Category Archives: education

NO KISS FOR MAMA

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I started tutoring back when our daughter was in second grade. She’s in graduate school, going for a PhD now, and I’m still tutoring.

Through my own years of school I always felt math-impaired, and even failed an algebra class at Phillips Exeter (which I attended for my final two years of high school.) So, when I started tutoring a motley group from my daughter’s elementary school, my ploy was to get another parent to come and cover the math questions at our tutoring table. Honestly, this didn’t work, because most of the time all the other parents were too busy, so the most gifted of the kids ended up being our de facto math expert– and since that individual later became a Kumon tutor as soon as she was of legal age, you may be assured that none of the kids at our table missed a thing.

But I learned by watching her, that something had happened over the years in my brain. Maybe missed or laggardly connections finally spliced together with age? I discovered that I understood algebra far better than I ever had during those exhausting panicky hours of doing and re-doing my homework problems in my late teens. At last I could see it. So when our gifted friend and our daughter went on to other schools, and I transferred to tutoring friends’ children at the elementary through high school levels on a volunteer basis, I took over even the dreaded algebra.

I’m not great at it, but I can do it, and I think my awareness of my faults makes me better able to explain how. I’ve gone down so many wrong ways in my mind, dealing with algebra, that I think I have a feeling for how the errors work and how to avoid them.

So, if you have a younger child and can accommodate an afternoon a week of a homework club, I cheer you on. Make sure that the kids who come are of both sexes. Get a sense that each one really wants to be there to improve their work for school– parents are not reliable on this issue. You need kids who are different from each other. Different backgrounds, different socio-economic situations, best of all, different languages and cultures. Stretch, take risks. Not just your own child’s favorites! And like Fight Club– no one should talk about Homework Club outside of Homework Club, because you don’t want parents begging you to babysit their kids for long afternoons when the kids don’t want to be there, and you don’t want them to be there. Consult with the teachers about whom to invite, and don’t take it personally if kids drop out when they discover that you really mean them to sit at a table and do homework!

Sweeten the deal with home-made snacks– not too healthy, though. Consider cookies– made of fresh butter, respect and affection, hot from the oven. Or hot yeasty rolls served with butter. When you do this, you are making magic. No stabilizers, no fillers, none of that funny preservative taste that comes with most commercial baked goods. Give a good welcome, and a warm one. You will be a cheerleader in part, chivvying, encouraging, being a parent in short– but to all equally. In fact, neglect your own child a bit during the sessions– they’ll value you the more for that! It’s a great chance to coach your own kid in manners towards guests— take the last seat, pick up after your guests, speak softly, don’t correct others in public, take your first cookie after others are served.

Chat at the table is fine, as long as work is being done. Comparing notes on science projects can be extremely helpful and bypass or ameliorate the nightmare of parent-produced science projects. Brainstorming, planning, helping each other, crossing difficult divides. If things are stiff, talk about the news of the day and make it exciting, important, challenging. Show that you care, and that’s a civics lesson.

You will find you have a far better idea of what the school expects and when. You’ll know why your child didn’t do well on a project. You will gain a reflection of what school is really like, from this crowd. You will be incensed by some of the misinformation that is being given to our children in our schools because many instructional materials are too simplified and condescending. Remember that kids can be engaged by detail, by stories, by the energy of the particular. In history, you can make it personal. Ask what they think their mothers would say, if Dad picked up his pitchfork and announced he thought he should go fight for freedom– leaving her to take care of all the livestock and the failing well, and the crops….

And here I do caution– don’t own the products of these children. You can guide, suggest, tutor in techniques, tell stories to enliven understanding, but you do not fix anyone’s homework. You cannot give  the answers, only suggest how to find them. If they forget their work on the table when they go, do not bring it to school for them. It’s such a difficult thing, but so necessary, to allow failure. The pain caused now by habits of carelessness, helps kids avoid greater pain in times to come.

Now, I am tutoring a mother with her son. For her, English is the second language. I tutor the son in English also, along with science and math/algebra. We cook together as an illustration of principles ranging from handling fractions to understanding chemistry, while practicing conversation. Multiplying amounts to increase the number of cookies produced, adds incentive to get the formula right. Taking a taste of baking soda makes the point that quantities and proportions are important. But my best idea so far? Having mother instruct son in her language using a marvelous book by Tomi Ungerer– Ningun Beso Para Mama(No Kiss for Mama,) about a really bad little cat with an attitude, and his mother with hers. It’s funny, snarky, and while a kid’s book, it condescends to no one.

I assigned the son to read and translate the book with his mother, so mother became his instructor in Spanish. His translation of the text into English, increased her mastery of English. While familial respect is already strong in the family, this arrangement helps to reverse roles while both sides learn. Balance.

They laughed together telling me about it– told me how this young man’s elder brother  and brother’s friend got curious and involved, and then the father wanted to know what was amusing them so much and listened too. Made me feel I’d done something right.

What a wonderful gift, Tomi Ungerer!

 

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Afterwards

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What a week that was; Santa Barbara Writers Conference 2018.

In the mornings I tried to reach the room of Matt Pallamary’s Phantastic Fiction before it started. In that session, I knew I’d hear marvels from  writers, each reading about five pages of a work. Novels, flash fiction, short stories, all welcome. Winged creatures and monsters, science and magic, humans in new worlds, with challenges ranging from apocalypse to love. Wonderful material, in so many different voices. I’d half-close my eyes to be transported to another place and time. After each one read would come the entirely different exercise of hearing a critique offered by the group . As I’ve said before, I try to write my comments so that I don’t hold up the process of storytelling, and also because it can be a good thing to put thoughts onto paper and let the author have them to take home and consider at a more relaxed time.

In the afternoons I went to a couple of different sessions, but ended up repeatedly where I was last year, in Monte Schulz’s exploration of voice and style. He has a love of reading which infects, (if you’re not already a hopeless case.) Eclectic, creative reading, not the passive act they drummed into you in public school. Listening to how, considering why and which– leaning in close, to better understand how to hone techniques into a perfect set of tools for powerful individual expression. Moving from craft to art.

Tucked in every day were talks by authors, agents and publishers, a rich array to choose from so long as you could stay awake, because none of us got enough sleep! Friends thronged in all the hallways and out on the steps of the conference center. The main cantina room had transformed into a book store with the registration desk at one side. Imagine clusters of people debating, and happy voices, with exclamations and laughter.

At nine thirty, after the evening talk, I had a choice of pirate sessions. I say a choice, but it was the hardest thing of all, deciding where to be. I wanted to be in both. In fact I had happy fantasies about creating clones of myself who could allow me to attend everything through each day and night and not have to make a choice. Do you suppose though, that the sleep debt would be multiplied as well? Some mornings we didn’t leave the rooms until after two.

You never know what you’ll hear in a pirate session. I had a friend read for me. (You sometimes hear errors and problems in pacing you’d never pick up any other way when someone else reads your work.) One of my short stories entitled Orphans,  told in close third person point of view of a beetle from a very special tribe of Coleoptera, received keen valuable critique. Then we heard a play, showing Shakespearean lovers in a nursing home. Towards the end, a mass murderer revealed secrets.

The first time you attend a conference like this you often feel exposed, concerned that you will not satisfy the requirements, or if you are another type, you will expect people to fall down and worship when they hear the superb prose that you and only you can create. Both are delusional. What a group like this is doing, is trying to make each and every writer better, and to that purpose and labor there is no end.

Listening to fragments of stories, searching for useful input to share, trying to articulate cogently, still have my brain thrumming. Being in such company, with generosity the wine of our shared time, has me yet inebriated.  Now you understand why I picked the photo of my little cat to head this blog post.

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Santa Barbara Writers Conference 2018

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Feel like speed dating? The agents above will be at next week’s conference.

Here it comes again, ’round the corner of summer, and I’m wading through stories on my computer I hope my friends might like, or help me make better, pulling excerpts from a mystery novel that I want to test on critical minds, feeling nervous and definitely behind. Didn’t do my homework in time. Happens every year that I attend.

Last year was possibly the hardest, because I’d not been for nearly ten years, and I felt really out of step. Would anyone even remember me enough to share a drink? But it didn’t matter, I’ve written before, that at an event like this you go through a few days and it all slides back into place, the personal anxiety changes to pride that you are part of this larger effort, and you feel a joy in every person who has dared to come and share their work, expose their weaknesses as writers as well as their strengths. It’s never about me. It is always about us.

We come to learn and also to teach. If you attend, your job isn’t merely to have your stuff read so you can gain ideas about how to hone your own craft. You need to step up and offer your  ideas and insights about your fellow writers’ work. What worked for you, what didn’t and how might it be tweaked to communicate better, more powerfully, more clearly.

Sometimes the critique session is so crowded that the best gift you can give other writers is to listen carefully and jot down notes to hand over afterwards, because if you try to hold forth and explain all your reactions to their work out loud, you’ll hold up the process. An advantage of notes is also that if you write your critique, the writer gets to keep your commentary and think it over at leisure, maybe even when at home. When I’ve just read a piece of my own, my ears and nerves are jangling after, and it’s hard to hear every word offered in critique, however kind. And yes, writers and instructors, at least at this conference, are kind. The very definition of constructive criticism starts and ends with thoughtful honesty.

So, I’m planning to engage in a transforming experience, yet again, and my hopes are high. Six days of reading writing, talking, critique, jokes bad and good, laughter and tears. But not much sleep. I told you before about the pirate sessions…not much sleep.

Starts on Sunday in Santa Barbara. See you there?

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Another time

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I grew up in a time when I could roam the woods by myself. I could grab a hat, and walk out our back door, not letting the screen slam or else my mother might remember that I should possibly be doing something else, like weeding, or picking beans. I hated picking string beans because of the squashy prickly bean beetle larvae that crawled over leaf stems and beans. They gave me the creeps because they looked as though they had neither tail nor head, just a translucent blob, the naked juiciness of them studded with a pattern of black spines. They would break against my fingers and I loathed the sap of their deaths on my hands.

Quickly walk along the tractor path that traced the base of the hill, so I’d be out of earshot of anyone remembering that I should be tutoring my younger sister, or perhaps vacuuming the living room. Or dusting— the job that never ended. Then, with a deep breath of freedom, across the mown slope barely in view of the house. Don’t look behind, or I might see someone waving me back home for any of those chores I was convinced could wait. Over the rise, almost running, with the sweat prickling down between my shoulder blades, and down past the brushy edge of woods that bordered corn fields green with eager breeze blown blades, taller than my head, the overcast glow of sky hot on my hat.

I always looked for other people. Looked for farmworkers, for wanderers, for the adolescent boy checking out possible hunting ground before the fall, despite the “No Hunting” signs my cousin had posted on this old Gowen land. Then I’d duck down a path into the woods, this path wide enough for a truck. Trucks had come this way, keeping it open. The farmworkers often parked down here where the slope of land deepened, seeking shade for lunch time.

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I knew that if I came across anyone else there, I should not let them know of my presence.. Soft footing around, I prided myself I’d always spot any intruder first, and never would they see me. Every so often, I’d take a pause, breathing through my mouth to listen. What did I fear? Nothing so clear; I simply knew I was safest alone, unknown, unnamed.

Now how many children have such freedom? To lose themselves in the woods and orchards of infinite mystery and promise, discovering animals, spying on insects, picking up a shed hawk feather or collecting a cluster of fresh chanterelles from the duff under the hemlocks? I took part of my education there in the shadows of trees, naming red oak and sugar maple, white pine and the startling silver and black of paper birch. What has replaced this for our children now?

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Emergency Response and CERT

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Here’s my graduating class in CERT.

With the fires raging in Northern California and the other recent natural disasters that have affected and afflicted countless people , I hear the questioning rising. Why wasn’t there more help given faster? Why didn’t notifications work better? Whose responsibility are these matters and what do we have a government for, if it has no role in on-the-ground protection of the citizens?

There’s an old tradition lodged in the minds of many Americans, that somehow the organized governmental agencies and their hierarchical structures are somehow less valid and less effective than the Minuteman approach. I think I still hear echoes of this. We certainly hear heart-warning stories mixed in among the tragedies, about untrained souls who rise to the challenge of disaster and save not only themselves but neighbors, or strangers. Wonderful stories to lift us a little in the midst of destruction, suffering and loss.

But what we come back to is that the structures do have a place, the organized, governmental agencies are life-saving. The firefighters who had to spend their time assisting evacuees instead of fighting the fires are to be praised, even if we can also wonder, why wasn’t there another group, more professionals whose job it might be to evacuate while the fire fighters fight flames. We can go in to the economic issues at the heart of this balance, or imbalance, but that’s not where I mean to go right now.

Clearly the systems of notification and spreading the alarm at need aren’t fast enough, or clear enough. Would that we had better tie-ins to satellite imagery so that evacuees don’t get mistaken directions about how to flee. A lot of us have signed up for the local alarms to be sent to our phones, which is a great first step. But what about, as in this case for so much of Santa Rosa, it’s night time and our phones are silenced into sleep mode, or actually turned off? What if we have taken a sleep aid to gain some restful sleep, a dose that will leave us slumbering? Then we depend upon our neighbors, and the night owl who had insomnia and checked her or his phone and read the first outburst of warnings.

I know from anecdotes gleaned from some of our past local fires, that what we expect of government agencies, police, firefighters, and such is often not what they are capable of doing. They cannot reach into every home simultaneously and snatch us to safety. A lot of our alerting system functions by luck.

Could this be addressed? Are there places where a siren should be mounted for such extreme alarms to be sounded? Perhaps. This may be a question for neighborhoods and townships, especially as our global climate shifts and displays a brutal temper.

But there are some ways to be prepared, there’s information to be gained and employed, that can at least train you how to be a part of the response, not the problem. What we sometimes forget in our Minuteman zeal is that when professionals are present, part of our best action is to stay out of the way. Too passive a reaction? Then may I suggest CERT training?

About a year ago I heard of an opportunity to take the free CERT course at the nearby University. I signed up and showed up and spent the next few days being informed, learning how to work as a team with strangers, and learning a good deal of humility.

Let’s be honest, I consider myself quick to think, adept at adapting, fairly bossy and pre-apted for command. (Yes, immodest too.) But the lessons put me in a different frame of mind, and made me, I hope, a far better team player, willing to shift my ground to fit what the larger need demands, and what my associates request.

Plus, I had a great time. This class with all of its lessons was fun. The other students had such different backgrounds and strengths. I had to change and think and learn, and we all made mistakes. Some of our mistakes killed imaginary people. Just like a war game, or a computer game– remember the companion cube? Anyway. let me recommend this exercise and the CERT experience. At the end of the day, you will have a better sense of what others can do for you and what you can do for them, and when you are the civilian running for help, you’ll have a far better concept of what help you can hope for, and how to ask in the most clear and speedy fashion. Plus you will also know what kinds of things you may have to fix yourself, so you waste no time waiting for a helping hand.

Even if you have some disability, or like me, are entering the ranks of senior citizens, knowledge is a weapon, a language, a map for your road.

At the end of a bad day, maybe we all need to be ready to be Minutemen.

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Post SBWC 2017

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The above photo represents what I came home to, and with, after the writers conference.

After six days of intense interaction, and staying up late after rising early, I’m back at home feeling rather odd. What happens when you put a collection of mainly introverted writers in small rooms and invite them to help each other? Wonders, that’s what.

Yes, I went through strangely lonely and dark periods during the writers conference. I panicked I’d lost my touch, that I couldn’t see well enough to put one word after another in a worthy fashion. I heard marvelous, apparently perfect works by my fellow writers, and I doubted. I felt out of step, not so much with others, although that happened sometimes, but with my self. I was afraid I’d mislaid or damaged my writing voice. I felt like that person at a party who has no one to talk with, standing not quite part of any group, but trying to pretend he is, who keeps a smile on his lips because to do otherwise is to be pitiful, and to fall that low, is too far.

Terrifying the silence when you finish reading and you hear not a single response. You rearrange the sheets of your paper and all you can hear is them sliding on the polished wood of the conference table. Was I clear, did I commit cliches, or is even the action in my short story so obscure that no one dares begin a critique– oh hell, was I even speaking English? It’s two AM and what do I imagine I’m doing here? That man over there is yawning.

It’s terrifying to feel that other creators are trying to be kind–but they see you haven’t kept and nurtured the gift. It’s horrid to feel they lean over and speak the encouraging word because they are reflecting their own hearts, not any quality of yours.

I have been trying to create my whole life. That’s nice; we all know it’s a long apprenticeship. But what some part of my monkey brain forgot was this– a writer’s conference is never about you. Nor your work. It’s about the community of writers. I didn’t go in to win anything– I did at least understand that, long before the conference began,  but I did go in to regain my footing. That was my error– the wrong goal.

The goal? It’s to engage in the purpose of helping everyone regain his or her footing. I rediscovered that at last. By helping others, I began to see my own way. I started then to really hear what was said and made and shared. There is a rhythm to creation and sharing, and since creativity is meant for communication, there is a need to step deep into that shifting tide. No dabbling at the edge in the froth. For writers and artists there is an infinity ahead of making, and what that takes is humility and hard work together. This is not the time for selfish doubts, for in-turning.

Introverts or not, now, we break barriers. We swim, far out of our depth.

I am swamped with sensations of loneliness and encouragement, with a gratitude to all my fellow travelers that thickens my voice, with a sense of loss, because I now sit alone. But that may be the biggest mistake. I don’t sit alone.

Now to work, while the remembered voices of friends sound in my brain, while their kindness and engagement glow in my mind. Enough light at last, to let me see my way.

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Listen, and you may hear

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Do I have a tale to tell? Yes I do. But I will vex you with being slow in telling, a quilt pattern rather than a cogent solid story. Teasers, rather than complete essays.

My husband and I picked up the kid in Phoenix where she is in grad school and headed to our first vacation in over twenty years– Ramsey Canyon. I here post a couple of photos, but bear with me… there is more to tell. I have a dinner to cook for October 1 (between 70 and 100 guests and yeah, yet again, I don’t hire caterers.) So be patient, there’s more to come.

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