people responding to what I write or at least help me feel like a real “writer.”

After I get that new car, I’ll still have another fifteen years of teaching (I’m shooting for a full forty years). I have toyed with the idea of applying to an MFA program for Creative Nonfiction Writing to help me do a better job of building my students’ voices and confidence. All I ever want to do is be a better teacher.