Category Archives: Observations

How Writing Should Be Taught

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The way writing is taught is, by and large, terrible.

Starting at an early age, English teachers encourage students to think of writing as an unbearable chore, a hellish task, and something that only the rarefied few will ever excel at. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I loved writing as a kid, and love it still, but it was in spite of my writing teachers, not because of them. They did their damnedest to make writing a miserable experience. Frequently a first draft writing assignment would come back to me marked up with red ink, with harsh comments in the columns. This is not the way to teach a creative process.

Often the way writing is graded by teachers puts too much focus on the mechanics. I know why teachers do this. It is a fact that poor mechanics in writing will make other people think you are stupid. A single typo on a resume could mean you don’t get invited for an interview. People love finding ways to elevate themselves above others, and the English language is an absolute minefield of opportunities for error – homophones, silent letters, foreign spellings, irregular plural markers. And often in modern society your first impression on another person is through your writing. An error in mechanics can have an outsize impact.

But writing is not mechanics. Writing is not spelling and grammar and handwriting. Those are the tools we use to produce writing, just as paintbrushes, paint and brush strokes are the tools a painter uses to create art. But the writing itself is so much more than the sum of its parts.

Writing can be many things. Analysis. Explanation. Persuasion. Expression. Good writing has a voice that is unique to the writer, and ideas combined in new ways. The raw material of writing is drawn from experience, and the practice of writing improves the result. This is a creative endeavor, and it should be taught as such.

If art teachers taught painting the way English teachers teach writing, no one would enjoy art. And in fact, some art teachers do teach art badly, and the result is a lot of people giving up on something they enjoy, because they think they can’t “hack it” as artists. Shame on those teachers.

Imagine if you were trying to learn to paint, and every time the art teacher came around to look at your work they said things like “your lines aren’t straight enough” or “these proportions are all wrong”. How long would you last under that treatment?

And yet so many people think this is the way to teach writing. The vast majority of my writing teachers felt it was appropriate to laser in on every error, prejudge my work before talking to me, and to deconstruct what I wrote rather than to engage with it holistically. Very few of them ever asked questions like “what were you trying to do with this section?” – and of the few who did, I LOVED those teachers.

edited paper

By way of contrast, let me describe the methods of my favorite art teacher.

First, she made us comfortable. She made tea. Sometimes there were crackers or little cookies to nibble on. We talked about our week, and how we were feeling that day. Sometimes a student was tired or just “not feeling it today” and would abstain from painting. Instead, they would watch the rest of the class and provide encouragement. This had the double benefit of giving them a break (you can’t force art) and making the process feel more like a team effort.

Next, she helped us find ideas. You can’t just sit down to paint. You need to have something in mind that you want to work on. Often, this is the hardest part of the creative process – just getting started. Sometimes she would bring a curious object. “I found this wierd lamp at a yard sale!” she would say, holding up some ugly glass thing. “Anyone want to paint it?” Often, she took us outside, where the light and subjects were always changing, and inspiration was much easier to find. If we brought our own ideas to work on, she encouraged that heartily.

She engaged with our art on its own merits, not based on what she wanted us to produce. Once we were sitting in the alley, painting a scene of the fence and trees in her back yard. She came to look at what I was working on, and asked me “tell me about your piece.” This gave me the opportunity to describe what I had picked and why. “I liked the way the light was coming through the tree and breaking up on the fence. See? I’m painting the speckles.” She nodded. “That’s great!” she would say with real enthusiasm. She meant the idea, not the painting – she was encouraging the process, not the mechanics. She did not say things like “your fence lines are all wavy” or “this shading is all wrong.” She might, however, after asking several questions about the choices I had made and the techniques I had chosen to employ, offer some advice about technique. “You’re spending a lot of time in this corner of the paper. See if you can fill the whole sheet.” This had the effect of stretching me, encouraging me to build on what I had already achieved. It buoyed me, and made me want to work harder. If she had criticized my fence lines, do you think I would have felt buoyed? I don’t think so.

alley with fence

The way writing is taught can be this way. It SHOULD be this way.

Writing is a creative process, and writers get better with practice. Too much focus on mechanics, like spelling and handwriting, gets in the way and discourages people from the real meat and potatoes of writing – the analysis, the expression. Does a 9th grade English teacher really think they are going to improve on a student’s handwriting at that point? Are they really going to succeed where the 3rd grade teacher, who spent considerably more effort, has failed? If a person has bad hand-writing by the 9th grade, they probably always will. Give that student a computer and never look back. And as far as spelling goes, that is something that improves the more a person READS. Correcting spelling is important, but it should happen at the end of the editing process, never near the beginning of the writing process. And this is where a computer can shine, too. Students should be taught not to trust spell check or auto-correct completely, but to use them as tools to help find errors, which are difficult to see even for the most experienced of writers.

Writing, a skill so needed to be successful in our modern society, must be taught in such a way that it does not terrify or shame the student. Here is a hypothetical way that a writing teacher could adapt the methods of my favorite art teacher, and in fact, a poetry teacher of mine did many of these exact things.

First, encourage students to WANT to write. By 6th grade, many of my classmates had come to view writing as some form of punishment. Perhaps if they had been invited to write about something that was of interest to them, they would have been more inclined. For example: you like model planes? Here is a book about it. Write me a page about anything you loved in here. That sort of method works for some people. For others, writing seems like a boring, pointless pursuit. Appeal to them on practical grounds. Don’t like the way the city runs the parks? Write them a letter. Don’t like the way the movie theater overcharges for popcorn? Write a complaint. Write a review. Want to get a scholarship? Write an essay. For people who don’t enjoy the expressive or explanatory aspects of writing, it’s important to show them its practical value as a tool for getting what they want in life.

Second, encourage an environment where writing can happen at all. Asking a class to sit down together – with people they perhaps don’t like, in uncomfortable wooden chairs, with fluorescent lights overhead, in a drafty room, probably on an empty stomach, tired from staying up too late watching TV – to write an essay about the use of symbolism in Catcher in the Rye, is just too damn much. The hand writing is bad, and they know it, but they can’t help it. Their spelling is wrong, and they know it. They never much liked Sallinger anyway – they prefer Star Trek/My Little Pony cross-over fanfic. They can’t think of anything to write. Their mind is wandering. They scribble something down. They turn it in. They get it back the next day, covered in red ink. Missing paragraph breaks. Poor transitions. Lacks a conclusion or thesis. They got the dates wrong. It’s wrong, wrong, all wrong. This is not a situation that’s conducive to writing.

Here is what my poetry teacher did. He asked us how we were feeling. We chatted, we laughed, together as a group. He took us outside, had us walk around, and talk to each other about what we were seeing, smelling, feeling. He gave us good writing to read, and we talked about it, as a group, bouncing ideas off each other and making new connections. Then, and only then, he had us write.

Third, always engage with the writer first, not the writing. Ask questions. “Tell me what you were trying to do” is a good place to start. Writing is just thinking, written down in a linear fashion. Our brains don’t really think the same way that writing works, and this translation is harder than most people appreciate. A good teacher will ask the student to think about what they were trying to accomplish, and then help them assess whether or not they achieved that.

Fourth, encourage the writer’s voice. If I had a nickel for every time a teacher told me a phrase I used was “too informal” or used “inappropriate tone” I could buy a sandwich. Fortunately, I had some well of “fuck you” to draw on that saw me through those frustrating situations. I often argued with my teachers. I would say “that is my voice and if you don’t like it, too bad.” Later in life I have looked at these writing samples and agreed with my teacher’s comments, but that is NOT the point. By commenting on my voice, they were telling me what my voice should be, and that is wrong. If my art teacher had said my painting in the alley was “too cheerful” she would have been just as wrong. Perhaps my tone was inappropriate to what I was trying to achieve with my piece, but did these teachers ask what my intent was and engage me that way? No. They assumed and dictated, and in doing so, they were inadvertently crushing my unique voice and risking damaging my desire to write at all.

Finally, the last thing a teacher should do is to critique mechanics. Mechanics do need to be taught. Good writing does need to be readable. But there is a reason that professional writers write first and edit later. Writing and editing are two completely different processes.

My art teacher gave suggestions, but they were not commands. If I chose to ignore her and press forward, she never said another word unless I asked for help. Once, when I expressed frustration with a piece – and crucially, was in a place where I wanted to hear advice – she suggested that my painting looked overworked. That I needed to learn to recognize when it was done and to stop, to leave something up to the imagination of the viewer. In this way, she gave me an idea for future pieces, but was not overly critical of the one I had just produced. I took this feedback graciously and have carried it with me ever since.

girl writing at chalkboard

And so, in conclusion (look at me! I have a conclusion!) I learned more about writing from an art teacher I met with a few times for fun on Saturday mornings, than I did from countless hours spent with English teachers and their red pens. Writing is an art form, and a crucial skill for success as an adult. Everyone can learn to do it well, but only if they practice. And people will only practice if they enjoy it at least a little bit.

Writing can be a powerful expressive skill. Teachers, please: don’t kill that spark.

Goodness and Compassion

How good or evil a person is has less to do with innate virtue and more to do with opportunity and example. If we want people to be good, we need to make sure their basic needs are met. The only other solution is to kill them, and so far we have not found a way to do that that does not harm us, too.

There is no limit to what happy, well-fed, well-loved people can accomplish working together.

I am not naive. My compassion is logical and evidence-based.

If the suffering and problems of other people overwhelms you because you have too much suffering of your own, that’s okay. I will be the compassion champion for you, too.

Nations of the World: Navajo

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Today I read about the Black Mesa Water Coalition, and you should, too. The short version is that coal mining and uranium mining was developed in the region with the promise of developing the economy. Instead it left the region and the Navajo people with polluted air, a depleted aquifer, and a ruined economy.  Now local activists are working to replace the defunct coal mines with solar energy, turning polluted, damaged land into something that can produce real value to the region. (Click the link above to learn more or donate.)

The Navajo live in the Four Corners region in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, having moved into the region about 600 years ago. The nation has over 300,000 enrolled tribal members – about the same number of people as Iceland.

Navajo mythology contains one of my favorite mythical characters of any time or place: Coyote, the trickster. But, I stumbled across this legend that’s more modern, and worth a quick read (and a thoughtful chuckle): The Navajo and the Astronaut.

The Navajo nation, contrary to what your high school history book may have lead you to believe, is not defunct. They are struggling with economic hardships, poor high school graduation rates, and high levels of cancer and diabetes. But they are still telling stories, and they are still developing their land to make a home for their families.

Traditional Navajo houses are always built facing East to welcome the morning sun, the way Coyote taught them. I can’t think of a better metaphor for hope.

Nations of the World: Nigeria

“Truth is like a baobab tree; one person’s arms cannot embrace it” (African proverb)

Nigeria is an old, complicated place. As the most populous country in Africa, and with the largest economy of African nations (20th largest economy in the world), Nigeria is an important world power. Culturally, Nigeria is growing in importance, too – for example, Nigeria’s film industry “Nollywood” is now the second largest producer of films in the world.

Like so many other modern nations, Nigeria struggles from the lingering effects of colonialism. The southern part of the country, more influenced by British control in the 20th century, is largely Christian and practices common law, while the northern part of the country is largely Muslim and officially practices Sharia law. There are huge differences in wealth and influence, deepened by ongoing government corruption, and fueled (pun intended) by the oil industry. But more than that, Nigeria is a country of multiple ethnic and linguistic groups who have been vying for influence for at least a thousand years. There is bound to be conflict.

I found a great thread where Nigerians were swapping myths and superstitions from different parts of the country. The common themes are fascinating, and resonate with similar myths from all over the world. But there are some interesting differences, too, such as the proper response to a snake in your house. Some people say you should kill the snake, and bury its head separately from the body. But others say you should pick it up with a stick and carry it far from your home.

In 2002, a 21-year-old journalist named Isioma Daniel wrote an article for the fashion section of a paper about the upcoming Miss World contest to be held in Nigeria. In addressing the grumblings of some Muslim Nigerians about the inappropriate nature of the contest, she quipped that the prophet Mohammed would probably have married one of the contestants. Her comment became the catalyst (or excuse) for riots in the country, ultimately resulting in the deaths of over 200 people. A Muslim leader in the North issued a fatwa saying she had blasphemed and that her blood could be spilled. Daniel fled the country, and has been in Norway ever since. I wish very much that I could talk to her, but she does not seem to be on Twitter. There is some indication that she is working on a book, and I hope very much to see that one day.

As a country rich with cultural heritage, Nigeria is of course rich in mythology, too. But one story I particularly like is about the baobob tree. The tree has adapted to conserve water by not having leaves for nine months out of the year. It’s a huge, long-lived tree that looks like a normal tree that has been pulled back up and shoved in the ground again upside down. In fact, one story has it that the god Thora did not like the baobob tree in his garden, so he threw it down to earth, where it landed upside down but kept growing. Thus the baobob tree represents strength.

Trees were important to my nordic ancestors, too, so this story really resonated with me. Resilience is certainly a trait we humans associate with trees, and I think we are a little jealous of them for it. I hope that the people of Nigeria can survive the struggles they are dealing with now, and continue to be the great and vibrant nation they have been for over a thousand years.

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Nations of the World: South Korea

Korea is the home of at least three of my favorite things: Tae Kwon Do, Go, and Bulgogi. Okay, actually go came from China, but it has been popular in Korea for centuries, too. If you have never played go, I highly recommend it. There are plenty of places you can play online.

Korea was divided into U.S. and Soviet zones following World War II, and turned into the site of a proxy war between the super powers (US, China and Russia) in the 1950’s. Korea is still separated into two nations: South Korea (a.k.a Republic of Korea), and North Korea. Today South Korea is one of the wealthiest and most prosperous nations in the world, while North Korea sadly is one of the poorest. (I will write more about North Korea later.)

As a prosperous nation, Korea is known for a great many things. But one fun fact is that Korean cuisine is some of the most delicious food in the world. I’ve read through numerous “best of the world” food lists, and Korean food frequently tops the charts. Some examples for your culinary experimentation include: bulgogi, bibimbap, kimchi, tteokbokki (holy cow this looks good), and, you know, really just everything on this list. Yum.

Speaking of delicious things, The Fox Sister is a terrifying Korean myth about a girl with a taste for liver… human liver, that is. Foxes feature in many myths around the world as tricksters and shape-shifters. I’ll let you decide what you think this story is about. It is for sure creepy. There is a comic inspired by this myth that you can read online. The fox sister, or Kumiho, is similar to Chinese and Japanese myths about foxes. Some earlier sources depict the Kumiho as a more sympathetic character, but she later became pure evil. Maybe she was angry at the patriarchy.

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Nations of the World

In an effort to learn more about peoples and places of the world, I am embarking on a little project to write one post each day on a different nation of the world. Because it’s more fun and paints a more interesting picture, I will also be writing about the various nations of people who do not enjoy official recognition by other nations (places such as Kurdistan, Taiwan, and Barotseland).

In grade school, when we did a geography project they always had us write about the climate, material culture and economy of the nations we were studying. While I find the sort of thing fascinating now, nothing could have been more dull then. If Chile was a big exporter of bat guano, I couldn’t have cared less. (At one time they actually were, and the history of that is incredibly sad and fascinating, but I digress.) So instead of boring myself and everyone else with that sort of thing, I will write about current events in each of these places along with something about their mythology because mythology is cool and everyone loves it.

The next post will be about Russia, because that Is what my daughter chose from the map of the world. I think I know something about Russia, but I bet you I don’t know as much as I think I do. Let’s find out.

Eight Reasons Young People Are Better Than You

Kids these days. That’s right. It is a time-honored tradition to bash on the next generation, and decry the way their habits are bringing about the end of civilization.

But it’s complete bunk. Kids these days are awesome, and here is why:

  1. The teen pregnancy rate in the United States is currently the lowest that has ever been recorded. Most of the decline seems to be due to the fact that today’s youngsters are better educated about contraception than their elders were.
  2. Young people in the US read more than older people, and they are more likely to have read a book in the past year and to have visited a library. Young people read both in print and electronic formats, and report that they read more now because electronic formats are readily available. Young people are also more likely to read books on their cell phones, so when you see a young person staring at their phone… you might consider that they are reading Dostoyevsky or something.
  3. Young people today work to pay for school. – 80% of college students pay for at least part of their educational costs by working while going to school. They typically work 19 hours per week, while taking classes. How do they manage to succeed in school while working so much? Easy. The rule is “Study, work, sleep; pick two.”
  4. Young people today are the most educated generation yet.
  5. The teen smoking rate is the lowest it has been in 22 years.
  6. Young people are more likely than older generations to say that families have a responsibility to care for elders. (Even despite all the old folks decrying them.)
  7. Young people today are the most egalitarian in their thinking, and are more likely to say that men and women should have equal access to economic opportunity. They are also more likely to say that men should have the same opportunities for work/life balance as women.
  8. Young people today are both good at the etiquette of the past, and the etiquette required by new technologies. You might not think so, if you are older, but it’s because you are forgetting that: a) when you were young, you were not perfect either, and b) young people today interact with others over many more media than you did at their age. I don’t have a link for this; it’s my own personal observation. Young people today are awesome, and older people who say they “lack social skills” are full of it.

Finally, I would like to leave you with this nice story: Why the Young Get a Bad Press

Apparently, older people prefer to read negative stories about young people. Something about human nature. So, consider that the next time you’re patting yourself on the back or lamenting the next generation. Because as far as I can tell, they are better than you, better than me, and getting better all the time.

Manic

I’m feeling very manic lately. I’m on a big learning curve at work, trying to wrap my head around ITSM and ITIL and metrics, oh my. And I just signed up for a couple of courses on Coursera in the data scientist track. I don’t know yet if I will do the certification, but I’m thinking about it. I’m practicing my second languages here and there. And I’ve taken up running and have started up Tae Kwon Do again. I’m reading ten different books at the same time, listening to new music with abandon, and taking on hobbies like they’re going out of style. And I’m on twitter and facebook all the time now, reading and learning and going where my nose leads me. I’m researching setting up a business, thinking about a kickstarter, thinking about setting up an IRA. I’m drawing, and I’m writing, and I’m practicing my ukulele. :)

This feels like a cross-roads. I’m excited about a lot of things, which is great. But I am not focussed. I know eventually I will need to prune back my interests to what I can realistically accomplish in a 24-hour day. But I would rather be excited about everything than going into a slump. It’s nice to know I can still feel this enthusiastic about life, the universe and everything. Passion has no shelf life.

Bootstraps or Compassion?

People tend to differ along a spectrum about how much help they think we should give to our fellow humans. At one extreme, there are people saying everyone should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” or that we need to “empower people to help themselves.” At the other end of the spectrum, there are people speculating about whether our past and our environment predict our behavior and future success, and whether free will is even real.

It does help to “empower” people to help themselves, but there is a point (and we may disagree where this is exactly) where the individual is no longer able to help themselves. And frankly, the idea that anyone does anything alone, absent a context that helps or hurts them, is an illusion.

But to say that people are 100% NOT responsible for their actions is also unhelpful.  If I am to blame for my situation, that’s actually great, because it means I can do something about it by changing myself.

Maybe we would all be better off seeing this as a continuum, rather than a binary phenomenon, and recognizing that different individuals will be better suited – or worse – to adapt to the environments they find themselves in. At that point the question becomes: how much suffering are we willing to let another human being endure before we say “that’s not struggling leading to growth – that’s just senseless misery” and we intervene?

A Dust Jacket Review

Today I started reading Neil Gaiman’s new short story collection “Trigger Warning” and I must point out one glaring flaw.

The text on the inside front cover of the dust jacket refers to Neil Gaiman as “the beloved storyteller.”

While I am sure he is loved by many, “beloved” is hardly the right adjective.

Mother Theresa was beloved. Santa Claus is beloved. Would you call a spider “beloved”? No, you would not.

What Neil Gaiman is, is a class A trickster, a conjurer, a charlatan. He pulls you in with a story, which you dutifully gobble up. At the end, you bark a laugh or say “huh” and go about your business.

But late at night, you wake up, and see the curtains moving without a breeze, hear a floorboard squeak where no footfall should be, see a shadow that’s gone when you rub your eyes.

And on waking, there can be only one logical conclusion: that such terrors you saw in the night exist not so much in the real world, as in your own head, where they are in a way far more dangerous.

To be fair, Neil Gaiman did not put them there. But he opened the cellar door, he pulled aside the cobwebs, and took the shackles off the monster. And now it’s roaming freely in the corners of your mind.

For this bit of magic, we love him. But you would hardly call a person who does that beloved. Respected, let’s say. Possibly revered. No, we need a word with more trouble in it, more menace.

I’m not sure what it is, not having a thesaurus handy. I’ll let you decide.

For now, I’ll go finish reading “Trigger Warning” and perhaps the word will be there. Or more likely I will find it, hiding in my mind’s cellar, behind the coal chute, in that dark corner that that tricky magician is about to show me.