Monday, June 29, 2009

Reform Reform

Like all other community colleges in Oregon, the one at which I teach is reorganizing its writing program. The State decided to roll three three-unit courses into two four-unit classes. Which is fine. Whatever. I'm happy to have a job in a place where the unemployment rate is 14 percent.


We have been directed to teach MLA and ALA formatting. In eleven weeks.

I'm worried that this is where at least two of 22 class meetings (10%) of my instructional time is going to go. Instead of learning how to string together a cohesive sentence, a solid paragraph, a fluid paper, our students will be learning to underline that this way, but not that way, and to use a comma this time, but not next.

MLA is dying.

I love MLA. But all those psychology journals are winning in the style department. So if MLA is on its way out, I'll be the first one to wave good-bye.

Only I can't. I have to keep it on the respirator as it draws its last breath. While no one cares.

This is educational reform at its purest: do the most you can with what little you have, and do it quickly and well.

I should know.

In sixteen years of teaching, I've already survived three reforms: the first, in Sacramento, where credentialing was changing, ESL was at the forefront, and portfolios were assessment tools; the next, in Medford, where reading and math pushed out science, and history, and where Harry Wong was king; and years later, again in Medford, where double-language arts blocks replaced developing students' electives, and textbook companies were at war over the next contract.

It's all been very different from my own education: a Catholic elementary school at which we took timed multiplication tests and had spelling bees.

This year, my kids finished with outstanding report cards. Coming out of fifth, fourth, and first grade, they can now sculpt a clay cow, identify the red-winged blackbird, and sing "Baby You Can Drive My Car."

They can't add 120 and 120, however, especially without a page-long process involving estimation and subtraction.

Multiplication is tragic, too. When Daney uses flashcards (that are actually different shapes and grid squares), she can't spit out what is 9 times 9. Instead, she rounds up, then subtracts. It takes about five minutes.

So. I'm taking it upon myself to teach these kids the basics this summer. Daney is writing out her times tables, just as I did almost three decades ago.

Dominic is doing old-school long division, the one without a huge sidebar of estimation and rounding and whatever else.

And Reesie is using phonics.

They're picking up everything! It seems easy for them, these common sense basics that have become as obsolete as MLA.

Which all makes me wonder: Why are we making things so tough these days?

Maybe we need to reform reform. Stick to the fundamentals. Give kids skills they'll need in life, for jobs, at college. There's just something to be said for quick mental math.

And I'm waiting for the pendulum to swing back around. Any minute now.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

PNWA Award Finalist!

Thank you, Pacific Northwest Writers Association, for choosing my adult short story, "Bakersfield Baptism" as a finalist in the 2009 Literary Contest.

I love the character of that story, Gracie Mae.

When I read the work to Dominic, he cried and said, "Do you have to make it that sad?"

I do, I told him: Gracie Mae is suffering badly; the readers need to feel that.

Ironically, because of Gracie Mae's suffering, today felt really good.

What I Love About Not Having Cable Anymore

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What I Miss About Not Having Cable Anymore

* The whole Bravo channel
* "Intervention"
* Watching "Deadliest Catch" and "Rescue Me" with my man
* CMT's "Top Twenty Countdown"
* Disney, for the kids, so I could get a little break

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Happy Father's Day!

Here's me and the Best Poppa In The World in Tahoe last week:

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Lovely

We're back!

Tahoe was fantastic... well, most of it, anyway. The kids had a great time with different cousins at different beaches, and Dave and I did this thing we never do: relax.

Here we are at Sugar Pine Point State Park. Ahhh...

I'm not sure how many more years of jumping off the rocks at DL Bliss Dave and I have, but we managed to do it this time!

Yep, there's nothing to take one's mind of a revision like a plunge into 58 degree water.

The kids caught crawdads, counted pine cones, dug in the sand, and swam.

Now. The not-so-good? The FOOD! Terrible eats, and even worse service.

We experienced everything from menus thrown at us to forgotten toast to a long black hair in our steamed clams.

What the heck?

At El Toro Bravo in Truckee our last night, though, things finally turned around. Thank God. And Poppa.

Next year: same people, same place. We'll just bring our own food.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Day Four

Is anywhere--anywhere--as amazing as Lake Tahoe?

Yesterday, Dave and I sat on the patio of Gar Woods grill, overlooking the glassy lake, and decided that this wins first place in the natural beauty category.

It doesn't matter that the weather's not perfect. This, plus the state of the economy, has seriously dwindled the number of tourists. We're all alone on sandy beaches and at resort restaurants.

There's no cell phone reception at our cabin. No Internet, either. But we're not at the withdrawl stage yet.

For two nights, we traded in Dominic and Rees for a fourteen year-old niece, and today we're getting two high school juniors.

What can we do with all these crazy teenagers? Just pack up a huge cooler and hit Sand Harbor, of course!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Off to Tahoe

School's out, the bags are packed, and we're off to Tahoe for a week!

As a kid, I spent all my summers in the Blue World, have seen its people turn from flocks of

feather-ed haired skiiers to second-homed San Jose tekkies.

Two years ago, a chunk of the south part burned. My husband and I visited that area, and I wrote a newspaper article about it.

Even with its cultural and biological changes, the Lake itself is still as lovely as ever.

Our favorite places: jumping off the granite at DL Bliss State Park, combing the white beach at Sand Harbor, and hiking to the Crown Jewel--Emerald Bay. Two other nearby lakes we like visiting are Angora and Donner.

We hike, bike, boat, and swim. We eat Lakehouse pizza in Tahoe City, and gather up groceries at Obexer's Market. Every so often, we'll go to Circus Circus in Reno for monorail rides and buffet cream puffs. We check out all the fire stations.

Sometimes we fish, but we never shop. Or see Shakespeare.

There are too many other fun things to do.

Clean air, crawdads, pine trees, and the Queen Mary: Tahoe is more than vacation for us. It's a tradition.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How Important Are Parents?

Every literary character has or has had a mom and a dad.

They can be cool and supportive like in Looking for Alaska. Or they can be negligent and mean, like in Matilda. They may even be absent, as they are in Harry Potter.

Whether absent or present, parents add depth to the central character. It would be tough to write a book about an extraordinary kid with ordinary parents. On the flip side, Matilda and Mr. Potter included, it's easier to write about an ordinary kid with extraordinary parents.

In the first draft of my MS, I didn't flush out the folks. They were one-dimensional, predictable, flat.

Now that I've added their intentions and motivation, my main character has grown. What he says and does is more understandable and believable. His actions are justified. He is deep.

How important are parents in books? As important, or even more, than they are in reality.

The End

This is it.

Right after I post this, I'm hitting the MS one more time. To clean things up, make sure it all makes sense. Triple sure.

It's funny. I had gotten hung up on conclusion. The thing I hit really hard with my writing students. And I couldn't come up with squat.

But a couple of weeks ago, I remembered the list of the only 8 or 9 kinds of conclusions in the world. And I tied a few of them together, and came up with a string of three words. A question.

And I've tried it out on a few readers, and the answer can go either way.

Even though I know the truth.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Summer "Vacation"

While signing up the kids for the Summer Reading Program at the library today, I asked Reesie (almost 8), who this was on the cover of Time. (It's a huge close-up of Michelle Obama.)

"Um, I don't know. Who?" he asked.

To get some perspective, I then pointed to People. "Do you know who they are?"

"Yeah! The Jonas Brothers!" Rees said. "Kevin, Nick, and Joe."

Oh lord.

We've got some serious work to do over the next ten weeks.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Faith, Hope, and Blueberries

I'm a day or two away from sending my revision back to an editor. I love the suggestions he had given me, even if they were pretty tough to pull off.
Here's what got me through shrinking 55,000 words down to 40K, while flushing out characters and motivation, backstory and arc:

* faith. That what he told me to do was brilliant.
* hope. That I did what I was supposed to do. That he'll like it.
* blueberries.
* long walks.
* yoga.
* days when I didn't work but when the kids were in school.
* a serious love of my character.
* a planned week in Tahoe, following re-submission.

All that. Plus some serious caffeine.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The OOMA of the Hour

The current Object Of My Affection is a woman. Her name is Kristen Wiig, and she's the best thing to happen to Saturday Night Live since the Blue Oyster Cult skit.

In this little clip, she's paired up with Tim McGraw. My Other OOMA.

Short break while I swoon for a second...

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Good things about a Bad Economy

While I really feel for folks who have lost hours or jobs in this recession, I have to think there are some good things about it.

Wait, look:

Do you find yourself rinsing out baggies and water bottles so you don't have to buy new ones? Your frugality is actually helping the environment.

The same goes for turning down/off your air conditioner.

Are you buying local produce to get fresh food that doesn't use pesticides or require transportation?

Have you signed up the kids for fewer activities? While you're saving money and gas, you're also spending more family time together.

This is true, too, if you've cut cable or movie memberships.

In that vein, are your kids aware of the economic crisis? Could spur some great family discussions, and their sense of thriftiness.

So instead of the kids playing on team sports and watching TV, they're thinking and talking. And reading and finding bugs in the yard. The kinds of things kids did before...well, okay, that's a different blog.

Plus, how's your work ethic? If you were lucky enough to keep your job, you're probably working pretty darn hard. And if you're at home, it's definitely the same.

Travel's cheap, and summer's here. Maybe you've planned a trip you never could've afforded. I offer this at the risk of being hypocritcal about the gas thing. Maybe the offset is family time, education, and appreciation for other cultures.

Speaking of that compassion, do you realize that while we are in this crisis, we are still living far above the conditions of most of the rest of the world? We are lucky, yes, lucky. Is there anything we can do for the less fortunate, even when we have less ourselves?

And education, incredible! The country is going back to school. My community college's predicted enrollment for fall? 150 percent increase!!!

I know times are tough. Believe me. This family hasn't been untouched by the recession.

But while money's been tight, there's been an opportunity to re-evaluate priorities, right?

We can choose to be worried and frustrated and anxious and angry. Or we can make the most of what we can for our families, the environment, and the world.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Recess from Recession

A frog hopped into a bank. When it was his turn, he came up to teller Patty Black and asked her to front him some money.

The teller asked what he had for collateral.

Slipping a filthy knapsack from his back, the frog placed it on the counter and licked his frog lips.

"I don't know," said Patty Black. "I'll have to get manager approval."

Patty Black lifted the backpack with one finger and carried it over to her manager's desk. "There's an amphibian at my counter, and he wants to trade this for a loan," she said. "I'm not even sure what this disgusting thing is."

The manager looked up from his pile of papers and said, matter-of-factly, "It's a knapsack, Patty Black. Give the frog a loan."