Should I save the boy or correct the grammar? A conundrum-like parable

As I walked off of a middle school campus in Brockton, Massachusetts earlier today after doing a series of huge student assemblies for the incarcerated – I mean, scholars – a moral conundrum struck. There, as school let out and I crossed back to my vehicle, a few kids were tossing a football around. (Or rather, tossing around a football, I should say… as you’ll see why in a moment.)

Happens all the time across America everyday, right? And then, out of nowhere, I heard the scream right next to me: “Look out, you’re gonna get ranned over!”

And sure enough, a boy was preparing to dash into the middle of a car-infested street to chase down an errantly thrown football. That’s when my stumper, my perplexity, the riddle amongst all riddles set in.

“Should I save the boy or correct the grammar?”

No one ever prepared me for such dilemmas when I was working on my Master’s degree, I tell you that.

The child blindly stepped off the curb, keyed in on only one reality: get that football.

And yet, the other boy had just used the word “ranned”? (Seriously?)

Could I remedy both potential calamities at the same time? Impossible, I deduced. Should I lurch for the child with an eye towards the oncoming vehicle, I’d surely lose out on my opportunity to remediate the faulty verb usage of the incorrigible on the curb. Yet, if I addressed the notions of syntax, participles, faithfulness to the queen’s english and diligence to to matters easily referenced by Strunk and White, then a kid could be ka-putt.

What to do? But there was no time to think. Instinct took over.

I extended my arm, grabbed the kid and pulled him close.

“There is absolutely no such word as ranned,” I said. “Never, ever incorporate this vocabulary word into your speech again, okay? Ranned is NOT a word!”

Then I turned and walked serenely away, my back to the loud, yet oddly unfazing screeeeech.

Always, remember, we must do all we can to save ‘em one kid at a time.

3 years a bloggin’

images

It’s coming up on my 3 year anniversary of embracing the world of blogging and the truth is, I’ve been considering “tossin’ in the ol’ towel”.

Until this year’s trip to NCTE that is.

I was a bit surprised by the amount of people who told me how much they enjoyed “my humor”. (Of course, as they said this I silently thought to myself, “I wasn’t kidding about any of that crap.” Oh well, such is my curse.)

So good news, the mildly smile-inducing swipes at cartoonish policy makers, mystifying administrators and society’s “you did what?” befuddlers will continue. There’s not really a grand plan to all this, mind you. Not much of an agenda outside of knowing that by continuing to write, I get to 1) have fun, 2) have a voice (or at least the feeling that I have a voice which is probably all one really needs anyway; which is more critical, perception or reality?) and 3) keep the mental muscles in shape that feed my ever-evolving book writing career (where I write YA titles about things like nerds, gang-bangers, hoops, hip-hop, illegal immigrants, and 8th grade boys with erections. Of course, if I am ever going to compose a literary masterpiece, it will have to be a tome which incorporates all of these elements into one novel, sort of a Vonnegut meets Douglass Adams with a splash of Hunter Thompson, Christopher Buckley and Oprah Winfrey in the mix. Why Oprah Winfrey. Hey, can’t hurt.)

Like a pro athlete, ya gotta stay in shape year round which means that as a pro writer, ya gotta bang on the keyboard continuously. Since this I believe I will venture on, blabbing and blah-ing and spouting off on things about which I am quite ill-informed. (Trust me, I’m not the only one and some folks making quite a good living at it. No names mentioned, Mr. Perry.

D’oh!)

So enjoy your day and know that yes, zee infinitesimally significant (and that’s probably over-stating the matter) blog will roll on into 2012.

May peace be with you this holiday season.

How I handle being an intellectual bantamweight when in w/ the heavies

Jim Burke and Barry Lane

I don’t want to give the impression that attending conferences like NCTE is not thought-provoking, challenging, and intellectually hard work. There are always so many smart people under the roofs that it doesn’t take someone like me too long before I find myself in quite the heavyweight discussion. (Realizing, of course, that I’m like a bantamweight in the bout – which then often leads me to go to my only tried and true move when I find the neurological waters, too deep: nod head, rub ear lobe, make direct eye contact, think of a few multi-syllabic, academic sounding words to include in my next sentence: “Yes, but does the empirical evidence statistically support the metacognitive perspective on that assumption?”)

Works like a charm!

Here’s a photo of just such a moment. Me and a few very deep thinkers contemplating how best to address the upcoming challenges of Common Core.

As one of the few Alan’s at ALAN I gotta say that ALAN rocks.

chessboard

Every Sunday night after NCTE is officially over there is a tremendous cocktail party for ALAN. Not ALAN as in me, Alan – though don’t think I am not considering suing over such a mildly convenient coincidence for them – but ALAN as in ALAN, an organization which, for $20 a year, is an absolutely a fantastic group to join. YA lit is hot and being a part of The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents (ALAN) brings you the inside poop on the hottest of ‘em all.

My first year at ALAN I knew no one. Sat in a corner as a first time author and felt entirely out-of-place. I caught glimpses of celebrated writers like a hungry orphan standing in the cold looking through a large pane glass window at rich people eating magnificent steaks. These days, I guess I must look like one of those people dining on New York strips to those new authors first getting an invite to join in on the fun. I’m in on “the schmooze”.

Let’s face it, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it’s totally cool to be on a first-name basis with Laurie Halse Anderson, Jacqueline Woodson, Neal Shusterman, Jon Scieszka, Gordon Korman, and on and on and on. I mean these folks write AWESOME books and now, I’m like a peer? I still can’t get over that one.

At the ALAN cocktail party Laurie told me how she scrapped three book projects because she just knew “they were crap”, felt her tank was running low on gas, trained and ran her first marathon, and is now cooking at the keyboard again. I could tell by the light in her eye that this next book is something we are all going to want to read.

Neal Shusterman explained to me how he keeps up with his writing schedule, cranking out 2 books a year, how he’ll often sign a contract for one book but as he is working on it, matters will evolve and it will turn into another book entirely. Interesting indeed.

There are picture book authors, YA award winners, folks who were just naturally blessed with an abundance of personality and talent (like John Green… hello, unfair to be that personable and that great with text) and folks who are quiet and demure yet burst like ferocious lions on the page when you read their works. Plus there are books editors and publishers galore at the shin-dig. Buying them a drink now and then doesn’t hurt the ol’ career at all either. (Okay, it’s open bar with free drinks. But still…)

As one of the few Alan’s at ALAN I gotta say that ALAN rocks.

Oh yeah… next year, NCTE will be in Vegas! Nuff said.

Still feeling the WOW!

As my second day of NCTE 2011 is upon me, it’s almost unreal to reflect upon the professional incredible-ness this conference has delivered to my doorstep as a YA author.

Without a doubt, as a writer, NCTE has changed my life.

At the great risk of name dropping, I am now going to name drop… partly because it’s very much a “pinch me” type of reflection I am currently experiencing.

I’ve shared a stage with Walter Dean Myers, Laurie Halse Anderson, Gordon Korman, Jaqueline Woodson, Gennifer Choldenko, T.A. Barron, and many, many more. I’ve dined with Dave Barry, Rick Riordan, Avi, Mo Willems, Ridley Pearson, Rosemary Wells, Sara Pennypacker, Norton Juster, Coe Booth, Melissa De La Cruz, Ned Vizzini, and many, many more.

Like how cool is that? In football, the top-tier players, when they score, simply walk into the end zone, hand the ref the ball and “act like they have been there before”. Well, Saturday morning at 11:00 a.m. I am going to be sharing a stage with Jon Scieszka. On the outside, I guess there is a part of me that’s going to “act like I been there before” but on the inside, I think that if I lose my sense of child-like giddiness about how entirely rockin’ it is to be able to work along side of some of the best of the best in the publishing industry, then that will be my sign that, “Yo… you’ve become jaded.”

Plus, right after the session I do with Jon, I am going to be signing yet another new book of mine at the Disney booth – one they are giving away FREE on a first come, first serve basis starting at 12:30 in the exhibit hall. (They only have a coupla hundred yet year after year they run out. NERD GIRLS BOOK 2: A CATASTROPHE OF NERDISH PROPORTIONS is getting ready to launch.)

To become blase’ about any of this really would be a sign of losing perspective, wouldn’t it? I mean WOW!

Pre-reflection on NCTE’s value as an educator

NCTE icon

As my first day of NCTE 2011 in Chicago is upon me, it’s incredible to reflect upon the professional amazing-ness attending this conference has brought to me as an English Language Arts lifer.
Flat out, my skills set has been forever elevated for making the effort to be here.

As an educator, I’ve literally had a chance to hear some of the most cutting edge ideas in the world of ELA from some of the top thinkers in our profession. In no particular order, I’ve had the good fortune to meet and hear the brainiacical manifestations of Carol Jago, Kylene Beers, Kelly Gallagher, Janet Allen, Bob Marzano, Jim Burke, Jeff Anderson, Carol Booth Olson, Jeff Wilhelm, Bob Probst, Alfred Tatum… the list is too long for me to even bother to continue to type. (Easily, I could triple the name dropping.) I’ve paid homage to their concepts, I’ve referenced their research and I’ve shamelessly stolen their lesson plans and gone straight back to my own classroom to use their ideas, tools and strategies.

Without a doubt, if I know anything at all about working in the world of literacy, my knowledge base has been enhanced – if not greatly shaped – by the influence of having met, chatted up and been able to sit in the audience of the great PD sessions these folks – and many, many more – have had to offer.

We’re all standing on the shoulders of those who came before us in a way. NCTE simply hoists me higher.

A Jim Burke Serendipity Tale

I once saw a documentary piece on Pixar and how Steve Jobs had instructed the architect who was building HQ to physically design the building so that nooks and crannies were hard to find and “collision points” were everywhere. Why did he do this? Because he felt that the best ideas often came when people were walking down the hall and bumped into other people… because in that moment of collision (or was it serendipity) excellent ideas were born via unscheduled, relaxed, low-pressure conversation and collaboration.

Whenever I leave NCTE it often feels as if this has happened to me. And nowadays, the week before I venture there, I just sense that somehow, someway, through some sort of some-thing, I will have an offhand encounter that will lead to an offhand conversation that will ultimately result into an explosion of personal insight.

Here’s a Jim Burke story to illustrate the point:

A bunch of years ago at NCTE Jim and I sat down for a coffee. We used to meet for dinner every year until “scheduled dinners” stole away our ability to do this (and boy do I miss our sushi date, Jim, if you are reading this). Anyway, during this coffee break I ran a kooky new book idea up Jim’s flagpole.

All I really had was a title at the time and a small premise.

“I have an idea for a new YA book of fiction, a comedy,” I said.

“If I may be so bold to ask, what is it?” Jim replied. (Jim is always unfailingly polite… unlike the blustery moi.)

“Well, here’s the title… ERECTION! It’s about a middle school boy who gets busted with a boner in math class.”

Jim broke out laughing. Now the thing is, none of this was premeditated. I do not even think I arrived at the conference planning on pitching Jim an idea for a book, one that I sensed would certainly engage boy readers. (The holy grail, in a way, these days.)

However, the moment Jim busted out with a belly laugh I had a flash of insight that this book was even funnier than I suspected. And would be relatable in a way that was more than I expected. And would be touching the taboo yet staying within bounds in a way that was more than I expected. And that’s when I knew I had to write this book. Jim’s sensibilities weren’t offended at all. (My fear.) And humor, as I suspected, held the potential to carry the day when it came to tackling a difficult subject. (Like male puberty.) Jim literally was the first person I told about this idea and even though that was years ago, a seed was planted at NCTE that afternoon which I knew I’d one day HAVE to harvest. (NOTE: this idea morphed into my new book THE DOWNSIDE OF BEING UP which has garnered the first starred review of my fiction writing career.)

Of course, all of this happened by happenstance, by running into one another when we each had a moment. Though I have no idea whether or not Steve Jobs would have liked my book, I do think he would have knowingly nodded at how the idea was born and cemented.

Attending conferences live and in the flesh will deliver a plethora of tremendous insights for those who make the trek to Chicago this week. Perhaps it will be a lesson plan that unlocks a kid who has previously been a really tough nut to crack? Perhaps it will be a person you meet while waiting in line for a mid-day snack that makes you remember why you love being a professional educator deep in your bones? Perhaps it will be a book editor who gives you your first break, a principal who offers you a new job or an online friend who suddenly becomes more than a mere avatar. Heck, you might even learn something while sitting in one of the sessions listening to one of the tremendous presenters. (Shocking, I know.)

So why should folks attend more conferences. Because serendipity awaits.

I just don’t get this whole Joe Paterno thing

I just don’t get the whole Joe Paterno thing.

On one hand, if he is in any way complicit to sheltering a monster (see The Sandusky Child Abuse scandal) then why in the world would the university allow him to be on the sidelines this Saturday… and for the rest of the football season?

And if he is not liable – legally or morally – in any manner, then why resign?

One thing which seems clear is that Joe Pa appears to be tone deaf to the severity of this atrocity. I mean why even head to football practice the other day when the news broke? Why not say something like, “Ya know what, I am 100% innocent of any and all allegations but still, since I recognize how heinous this crime is, I am going to show my compassion and understanding by putting football on the back-burner while more serious matters take precedence and sort themselves out a bit.”

After all, the abuse did happen under the umbrella of your football program, Joe – and no one in the history of college football has ever owned a bigger NCAA football umbrella than you, Mr. “Pa” – so take a moment, think about the victims and at least sit out a practice – or even a game or two – simply out of a sense of “doing the right thing”, huh?

That’s what I don’t get. If you are innocent of any and all charges and you sit out for a little bit, then all you did was the right thing while matters sorted themselves out. (And considering the type of crime we are talking about here, it’s hardly something one could consider an “exceptional, undue sacrifice” at all.)

And if things sort out in a way that doesn’t favor you – and goodness knows, we all hope they do not – then you do not deserve to be on the practice field for even one more snap.

But going on with “business as usual”? Especially when it seems that the number one concern by the athletic department was to protect the reputation of the athletic department.

You are an educator, Mr. Paterno. All college coaches are. And what is the lesson being taught by you right now? (Really, I just don’t understand how your actions translate in a positive ways for those sodomized young boys.) I mean look at this paragraph as taken from a news release written after you just had a chance to meet with your team.

Paterno met with his coaching staff and players for about 10-15 minutes in an auditorium of the football facility. Standing at a podium, he told them he was leaving and broke down in tears.

Players gave him a standing ovation when he walked out.

Junior quarterback Stephon Morris said some players also were nearly in tears as Paterno spoke.

“I still can’t believe it,” Morris said. “I’ve never seen Coach Paterno like that in my life.”

Asked what was the main message of Paterno’s talk, Morris said: “Beat Nebraska.”

“Beat Nebraska” is the main message these young men should take from this discussion? I’m dumbfounded.

And is there another “educator” in the land that would have the luxury of being able to return to work with such questions hanging over their head. There’s not a 7th grade social studies teacher in the country who’d be back teaching a lesson on the Bill of Rights if the school district where they worked was bathed in a similar stench. Is this a case of “above the law”? Certainly, by returning for the rest of the season, you are acting like it.

And Penn State, by allowing him to return, you are worse. Where’s your own moral compass in this whole thing. Don’t let Joe retire; let him clear his name and then invite him to coach until he’s 125 years old. But until his actions are scrutinized and cleared, why in the world are you allowing him back to “represent your university and lead your program”?

I just don’t get this whole Joe Paterno thing. As a parent, I am freaked. As an educator, I am freaked. As a citizen of this country, I am freaked. As a fan of college football, Joe Paterno, and sports in general, yep… I am freaked. Can someone please explain to me what is going on right now?

No matter how you slice it, when a teacher cheats, the bad guys win.

Are teachers justified in cheating? This article in the L.A. Times seems to be tinted with a subtext that says, “Okay, we cheat but really, they are forcing us to do so which means that, well… it’s there fault, not ours.”

Not sure that I buy that.

Sure, the standardized testing pressures are unfair and oppressive. And yes, the bubble tests are being used by clowns to make sweeping generalizations that are tragic in their shortcomings and egregious in their mis-information but still, rationalizing cheating?

Boycott the bubble tests. Protest. Stage a revolution and get every teacher on campus to RESIST! But cheat? It just submarines any potential credibility an educator can one day have in standing up as a force for good in fighting this maniacal bubble-test nonsense. Active resistance is much more sensible than passive/aggressive protest, particularly when the means of being passive/aggressive are molded by the stench of moral convenience.

Teachers as cheaters open up the whole, “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” faucet – and I am not sure there is ever a win to be had by traveling down that road. It also opens up the question of what kind of role models are we rolling out for our kids if the teachers feel that cheating on the tests is the only way to get what it is they want from a situation. I mean, why shouldn’t the kids take this same road for the Pop Quiz in period 2? (i.e. They don’t like the teacher’s assessment system and feel legitimized in turning to deception in order to 1) make their point and 2) get what it is that they want from the situation. What classroom teacher ever buys that from a kid who gets busted cheating on a test?)

Sure, teachers are going to cheat on these tests and yes, the high-stakes pressure is certainly a reason for why this will happen more and more going forward. But when you irrationally turn the screws on folks, people respond in kooky, irrational ways. That’s on them. However, do us all a favor, Teach: if you do get busted, at least buck and and own the consequences. Just say, “Yep, I cheated and yep, you caught me. I did the crime and now I must do the time.” Really, don’t try to justify your actions… it rings hollow and taints every other educator in the land.

No matter how you slice it, when a teacher cheats, the bad guys win.

Kids Must Taste Academic Fun.

I was asked be be the guest blogger for the International Reading Association (IRA) last week. This is a reprint of my esteemed literary contribution.

Time for a Pop Quiz. Question: What do you called kindergarten without art or music?

Answer: High school.

(All right, all right, if you said middle school, it’s worth half-credit.)

Now to some of us the little Q & A above delivers a small chuckle. However, to others it represents a brutal reality. The fact is schools are bludgeoning today’s kids with flavorless, sanitized, exuberant-less content nowadays – more so than we ever have ever done before– and too many classrooms are plagued by a contagion of joylessness in the pursuit of standardized, homogenized ideals.

Me, if I ever get a chance to dictate our nation’s educational policy, I am going to bring back that extra-cheesy, covered in orange grease, stored under the heat lamp, pepperoni pizza I used to be able to scarf down at lunchtime (you know, the slices that got thrown under the bus by the politically correct helicopter moms who wanted their little angels to eat tree bark and locally grown organic berries for mid-day nutrition) and mandate that the first and foremost rule of educational policy – particularly when it comes to advancing literacy skills – is that KIDS MUST TASTE ACADEMIC FUN! That’s right, I believe in the power of joy to bring out the best in student work and learning.

Now stay with me here because no, I am not about to kick rigor to the curb. And no, I do not think that “fun” represents the penultimate aspiration for teaching and learning. And bzzp, my proposal does not warrant a lowering of scholarly expectations, either. In fact, I think the contrary. Extensive experience has shown me that students who enjoy their studies will learn more than students who don’t give a poop. (Note: I can back that up with hard research for all the data wonks out there.)

Indeed, it’s time we collectively go to bat more officially for the power of joy as it relates to learning. Why? Well, to paraphrase a semi-famous theater hack, “Let me count the ways”.

1) The vice grip approach of turning the screws on low performing students through a drill-n-kill line of attack on elevating skills is contributing to America’s egregious drop out rate and exacerbating the Achievement Gap it actually aims to alleviate. That’s right, our current methodology is creating more of the problems we are supposedly purporting to solve. Really, who does that? (Note: Feel free to fill in your own snarky government/big corporation/family relative’s name here __________________ ).

2) Making learning a pleasurable experience requires no more cost than making learning a tedious one… except that it learns the little ones a whole lot better. See, joy, smiles and delight in school are free. (Not to mention highly effective.) This is key these days because when you look at how the budget cuts have decimated our classroom supplies, eviscerated our nation’s librarians and levied a full frontal assault on every corner of education in our country, creatively solving problems with a sober recognition of the fact that “there ain’t no money” requires all of us to use the tools we do have instead of complaining about all of the tools we do not.

3) Have you done your professional reading? Readicide, The Book Whisperer, The Reading Zone, Making the Match, What’s the Big Idea?, Teaching Literacy for Love and Wisdom… I could go on and on.

4) Have we forgotten that the ultimate goal of education is not to be able to bubble in a correct A, B, C, or D answer choice on a standardized test? Sure, the loons who make policy may have lost their goofy minds by over-emphasizing the information which can be gleaned from bubble test scores and then making political hay with cherry-picked information to advance their own personal ambitions, but that doesn’t mean that those on the front lines need to forget that we are dealing with real kids. REAL PEOPLE. The kind who live, eat, breathe and come to our classrooms starving for a meaningful human connection to their school work. In fact, this is why I became a YA author in the first place – to write books that reached real kids. Through humor. Through drama. Through the ageless art of telling salient, “Whoa did I dig that” stories. And what’s my great “here’s how you, too, can learn to reach real kids” secret? Well, understanding that today’s kids are reachable is a good start. (Plus, caffeine helps as well, he added as his left eyelid twitched.)

Fifthly – if that’s even a word – kids like to learn. That’s not a misprint; that’s a fact. And if you don’t know this about today’s young people I’d suggest that you do not know much about today’s students at all. It’s like a great fisherman once said, “You don’t bait the hook with what the fisherman likes; you bait the hook with what the fish likes.” Kids will read. Kids will write. In fact, it could be argued that today’s students are actually doing more reading and writing than any generation prior. (But since we devalue the digital literacy component in the world of academia… okay, okay, I’ll save this tangent for another blog post.)

Now it’s time for points 6 through 2,867 which can best be summarized by connecting a few dots. Fun leads to joy. But fun is like sugar, the high quickly wears off and the need for something more substantive arises. This is where meaningfulness, relevance, accessibility and challenge come into play. This is also where depth, breath, scope and purpose come in. This is also where a sense of self-direction, self-discipline and hard work factor in as well. Kids will do the work hard for objectives they find meaningful (Can anyone say, “Boys who game?”) but they will not do so simply because the task has been legislated. Without a doubt today’s students are eager to grow, learn, give a great effort and demonstrate their aptitudes in mind-blowing ways if they are internally motivated to do so. But if they’re not, they won’t. Reality is a cold beast. Like it or not, smiles, fun, joy and personal fulfillment matter.

BTW, if you require more reading on the subject, check out Drive, Switch, or the thoughts of Sir Ken Robinson. Indeed, they may have killed the orange-oiled pepperoni pizza in our halls of academic but if we let them kill the fun, they will have ripped out our entire soul. And none of us will be the better for it.