NaNoWriMo 2013: Want to Write a Novel?

I participated for this back in 2010, and really enjoyed it! My characters have been begging me to set them free, so I think this is the best time to do so. If you’re a writer–or just like writing–give it a shot…1667 words a day is all it takes!

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It’s just a few days until November, and you know what that means: National Novel Writing Month, better known ’round these parts as NaNoWriMo, is near.

Have you always wanted to write a novel?

We know some of you have been waiting all year for this month! For those of you who are new to this project, here’s the gist:

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Read My (Physical) Book, Please!

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It is often said that writers should be avid readers.  Whenever you see an image of a great author or successful writer, they always seemed to be surrounded by canyons of books–not just a simple bookshelf, mind you, but enough volumes to give even the most voracious reader a case of mental heartburn.  I think that image will be changing soon, given the move to electronic media.  It could very well be that today’s writers—e-journalists, self-publishing novelists, and bloggers like myself included—will not be pictured seated in a den in front of a massive book collection, but shown in transit holding our trusty traveling companion, the tablet.  As such, I wonder if today’s children will ever want to read a physical, printed book again.

I am neither a great author nor a successful writer (yet!), and if the stereotype has some truth to it (as they often do), then I may not be either in this lifetime.  The amount of books I have in my possession would barely fit a modestly sized bookshelf.  Those that I have managed to collect are textbooks, plays or manuals–all leftovers from college classes.  My iPad actually has a more impressive roster of authors, from Dickens and Melville to Hughes and Bellow.  Yet, those too came to me as the result of filling required reading quotas.  There is anarchy in the gathering; Friere sits next to Dr. Seuss and both serve as constant reference materials, while Othello and Macbeth collect more dust than Shakespeare’s coffin.  My anime DVD titles outnumber my book titles 3 to1.

The sad part of this whole mess is, I used to be an avid reader.  I could quote Marley’s visit to Scrooge at the drop of a hat, or argue for days about why I’m certain Lewis Carroll was on some serious drugs when Alice first wandered into his brain.  But ask me about current works and I’d have to depend on the movie to tell you whether I like it or not…if I even saw the movie at all.

Therein lies the problem, I believe.  There doesn’t seem to be a need to actually read anything anymore; modern technology can do it for us.  Whether it’s listening to an audiobook, having someone narrate it for you while you see pretty pictures on YouTube, or waiting for the big-screen version to hit theaters, the necessity of actually picking up a physical book (or reading the .pdf version on Kindle for that matter) is going the way of AM/FM radio or broadcast TV–it’s still available, but quickly losing its relevancy.

Shortly after my appendectomy, the director of the education department at Teachers College suggested I do some reading of children’s books.  Me being the tech-head that I am, I immediately started looking for .pdf versions of books I could download for free.  I bypassed reading altogether when it came to Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are”, opting for the animated version I knew existed online.  I didn’t have to read “The Velveteen Rabbit”, because I had the great Meryl Streep in my ears.

The closer I get to starting classes, the more i worry whether this generation will come to view the reading of physical books as old-fashioned or time-consuming as I do now.  Not just because I want them to actually read my books someday, but because I wonder if they will lose the power of imagination.  As many times (and in as many different forms) as I’ve seen the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appear in front of Scrooge, the image I have in my mind as I read it is always more frightening than any I had seen in a movie.  Yes, my mind is twisted that way.  I feel that reading uses an entirely different skill set than simply watching a movie based on a book.  Sure, the movie may show you the terror of Smaug the dragon without your brain kicking that fear up a notch, or Katniss’ mad hunting skills without having to deal with her running monologue, but those things are handed to you pre-packaged.  I think it is more fun to imagine who the perfect Mr. Gray would be than to see someone who doesn’t fit the part at all; or to be a kid and act out all the parts of your favorite book before it becomes the next CG-animated box-office hit.

I don’t mean to say that reading in and of itself be dismissed anytime soon; in fact, I think that those in the Internet Age and beyond will depend on literacy to keep up with each other.  Even though text-to-speech functions are available on both word processors and chat apps, and there seems to be an icon for every action, the online world is still mainly text-based, which means it involves a lot of reading.  And while English appears to be the dominant language, there are more than enough translators (both online and off) to assist non-English speakers.  And while physical books may be seeing their sunset, online publishing is moving in the opposite direction, with even novice writers getting their ideas out there on sites like this one.

Another worry I have is the short-attention span we seem to be fostering in our culture.  In an era where cursive handwriting is a lost art, and contemplative thoughts are reduced to 140 characters or less, I wonder how much time and effort someone would put into reading an entire novel.  I myself have had trouble reading a 100-page book, simply because I have been too distracted by other things…and I think that will only get worse once my studies begin.

Traditional books are still being used and enjoyed by many people, adults and children alike.  There are those who still actually prefer flipping pages and going through chapters to fast-forwarding to the next scene.  The die-hard readers will always curl up with their favorite hardcover or paperback, because they love the smell of the pages; and I’m sure there will be kids who will want to have their parents read to them instead of Siri or some other disembodied voice.   I just wonder how quickly those numbers will dwindle.

“Growing Down”

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When we were children, we always had this urgent need to “grow up”—whether it was a desire to be treated like an adult, or to get to do the things that “grown ups” do, we could not wait to shed our baby fat and childish ways.  Now that I am an adult, and have been for quite some time, I’m beginning to question that need to grow up so quickly.  This is especially true now, when I will soon be studying to teach those who want to skip the most carefree and joyful time of their lives. 

Being that it has been nearly three and a half decades since I could be considered a “kid”, and I have no contact with children, this will be quite the challenge for me.  In reading over some of the course material offered at Teachers College and other institutes of higher learning, I have come to one conclusion: in order to help these kids “grow up” in the right frame of mind, I have to “grow down” as a person.

For the linguists out there, don’t panic.  Yes, the term “grow down” is an oxymoron.  Yet, I believe it’s the right term in this instance.  I will be growing as a person in terms of the education and understanding of young people; yet, I have to come to a lower level of educational material than I am accustomed.  Well, no…that’s not entirely true, as I’m sure there will be tons of Piaget, Dewey, Friere, et al. to keep my adult brain entertained.  However, I will not be exchanging the ideas of those great thinkers with 7-year-olds.  I will have to understand the hows and whys of talking dogs, curious monkeys, mischievous cats and an overly dependent mouse.  I will have to revel in the overuse of pictures and the underuse of words, and help children decipher the deep meanings layered beneath it all.  It’s not so much bringing myself down to their level, for that would be condescending; it is to remember what is was like to be a kid, to recapture the joy of learning, and to share it with a new generation.

This may be yet another challenge.  I did not attend school on a regular basis when I was a child.  The latter half of both the fourth and sixth grades was all the public education I received, due to family problems.  Growing up as part of what I like to call the “TV Generation” (because we were basically baby-sat by television) gave me some insight on what kids were learning in school.  From the early days of “Sesame Street” to the higher-end lessons of “Schoolhouse Rock”, I was able to get the basics down pretty easily as the years went by.  I filled the gaps by reading everything I could get my hands on—newspapers, comics, discarded math books, phone books…you name it.  I was probably the only kid who got excited by the old Spiegel catalog, because they always had lots of new and interesting things for sale (and to learn about).  The abridged versions of classic novels such as “Great Expectations”, “Moby-Dick”, “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Oedipus Rex” were found at the back of the old Encyclopedia Britannica, and they found their way into my brain.  By the end of the sixth grade, I was helping other students with their reading and math homework.

Did I miss something important by not being part of the educational system from an early age?  I believe I missed out on what I believe was (and still is) a key element of learning—socialization.  Sure, all the knowledge I accumulated during the time I was not in school was important, but I felt I lacked good social skills.  Don’t get me wrong: I made friends pretty easily, but I think that was more because I had something to offer (help) rather than being a true friend.  If it weren’t for my intelligence, I think I would have been completely ignored by most students, and probably would have gotten the wrong kind of attention (a/k/a bullying) by others.  I believe socialization helps students learn social cues, bonding, rules (both societal and cultural), and shared experiences.  It was difficult for me to relate to kids my age at the elementary level, but I managed.

So here I am, some 35 years later, and I’m about to teach children things I learned much later in life.  In preparation for this endeavor, I have been trying to put my “grown up” hat to the side for awhile and see what it is that children are doing these days.  Since I have no direct contact with the little ones (and hanging out at parks and playgrounds would most likely brand me as a pedophile),  I have been reading children’s books and watching educational/informational programming (noted by the “E/I” rating).

One thing came as a shock to me as I watched about four hours of PBS Kids’ programs: was I really as oblivious of some of the blatant (as in forced) inconsistencies we were taught as today’s kids are assumed to be, as long as I got the message?  The best example of this would probably be “Dinosaur Train”, in which a single mother pteranodon raises four kids—one of which just happens to be a little tyrannosaurus rex.  Mind you, according to the show’s theme song, she had all four eggs, and they all hatched at the same time.  It’s clear to all involved that our little T-rex is not like the others (he even points this out himself, in case we missed it), but why that happened doesn’t matter; he’s part of the family, and it’s all good.  It took about fifteen minutes (including Googling “pteranodon”) for me to wrap the possible combinations (both social and scientific) of how such a birth would take place at all, but that’s the “grown up” me.  Looking at it from the perspective of the “grown down” me, it’s a wonderful example of inclusiveness, bonding and family love.  That’s the important thing to remember here—if we looked at the things we watched or read as a kid through the eyes of an adult, we’d probably lock ourselves up in an insane asylum.  We have to realize that a dog that gained the power of speech and reason because she ate some alphabet soup (as in the case of “Martha Speaks”) is just as plausible to children today as a certain “wascally wabbit” with a sadistic streak was to us when we were growing up.

While I wait to learn to teach, I will be teaching myself to learn…and to re-learn.  I will have to find ways to resist watching or reading material meant for children with the cynical, overly-logical eye of an adult.  In doing so, we tend to lose the things that make childhood fun; magic, wonder, dreams, mystery, and the belief that even the most absurd things can be possible if we only allow ourselves to imagine it so.

Now if you excuse me, I have to give a mouse a cookie…and prepare for the laundry list of crap he’ll ask for next.

Ya Gotta Start Somewhere…

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Everything has a beginning and an end…even time.  We may not agree when time began, or when it will end, but we all experience many beginnings and endings in our own lives.

For me, this blog will serve as testament to a new beginning in my life–my journey into graduate school, and the life that lies within and beyond it.  Not to worry, this won’t be a diary; any personal drama will be kept out unless it is relevant to the subject at hand.  If anything, it will contain thoughts, anecdotes and observations I have and will come across along the way.  You may agree, disagree, or be ambivalent…I only ask that you read and share your thoughts.  I have found that the best way to learn anything worthwhile is to share experiences with others.

As my major will be Elementary Inclusive Education, most of my articles will focus on some aspect of the educative process–past, present or future.  Other times, I’ll just rant about things I’ve come across (they’ll be quarantined into their own section, so as not to infect the main topic).  Photos, videos and such will be added as well–it only makes sense to use what is at our disposal to disperse what’s in our brains to the rest of the world.

Why should what I have to say matter to you, you may ask?  It may simply be something interesting; or similar to an experience you’re having or have had; or something you want me banished to the Ninth Circle of Hell for saying in public.  Whatever the case, what matters is that it matters at all, and that you found it interesting enough to read…and maybe even to share.  Writers write in the hopes that readers want to read what they have written.

Now that I have beaten you into submission with this intro, let’s get started.  First (real) post will be soon.

 

“Roar, Lion, Roar!”

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One afternoon I found myself staring at the open jaws of a lion.  For most, that would be an imposing sight.  For me, however, it was sort of a welcome.  This was the Scholar’s Lion, a statue near one of the many buildings on the campus of Columbia University.  Like the other students who attend Teachers College, one of the many arms of this sprawling campus, I had become a part of this lion’s pride.

I stared at the lion in wonder—not so much because of its massive size or its ferocious stance, but because of the sheer fact that I was standing there at all.  How was this possible?  How did I go from a life of loss and uncertainty to preparing for my Master’s degree in Education in one of the most prestigious schools in the country?  How did I go from crabgrass to ivy in only three years?

Believe it or not, the power responsible for such a dramatic change came from four little words: “You CAN do it!”

The first time I had come across those words, they were part of a large sign draped on the side of a building that was being constructed in my neighborhood.  The sign was for something called Metropolitan College of New York.  I had never heard of it, so I assumed the block-long, 17-story edifice would house this new college.  At that time, my life was in complete disarray. My girlfriend of 20 years had died a few months prior, and I was at a loss as to what to do with my life.  I had thrown myself completely into caring for her, as she had various illnesses.  I left The College of Human Services back in 1989 to care for her, but her death in 2009 left me with a life of emptiness.  After six months of grieving, I still had been unsure about what to do, and that’s when I saw that sign.  Curiosity got the best of me, and so I looked up the college on the Internet.  Imagine my surprise when I found out that it was the same college I had left over 20 years ago, in a new location and with a new name!  The words, “You CAN do it!” stood out to me.  Could I pick up where I left off?  Could I adjust to 20 years of changing technology and teaching methodology?  Could I keep up with all the younger students who would be there?  So many questions, but at least I had a direction…and if not an answer, then at least some encouragement.

That July, I came to MCNY for my registration.  I was met by a cheery woman who was half my age and full of positivity.  When she had trouble finding my records on the computer, I reminded her that I had not been to school in over 20 years—a fact she reinforced by pulling my files from an old ring binder.  I told her that I felt like Rip Van Winkle, waking up after a 20-year sleep.  She simply smiled and said, “Don’t worry, you can do it!”  As we completed the registration process, she shook my hand.  “Welcome back to the world, Mr. Johnson.”

The first week of the Fall semester was almost a blur for me.  Some things were familiar (computers, math), while others were confusing (values and ethics in particular).  For the most part, I was the oldest student in my classes, but it didn’t seem to matter much.  As it was in 1989, students came in all age ranges and backgrounds, though women seemed to outnumber men in this timeline.  There was a major constant—the Constructive Action.  When I attended in the past, we had an “Intro to the CA” class, which I failed (along with three of my first six classes), so I never really got to actually work on one.  Just reading about it in the Purpose Handbook made it seem like an intimidating task.

“You CAN do it!”

The little lady in the Harry Potter glasses sat on her desk and repeated the school’s mantra to her Constructive Action class in a heavy Puerto Rican accent.  She told us about the document, showing us that it was really a series of documents that, when put together, constitute a completed piece of work.  She walked us through the process, one step at a time, and in doing so allowed us to express ourselves in a manner in which I had not been accustomed.  We did not just answer questions that were given to us; we explored ourselves.  Our turning points, our weaknesses, our decisions, our goals, our hopes and dreams…our lives, inner and outer, were put on paper and discussed in class.  Some students felt these issues were too personal to share with others, others felt too shy to share, though they really wanted to.  I fell into the latter group; even when asked questions, I would give short answers or say nothing at all.

If there was one thing I learned from that CA class, it was that the instructor, Anisia (she disliked being called “Dr. Quiñones”) knew how to get even the toughest nut to crack.  Before I knew it, I had told her about my background, my mother’s bouts with alcohol and drugs, my struggles caring for my late girlfriend…even the fact that I was an atheist.  All was laid bare in her class for all to see, to share, to discuss, and to learn. 

I believe that experience helped me to learn about myself and my capabilities, and allowed me to take on the challenges of an accelerated college with drive instead of fear.  I earned an “A” in her class…as well as the other six, landing me on the Dean’s List.  As the Purposes moved on, I continued to excel, achieving Dean’s List in Purposes 2, 4, 6, and 7.  I had done well in outside internships, but really felt at home working as a Mentor in the college.  Anisia’s keen intuition had picked up my love for teaching before I myself had even realized it.

As I was trying to decide where to do the Master’s degree, Anisia had suggested Teachers College at Columbia University.  The fact that it was her alma mater had something to do with it—she knew I would get the best learning experience if I wanted to pursue teaching as a profession.  I scoffed at the idea; how could I even think to go to an Ivy League college, much less pay the tuition or even get accepted?  To her, the Ivy League was not out of my league—she knew I could do it, but I was not so sure.  Even so, I put in an application, as well as for one for Teaching Fellows (I would have put one in for NYU, but I missed the deadline).  If those had failed, I would still have the MS Ed. program at MCNY to fall back on, so it was at least worth a shot.  I graduated magna cum laude, with a GPA of 3.87.  I was also part of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and spoke at the Commencement Ceremonies.  Even with all this happening, getting into Columbia seemed like a pipe dream.

To my surprise, I was accepted at Teachers College!  To those who had supported me, this was not surprising at all, as they seemed to know it was possible…that, indeed, I COULD do it.  I learned that having people believe in you and your abilities helps you to do the same and that belief can take you to heights you never dreamed possible.

So here I am, standing in front of a scruffy but proud lion.  Should I fear him and the challenges he symbolizes?  Should I be intimidated by the Ivy League atmosphere?  Should I feel like I don’t belong here?  NO!  Because I CAN do this, too!

“Roar, Lion, Roar!”